Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Directed by Massimo Dallamano

Often overlooked as one of the key Italian director’s of his generation, Massimo Dallamano left us a treasure trove of always interesting films in a number of very distinct genres. Probably best know today for his intense Giallo What Have They Done to Solange (1972), one of the best the genre has to offer, Dallamano's short career as a director offered up a number of equally intriguing film projects, including 1975’s The Cursed Medallion (IL MEDAGLIONE INSANGUINATO).
Born in Milan in 1917, Dallamano got his start in films as a cinematographer in the late forties, and he would work steadily in that role throughout the fifties and sixties. Lensing everything from comedies to historical dramas, Dallamano built a solid reputation in the Italian film community, with his work with color being particularly acclaimed.
1963 would prove to be a pivotal year for the near fifty year old Dallamano when he was given an assignment to photograph Ricardo Blasto’s Gunfight at Red Sands, a film that would prove to be among the earliest of the Italian Westerns that would soon be dominating theaters all over the world. Dallamano’s work on the film led him to the attention of director Sergio Leone, who brought him on board a low budget western he was shooting with an American actor named Clint Eastwood. The film would come to be known as A Fistful of Dollars and Dallamano’s fantastic and inventive color photography is stamped all over it.

The stunning worldwide success of A Fistful of Dollars would lead Dallamano to shoot several other Italian Westerns in the mid sixties, including the tremendous follow-up feature For a Few Dollars More, but by the end of the decade the aging Dallamano decided he needed a change, and in 1967 he directed his first feature length film, the terrific Bandidos (also known as You Die…But I Live), a Western filled with wonderful camera work and surprisingly confident direction.
Dallamano’s second film, 1968’s A Black Veil For Lisa starring lovely Luciana Paluzzi, would mark his introduction to the Giallo, the genre he would arguably eventually become most known for. Even better than the underrated A Black Veil For Lisa was the absolutely audacious third film from the creative director, 1969’s Venus in Furs starring the impossibly sexy and beautiful Laura Antonelli in one of her key roles. Venus in Furs is far from a perfect film, but Dallamano’s photograpy of Antonelli is absolutely mesmerizing, as is much of the erotic and sometimes near surreal imagery he delivers in the film’s running time.
The international success of Venus in Furs would lead Dallamano to another loose literary adaptation with 1970’s striking Dorian Gray starring the handsome and talented Helmut Berger. Dallamano continues his trend of lush color photography, odd and sometimes trippy camera angles and direction, and an absolutely unnerving knack for placing music and image together (both Dorian Gray and Venus in Furs contain absolutely sublime scores), all of which marked him as one of the most distinctive and stylish directors of the period.

Dallamano’s most perfect film (in my view at least) followed in 1972 with the eerie and often shocking What Have They Done To Solange. The popular film, starring Fabio Testi and Cristina Galbo with one of the great scores by Ennio Morricone, is a remarkable one and is as pulverizing as any Giallo from the early seventies you might name. It’s also Dallamano’s most controlled work and it should have placed him in the top tiers of Italian filmmakers, but the talented director tragically only had a few more years and films left for him.

A couple of rather disappointing productions followed the masterful Solange but by 1975 Dallamano was nearly back at the top of his game stylistically, and The Cursed Medallion remains one of his most intriguing if little seen works. Mixing elements of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (with a little Don’t Look Now thrown in for good measure) The Cursed Medallion benefits greatly from Dallamano’s solid and carefully thought out direction (he comes across as one of the most organized Italian directors of the period), a terrific score by Stelvio Cipriani, and a great cast of both American and Italian actors, including one of the largest roles ever from much loved Italian child actor Nicoletta Elmi.

One of the most somber works falling in the crowded so-called ‘Exorcist Rip-Off’ genre of the mid-seventies, The Cursed Medallion offers up a sometimes-muddled tale of a young girl haunted and possibly possessed by a mysterious piece of antiquity and her father’s plight to save her. The script (credited to Dallamano, Franco Marotta and Laura Toscano) is the least of The Cursed Medallion’s pleasures. Plodding plotting aside, the real joys of the film are the absolutely exquisite photography of Franco Delli Colli (who often worked with Dallamano), the precision of the director’s framing and shot selections, and the opportunity to see the iconic Elmi in one of her biggest and best roles.

Nicoletta Elmi had just turned eleven years old when she shot The Cursed Medallion, but she had already appeared memorably in nearly ten films. The niece of a popular Italian TV host, the charismatic red-headed Elmi was born in Rome in the early part of 1964 and was appearing in commercials at just a few years old. After appearing in some minor Italian comedies she got her big break in 1971 with Luchino Visconti’s acclaimed Death in Venice. It was the Italian Giallo that Elmi would become most known for though, and she became an instant legend of the genre in 1971 with her role in Mario Bava’s incredibly influential Bay of Blood (Twitch of the Death Nerve).

While it seems like Elmi was in many Italian Giallo and horror films throughout the seventies, in reality she was just in a handful but her work with Bava, Argento, Margheriti, Lado and Luigi Bazzoni (can someone please release a quality DVD of 1975’s Le Orme???) still resonates. The Cursed Medallion remains the largest role for young Nicoletta Elmi (who fittingly appeared for the final time on the big screen in Demons (1985) for director Lamberto Bava) and that reason alone would be enough to warrant it as an important work.

Elmi is indeed very effective as the haunted young child in the film (was there ever a face more made for Italian horror?) although one could argue that the real ‘performances’ of the film are given by veteran Richard Johnson as her father and future Blade Runner replicant Joanna Cassidy in one of her earliest appearances. Both Johnson and Cassidy give effectively understated performances, and keep a look out for genre favorite Evelyne Stewart in a smaller but memorable role as well.

For all of its charms, The Cursed Medallion finally isn’t as powerful as Dallamano’s greatest works. A bit too subdued for its own good, the film slips from hypnotic to downright sluggish at times, and it lacks the delirious edge Dallamano gave films like Venus in Furs and Dorian Gray, as well as the savage sharpness of What Have They Done to Solange. Still, despite its faults, The Cursed Medallion is an effective and stylish minor film from a major filmmaker and it’s more than worth seeking out. The film is available on Region 2 DVD in a sharp widescreen Italian language print with optional English subtitles.

Massimo Dallamano would complete only two more films before he was killed in a car accident at the age of 59 in 1976. The erotic Annie and the explosive Colt 38 Special Squad (both 1976) continued to show Dallamano as a filmmaker capable of taking any divergent style and making them specifically his own. His death robbed the film world of a striking and major talent.

For another look at this film, please check out this review by Mr. Peel at Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur.

For a look at Dorian Gray check out this post at Cinebeats from Kimberly Lindbergs.

Also check out Tim Lucas' fun tribute to ten of the most memorable quotes from Venus in Furs.


Nigel M said...

Not going to add much insight here but for what its worth I absolutely adore Venus in Furs and along with Lickerish Quartet and Femina Ridens probably rank as my overplayed DVD of 2008, three movies I just could not get enough of.

Solange and co were pretty interesting too as genre hybrids but for me Venus In Furs trumped all

Jeremy Richey said...

I love all three of those you mentioned...I too could (and have) watched Venus in Furs over and over again. Isn't Antonelli just incredible?

Thanks for the comments!

Nigel M said...

Indeed she was. Oh I forgot to mention the amount of replay I got out of colt 38 special squad last year. One of the nicest looking of the genre. And loved the motorcycle stunt team thing- put that up there with Calibro 9 and Revolver.

I think after reading this I will be digging out Venus In Furs again pretty soon.

Keith said...

Hey Jeremy. Wow! This was a great write-up. I quite enjoyed reading it. Hope things are settling down for you. Good luck. Cheers!

P.S. I do hope you get the chance at some point to do the meme I tagged you in. Thanks.