The Girl with a Pistol (1968) ****

Off-beat Oscar-nominated comedy-drama that is both a marvelous piece of whimsy and a slice of social realism set in the kind of Britain the tourist boards forget, all drizzle and grime. It zips from Edinburgh to Sheffield to Bath to London to Brighton to Jersey as if the characters had been dumped from an  If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Belgium sketch. If your idea of Italy was Fellini’s glorious decadence or Hollywood romance amid historic ruins and fabulous beaches, then the upbringing of Assunta (Monica Vitti) is the repressive opposite. All women in her small Sicilian town wear black. Men are not allowed to dance with women and must make do with each other. A man like Vincenzo (Carlo Giuffre) desiring sex must kidnap a woman, in this case Assunta, to which she will consent as long as he marries her. When instead he runs off to Scotland, she is dishonored and must kill him, armed with the titular pistol.

Pursuit first takes her to Edinburgh and a job as a maid, has a hilarious encounter with a Scottish drunk, and various other cross-cultural misinterpretations – in a bar she cools herself down with an ice-cube then puts it back in the bucket. Then it’s off   to Sheffield where she falls in with car mechanic Anthony Booth (television’s Till Death Do Us Part) because he is wearing Italian shoes. She can’t imagine he can watch sport for two hours. “You’re a man, I’m a woman, nobody in the house and you look at the television.” Although tormented by images of being attacked back home by a screaming mob of black-robed women, she begins to shed her inhibitions, wearing trendier clothes, although an umbrella is essential in rain-drenched Britain and given the Italian preference for shooting exteriors.  

In between sightings of Vincenzo there are episodes with a suicidal gay man (Corin Redgrave) and a doctor (Stanley Baker). She becomes a nurse, then a part-time model, sings Italian songs in an Italian restaurant, drives a white mini, wears a red curly wig and more extravagant fashions. It turns out she can’t shoot straight. Gradually, the mad chorus of home gives way to feminist self-assertion as she becomes less dependent on men and a world run by chauvinists. It’s a starling mixture of laugh out loud humour and social observation. And while the narrative at times verges on the bizarre, Assunta’s actions all appear logical given her frame of mind.

Vitti was Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s muse (and companion) through  L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962) to Red Desert (1964). She had a brief fling with the more commercial, though still somewhat arty, movie world in Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise and the nothing-artistic-about-it comedy On the Way to the Crusades (aka The Chastity Belt, 1968) with Tony Curtis. Director Mario Monicello had two Oscar nominations for writing but was best-known for Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) and Casanova ’70 (1965). The Girl with a Pistol was nominated in the Best Foreign Language film category at the Oscars.

The Giants of Thessaly (1960) ***

Spoiler alert – this film contains no giants unless you count the one-eyed Cyclops. It’s the Jason and the Argonauts story with a lot of political shenanigans thrown in.

Even lacking the Ray Harryhausen special effects of the film covering the same ground a few years later and without the kind of budget dropped into the lap of a Stanley Kubrick it’s not a bad stab at retelling the myth. And Carlo Rambaldi (later the creator of E.T.) does a decent job of the Cyclops at a time when special effects were primitive.

This belongs to the Italian-made “peplum” genre, out of which came Hercules (1958). What struck me most was the director’s use of the camera, very often tracking a character in scenes that would otherwise have been static. There are virtually no close-ups and hardly any medium close-ups.

It’s quite strange to see. On the one hand a moving camera is an expense and on the other hand lack of close-ups saves money, so it’s possible the money spent on one technique was the result of saving money from another. Alternatively, much of the director’s work has gone into arranging characters in group scenes in such a way that dramatic impact is sustained while not moving the camera.

There’s enough political chicanery going on to keep two different plots going. Back in Jason’s homeland, where he is a king, an usurper not only seeks his throne but wants his wife and tries to deceive the population into thinking Jason is dead. Meanwhile, Jason faces mutiny on board the Argo and then the temptations of the Siren, battle with the Cyclops, and then a final bold act to reclaim the Golden Fleece.

Possibly the best scene is kept for the end, when the Argo arrives home with its own brand of deception. The film is topped off with a clever trick. Sometimes what we would now view as a B-film, ideal Saturday matinee material, sticks in the mind because it has been the proving ground for a future director or star but writer-director Riccardo Freda had already turned out Spartacus the Gladiator (1953) and Theodora, Slave Empress (1954).

Star Roland Carey was unusual in this field because he was actually a trained actor rather than hired for his torso, but this did not exactly stoke his career – his appearance in Fall of the Roman Empire (1962) was uncredited. Female lead Ziva Rodann was unusual, too, in that she was Israeli rather than Italian, had appeared in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) and second- billed in exploitationer Macumba Love (1960) and would later play Nefertiti in the Batman television series.

If you go in not expecting much, you might get a surprise, though, be warned the acting is wooden and other special effects, such as the storm, not quite in the Rambaldi class.   

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