Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Indelible Ennio (Primo); 7 Giallo Classics on Prime (Morricone Scores Pt. 1)

I was asked to explain 'why Ennio?" while preparing this post (i.e. watching 20+ Ennio-scored movies back-to-back on Prime), and I really tried: When it comes to scores, I said, proudly, there is Ennio Morricone and there is everyone else. If 60s-70s Italian genre cinema--westerns and giallos in particular--found a market the world over--it's because of Ennio. Each  of scores (and he's done over 500 films) is a blueprint for engagement with maximum ironic modernist counterpoint. As the filmic images and diegetic sounds unspool Morricone brings antithesis and counterbalance, ironic poise and unbearable intensity levied with winsome notes of lost childhood and operatic rock energy all embodied in a single sustained electric note. "So you don't know either?" she said.

I was at a loss. Why one guy's recording of female 'la-la-la' singsong vocalizing over shuffling cocktail jazz was better than another's, and what exactly it added, she wanted to know. I glowered and made a 'boing' sound in reply. That's all Ennio would have done. And it would have been perdect.

top: Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion / bottom: Black Belly of the Tarantula

Thinking of why he's so many leagues above the rest, I'm reminded of the bit in Amadeus when the king tells Mozart to add more notes. You hear the hackneyed Salieri-style orchestrations of lesser composers for whom this adage is gospel, determined to justify their 100 piece orchestra by having every instrument involved in big elaborate sweeping gestures and micro-managerial helicopter (or 'mickey mouse') scoring. Ennio never uses any instrument when none would be better. His is a kind of intuitive drive and love of cinema that transcends scores as we know them today.

There are only a few working composers that get the Morricone touch, that continue and expand his approach in unique directions (away from classical and jazz influences and more towards avant garde and modernist) such as the great Hans Zimmer. But even he knows - Ennio rule (see Zimmer's "Ennio Morricone- My Inspiration"). 
His music is so intensely personal and seems to speak to the individual. Much more than grand pieces that seem to speak to a crowd of people, each piece Morricone writes seems to be personal to the individual listening to it, and that’s a really amazing achievement. (full)
And the best news about Ennio: there are a great many of his scores on LP and on engines like Spotify and Amazon Music, and a bunch of his movies are on Prime, to the point I can't even cover them all in one post. So there shall be three. First: these 7 groovy gialli, all from 1970-75, and all with decent HD or very good SD image on Prime... then, an equal number of westerns, then crime/corruption/communism! After all that, maybe you too can annoy your co-habitants with your obsessive swooning over his masterful use of music to enhance any scene until they too ask 'why Ennio?' Boinggg! zzzzZZZzcch (knife running down E bass string-- exeunt)

(PS -  Some of these have more than one upload -Autopsy and Cat O'Nine Tails for two- with different quality sources, so if you get a crap/SD/compressed one, try again)

PART ONE: Il Boom del Gialli (1970-75)

"Macchie Solari"
(1975) Dir. Armando Crispino 
***1/2 / Amazon Image - C+

What could have been just another super weird Mimsy Farmer-goes-schizo movie ala Perfume of a Lady in Black (1974 - Dir. Francesco Barilli) where tricks are played with narrative to undo murders and create seemingly random conspiracies just for the hell of it (and no Morricone), Autopsy (Italian title is better: Macchie Solari - but I can see why they didn't call it 'Sunspots' as that sounds like a comedy about a misfit girls' soccer team). is a zippy giallo that, not unlike A Quiet Place in the Country, understands that hallucinations are examples of paredolia amplified by lack of sleep, drugs, withdrawal, mental illness or high fever, and structured by desire and fear, the way a musician on a song might bend and warp the LP you're listening to into the shape of a grooved, spinning golem rising from the turntable mud. Sure, it's just a hallucination - yet it's in far more dimensions than just that 2-D groove you were carved into, that illusion of music, that ghost you called the real world.

The grisly title kept me away from this charmer for a long time, for I thought this was the German medical thriller I'd already seen, or any of the other zillion shows called Autopsy. A pox on lame namers of things Autopsy!

Farmer is playing, for a change, a total professional - she's the one doing autopsies. And due to sunspots there are a ton of suicides in town, which means--for a doctoral candidate in post-mortem medicine doing her thesis on real vs. artificial (really murder) suicides--she's too busy cutting dead people open to stay sane. Her hallucinations and being prone to violence are all understandable due to the stress, the long hours, the sinister way everyone seems to be plotting against her, and being in leering macho rapey Rome. As with Perfume she has a handsome rich boyfriend whom she pushes and pulls with her love/hate psycho killer closeted aversion to sex, prioritizing her doctoral studies. She likes long walks on the beach and lapsing into strange reveries. The lighting is generally better in (at least the second half) of Perfume, but Autopsy makes more linear sense. I don't know why I have to compare them just because Mimsy Farmer is in both. She's the queen of giallo! Or maybe... the king?
All hail Mimsy Farmer, King of Giallo! 

Barry Primus is Father Paul - not your average priest, he used to be a race car driver - who quit after his last collision killed 12 people. Today Farmer works in the effects department! Coincidence? Morricone's score builds on sustained drones that slowly build and then end in moans and gasps from two women who are either dying or orgasming or both, then the drones start back up again, like the wheezy noises that might creep up from the grave of a murdered organist. Other places Morricone's crew stays busy like little flights of bees trying to keep their buzzing volume down so they can get at the nectar before it's taken by some bullying hummingbird. Piano keys hammer like late-added semi-colons trying to find their place in the ghostly lines of a letter long since sent. Then, whirling dust storms of bird coos thrown through a dissecting machine. More moans, it just keeps delving deeper into that line - the heavy-breathing, dilated line you can taste on your tongue about 20-30 minutes after you drop acid.

The Prime print is a strange beast. It looks beautiful-or adequate (non-HD but at least anamorphic). but I saw TWO uploads of Autopsy on Prime - so keep trying if the one you click on is all messed up, compression-wise. There are TWO.

"Le foto proibite di una signora per bene" 
(1970) Dir. Luciano Ercoli 
*** / Amazon Image - B+

Though it's labeled a giallo in the traditional sense, Luciano Ercoli's Forbidden Photos...  has a direct link with the romantic-sexy soaps of the era meant for bored housewives, guilty about even fantasizing infidelity, so needing elaborate justifications, i.e. she needs to cheat with a younger handsomer, more virile man to save her husband's life or business reputation.  Through an elaborate sequence of events, sex with a handsome stranger becomes, not a marital indiscretion, but a noble sacrifice. This time-honored ploy stretches back to the silent age, up through the pre-code era (Blonde Venus) up to the 50s (Jeopardy) and even the 80s (An Indecent Proposal). Oftentimes the night of passion (or afternoon) was depicted as something sexy or enjoyable, but just as often vile and sordid, and only occasionally - as here- both). Still, whether or not she enjoyed her ordeal, or even fantasized about such an overpowering beforehand, is irrelevant - her feelings were her own.

Ah, but there was the alternative, where the woman is so horrified at the changes it's making in her - ala Blue Velvet and this red telephone keeper from director Luciano Ercoli. She showers and showers afterwards, but still feels his pawing.

The cast is relatively small, narrowing down the suspect list, with clingy undersexed housewife Minou (Dagmar Lassander) doing what's necessary to hold onto husband Peter (Pier Palo Capponi) a business tycoon in danger of losing his company. Simon Andreu is the mysterious masterful man with a tape of Peter confessing murder. Andreu's love den black and full of exotic art, like white hands coming out of the wall. "Don't worry, you'll enjoy yourself a lot more than you imagine," he says. "Take off your coat!"

Other suspects include Dominique (Nieves Navarro), who was once a lover of Peter but that's all over, or is it. Another suspect: pills, since Minou is taking Valiums again her erratic behavior may be the result of a breakdown. At least that's what Peter says.

Clearly "mother's little helper" was creating a whole splinter group from the main drag of the Edgar Wallace-centric giallo, beyond its loosening grip lay orgy sex clubs and Satanic sects. In films like Case of The Bloody Iris, All the Colors of the Dark, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, the married wife left too long at home in bed sexually frustrated while husband's gets menaced by attractive knife-wielding male (or is he just  fantasy) trying to get her to return to the sex club they started.

I'm not a fan of Dagmar Lassander's look here: her stooped, defeated posture, the combo of tacky powder blue frock with matching eye shadow, fake red hair, and pink lipstick, but I am a huge fan of Nieves Navarro as Minou's sexy-cool liberated bisexual swinger friend Dominique, even though she rocks a lot of the same pale blue/pink look. A star of an array of quality if unexceptional giallos, Navarro  always seems to play the same part: a cool liberated character who seems to have created swinging late-60s/early-70s Milan or Rome to suit herself. Some of her ideas may not gel with today's society ("I'd adore being violated") but I don't think that would faze her much; I also like Andreu and his love den ("I must say, your performance has been more than I expected.")

Morricone factor: One of 17 scores Ennio did in 1970 alone, he's just doing a job here, but doing it well: the title theme coos along with the traditional wordless vocalizing (something that no doubt helped with international markets to avoid lyric confusion), with a gentle trumpet part floating high over a dreamy Barcelona netting of strings. Later the suspense builds with the same netting rattled by a single four note refrain, swimming against the grain of trumpet and strings like an incessant, nagging guilty conscience. Elsewhere woodwinds move in and out of mimicking police sirens, funky organs and wah-wah guitars groove in the nightclub scene. And if that scene gets confusing it's because both Minou and Dominique are wearing strange new wigs!

Leaving Prime at the end of the month!

Cosa avete fatto a Solange?
(1972) Dir. Massimo Dallamano
***1/2 / Image: A+

Based on Edgar Wallace's crime novel "The Clue of the New Pin" this beautifully-photographed (and lushly transferred to HD) thriller occurs in that most ideal of all giallo settings, a private Catholic girls' school (in England, supposedly). Devilishly handsome Fabio Testi is the 'phys-ed' teacher (you can hear Billy Wilder cackle in his grave) trying to devirginize his latest star pupil; he thinks she's once again holding out by saying she saw a knife flash as they drifted past a maybe murder scene in a rowboat built for two. She wasn't, but kind of was. The knife thing as Freudian a fear of penetration excuse is so on point here it kind of cracks the code of what Diane Keaton called that "whole Italian... thing." Morricone's score starts on a mournful bottom note single-hand piano refrain that slowly builds into two hands, wordless cooing vocals hitting dreamy high notes and strings cascading sadly like a waterfall trickle of circling hawks. Also, nothing is more gross that lying in the bottom of a boat, I don't care how dry it is, it's not dry. The score gets pitch-shifty as it turns out there was a murder but how can Rassini explain being at the scene of the crime without getting fired? But soon the killer knows he and his star pupil saw something and the murders begin anew... Someone is killing off the girls in his class, it's up to Rassini to stop it ("for once your intimate relationship with the students will prove useful," declares the shocked dean). With the cops running parallel and intersecting investigations.I'd say more about the message inherent in the subtexts, but that would be a spoiler.

Instead I'll talk about the slinky Morricone bass line, brushed drums and honking off-key trumpet mute (expertly blending into the honk of a BMW car horn) let us know this is going to be a touch Hitchcockian as well as sordid, even cop show at times, like a kid smashing a funky TV cop show score into a Herrmann-esque thriller then recording the crash, and riffing off the dying honk of the steering wheel, viola!

One of the more interesting and successful elements in the characterization of Rassini's wife (Krimi star Karin Baal - who'd later work with Fassbinder). She starts the film as a suspect, with her lack of makeup and pulled sharply back blonde crop (always signifying repressed masculine tendency), glowering at her husband with weary daggers. But as the murders commence, she begins to have compassion for her husband, and seems to age 20 years younger and become desirable again, to both him and us (the way she can modulate like that evokes that of Jeanne Moreau in La Notte). Meanwhile Rassini has to solve the murder. Questioning a hip black photographer, Rassini learns  that the girls were virgins, technically; they did everything but as the hipster black photographer tells him. "You read the Kinsey report?"

Director Dallamano got his start after garnering notice as cinematographer of the first two films in Leone's big-breaking "Man with No Name" trilogy. He knows his way around a gorgeously composed shot. Amazon's streaming image appears sourced from the recent Arrow Blu-ray (which I have, and is recommended) with dusky deep blacks and vivid deep colors. Even a protracted scene at confession works because it's so gorgeous, girls' faces so luminous, and Ennio's toss-off incidental church organ melody indelible. Even the track Rico plays for his student girlfriend on an LP sounds sublime. Even the carousel sing song theme of the merry-go-round stake-out park scene... That's one element of the Morricone genius, to co-opt the diegetic music into the score, so that they merge and we begin to take the score itself as part of the landscape.

Some of the moments anticipate Picnic at Hanging Rock like this bicycling clique flashback
The Amazon Print is in English only with English subtitles for the Italian version - which leads to some interesting jarring notes between what is actually said (to match the lips and the tenor of the time), and the subtitles, especially at the end. (I often watch these with subtitles on anyway, for those very reasons, you can get a weird dissonance and that's what giallo is all about).

La Tarantola dal ventre nero
** / Amazon Image - B+ 

There's only a few reasons to see this stylish but mindlessly derivative giallo entry: the gorgeous, well-turned-out women (including Bond babes Claudine Auger and Barbara Bach) and its habit of giving us the full giallo littany: the kinky gold curtains, spiral staircases, and fetishistic toys and latex gloves... and mannequins, it's almost an Argento "animal" trilogy remix, the challenge being to use every element, only without any zip, energy or insight.

Thank god then, for the Morricone score which provides a cacophonic counterpoint whenever it can. You don't even need a story when Ennio is at the top of his game like he is here. All crumbling electric guitars, atonal mashes of the keyboard, deep breathing and wheezy organs, he catches and balances the woozy mise-en-scene the way a patient friend might help a stumbling drunk to his car.

Considering the by-the-numbers direction of journeyman-hack Paolo Cavara (Mondo Cane) and the fact that Tarantolo's screenplay was written by woman (Lucille Lans) it's perhaps no surprise that a) the film is lacking the drive and momentum that toxic blend of male Catholic guilt and seething sexual frustration can provide, and b) its strengths lie in its 'weaknesses,' in its swooning, feminine sexuality, which we guilty scholars will note is almost completely free of voyeuristic "eye"-conography. The stripping nude of the female victims and the paralysis method seem to set the stage for kinky trauma, but the editor knows that when they stop screaming and act dead, the tension goes out and it just becomes mannequin-jabbing necrophile boredom. We have Spasmo for that! (Another great Ennio score in that one, but it's not on Prime).

With so little suspense or empathy generated by the killings, the big mystery becomes how a cop as foggy and strung-out as Giancarlo Giannini's Inspector Tellini ever made it to homicide in the first place. He should be handing out parking tickets, at best. From a surrealist standpoint the detective's confusion and rank incompetence puts him in the rarefied realm of somnambulist shamuses that have been knocked into weird zones between realities: Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart; Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense; Asia Argento in The Stendahl Syndrome; Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly-characters who may or may not be already dead, as if they awoke from a dream into the film and don't really remember a damn thing about investigative protocol. But at least in those films the target always turns out to be someone or something intrinsically tied up with the pursuer. In Belly, the final disconnect becomes more of a Dirty Harry sort of "this time it's personal!" punch out, which illuminates our hero's darkened path not a watt. Oh well, if you're so xanaxed out you don't even know where or who you are it helps to have some really weird Morricone to help you home. One psychedelically twisted note of discordant guitar and you know that you're safe in the beloved giallo genre, where druggy amnesia isn't only forgiven, it's practically essential. (see full -6/09).

Giornata Nera per l'Ariete
***1/2 / Amazon Image  -A

Franco Franco Nero smolders and drinks valiantly against the rushing tide of fatalistic Ennio Morricone-scored vocalizing and surging drones in this fine giallo, an example of how you can dip into the tricks and trappings of the Argento-via-Hitchcock paintbox, rather than be merely derivative, create something vivid and cool, vibrant and alive. Partially excavating the deep roots of childish lack of impulse control beneath macho vanity and alcoholism, Nero plays an ex-husband womanizer journalist who still loves his ex-wife (Silvia Monti) even though he's shacked up with cute blonde Pamela Tiffin. Teetering between Keitel Bad Lieutenant transcendental-abusive and Nick Nolte Affliction DT-delusional, Nero follows clues leading him to murder victims that he knew, and so forth. I've seen it six times and I still can't follow how any of these people are supposed to even know each other. Maybe Rome is very small, so when you hang out at a bar one night (the opening swinging nightclub scene, cracked to bursting with stares, slinky electric organ music, and possible leads), everyone you meet will have all sorts of interconnected secrets. As long as modernist international architecture leads to wild post-modernist compositions like these, baby, you go right ahead.

A highlight is Ennio's dreamy music for a passage that finds Nero spying on through a side window on some languid afternoon sex show being filmed in silhouette on a wall shot through glass beads, laden with queer innuendo as one realizes the extent being gay in the 60s-70s meant continuous exposure to blackmail, so everyone had to sneak around, drawing the eye of curious detectives and journalists following up any random clue. Here we get glass beads, strange hungry looks, and Ennio so breathy perfect time stops altogether in a fairie bower haze.

it's all in fun
As in so many detective thrillers of its time (when the real-life "Zodiac" was big in the public eye), astrology factors into the murders. We realize the killer only strikes "on a Tuesday, sacred to Mars, favorable to Aires!' (The Italian title translates to 'Black Day for Aires") Light through Venetian blinds, the roving camera, crisp sets, good dubbing, a sense of the phoniness inside the souls of the characters that not only excuses phoniness in the film but resembles Antonioni-esque fatalism as much as it does Argento diabolism. Even when the crippled heiress (the ever-glowering Rosella Falk) is being terrified, crawling across the floor like a snake towards her distant wheelchair, she's framed beautifully by a stone lion, dark yellow curtains, and a gray cat, Morricone's organ fugue underscoring her funeral even as she's still alive.

Debits for the heavy reliance on day-for-night in the stalking/killing sequences, as if they all occur in some heavy gravity zone of deep blue eternal concrete twilight, where all light sources, tunnel roof lights etc, glow with a deep azure-green halo like you're just watching with very dark sunglasses on. Were they shot by the AD while Bazzoni was lining up his international style architecture lines and making sure the light gleans deep and merciless into Nero's weeping, drunk crystal blue eyes?

Il gatto a nove code
(1971) Dir Dario Argento
*** / Amazon Image - A+

I often imitate the little three note stand-up bass line Morricone lays down for this neat little follow-up to the landmark Argento giallo Bird with Crystal Plumage. It's easy (if you have a deep voice) and makes everything more slinky and atmospheric and while giallo purists sometimes give Cat the airs, fans of classic detective thrillers from Hollywood (ala The Falcon, Charlie Chan, etc.) will love all the deep cut callbacks (the poisoned milk! the clue left in the coffin in the crypt in the graveyard at n-n-n-night). Blind puzzlemaker Karl Malden has a window overlooking the Terzi Institute--a guard was slugged and the place broken into - then someone was murdered! His little seeing-eye niece calls him Cookie and their cool positive relationship is the sort we'd see again later in Phenomena with Donald Pleasance and Jennifer Connelly (and reflected perversely in that between the possibly gender-disoriented and certainly automaton-esque heiress Catherine Spaak and her older "father" and the founder of a sinister genetics institute (villainous eyebrow wearer Tino Carraro).  Malden and Franciscus get some good comedic rapport during their long Lewtonian walk through the nighttime graveyard (Argento would never resort to day -for-night so there's real night) and create a good vibe between themselves and Lori as a kind of journalistic unit. Morricone's score seems made by leaving a flute outside on a windy day and rubbing a cello string with a hot microphone.

Maybe the fact that it's not terribly memorable helps it hold up well over repeat viewings. It's got a good spritely rhythm with all sorts of ingenious clues and termite herring encoded into every little shot, with paradoxical dialogue ("Gigi the Loser's the winner!") and riffs on gender identity (the more intimate you are with someone, the more their gender identity melts away), with little queer panic allusions seeming to mocking some closeted censor: bare feet safely touching the floor, some hands, and Spaak's zonked immovable eyes, all planted for later recovery, with the killer as omnipresent as that funky minimalist three-note Morricone bass line, violently plucking back the root cord evidence of his/her identity until the very Hitchcockian rooftop chase climax. Meanwhile, classic little bits of McGuffin clue stashing familiar to fans of old 30s and 40s mysteries abound amidst the giallo kinkiness but it doesn't matter if they're old tropes, it's that Argento knows them so well he riffs on them, the way a jazz trumpeter who can't necessarily care whether you know "Take the A-Train" well enough to appreciate how far he's counter-rotating the melody. He's doing it for him, and the Chan fans. We can dig it, man, we can also groove to that crazy Morricone mash-up of a score: his repetitions of little refrains, atonal reeds evoking howling winds outside distant windows, flute melodies that cycle around on repeat and sing-song high voices that seem to drift around over thudding bass lines like a cloud of smoke.

La corta notte delle bambole di vetro
(1971) Dir. Aldo Lado
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C+

Prague may be beautiful, architecturally -- since it managed to avoid being bombed by either Germany or Russia during ze War, so it's still Mitteleuropean charming- but the weather is generally as grim as the sociopolitical mood. There's only so much pretty girls and woozy Morricone strings can do against Communist party counter insurrectionist spies, and sinister old classical music appreciation clubs so bloodless and all-controlling they make any attempt to shine a light on the truth seem way too naive for an allegedly worldly foreign press journalist like aggrieved Jean Sorel. If he keeps refusing to believe the dire warnings of the KGB-style local detective, and the urgings of his older ex-lover and fellow foreign press scribe Ingrid Thulin, he's going to deserve what he gets. And we already know what that is, because he begins the movie on a slab in the morgue, poisoned with some kind of drug that puts him in a catatonic state so close to death that even his friend a medical technician can't successfully shock him back to life! 

Some scenes seem to be missing and it's too bad as those were the scenes I'd like most to see: Why is the Texas millionairess 'planking' next to mighty Mario Adorf at the party? There's weird touches involving butterflies and so forth, but the center doesn't seem to hold and even Ennio Morricone's score lists along at half-mast, limiting itself to some screechy panic attack drones, somewhere between Bernard Herrmann's future scores for Cronenberg and an orchestra tuning up before playing Bartok. Still it's Ennio and it rocks in its draggy way: I had the soundtrack long before seeing the film and used to love to listen to it on my Discman while walking through Prospect Park at night with my dog Inga, every shadow on the stone bridge walls like death incarnate as we walked through the long tunnel from Grand Army Plaza, the Bartok-Herrmann-ish avant garde jangles frying my nerves in the most giddy of ways. Alas, Sorel makes one pine for Franco Nero, hell, even Giancarlo Giannini. Good shock ending though - AGHHHHH!

COMING SOON: Morricone-scored Westerns; Morricone-scored Crime and Misc.


3/17: 12 Weird/Cool Italian Films streaming free on Prime
12/16: I never said it wasn't terrible: 10 Sci-Fi Curiosities on Amazon Prime
2/19: Post-Futuristic Gang Violence on Prime, Italian-style: 6 Badass Trips from the early 80s
10/16: 13 Best or Weirdest Occult/Witch movies on the Amazon Prime
10/16: Taste the Blood of Dracula's Prime: 12 Psychotronic Vampire Films

Acid and Giallo: Drive-In Dream Logic III, Italian-style
Post-Giallo Nightmare Logic (old Netflix roundup)
BEYOND, THE (1981)

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