TORINO ’06: seen Sat 11th Nov (including Attack, Big Leaguer, Dante Isn’t Only Severe)

                   IN MEMORIAM JACK PALANCE : 18th Feb. 1919 – 10th Nov. 2006

Sunday 12th, 9.33am

Yesterday got off to a strong start with the first of the day's four consecutive Robert Aldrich films (he's the subject of the main full-retrospective here this year): hard-hitting 1956 war drama Attack, starring Jack Palance and Eddie Albert as feuding members of the same unit (Albert the cowardly, mentally-unstable, father-dominated Captain – looking from certain angles like George W Bush; Palance his ferociously principled, scarily charismatic lieutenant – something of a forefather of Michael Shannon's uber-marine Karnes from Oliver Stone's World Trade Center.)
      Picture is a taut psychological drama set in 1944 France, a bit Paths of Glory in its lions-led-by-donkeys theme, but playing out entirely on or near the hazardous front-line. Lee Marvin pops up at various key moments as a breathtakingly cynical and Machiavellian colonel with his eye on a career in peacetime politics (1956 was a presidential election year in the States), but in many ways the star and pivot of the show is William Smithers as an ordinary-joe lieutenant caught in the middle of Palance, Albert and Marvin's internecine strife.
      It's Smithers in the picture's who's the most reliably sane voice of reason and rectitude, his personal code coming under the severest of tests in the blood-spattered final act. The long, talky climactic scene in a cellar is pretty much the only part that betrays the picture's theatrical origins – otherwise this is a fast-moving, well-constructed affair (marred by Frank Devol's over-emphatic, paid-by-the-note score) in which many of Aldrich's most recognisable techniques and themes are pretty much all present and correct. It also features another of his most recognisable and enjoyable trademarks: late, striking opening titles – in this case "introducing" the hapless Smithers, who on this evidence didn't deserve the way he's fallen into relative obscurity.
      Palance, of course, remained a star well into the eighties: news of his death circulated through the Torino crowd around lunchtime, and was passed on to visiting star guest Ernest Borgnine – the latter reportedly in remarkably fine shape for an 89-year-old.
      Attack proved the best of the five-and-a-half pictures I saw on Saturday. The other, Aldriches ('Aldrichs') were of interest, but not quite up to the same level of accomplishment: perhaps not a surprise, as they were all made earlier. His first feature, Big Leaguer, is an enjoyably corny tale of would-be baseball stars being put through their paces by a kindly, avuncular Edward G Robinson (his character is often referred to as "Uncle Hans") on a training camp in sun-baked Florida.
      Don Delillo's End Zone it most certainly ain't: instead, it's the kind of undemanding B-movie which characters in early-fifties novels like The Catcher in the Rye, or the first novels of Patricia Highsmith, would go to see – and even back then this kind of sanitised, wholesome advert for the sport (featuring copious, spoon-feeding narration by a friendly newspaperman) would have been dismissed as purest baloney.
      Not unenjoyable by any means: the baseball action is well handled, Robinson is good value, and there's an intriguing parallel between the aspiring sports-pro characters and the aspiring movie-stars who play them. Of the latter, only diminutive Richard Jaeckel – as a likeably obnoxious pitcher – was to make the grade, the future Oscar-nominee also popping up as comic-relief in Attack.
      Jeffrey Richards was the picture's nominal juvenile lead (like most of the performers, looking about a decade older than his character's supposed eighteen years): a huskily tall, conventionally handsome Rock Hudson type, he's joined Attack's Smithers in the where-are-they-now file – a fate which isn't so surprising given the ponderous woodenness of his performance here. It's fascinating, meanwhile, that Aldrich, even in his very first movie, was able to work with such a big name as Robinson – presaging the director's fondness for starry casts.
      The part isn't exactly a 'star vehicle', but it's a reasonable bet that Robinson (born Emmanuel Goldberg in Budapest) was attracted by the script's not-so-subtle subtext about how baseball (i.e. America) is so welcoming to the immigrants and the sons of immigrants (Joe DiMaggio cited as the most successful example of the latter). There's even a Borat-like, broken-Engleesh-speaking Cuban chap knocking around, dreaming of the big leagues – though sadly (and conspicuously) no sign of any proto-Willie Mays to challenge the sport's then-still-prevalent racial barriers…
      The day's other two Aldrich pictures were minor disappointments: genre pieces that haven't dated especially well. Burt Lancaster produced Apache, which is presumably why, he was able to 'brown up' in the title role of Massai, last of his people's legendarily fierce warriors.
      Lancaster's blue eyes have never looked quite so lapis lazuli as they do here, and though his acrobatic skills are displayed to their fullest as Massai leaps from rock to rock fleeing perfidious whitey, the picture (which traces the proud chap's painful transition from government-plagung 'terrorist' to domesticated corn-farmer) never manages to overcome his egregious miscasting.
      The script doesn't help, a fits-and-starts affair full of stilted dialogue (all of the 'Indians' have American accents, but still say things like "they are" for "they're" and "we will" instead of "we'll," etc.) – though the striking technicolour cinematography (this was Altman's first non-monochrome production) is a major plus.
      World For Ransom is a so-so espionage thriller set in "present day" Singapore (i.e. 1954). A nuclear scientist is kidnapped, and since he's "one of four men in the world who knows the secrets of the H-bomb," the consequences could be severe. In theory: despite the repeated talk of the enormously high stakes involved, the drama feels oddly parochial and small-scale. Dan Duryea (looking knackered) is the sub-Bogartian man-about-town reluctantly drawn into the imbroglio by his love of a (predictably worthless) woman; picture feels relentlessly studio-bound, though does pick up in the latter stages as Duryea tracks the kidnappers to a remote, semi-abandoned village. All very sub-Graham Greene, of interest chiefly as a precursor for Aldrich's imminent, atom-age masterpiece, Kiss Me Deadly.
      I did manage to take in a couple of non-Aldrich pictures: Dante Isn't Only Severe, a Spanish picture from 1967 co-directed by Joaquin Jorda (the recently-deceased recipient of this festival's second-biggest complete retrospective) with Jacinto Esteve Grewe, and the 'manifesto' movie of the 'Barcelona School.' I regret to admit I don't know much about this school, or Jorda, but the film itself was of more than historical interest: crazily freewheeling, pre-post-modern affair in which a wife tells her husband various jokes, stories and non-sequiturs, most of which are then 'illustrated' via dramatisations, stills and pre-pop-video sequences (owing as much to Godard as Bunuel.)
      The husband is played by none other than Pasolini's Christ, Enrique Irazoqui, the picture looks terrific, and the anything-goes flow of ideas and images is more often arresting than not – quite remarkable that such a loosey-goosey affair should have been made under Franco's dictatorship (but typical of Barcelona's anti-establishment traditions). By far the best sequence is the extended pre-credits opening, in which various trendy young folk (everyone in the film is beautiful or the next best thing) sit around listening to jukebox music in an open air cafe: looks like it was shot and cut yesterday. Remainder never quite matches the insouciant, rebellious charm of this prologue, but at 78 minutes Dante certainly doesn't outstay its welcome.
      I lasted 50 minutes of the first competition picture I saw: Japanese whimsy-fest The Pavilion "Salamandre", in which a 150-year-old lizard becomes a kidnap-target of Yakuza gangsters keen to establish whether or not he's an imposter. To this end they hire a slacker X-ray technician, who promptly falls in love with the salamandre's doe-eyed teenage guardian.
      Sounds potentially intriguing, but comes across as a below-par Haruki Murakami story filmed by an out-of-sorts, late-period Peter Greenaway, complete with distractingly discordant electronic music on the soundtrack (Eli eli lema sabachthani it ain't). The salamandre itself (the Fedora of the animal kingdom?) is a striking creation, but from what I saw he had very little to do except squeak every now and again and emit bubbles from his water-tank. Perhaps the creature is intended as a metaphor for the Japanese royal family (it's described as taking up billions of tax-payers' dollars over the years) – or even of cinema (was 'exhibited' alongside the new medium at the 1900 Paris expo, hence the title).
      Also not sure whether the ever-so-quirky picture was actually supposed to be a comedy or not – audience at the vast Ambrosio theatre seemed equally uncertain – but wasn't inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt, especially given the scratchiness of the print, the dodgy sound, the out-of-focus English subtitles and the nagging idea of dinner as a very tempting alternative.

It's now 10.21am : Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly is on at 'Greenwich Village' at eleven, and it's 20 minutes' walk from the hotel to the cinema. More anon. Given the time-constraints, however, this is likely to be the longest of these Torino "entries"…

Neil Young
12th November, 2006

Attack[7/10] : US 1956 : Robert ALDRICH : 108m (timed) : seen at Massimo cinema
Big Leaguer : [6/10] : US 1953 : Robert ALDRICH : 69m (timed) : Greenwich Village
World For Ransom : [5/10] : US 1954 : Robert ALDRICH : 76m (timed) : Greenwich Village
Apache : [5/10] : US 1954 : Robert ALDRICH : 83m (timed) : Greenwich Village
Dante Isn't Only Severe : [6/10] : Dante no es unicamente severo : Spain 1967 : Jacinto Esteva GREWE & Joaquin JORDA : 78m (timed) : Massimo
The Pavilion "Salamandre" : [5?/10] : Pavilion Sansho-uo : Japan 2006 : MASANORI Tominaga : 98m (catalogue timing; walkout at 50m) : Ambrosio

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