Selling Sophia Loren – The Pressbook for “It Happened in Naples”

Unusually for a movie of this era, Paramount took one image of Clark Gable and Sophia Loren up close and personal and stuck to it. It was more normal for an marketing campaign to include half a dozen different adverts each with a separate strapline. Here, while the copy occasionally changed the central image remained the same.

Unusually, too, Paramount made a big play of getting critics on board prior to the film’s release. So it came garlanded with the imprimatur of the likes of television host Ed Sullivan, famed critic Louella Parsons and syndicated columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. Plus the studio had embarked on a major promotional campaign in the Sunday supplements of the biggest circulation newspapers in the U.S.

Overall, there was a broad sell. While Clark Gable and Sophia Loren – “two prime examples of cinematic sex appeal” – were of course key, the marketeers also promoted “sensational young Italian boy Marietto” (playing the orphaned Nando) and Carlino, the Neapolitan answer to Elvis Presley who was Loren’s guitar-playing accompanist. In appealing to “those who like poignant drama” it also set out to hook “those who like musicals” as well as moviegoers who “like being magic-carpeted away to far-away places.”  In other words, something for everyone.

Cartoon of Clark Gable and director Melville Shavelson consulting on set. Cartoons like this were occasionally part of a promotional push, giving newspapers something different to use, and they were seen as a classier promotional device than just stills or adverts.

But the write-ups and photography favor Loren, who displays her legs in a revealing costume, as well as her cleavage and a separate article extols her singing and dancing, the latter described as “her secret career passion.” Audiences were promised an “all-out rock-and-roller.” Loren, of course, had come into her own as a singer in Houseboat (1958), where she performed two songs, but declined offers of a recording career.

The Pressbook is somewhat short on the nuggets that usually accompany this kind of promotional material because the two stars were already so well known. About all potential moviegoers learned about Gable was that he was now such a devoted father he brought his family on location.

There’s certainly a curious piece called “It Hurt Gable More Than Sophia” which, on reading the text, turned out to be untrue. When Gable was called upon to throw Loren out of bed in one scene, he “put too much Gablesque gusto” into it, flipping her out onto the marble floor.  Loren was the one who suffered bruises on legs, hips and shoulders. And in true Hollywood fashion producer Jack Rose “rushed to her aid” but only after ensuring that her startled expression had been captured on camera.

Tie-ups were travel agencies. Italian restaurants and department stores featuring Italian imports were suggested to exhibitors as cost-free ways of encouraging local support. A soundtrack album featuring Loren’s voice was released as well as a paperback novelization targeted at book stores, drug stores, supermarkets and newsstands.

Taglines employed included “you, too, will say it’s wonderful;”  “you’ll loosen up and pleasure up on the isle of Capri;” and “you’ll want to be there when the fun starts.”

It Started in Naples (1960) ***

By this point in her career Sophia Loren was adopted by Hollywood primarily as a means of rejuvenating the romantic screen careers of much older male stars. John Wayne was over two decades her senior in Legend of the Lost (1957), Frank Sinatra and Gregory Peck nearly two decades older in The Pride and the Passion (1957, and Cary Grant a full three decades in Houseboat (1958). But where Grant was sprightly enough and with superb comic timing and Loren had the charm to make Houseboat work, the May-December notion lost much of its appeal when translated to her Italian homeland and an aging Clark Gable.

While engaging enough, the tale mostly relies on a stereotypical stuffy American’s encounters with a stereotypical down-to-earth Italian although Loren adds considerable zap with her singing-and-dancing numbers. Lawyer Michael Hamilton (Clark Gable), in Italy to settle his deceased brother’s affairs, discovers the dead man has left behind eight-year-old boy Nando (Marietto) being looked after in haphazard fashion and in impoverished circumstances in Capri by his aunt Lucia (Sophia Loren), a nightclub singer.  Determined to give the boy a proper American education, Hamilton engages in a tug-of-war with Lucia.

In truth, Lucia lacks maternal instincts, allowing the boy to stay up till one o’clock in the morning handing out nightclub flyers and not even knowing where the local school is. Hamilton is in turns appalled and attracted to Lucia, in some part pretending romantic interest to come to an out-of-court settlement. To complicate matters, Hamilton is due to get married back home.

At times it is more travelog than romantic comedy, with streets packed for fiestas and cafes full well into the night, a speedboat ride round the glorious bay, another expedition under the majestic caves, a cable car trip up the cliffs to view spectacular scenery, and the local population enjoying their version of la dolce vita. But the piece de resistance is Lucia’s performance in the nightclub, ravishing figure accompanied by more than passable voice as she knocks out “Tu vuo fa L’Americano” (which you might remember from the jazz club scene in The Talented Mr Ripley, 1999). She has a zest that her suitor cannot match but which is of course immensely appealing.

Lucia is torn between giving the boy a better start in life, already insisting for example that he speak English, and holding on to him while street urchin Nando is intent on acting as matchmaker.  Most of the humor is somewhat heavy-handed except for a few exceptional lines – complaining that he cannot sleep for the noise outside, Hamilton asks a waiter how these people ever sleep only to receive the immortal reply: “together.”

Gable lacks the double-take that served Cary Grant so well and instead of looking perplexed and captivated mostly looks grumpy. But this is still Gable and the camera still loves him even if he has added a few pounds. He was by now a bigger global star than in the Hollywood Golden Era thanks in part to regular reissues of Gone with the Wind (1939) but mostly to a wider range of roles and he was earning far more than at MGM, in the John Wayne/William Holden league of remuneration. Loren was the leading Italian female star, well ahead in Hollywood eyes of competitors Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida, and had the skill, despite whatever age difference was foisted upon her, of making believable any unlikely romance. Here, zest and cunning see her through. Vittorio De Sica (The Angel Wore Red, 1960) has a scene-stealing role as an Italian lawyer with an eye for the ladies.

Director Melville Shavelson (Cast a Giant Shadow,1966)  thought he had cracked the problems of the older man-younger girl romance having shepherded Houseboat to box office glory . While this picture doesn’t come unstuck it is nowhere near Houseboat. This turned out to be Gable’s penultimate film, not quite the fitting reminder of a glorious career, and he died shortly after its release. While Loren trod water with this picture she was closing in on a career breakthrough with her Oscar-winning Two Women (1960).

Seven Golden Men (1965) ****

Very stylish caper picture that dispenses with the recruitment section, the ingenious hi-tech robbery accounting for the first half, escape and double-cross the second, a slinky Rosanna Podesta (the eponymous Helen of Troy, 1956, in case you’ve forgotten, and also appearing in Sodom and Gomorrah, 1962) an added attraction/distraction. The Professor (Phillippe Leroy), in bowler hat and umbrella, orchestrates the gold bullion theft from an uber-secure bank using hidden microphones, cameras and a host of electronic equipment, the inch-perfect heist organized to mathematical precision and timed to the second.

His team, disguised as manual workers, dig under the road, don scuba gear to negotiate a sewer, drill up into the gigantic vault and then suck out the gold bars using travelators and hoists. Giorgia (Podesta), sometimes wearing cat-shaped spectacles, a body stocking and other times not very much, causes the necessary diversions and plants a homing device in a safety deposit box adjacent to the vault. Occasionally her attractiveness causes problems, priests in the neighboring block complaining she is putting too much on show.

It’s not all plain sailing. A cop complains about the workmen working during the sacrosanct siesta, a bureaucrat insists on paperwork, a radio ham picks up communication suggesting a robbery in progress, the police appear on the point of sabotaging the plan.

But the whole thing is brilliantly done, the calm professor congratulating himself on his brilliance, Giorgia seduction on legs. The getaway is superbly handled, the loot smuggled out in exemplary fashion, its destination designed to confuse. Then it is double-cross, triple-cross and whatever-cross comes after that, and with every reversal no idea what is going to happen next. It is twist after twist after twist. Some of the criminals are slick and some are dumb so as well as the high drama there are moments of exquisite comedy.

Italian writer-director Mario Vicario (The Naked Hours, 1964) handles this European co-production with considerable verve and although, minus the normal recruitment section, we don’t get to know the team very well except for The Professor and Giorgia each is still given some little identity marker and in any case by the time they come to split the proceeds we are already hooked. Frenchman Phillippe Leroy (Castle of the Living Dead, 1964) is the standout as a mastermind in the British mold, a stickler for accuracy, calm under pressure, working with military discipline. Podesta (also The Naked Hours) has no problem catching the camera’s attention or playing with the emotions of the gang  to fulfill her own agenda. The gang is multi-national – German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Irish – with only Gabriel Tinti likely to be recognized by modern audiences.

And there is a terrific score by Armando Trovajoli (Marriage Italian Style, 1964) that changes mood instantly scene by scene. One minute it is hip and cool jazz, the next jaunty, and then tense.

If ever a picture was pure cult, this is it.

Advance Buzz – The Phenomenon Created in the 1960s

In 1964, Twentieth Century Fox created a new way of selling pictures by inventing the advance buzz.

Of course, movies had always had some kind of pre-launch push but mostly on a small-scale via gossip columnists, who, while they had some influence, did not actually receive much space in a newspaper. Fox set out to change all that and put movies on the front pages and gain big feature spreads inside, an event that only usually occurred through  unwanted scandal (Cleopatra, for example), death  or a photo of a big female star.

Fox revamped the press junket – at that time primarily used as a vehicle to announce a movie premiere – and turned it into a method of creating advance publicity and expanding awareness on new pictures long before they reached the screen. And did so with enormous style, transporting over 100 American journalists to Europe to watch the production of three major big-budget roadshows.

Cecil B. DeMille of all people had invented the movie press junket – for the world premiere of his swashbuckler The Buccaneer in 1938. At a time when world premieres were confined to New York and Los Angeles, Hollywood had begun experimenting on a small scale with different locales for a first showing – whaling picture I Conquer the Sea (1936) was unveiled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, The Petrified Forest (1936) in St Louis and Sutter’s Gold (1936) in Sacramento. But these were all local affairs, the selected city putting on a big show for local dignitaries but the media were drawn only from the immediate surrounding area with stories syndicated to bigger newspapers.

When he selected New Orleans for his world premiere, DeMille, as skilled in marketing as he was in direction, hired a deluxe train to bring journalists from the top newspapers and magazines down from New York and Chicago. The train had a special compartment kitted out with typewriters, telephones, radio, Dictaphones and even stenographers to “relay hot news as it happens.”

All expenses – accommodation, meals, alcohol and various other sundries – for an entire week were picked up by Paramount. Three radio stations made daily broadcasts and the journalists filed news stories and features about the stars and the city, and, most important of all, reviews of the film they were privileged to be the first to see. The city went to extraordinary trouble, proclaiming a local holiday, organizing parades, enlisting the help of local organizations to ensure there was some event worth reporting every day. Local retailers, hoteliers and restaurateurs made a fortune as hundreds of thousands of people piled in to see the stars and witness the festivities.

The press junket was born.

In the following years, world premieres were held all over America either in locations where the movie was filmed or places linked with a star or character. These varied from major metropolises like Detroit (Disputed Passage, 1939), Houston (Man of Conquest, 1939), Memphis (Dr Erlich’s Magic Bullet, 1940) and Philadelphia (Intermezzo, 1939) to smaller locales like Littleton, New Hampshire (The Great Lie, 1941) and South Bend, Indiana (Knute Rockne, All American, 1940).

But by the 1960s, the world premiere idea had been done to death. There was scarcely a town, city or venue that had not been the subject of premiere marketing.

So in 1964 with an unprecedented three roadshow pictures in production Twentieth Century Fox upped the press junket ante by flying a fleet of 110 journalists on a specially chartered Boeing 707 to Europe to watch filming on actual locations in Britain, Austria and Italy.

Over 40 cities were represented by reporters and included representatives of the New York Post, Los Angeles Times, UPI, Detroit Free Press, Kansas City Star, Boston Globe and the Seattle Times as well as The Mike Wallace Show (television) and NBC Radio and magazines as diverse as McCalls, Cue and Newsweek.

At the reconstructed Booker Airport in Britain, journalists watched stunts for Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) and interviewed stars like Sarah Miles, Terry-Thomas and Robert Morley. Each journalist had a photograph taken as a personal souvenir alongside a replica of a 1910 Antoinette airplane specially built for the film, but undoubtedly many such photographs found their way into the newspapers and magazines.

When the media cavalcade shifted to Austria they were treated to a massive banquet at Schloss Klessheim in Salzburg where The Sound of Music (1965) was being filmed. Julie Andrews was interviewed with her feet on a table and the reporters watched choreographer Marc Breaux rehearsing the “I Have Confidence” number (the music had been recorded in Hollywood and then played back synchronized to the action). Andrews and co-star Christopher Plummer were interviewed at Frohnburg Castle.

Italy – where The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) was being shot – was the final destination. The visitors were conveyed up the perilous Carrera Mountains to the 4,700 ft Monte Altimissino to watch a scene being filmed in a quarry usually closed to visitors of a 200-ton block of marble being cut. Director Carol Reed, producer Darryl F. Zanuck and star Charlton Heston were on hand to welcome them. Rex Harrison (playing the Pope) was interviewed outside a restaurant in Rome that bore the Pontiff’s name 

Even before the journalists returned from the seven-day trip, they were sending stories back – over $8,000 (worth about $70,000 today) was spent on cable fees and nearly one million words had been written. Many of the journalists had never been to Europe before and took full advantage of the opportunity. Newspaper and magazines would not permit journalists to spend such a length of time away from the office without expecting a substantial bounty in the shape of news stories – the trip itself received extensive coverage.

Feature editors were deluged with stories and interviews that ran in the main sections of the newspaper and in weekend supplements, shifting the coverage of movies away from the  entertainment sections. In addition, to justify their time away, stories ran in the food, travel and fashion sections.

It was an unprecedented publicity bonanza for films that were still a full year away from release, creating a tsunami of public interest. For the first time a studio had created movie awareness on its own terms. While movies filmed in Europe had often received coverage based on reports by journalists living in that continent, this was rather cursory, had always appeared piecemeal in American newspapers, largely depended on an editor’s decision about reader interest in a particular star, and, more importantly, such stories usually coincided with the film’s launch rather than well in advance.

This huge media onslaught whetted public appetites well in advance. In addition, there were enough articles left over to be used up when the movies actually did open.

The trade press also widely reported on the event and Box Office magazine ran a 12-page feature one month later. In its evaluation of the junket, the studio concluded that it was the “most advanced type of industrial marketing.”

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, In Theaters Everywhere: A History of the Hollywood Wide Release 1913-2017, p32-36 (McFarland Publishing, 2019); “That Was the Week That Was…Fantastic,” Box Office, Jul 6, 1964, p10-21.

Bronson Unwanted

That Farewell, Friend / Adieu L’Ami (1968) was a smash hit in France did nothing for Charles Bronson’s Hollywood career. Hollywood had form in disregarding U.S.-born stars that Europe had taken to its box office bosom. Example number one of course was Clint Eastwood, ignored by the big American studios until four years after his movies had cut a commercial swathe through foreign territories. Charles Bronson took about the same length of time for his box office grosses abroad to make an impact back home.

While we tend to look upon The Dirty Dozen (1967) as a career-making vehicle for many of the supporting stars, that wasn’t actually the case. Jim Brown was quickest out of the blocks, a full-blown top-billed star a year later in The Split (1968). Otherwise, John Cassavetes had the biggest crack at stardom after landing the male lead in box office smash Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But the rest of the gang – Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Charles Bronson, Richard Jaeckal et al – remained at least for the time being strictly supporting players.

For Charles Bronson, the year of The Dirty Dozen produced nothing more than television guest spots in Dundee and the Culhane, The Fugitive and The Virginian. Beyond that he had a berth in two flop westerns Villa Rides (1968) and Guns for San Sebstian (1968) and no guarantee his career was moving in an upward direction. But the latter picture was primarily a French-Mexican co-production, the Gallic end set up by top French producer Jacques Bar under the aegis of Cipra which had previously been responsible for Alain Delon vehicles Any Number Can Win (1963), Joy House (1964) and Once a Thief (1965).

There was another, as vital, French connection. Henri Verneuil directed both Any Number Can Win and Guns for San Sebastian so could attest to Bronson’s screen presence. And another legendary French producer, the Polish-born Serge Silberman, best known for Luis Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), had taken note of Bronson, whose screen persona was similar to that of French stars Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin. Silberman’s Greenwich Films production shingle was in the process of setting up Farewell Friend / Adieu L’Ami.

Like The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), Farewell Friend was part of a new trend to make French productions in English as well as French, in this case the English version viewed as “the working one.” But that ploy failed to convince U.S. distributors to take a chance and the film sat on the shelf for five years. And little that Bronson did in the meantime increased his chances of a serious stab at the Hollywood big time.

Although Paramount had piled cash into the Italian-made Once upon a Time in the West (1968) it was counting on Henry Fonda – undergoing a career renaissance after Madigan (1968), The Boston Strangler (1968) and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) – to provide the box office momentum. Bronson was billed fourth after Claudia Cardinale, Fonda and Jason Robards, so still in Hollywood’s eyes a supporting player.

And while the Sergio Leone picture flopped Stateside, the success of Farewell, Friend in France turned Bronson into a star and was instrumental in the western breaking box office records in Paris (where it ran for a year) and throughout the country.

Fortunately for Bronson, European producers recognized his potential. His next picture should have been an Italian-French-German co-production of Michael Strogoff, for which he was announced as the top billed star (Advert, Variety, May 8, 1968, p136-137).  When that fell through, Italian company Euro International, bidding to become the top foreign studio outside Hollywood, gave him top-billing in Richard Donner drama Twinky (aka Lola, aka London Affair, 1970) and Serge Silberman tapped him for Rene Clement thriller Rider on the Rain (1970), another French hit.

British director Peter Collinson (The Italian Job, 1969) was responsible for recruiting him for You Can’t Win ‘Em All (aka The Dubious Patriots, 1970), but with Tony Curtis taking top billing. Again, though funded by an American studio, this time Columbia, it was another big flop, mostly because the studio did not know how to market the picture, Curtis in a box office slump and Bronson considered to have little appeal.

But still the Europeans kept the faith. Another French-Italian co-production Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (1970) gave him top billing over exiles Telly Savalas and Jill Ireland, Bronson’s wife. That was also the case with Cold Sweat (1970), helmed by British director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962).  He had another French-made hit with Someone Behind the Door (1971) and Terence Young hired him again, along with Farewell, Friend co-star Alain Delon, Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai, 1954) and Dr No alumni Ursula Andress for international co-production Red Sun. While this western sent box office tills whirring all over the world, it only made a fair impression in the U.S., ranking 53rd in the annual box office chase.

Riding on the back of The Godfather phenomenon, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Bronson for Mafia thriller The Valachi Papers (1972), again directed by Terence Young, which produced something of a box office breakthrough in the U.S., ending the year just outside the Top 20. But it took another British director, Michael Winner, to help solidify the Bronson screen persona and boost his global appeal. Four – and all of the hits – out of the star’s next six pictures were directed by Winner.  These were the western Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973) and Death Wish (1975). The Mechanic was such a big hit Stateside it did better in its second year of release than the first and Columbia redeemed itself by giving prison escape thriller Breakout (1975) the widest release – up to that point – of all time.

That America had little interest in developing Bronson as a breakout star could be judged by the distribution treatment of his pictures. As mentioned above, Farewell, Friend had to wait until 1973 for its U.S. debut and then renamed Honor among Thieves. Twinky was denied a cinema release in the U.S. and went straight to television in 1972. Violent City had to wait until 1973 for a distribution deal, Cold Sweat until 1974 and even Red Sun took nine months before it hit American shores.  Until The Valachi Papers did the business, Bronson was not considered the kind of star who could open a picture in the U.S.

By then, of course, Bronson had reversed the normal box office rules. Usually, for films starring American actors, foreign revenues were the icing on the cake. For Bronson it was the other way round. Along with Clint Eastwood he was the first of the global superstars, whose name resonated around the world, and whose pictures made huge amounts of money regardless of American acceptance or interest. But had it been left to Hollywood, Bronson would never have made the grade.

The Demon (1963) *****

I was riveted. Never mind the spider-walk, this is one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen. Highly under-rated and largely dismissed for not conforming to audience expectation that horror pictures should involve full moons, castles, darkness, fog, costumes, nubile female victims, graveyards, a male leading character, shocks to make a viewer gasp, and the current trend for full-on gore. So if that’s what you’re looking for, give this a miss. Even arthouse critics, spoiled by striking pictures by the Italian triumvirate of Fellini, Visconti and Antonioni, were equally scornful. For the most part this takes place in broad daylight and is set in an impoverished town in the Italian mountains where primitive farmers till the soil with horse and plough and water is collected in buckets from the river.

One of the most striking aspects of the picture is that it creates its own unique universe. The townspeople are both highly religious and deeply superstitious, every traditional Catholic ceremony matched by age-old ritual. Even some of the formal traditions seem steeped in ancient belief, sinners marching up a steep hill with people being scourged or carrying a heavy rock, in a convent the tree of a suicide covered in barbed wire. At a wedding in a church, how low the candles flicker is deemed to indicate the length of the marriage. A wedding night rite involves shoving a scythe under the bed to cut short Death’s legs with the bedspread covered in grapes – to soak up evil and discord – arranged in the form of a cross to act as bait for bad thoughts and poison them before they can cause the couple harm. When the people run through the town brandishing torches it is not, as would be genre tradition, to set fire to a castle but to vanquish evil from the air.

French poster.

It is filmed in austere black-and-white. In the Hollywood Golden Era of black-and-white movies, lighting and make-up transformed heroines, rich costumes enhanced background. Here, if the heroine is wearing make-up it’s not obvious and the only clothes worth mentioning are a priest’s robes or a plain wedding dress. Otherwise the most arresting feature is the stark brightness against which the black-dressed figure of the heroine Puri (Daliah Lavi) scuttles about.

And although there are no jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, there are moments that will linger on in your mind, not least the heroine enduring a vicious extended beating from her father, an exorcism that turns into rape and (Exorcist-fans take note) a spider-walk, the young woman’s torso thrust up high on elongated arms and legs. Virtually the entire success of the picture relies on atmosphere and in places it is exquisitely subtle, the audience only realizing she is being raped by the look on her face.

The picture opens with a dialogue-free scene of stunning audacity, foreshadowing the idea from the start that image is everything. Puri pierces her chest with a needle, cuts off a chunk of her hair to mop up the blood, throws the hair into the oven and rams the crisp remains into a loaf of bread. Not to be consumed, as you might imagine, but as a tool of transport. Shortly after, having failed to seduce Antonio (Frank Wolff), she tricks him into drinking wine infused with the ashes of her bloodied hair, bewitching him, so she believes, to abandoning his betrothed. In an echo of a Catholic sacrament she shouts, “You have drunk my blood and now you will love me, whether you want to or not.”  

The next morning when collecting water at the river she has a conversation with a boy Salvatore, only to discover he has just died. His death is blamed on her because his last words were a request for water, which she is judged to have denied him. She is beaten by women. She is feared by everyone in the village, her family tainted with the same brush, wooden crosses nailed to their door. She is not a ghostly figure, flitting in and out of the townspeople’s lives, an apparition tending towards the invisible, but fully formed, highly visible in her black dress and anguished expression, doomed by her often vengeful actions and forceful words.

Much of the film involves Puri being beaten or chased or captured, at one point trussed up like a hog. Attempts to exorcise her, whether pagan or Catholic, focus on getting the demon to speak his name. The ritual performed by heathen priest Guiseppe involves blowing on a mirror before taking on sexual aspects which culminate in rape. The Catholic version in a church in front of her family is primarily, as it would be in The Exorcist, a duel between the priest and whatever possesses her.

Movie producers who took one look at the beauty of Palestinian-born Daliah Lavi (Blazing Sand, 1960) thought she would be put to better use in bigger-budgeted pictures made in color that took full advantage of her face and figure. So they stuck her in a series of hardly momentous movies such as The Silencers (1966) and Some Girls Do (1969). they should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring her astonishing acting ability. And much as I have enjoyed such films, I doubt if I could watch them again without thinking what a waste of a glorious talent. This is without doubt an acting tour de force, as she alternatively resists possession and adores the being who has taken hold of her mind. She dominates the screen.

The rest of the mostly male cast are dimmed in comparison, as if overawed by the power of her personality. Future spaghetti western veteran Frank Wolff (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) comes off best. Director Brunello Rondi (Run, Psycho, Run, 1968) is better known as a screenwriter for Federico Felllini. He made few films, none matching this in scope or imagination, perhaps as a result of the picture not receiving the praise it deserved. Even now it does not have a single critical review on Rotten Tomatoes.

One other point: you may have noticed that in general the proclivities of male horror characters are never in need of psychological explanation. Nobody considers that the Wolfman must have suffered from childhood trauma or that a vampire drinks blood because he was a rejected suitor. Strangely enough, as would be the case in The Exorcist and other instances of female possession, psychiatry is usually the first port of call and here all reviews I have read implicitly see Puri’s actions as based on sexual inhibition and rejection by Antonio.  

I saw this on an old DVD but you can catch it for free on Youtube.

The Red Tent (1969) ***

If you’re unfamiliar with the abortive Italian airship expedition to the North Pole led by General Umberto Nobilo (Peter Finch) in 1928, you’ll find this an absorbing tale. If you are familiar then you will probably appreciate the film-makers’ attempts, via an unusual framing device, to carry out a post-mortem and to apportion blame for the disaster. If you know your history you’ll also be aware both poles had already been conquered, American Robert Peary first to the North Pole in 1909, Norwegian Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery) claiming South Pole bragging rights two years later. So you’re also probably wondering what was the point nearly two decades later of the Nobilo operation?

But the sled-led efforts of Peary and Amundsen were feats of endurance i.e. man vs.  nature. This was science vs. nature. The dirigible was the apex of aviation advancement and nations still battled for exploration glory. So to travel in some comfort and fly over the North Pole in a few days would be a demonstration of scientific supremacy. Conquest of one of the most inhospitable places on earth was almost a PR exercise. With no intention of landing it was also a glorified tourist trip.

Connery and Cardinale lock horns over tea.

However, the science was flawed. Nobody had counted on the build-up of ice. The airship crashed and since this was a joyride nobody was equipped to walk their way out. Just surviving would be difficult enough. Loss of radio transmission (science) indicated a problem to those waiting back at the base so rescue airplanes were deployed. But without a location to pinpoint, the searchers had about two million square kilometers cover. Luckily, a brilliant scientific deduction by expedition member Finn Malmgreen (Eduard Martsevich) saves the day and a ham radio user (amateur science) picks up the location. Game on!

Except airplanes are too easily thwarted by blizzards, fog and the inhospitable. Home base, set up simply to welcome home a successful jaunt, is not capable of organizing a proper rescue. A Russian ice-breaker joins the rescue attempt. Taking greater risks is aviator Einar Lundborg (Hardy Kruger), fired up by the promise of sex with desperate nurse Valeria (Claudia Cardinale), who happens to be Malmgreen’s girlfriend, and a bounty from Nobilo’s insurers. The redoubtable Valeria does not have to sell her body to persuade the more highly-principled Amundsen to join the rescue effort.

So it’s gripping clock-ticking-down stuff, action shown in considerable detail, almost over-populated in one sense as director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957) covers multiple storylines, the various disjointed rescue efforts, the survivors weakening by the day, imperiled by marauding polar bears and the ice cracking up beneath their feet.

In the main it’s a true story, Valeria the only fictional element, inserted for dramatic purpose, to give the audience someone to emotionally root for back on land and for her character to guide us in almost contemporary fashion through the ghoulish carnival onshore as thousands gather to witness first-hand news of disaster.

What’s patently untrue is the framing device, given that it shows the still-living Nobilo summoning up the ghosts of others involved in the event for a post-mortem, in which his guilt drives him into the position of sacrificial lamb. Although on first encounter it appears a bizarre idea, that, too, soon achieves dramatic purpose. Clearly there was intense discussion at the time and in the immediate aftermath by those who survived the disaster and there must have been high-level talks behind closed doors that usually excluded the main characters of the kind that was played out in a host of historical pictures made during the decade. Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and Khartoum (1965) had many such set-pieces where reputations were shredded.

This approach permits opportunity for all the principals to come together for confrontational purposes in the one room. Not all discussion follows the expected path and there is an interesting argument between Nobilo and Amundsen about leadership. From an audience perspective, it is, of course, quite satisfying to see Sean Connery facing off against Peter Finch with Hardy Kruger and Claudia Cardinale embroiled in the debate.

All eyes on Claudia Cardinale in the Japanese poster.

There is the bonus of fabulous cinematography of the majestic Arctic, the icy waste and breaking up of ice floes and collapsing icebergs never before captured in such widescreen glory. Further pluses are in the performances, especially Connery as an aged Amundsen, Finch as the glorious pioneer bewildered the sudden turn of events and Cardinale as a woman willing to go to any lengths to save her lover. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

However, you are best going into this to be aware that while Finch has a goodly amount of time onscreen, Connery and Cardinale (the ostensible stars judging by the credits) are not seen so frequently. That said, the movie happily falls into the survival sub-genre. The DVD version I saw was just a shade over two hours – cut by about 30 minutes from original release – but reportedly the longer version adds little more than some extra angst.

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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