Posts Tagged With: John Saxon

China In Your Hands… Umberto Lenzi’s THE CYNIC, THE RAT AND THE FIST Reviewed

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DVD. Alfa Digital. Region Free. Unrated.

Umberto Lenzi’s comments re The Cynic, The Rat And The Fist (1977) in our last posting (on Lenzi’s Eaten Alive!) prompted me to prise this one off the shelf and give it another go. Enhanced by appropriate beverages and a selection of salty snacks, an agreeably chucklesome 90 minutes or so duly ensued…

Everybody’s favourite Italian answer to Dirty Harry, Maurizio Merli’s ex-Inspector Leonardi Tanzi (he must have pissed off his shilly-shallying, “by the rule book” superiors one too many times) is scraping a living in Milan, sub-editing detective novels. Suffice to say, his hard-ass cop days are behind him. Try telling that to Luigi “The Chinaman” Maietto (Tomas Milian), though. Recently sprung from the jail where Tanzi’s sterling hard-assed detective work had landed him, the vengeful “China” sends Tanzi one of his trademark greeting cards, announcing the date of our hero’s death. Sure as shit, he’s promptly confronted by gun-totin’ goons but despite talking a good fight (“Hey motherfucker, I’ve got a real quick nickle-plated lead message from the Chinaman for you”), their work is so shoddy that he only sustains a shoulder injury before the assassins are disturbed in their work and scarper. The papers having reported his death, Tanzi is advised by his old boss Commissioner Astalli (Renzo Palmer) to go lie low in Switzerland, advice to which he gives characteristically short shrift, relocating to Rome before getting back on the case… Tanzi’s no pansy! He hits back at China by sewing suspicion between him and Frank DiMaggio (John Saxon), the American gangster whom China is aiming to team up with and ultimately supplant, setting the scene for a climactic kick-ass confrontation between this unholy trinity of Crime Slime titans…

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… well, that was the general idea but TC,TR&TF ultimately emerges as a slow burn that never quite ignites and lumbering it with a title that evokes one of Sergio Leone’s finest hours was always leaving it with a lot to live up to. It’s generally agreed that Tanzi = “The Fist” in the eponymous equation, but opinions differ as to whether China or DiMaggio should be taken as The Cynic or The Rat. There are also those who wonder why Maietto is known as “Chinaman” but I’m pretty confident that this is a reference to his “inscrutable” demeanour. He’s also referred to by one of the cops as “the Clockwork Orange kid” so you can take it as read that beneath said inscrutable facade, there lurks the squirming brain of a stone psycho. He’s particularly dead pan while supervising the breaking of an offending dude’s legs. Meanwhile DiMaggio, who cultivates a similarly urbane persona, bounces golf balls off the head of a lieutenant who’s pissed him off, before turning his dogs on the guy.

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Mistreating women is thirsty work in TCTR&TF… better keep that J&B bottle handy!

Being one of those morally ambiguous cops, Tanzi’s behaviour is scarcely more PC at times… although he advises one hood who’s been roughing up a woman to “pick on somebody your own sex” before beating the crap out of him, he’s not averse to slapping the ladies round himself (though, to be fair, unlike his opponents, he draws the line at repeatedly addressing them as “twot” and throwing acid in their faces). Co-writer Dardano Sacchetti keeps the fruity dialogue coming thick and fast, e.g. “That blond faggot… I should have known that bastard was a Pig!” and “Why are you with that cop? Has he got loads of money? Or a big wang?” (we’ve already established that Tanzi’s living in reduced circumstance, but he’s got a hairy chest and a fuck off gold medallion… so yeah, on the balance of probability, I’d imagine he’s got a pretty sizeable wang). There are plenty of pleasingly outrageous ’70s fashion mis-steps on display and Lenzi keeps things chugging along with his customary efficiency if not, perhaps, quite the flair evidenced in most of his other Crime Slime outings.

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“How d’you like your coffee?”

There’s a sub-plot about Tanzi avenging his antique-dealer uncle (Guido Alberti) which although far-fetched (learning that the kid who beat and robbed Unc is nicknamed “Cappuccino”, Tanzi hangs around bars and pool halls till he spots somebody drinking cappuccino and kicks the shit out of him… lucky he got the right guy, eh?) is well-integrated into the wider narrative, but I could have done without the interminable “caper” sequence in which Tanzi burgles DiMaggio’s apartment… Merli should leave the “wriggling through laser sensors” stuff to Catherine Zeta Jones and stick to what he does best, i.e. shouting abuse at / pistol-whipping / punching / kicking / shooting people who irritate him (i.e. just about everybody he encounters) and asking questions later. That sequence could usefully have been replaced with a car-chase, of which TC,TR&TF is woefully bereft. What does it matter that Lenzi’s budget wouldn’t stretch to staging one? Producer Luciano Martino could have just lifted the one from his brother Sergio’s The Violent Professionals (1973), as he did in so many other ’70s Italian cop epics. While I’m moaning, Franco Micalizzi’s “OST” is a tepid warm over of his thrilling contribution to Lenzi’s superior Violent Naples from the previous year.

My principle gripe though, as mentioned already, is the way that the climactic dust-up between Tanzi, China and DiMaggio, a consummation devoutly to be wished, ends up being phoned in by all concerned…

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… I mean, Merli and Milian don’t even appear in the same shot during their alleged settling of accounts, something which I’m inclined to attribute to scheduling problems on a low-budget picture. Sure, Lenzi perpetuates the notion that there was a feud between the two actors but I suspect that this was just a publicity stunt. Then again, I am a bit of an old cynic…

Often rated a classic by the Crime Slime cognoscenti, The Cynic, The Rat And The Fist strikes me as more of a missed opportunity. Poliziotteschi, nevertheless, are very much like pizzas… even when they’re not great, they’re pretty good, so waste no time grabbing yourself a slice of the action, presumably via 88’s recent DVD or Blu-ray releases. The OK-looking edition under review here came courtesy of the mysterious Alfa Digital label, an allegedly Portuguese outfit that put out some interesting titles at the dawn of the DVD era and promptly disappeared.

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Ex-Inspector Tanzi… has he got loads of money? Or just a big wang?

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Billy, Don’t Be A Weirdo… BLACK CHRISTMAS Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. 101 Films. 18.

God, Christmas arrives earlier every year, doesn’t it? Still, if you’re the kind of ghoul whose yuletide wish is to sit the family down in front of Bob Clark’s classic 1974 Canucksploiter (as, apparently, was standard procedure for the Presleys every December 25th at Graceland) then you’re gonna need five weeks or so to drop heavy hints to your nearest and dearest about slipping this one into your Xmas stocking. Maybe they won’t take your hints but never mind, worse things happen during the festive season…

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… for instance, to the occupants of the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, allegedly somewhere in the USA (actually, Toronto). Initially assailed by obscene, ranting phone calls from some sex-case identifying himself as “Billy”, members of the feisty sisterhood (which includes Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin and Lynne Griffin among its number) are soon being killed and their bodies arranged in the attic, where young William seems to be putting together some kind of black Nativity scene. Clark and writer Roy Moore pull every trick in the book to divert your attention towards Hussey’s intense concert pianist, abortion-resenting boyfriend as prime suspect, which probably tells you all you need to know about whether it’s him or not. John Saxon’s Police Lt and his (somewhat clueless) underlings take an eternity to work out that those phone-calls are actually coming from within the sorority house (difficult to believe, actually, that the ungodly racket Billy makes during his calls wouldn’t have already pinpointed his whereabouts), setting up a rattling false ending and memorably ambiguous creepy  coda…

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Horror and thriller buffs of a certain vintage and of a certain theoretical persuasion have had a lot of fun (haven’t we?) trying to nail the influence of Italian gialli on the lucrative American stalk’n’slash cycle. Of course there were other antecedents (as, indeed the giallo had its own roots in e.g. Germany’s Edgar Wallace adaptations) and we’re looking at one of them right here. It has even been suggested (a suggestion which gets repeated in the bonus materials on this disc) that John Carpenter conceived (or “borrowed” the concept for) his massively-influential-in-its-own-right Halloween (1978) as a sequel to Black Christmas…

Clark (whose earlier genre credits included Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, 1972 and Dead Of Night, 1974) might or might not have been aware of Bava and Argento’s contemporary stylish efforts… there are shots in Black Christmas which strongly suggest that he was (I won’t insult the reader by spelling out precisely which ones I’m talking about… they’re clear enough) although it’s possible that he and Argento were just cribbing stuff from the same Fritz Lang movies. Whether as a result of studying Argento or not, Clark introduced… always a contentious claim… well, he certainly put considerable impetus behind the use of sinuous P.O.V. shots in subsequent North American slasher movies. To this end he and his camera crew improvised a primitive Steadicam before Steadicam was even invented. Cinematic influences are seldom a one way street and it’s difficult to watch the establishing glimpses of Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery, wherein an external shot of a face at a window lap dissolves into a similar but not identical one, without concluding that Fulci has watched Black Christmas, or at least its closing moments.

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Clark incidentally inaugurated the trend (considerably less significant artistically than in marketing terms) here of tying these kill-by-numbers films into holiday set ups and special occasions (Halloween, Friday the 13th, St Valentine’s Day, et al… not to mention such inferior, albeit sometimes entertaining Xmas slay-rides as Carles E. Sellier Jr’s 1984 effort Silent Night, Deadly Night), also spawning a fertile filone of Sorority House Massacres while he was at it.

Horror and comedy (to invoke an adage so often restated that it’s become tantamount to cliché) are two sides of the same coin and it’s not hard to detect foreshadowings of Clark’s subsequent comic success with the likes of the Porky’s films in Black Christmas. Kidder’s drunken, potty-mouthed provocateur (who kids the dumbest cop in the picture that “fellatio” is a new telephone exchange) gives particularly good value for money but all of the major cast members (well, apart from the barely glimpsed Billy) contribute believable, believably imperfect and generally likeable characters. The female principals, in particular are strong-willed free spirits, polar opposites of their sketchy cinematic descendants in so many dreary “have sex and die” epics. The fact that you care for these people makes Black Christmas so much more than the bravura display of cinematic technique that it undoubtedly is. Clark is handsomely served throughout by his collaborators in front of and behind the camera, several of whom remember him with affection and admiration in the bonus materials assembled on this disc.

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Clark died with his son Ariel on 04/04/07, reportedly at the hands of an inebriated, uninsured driver, which just goes to prove the aforementioned Signor Fulci’s point that nothing a horror director can put on the screen is remotely as horrifying as the stuff that happens every day in real life.

101’s BD transfer of Clark’s finest hour is a bit grainy but that shouldn’t put you off this seminal and seriously chilling thriller. Like it says in the trailer: “If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl… IT’S ON TOO TIGHT!”

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Running On Empty… BLAZING MAGNUM Reviewed

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“Ooh, I could crush a grape!”

DVD. Region 1. Scorpion Releasing / Kino Lorber. Unrated (as “Shadows In An Empty Room”).

Alberto Martino (aka “Martin Herbert”, 1929-2015) has a decent claim on being the most underrated of all those journeyman Italian directors who jobbed their way promiscuously through every conceivable genre during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Serving his apprenticeship as writer and AD on romantic dramas, adventure yarns and peplums during the 50’s, he clocked up his own initial directorial efforts in the latter genre and spaghetti westerns during the early ’60s. His epic of international espionage, Operation Kid Brother (aka OK Connery, 1967) attained lasting notoriety due to the casting of a certain Scottish milkman as its protagonist, whose sole qualification for the role was being the current James Bond’s younger brother. “Neil Connery is too much!” claimed the posters, but the general consensus was that, in thespian terms, he wasn’t quite enough and wee Neil soon went back to totin’ crates of gold tops. Thereafter Martino authored solid entries in the giallo (The Man With Icy Eyes, 1971 and The Killer Is On The Phone, 1972) and poliziotteschi (Crime Boss, 1972 and Counsellor At Crime, 1973) fields. There are plenty of films in which those two genres shade off into each other and that is indeed the case for the one under scrutiny here, but Blazing Magnum (aka Shadows In An Empty Room, Strange Shadows In An Empty Room and A Special Magnum For Tony Saitta, 1976) is particularly notable for the way that it lifts both of these filoni out of their accustomed urban Italian environment and lands them slap-bang in the middle of downtown Montreal, scoring in the process a kick-ass action triumph that graced Granada TV’s late night programming on multiple occasions during the ’80s and whose reappearance on DVD certainly hasn’t disappointed me.

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The film opens with sexy student Louise Saitta (Carole Laure) having an on-campus tiff with her professor / lover Dr George Tracer (recently deceased Hall of Famer, Martin Landau). Spurned and upset, she calls her big brother, cop captain Tony (Stuart Whitman) in Ottawa. Yep, Tony Saitta’s an Ottowan and at this point I’m going to challenge you to read the rest of  this review without “D.I.S.C.O.” playing in your head. Anyway, Louise intends to blow the whistle on her illicit relationship with the Prof but Tony’s otherwise engaged, breaking up a bank heist… Harry Callahan style, with the aid of his fetishised magnum. By the time he’s killed everyone, wrapped up the paperwork and tried to call her back, Louise is dead. Having  embarrassed Tracer with an elaborate practical joke during a swish faculty party, she downed a drink that turned out to laced with poison.

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Tony flies in with a heart full of guilt, a relentless determination to smoke out (with the assistance of cop-on-the-spot John Saxon) the lowlife who snuffed his innocent little sister… and that magnum, with which to dispense a little rough’n’ready justice. Our latter day John Wayne is predictably disgusted by the louche sexual mores of Montreal’s academic set, not only lecherous prof Tracer but Margie Cohen (Gayle Hunnicutt… strong cast, ain’t it?) and her creepy brother who eventually turns up (in full drag) dismembered in a piece of industrial machinery. How was the blue necklace he wore connected to the recent murder of an apparently respectable woman in Toronto?

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It’s while following up this latter angle that Saitta’s complacent self-image as a morally upright macho man sustains its first serious damage. Visiting a gay clubhouse on the top floor of a skyscraper, confident in his ability to shake some clues out of what he believes will be a bunch of fairies, he promptly gets the shit kicked out of him by a posse of transvestite kung fu furies… yay, even unto being put through a plate-glass window in slow motion from several different angles. While his scars heal and he reassesses his stereotypes, Margie chides Saitta for his blinkered, clichéd view of the word and indeed, the further he delves into the case, the more it becomes apparent (via a series of Sergio Leonesque unfolding flashbacks) that his kid sister wasn’t quite the little innocent abroad that he had always imagined her to be… 

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For all its moral subtleties, BM will be best remembered among Crime Slime fanatics for that LGBT kung fu show down and even more so for the truly gob-slapping car chase that takes up eight ecstatic minutes of its running time. Master stunt co-ordinator Rémy Julienne subsequently plied his trade in Bond films but this is his masterpiece, right here… topped off with a nice little gag, at that: when Saitta pulls his quarry from the wreckage of his car and demands some information, the latter coughs it up without any fuss, making one question the whole point of the delirious vehicular vandalism we’ve just witnessed, over and above keeping the enthralled viewer on the edge of his / her seat… “Pure Cinema”, anyone?

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Meanwhile giallo fans will be enjoying the whole whodunnit format (the Mannino / Clerici writing team also scripted Fulci’s New York Ripper and Murder-Rock, among others) and such suspenseful scenes as the one in which Louise’s blind friend Julie (Tisa Farrow from Zombie Flesh Eaters, Anthropophagous, et al) is set up for a fall out of a high window. Great stuff all round. Speaking of Anthropophagous, Blazing Magnum’s one-shot DP “Anthony Ford” turns out to be yet another AKA for jolly “Joe D’Amato” / Aristide Massaccesi.

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Released (uncharacteristically late) in a flood of Dirty Harry / French Connection cash-ins, Blazing Magnum is more than just some macho exercise in vigilante bullshit… Whitman’s character goes on a real learning curve, at the end of which he emerges as a more self-aware, tolerant, all-round caring and sharing kind of dude… who’s still able to bring down a helicopter over a densely populated urban area by plugging away at it with his turbo magnum! A win-win result, in anybody’s book…

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Although not that brilliantly remastered (despite claims to this effect on the packaging), Blazing Magnum looks significantly better here than in its former incarnation as a Medusa VHS release and unlike that, it isn’t going to look any worse with subsequent rewatchings… of which it’s going to get plenty here at The House Of Freudstein.

Jeez, I can’t believe that when I first posted this review I neglected to big up Armando Trovajoli’s pulse-pounding OST… mi scusi, maestro, mea culpa!

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