Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Notte E Misteri: Enzo G. Castellari’s COLD EYES OF FEAR (1971)

A solid, if slightly undercooked, thriller from 1971, Gil Occhi Frddi Della Paura is finally not one of famed Italian director Enzo G. Castellari’s finest works, but it is a good one and its recent re-release on Blu-ray, via Redemption and Kino, is very welcome news. 

Castellari had just taken his place in the director’s chair a few years before Gil Occhi Frddi Della Paura, or Cold Eyes of Fear as it is more commonly known, came out in the Spring of 1971 to a mostly receptive if not overwhelmed audience. The stylish and smart filmmaker had worn many hats leading up to his career as one Italy’s favorite genre directors, including editor, assistant director and even actor, but by 1971 most of those had been forgotten and Castellari was correctly viewed as an artist to watch with talent to burn. 

Cold Eyes of Fear is often labeled as a Giallo, but is bears very little similarity to the classic works of the genre that Castellari’s peers ranging from Dario Argento to Sergio Martino were releasing in this period. Instead it plays out like a fairly routine kidnap thriller, with the occasional nod to the German Krimi that had proven so popular and influential in the fifties and sixties.

Written by Castellari with prolific Italian Western scribes Leo Anchoriz and Tito Carpi, Cold Eyes of Fear centers on a kidnapping, ransom and finally the often corrupted nature of the upper class. Set in London and working up to a dark twist at the end, Cold Eyes of Fear has many of the elements of distrust, paranoia and resentment that fueled so many Italian productions of the period, as well as the style, audacity and wit that went along with them as well.

The main compliant lodged at Cold Eyes of Fear from fans throughout the years is that it is finally a bit too dialogue heavy, and this is a justified complaint as the film does meander along more than it should, a fact that makes its ninety minute running time seem much longer. Problems with pacing and discourse aside, Cold Eyes of Fear has some amazing moments throughout and Castellari has style to spare and clearly knows how to frame a shot, with some of the most seemingly uninteresting moments being saved by his intelligence and verve as a director. Add that on to the wonderfully colorful and at times near psychedelic work by cinematographer Antonio L. Ballesteros, and some imaginative costume design by Enrico Sabbatini, and Cold Eyes of Fear is visually a real winner, and its these pleasures that continue to give it resonance despite its obvious plotting and pacing problems.

***The wonderful Giovanna Ralli a few years before The Cold Eyes of Fear.***

Cast wise the film is extremely impressive. Playing the kidnap victim Anna is underrated and often overlooked Giovanna Ralli, a wonderful and distinct award-winning actress who continues to light up a number of Italian productions to this day. Ralli is gorgeous in Sabbatini’s costuming, plus her work is totally believable and it elevates the material in the moments where it needs it the most. Joining Ralli is Fernando Rey, who shot this film just before his legendary turn in Friedkin’s The French Connection, tragic and talented Frank Wolff, who committed suicide at the young age of 43 just over six months after this film was released, Julian Mateos, and a terrific Gianni Garko. 

***Stunning Karin Schubert, around the time she shot Cold Eyes of Fear.***

Appearing in only the first few minutes of the film but proving unforgettable is Moon in the Gutter favorite Karin Schubert, the undervalued and tragic German actress whose work in this period continues to be sadly overlooked. Schubert’s unforgettable scene here provides the film with some of the more visceral qualities fans might expect from a production like this, and I believe it's why the film is often mislabeled a Giallo.
Along with Karin Schubert’s explosively seedy few moments, the other aspect of Cold Eyes of Fear that invites Giallo comparisons is the stunning score from legendary Ennio Morricone. Conducted by the wonderful Bruno Nicolai, Cold Eyes of Fear is one of Morricone’s best and most experimental scores from the period; a startling work that is simultaneously dissonant and melodic. Fitting in perfectly with his scores from the early seventies thrillers of Argento, Fulci, and Dallamano, Cold Eyes of Fear is an amazing work from the maestro and it gives the film a deeply textured and important feel even in the moments it clearly doesn’t deserve them. Tim Lucas noted in his original mixed review of the film in Video Watchdog 48 that the impressive score is similar to Morricone's work on Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1969), and he wonders if some of the cues may have been, "culled from outtakes" from that more famous score. 

Cold Eyes of Fear does finally feature too much talk and too few thrills to really be counted among the best Italian thrillers of the seventies, but it is very much a work worth searching down for fans of the period. Schubert’s appearance, Castellari's knock-out visual style and Morricone’s score alone make it a viewing necessity in my book, and I am more than pleased to have it back out on disc. 

Redemption first released the film on DVD in the early days of the format in a colorful version sans title card, and with a last shot obviously copped from lesser source material. The 2009 disc was a mixed blessing as the same print was used, although it had been cleaned up in spots as Ballesteros’ color scheme was much more eye popping.  Redemption's new Blu-ray is a major step up from their older out of print discs. The colors are much more vibrant and the whole film feels richer than ever before.  Reasonably priced with a lovely cover shot of Ralli captured from the films original Italian poster, Redemption’s new disc is a welcome one although one wishes some extras outside the film’s trailer could have been included.

I like Cold Eyes of Fear and have been a fan since I first saw it in the late nineties courtesy of Redemption’s first DVD. While it’s far from perfect, the film has some exquisite moments and it finds one of Italy’s most interesting directors honing his skills. Within a few of its release, Castellari would begin one of the most fascinating and prolific periods of his career where he expertly mixed tense Italian police dramas, strangely mesmerizing Western productions and epic war tales with the ease of a skilled master. Many of the great stylistic flourishes that he would soon become known for can be found in Cold Eyes of Fear, even if they are still slightly works in progress.

-Jeremy Richey, 2009 revised in 2013-

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