Monthly Archives: January 2021

“V” Is For… Charles Bronson In THE VALACHI PAPERS And THE VALDEZ HORSES.

The Valachi Papers. BD. Indicator. Region B. 18.
The Valdez Horses. BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

Charles Bronson attained Stardom via a brace of John Sturges pictures, The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) but it was Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) that recast him as an authentic Icon, the imposing rock solid landscape of Monument Valley melting into wobbly jelly when counterpoised with his craggy physiognomy. Bronson was back in Italy for Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970), where his fictional “hit man at odds with former employers” proved ideal preparation for his eponymous lead role in Terence Young’s The Valachi Papers (1972). Put together by legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, the film was adapted (by Stephen Geller) from Peter Maas’s much litigated book of the same title, based on the memoirs of / interviews with the renegade Mafia soldier whose televised Senate testimony in 1963 confirmed for the first time the existence of an Italian-American organised crime syndicate, revealed much about its history, organisation and rituals and brought the expression Cosa Nostra into general usage.

Valachi’s version of events, as followed in the film, is an attempt to justify his breaking the oath of omertà, the rule of silence by which he had lived since becoming a made man in 1930. We see him, as played by Bronson, working his way up through the ranks from juvenile street gang stuff to serious involvement with the various heavyweight organised crime factions until internecine warfare between them (and in the case of Lucky Luciano, imprisonment) leads to Vito Genovese emerging as Supremo, with Valachi serving him as driver and assassin. He’s ultimately involved in the castration of Gap (Walter Chiari), a playboy gangster who’s become over friendly with Genovese’ s wife. In 1962 (while both are confined to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on drugs charges) Genovese, believing that he’s been betrayed by Valachi, gives him “Il bacio della morte”. Valachi bludgeons to death a fellow inmate whom he suspects of trying to claim the bounty on him. Now serving life for murder, he decides to testify before John L. McClellan’s Senate Subcommittee in return for protective custody…

Bronson is supported here by a truly stellar cast including Lino Ventura as Genovese, Angelo Infanti (Luciano), Fausto Tozzi (as Albert Anastasia, the head of Murder Inc), Chiari, Joseph Wiseman, Amedeo Nazzari and inevitably Jill Ireland’s along for the (post-synched) ride as Valachi’s wife Maria. Mario Garbuglio’s production design and the film’s general fidelity to period accuracy (a jarringly anachronistic appearance by the Twin Towers of the WTC notwithstanding) also contribute to making The Valachi Papers an eminently watchable picture, perfectly complimented by the music of Riz Ortolani (and an uncredited Armando Trovajoli). The direction of Young (for whom Charlie had previously turned out in Cold Sweat, 1970 and Red Sun, 1971) is as slick as ever. As various collaborators (e.g. Geller and legendary make up FX man Giannetto De Rossi in the extras here) remember, Young prided himself on knocking out pictures quickly and efficiently.

In consequence The Valachi Papers, as engaging as it undoubtedly is, comes across as a superior “B” movie… a milieu in which Bronson would have felt comfortable, learning his trade as he had on the likes of Andre De Toth’s House Of Wax (1953, above), Roger Corman’s Machine-Gun Kelly (1958) and any amount of low budget war pictures and westerns. Therte’s no hint of the character depth and development that could have been attained if e.g. a Coppola or a Leone (to cite the obvious examples) had been calling the shots. Then again, they would have needed to be calling them to a Brando, a De Niro or a Pacino. Charlie Bronson, iconic as he was, was never exactly the most nuanced of performers. Horses for courses…

… which brings us, via the magic of clumsy segue, to The Valdez Horses (1973). When not typecast in Italian-American roles, Bronson (an ethnic Lithuanian, born Charles Dennis Buchinsky in 1921) often essayed Native Americans and here he’s Chino, a “half breed” horse trainer up against the competing land claims of cattle baron Maral (Marcel Bozzuffi on characteristically obnoxious form). He’d also like to be up against Maral’s sister Catherine (the miscast Ms Ireland), which only intensifies the aggro between the two men. As if this ongoing feud and the background buzz of everyday racism weren’t enough to contend with, Chino also finds himself responsible for the care of runaway kid Jamie (Vincent Van Patten).

For this film, De Laurentiis reunited Charlie with writer Geller and make up ace De Rossi, also with director John Sturges, whom he trusted to handle the star’s shyness, sensitivity, jealousy around Jill Ireland and (by general assent) outright eccentricity. Having expressed reservations about Terence Young as a director while remaining fond of him as a man, Geller and De Rossi (again featured in the extras on this disc) clearly feel no such ambivalence on the subject of Sturges. Giannetto remembers working with the director of Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) as the biggest disappointment of his professional life. Geller complains that Sturges chose to shoot in Almeria rather than The Rockies and that the director played down the the Indian stuff, which he personally had found the most intriguing element in Lee Hoffman’s source novel. Maybe he should have just taken the kid out, there seems no compelling reason for his character’s inclusion unless it’s as some kind of vague nod to George Stevens’ Shane (1953).

Things chug along efficiently enough under the direction of Sturges (until he left the production, by some accounts due to illness though others claim that he was lured away to prepare McQ, 1974, starring John Wayne in) and his replacement Duilio Coletti until the expected showdown, which turns into a puzzling climbdown on Chino’s part… it’s as though Spencer Tracy’s John Macreedy had just walked away from Black Rock, figuring that the murderers of his friend had suffered enough, or (more to the point) like Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish (1974) forgiving those who violated his family on the grounds that they must have suffered an underprivileged upbringing. I’m not currently in a position to tell you whether Hoffman’s book ends any differently. There’s a questionable scene in which Chino, being the ol’ Romantic that his is, comes on to Catherine while they’re watching horses copulating. She resists but then realises how much she likes Chino forcing himself on her. Last time I checked, a similar scene in Massimo Dallamano’s Venus In Furs (1969) had to be cut before certification, though of course if Sergio Leone could get away with it in Duck You Sucker (1969)…

Extras wise, both releases benefit strongly from those interviews with De Rossi and Geller. The former is a certified riot, never mincing words in his character assessments of those he’s worked with. He credits people for having big balls, great faces and strong personalities and is himself deficient in none of those categories. It’s a moving moment when he tears up paying tribute to his wife Mirella. Gerber’s another repository of great anecdotes, none more entertaining than the one where he’s persuaded to leave former capo Frank Costello out of the story by Costello himself (“I was shitting my pants!”). Other Valachi extras include an audio commentary with Bronson buff and author Paul Talbot, a short archival “making of documentary” including on-set interviews with Bronson and Terence Young, a further two minutes of “behind the scenes” stuff and the expected image gallery trailers, TV and radio spots. Most compelling of all is the 18 minutes extracted from Valachi’s televised testimony before that Senate Subcommittee. Get your skates on and you’ll receive an exclusive 36-page booklet comprising a new essay by Pasquale Iannone, newspaper reports on Joseph Valachi’s criminal career, excerpts from Maas’s book, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and full film credits. Yes, this is a limited (to 3,000 units) edition UK BD premiere…

… as is The Valdez Horses. Additional extras on that one include an alternative presentation with the Italian Valdez Il Mezzosangue (“Valdez The Half-Breed”) title sequence, another Paul Talbot audio commentary, alternative titles and credits, trailers, TV spots and image gallery. The 36-page booklet here boasts a new essay by Roberto Curti, an archival on-set report with contributions from Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and John Sturges, extracts of interviews with Bronson and Ireland, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full film credits.

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

“Non Ho Sonno”… Paul Schrader’s LIGHT SLEEPER Reviewed.

BD. Indicator. Region B. 15.

His intense Calvinist visions having inspired the likes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder (1977) then a run of self-directed efforts from Blue Collar (1978) to Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985), Paul Schrader knocked off a few pictures as a hired gun before returning to a more personal style of film making with Light Sleeper (1992). He envisaged this neat Neo Noir as his “midlife movie”, in which the protagonist would gain some self insight, turn his life around and attain a degree of transcendence. Nobody familiar with the director’s earlier work will be surprised to learn that the protagonist is a coke dealer, nor that his moment of transcendence is achieved during a bloody shoot out rather than in any moment of meditative reflection. Perhaps Schrader wanted to show up-and-comers like Abel Ferrara (whose Bad Lieutenant was released in the same year) that they still had a thing or two to learn about absolution and atonement, fate, free will and the whole ethical nine yards…

Although his literary pretensions are going nowhere, John LeTour (Willem Dafoe) seems to living a pretty sweet life. Having kicked his own coke habit, he spends his time supplying to various upmarket addled losers (memorably including David Spade as “Theological Cokehead”, droning on about the Ontological argument for the existence of God) and raking in their cash for himself and his narco partners Ann (Susan Sarandon) and Robert (David Clennon). He’s long accepted that coke wasn’t doing him any good but the penny is starting to drop that it’s not doing any of his customers much good either and when his activities connect his ex-wife Marianne (another apparently reformed addict played by Dana Delany) and Victor Garber’s smoothy scumbag Tis, the clock’s ticking down on that climactic bullet fest…

This picture was built around a suite of five songs by Bob Dylan, for whom Schrader had directed the video clip Tight Connection To My Heart in 1985. Dylan (and I’m cutting a long story short here) subsequently let him down about the tracks so he commissioned five similarish songs on similar themes from the Christian rocker Michael Been (not to be confused with the actor Michael Biehn) and the new numbers do work pretty well, though perhaps recalling the work of Leonard “Chuckles” Cohen more than that of Bobby the Zee.

Schrader rarely gets sufficient credit for the performances he almost invariably get out of his actors, though of course casting thesps as accomplished the ones assembled here is half the battle. Dafoe keeps you on side right through his redemptive journey (and it’s nigh on impossible, as usual, to take your eyes off Sarandon), even if the script (as Schrader freely admits in the bonus materials) gets a bit heavy handed at times, littered with clumsy taking out the trash metaphors and falls from grace. The director has confessed to watching a lot of Antonioni before making Light Sleeper, though it looks like DP Ed Lachman was bingeing on other Italian auteurs, saturating The Big Apple in Bavian / Argentoesque gels. The niche architectural nooks and crannies of New York City have never looked this infernal since… well, since Inferno (1980).

Another UK Blu-ray premiere for Indicator, limited to 3,000 copies, this disc also packs the expected slew of extras, including Schrader’s audio commentary and 18 minutes worth of Dafoe and Sarandon commenting on selected scenes. Schrader (pictured above) talks about the film and its place in his CV during an 18 minute interview. I’m always glad to hear him acknowledge Cat People from 1982, a big favourite here at THOF but often overlooked by snottier assessors of his oeuvre on account of it being a (shudder) Horror Film. In fact its Noirish urban vibe jibes beautifully with that of Light Sleeper. We’re also privy to an interview that Schrader (mostly) and Lachman gave on-stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after a screening of the film. There’s an archival audio recording of Dafoe in conversation with Guardian critic Jonathan Romney at the NFT. I suspect that “Dear Paul Schrader, Thank You for Light Sleeper” , a new ten minute short from Mark Cousins will prove to be a Marmite proposition, which is to say that you might like it a whole lot more than I did. As well as the obligatory trailer and image galleries, if you buy quickly enough, you’ll get a 36-page booklet including a new essay by Christina Newland, Kevin Jackson’s archival on-set report for Sight and Sound, an overview of contemporary critical responses and full credits.

Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Reviews | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Age Of Miracle’s Not Passed… THE FIFTH HOUSE OF FREUDSTEIN ANNUAL REPORT.

Irene flips the script in 2020…

We’re reliably informed that it’s been a bit of a “different” year out there, possibly even a “difficult” one, but in the time-warped basement of Oak Mansion, the previous 12 months have played out pretty much like any other… well, kind of. The House Of Freudstein opened for business five years ago (after I was nagged into it by Irene Miracle… about whom more shortly ) pretty much laser focused on European (and mostly Italian) Horror, Thriller and Exploitation Cinema. Such films will always constitute our thematic bread and butter and this year we opened our account with a review of Dario Argento’s autobiography and closed it via an exclusive interview with Ovidio Assonitis. However, during 2020 economic conditions came to determine all others (just like Karl Marx told you they would) and much of our piping about Pasta Paura has been played out elsewhere, for people who actually pay to hear the tune (THOF has generated precisely Zip in monetary terms for the last half decade). Consequently there have been fewer postings this year (though reader traffic remains reassuringly heavy) but we’ve covered a wider range of Cinema (and that can hardly a bad thing) than ever before, from Hollywood classics to American and international indie, European trash and Arthouse flicks, Hammer, Ozploitation, lashing of lovely Film Noir… we like to get around and we hope you’ll stay well and stay with us through 2021 and beyond.

Which discs most tickled our fancy in 2020? Arrow finally gave John Landis’s miraculous An American Werewolf In London the BD edition it’s been crying out for… yeah, I know it was released at the tail end of 2019 but I wasn’t allowed to unwrap mine until Christmas, anyway it set the tone for a Jenny Agutter saturated (Walkabout, Equus) year (my favourite kind). Arrow’s Gamera box was an impressive undertaking, reviewed elsewhere than on this site for the above-mentioned reasons, as were Severin’s magnificent Lenzi / Baker set, that mind-blowing Al Adamson box and their much anticipated release of Fulci For Fake, Simone Scafidi’s idiosyncratic portrait of the great man. Second Sight’s blockbusting Dawn Of The Dead also received our fulsome plaudits in another forum but The BFI and Indicator kept us busy with a succession of nifty releases (special mention for the latter’s Fu Manchu Cycle, 1965-69) and Shameless continued to upgrade their catalogue from DVD to BD.

So, which postings were people particularly pondering during the last 12 months of Covid-induced ennui? For the fifth straight year, our two most frequently visited offerings were our interviews with David Warbeck and Irene Miracle (our inaugural posting back in 2016) but this time (and you might want to hang on to something sturdy), Irene finally knocked David into runners up spot, in both annual and all time terms. She wasn’t bullshitting me when she predicted that her internet fans would be all over any cyber rendering of our encounter. Thanks, Pal! Me Me Lay was finally pushed off the bronze podium (ultimately placing fourth) by Barbara Bouchet’s dramatic re-entry into the Top 10. Her fellow Barbara, La Steele was also back, in 8th position. With Argento’s autobiography the only virgin new entry at #10, reviews of Pupi Avati’s House With Laughing Windows and Severin’s ace All The Colors Of Darkness / Giallo set plus my account of breakfast with Joe D’Amato descended into the teen ranks, for the time being. Lunch with Lucio Fulci remained on the chart, though dropping to 9th place. Françoise Pascal rose two places to number 5, Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive slipped one to 6th and Howling 2, despite the ongoing appeal of Sybil Danning’s bodice ripping giffy antics, descended three places to #7.

In the All Time listings, as previously mentioned, Irene Miracle again swapped places with David Warbeck but Me Me Lay dug in at number 3. Apart from a resurgent Barbara Bouchet supplanting Umberto Lenzi (her lunch mate in Manchester, last time I saw either of them) the remainder of the All Time Ten constitutes the same postings as this time last year, with a few ups and downs. 4th place went to Howling 2 (up one), 5th to Lunch With Lucio (up one), 6th to the TLE restoration of Suspiria (down 2), 7th to Barbara Bouchet (re-entry) 8th was Eaten Alive (up 2), 9th Breakfast With Joe (down 2) and 10th, our Spaghetti Exorcist survey (down 2).

The best is yet to come so mask up, get your shots and see you soon.

Categories: Features | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: