Ricky Tognazzi, of Ultra, L’escorta etc etc, has a new film that’s just come out in Italy.   It’s a thriller of sorts, starring Alessandro Gassman and based on a novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo (Romanzo criminale).  Reviews have been mixed and it’s not being widely distributed, showing in just 16 cinemas for now.

According to Variety:

Thirteen years after his breakout role in Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Steam: The Turkish Bath,” thesp Alessandro Gassman plays another handsome Italo husband seduced by the Orient in “The Father and the Foreigner,” and again the region is personified by an affable but mysterious local. But Ricky Tognazzi’s adaptation of the book by “Crime Novel” scribe Giancarlo De Cataldo feels muddled, with awkwardly handled thriller elements in the latter reels getting in the way of a message of cultural fraternity and impressively twinned portraits of men caring for disabled children. Beyond Italy, this is mainly fest fare.

Thirteen years after his breakout role in Ferzan Ozpetek’s “Steam: The Turkish Bath,” thesp Alessandro Gassman plays another handsome Italo husband seduced by the Orient in “The Father and the Foreigner,” and again the region is personified by an affable but mysterious local. But Ricky Tognazzi’s adaptation of the book by “Crime Novel” scribe Giancarlo De Cataldo feels muddled, with awkwardly handled thriller elements in the latter reels getting in the way of a message of cultural fraternity and impressively twinned portraits of men caring for disabled children. Beyond Italy, this is mainly fest fare.
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Return from Death, directed by Joe D’Amato

Return from Death

Return from Death

Return from Death is a 1991 horror movie directed by Aristide Massaccesi, aka Joe D’Amato, during the stage of his career where he was shifting from making successful softcore and exploitation films to even more successful hardcore movies. At around the same time he also made Deep Blood (90) and Contamination .7 (93), and it’s always surprising just how many films his production company, Fimlirage, were actually involved with.  It’s easy to forget that Italian genre filmmaking was still going strong into the nineties, as most of the films produced during the time are little seen, barely remembered and quite frankly godarned awful.

Georgia Danson (Conzia Monreale) lives in a small American town, where she runs a video store, experiences unnerving hallucinations in which her son is decapitated and displays not-particularly-useful telekinetic skills.  After experiencing difficulties with the locals, she only manages to avoid being assaulted by a trio of lary youths when her handyman, Ric (Donal O’Brien) intervenes.  The local police appear less than concerned, dissuading her from making any kind of official report in case it causes harm to the tourist trade. Inevitably enough, the goons make a return visit, and this time they’re more successful: Ric is beaten unconscious and suffers post-traumatic amnesia as a result; Georgia is raped, smashed over the head with an ashtray and left in a coma.

One of the goons, though, is the son of a local bigwig, Hoffner (Maurice Poli), and as a result poor Ric is framed for the crime, as well as being charged for the assault of the idiots who are truly responsible.  In order to make sure he doesn’t talk, Hoffner arranges from him to be killed, hung by his own bedsheets in a police cell so it looks as though it was suicide.  But, thanks to some incomprehensible experimental techniques being used to try and revive her from her coma, Georgia is able to use her parapsychic powers to bring him back to life and have revenge on all the people who’ve done them harm.

Considering just how rubbish most Italian horror films of the time were, Return from Death isn’t at all bad.  It has a lot of the faults that were common from the time – familiar script, TV production values, variable performances – but it does manage to generate a moderate amount of tension and it’s certainly no worse than some of the cinematic shite that was floating around at the time.  The story is slight and largely borrowed from Patrick, Carrie and I Spit on Your Grave, but at least it takes the time to build up the situation and, although this does mean that the first half is rather slow, things go enjoyably mental for the last half hour or so as Donal O’Brien staggers around crushing people’s heads, uprooting telegraph poles and generally causing chaos.

Donal O'Brien in Return from Death

Donal O'Brien in Return from Death

Before becoming a journeyman director, Massaccesi had been a decent cinematographer, and one of the strongest aspects of the film is its photography.  Much Italian cinema of the time had an awfully flat look, and for large stretches this is no different, but then there are sequences – especially once the exposition is out of the way – where it becomes quite visually interesting.  Massaccesi throws in lots of steadicam shots and uses interesting lighting, especially for scenes set in the hospital, which could best be described as cut-price Argento.

Similarly, it also benefits from having at least a couple of charismatic performers.  The supporting cast are, almost to a man, dreadful, but Donal O’Brien is imposing as Ric – the film was sold as Frankenstein 2000 in some territories because he has a large autopsy scar and much of his head is held together with staples.  Cinzia Monreale was a popular Italian starlet, and she’s not bad, although much of her performance consists of her lying comatose in a bed, so it shouldn’t have been a stretch.  And then busy French actor Maurice Poli has fun in a cameo, despite being dubbed with one of the most peculiar voices imaginable, a mixture of Chinese, South African and god knows what.  Talking of which, the English audio version of this is just dreadful; I’ve seen some pretty dismal dubbing jobs over the years, but this wins my vote for being the very worst.  People speak in a weird, staccato fashion, voices never change tone and some of the accents are ludicrous.

So, it has its positives, but that still doesn’t mean that Frankenstein 2000 is distinguishable from much of the video store filler product that was being made at the time.  It’s simply not as much fun as the equivalent films from a decade earlier, possibly because it doesn’t feel particularly… Italian.  I don’t know where this was filmed – or where it’s set, for that matter – but it’s obviously trying to be as American as possible, and as a result it lacks character.

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Amazons Against Supermen screengrabs

OK, I’ve done a bunch of screengrabs from Alfonso Brescia’s, achem, masterpiece… can anyone identify people who I’ve missed…

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The WildEye’s top 5 cine-fumetti films…

John Philip Law and Marisa Mell in Diabolik

John Philip Law and Marisa Mell in Diabolik

I’ve been watching a lot of these Italian cine-fumetti films recently, and so here’s a rundown of my top five films from the genre.  But cine-fumetti, I mean films that were either based on the Italian comic strips of the 60s or were influenced by them in some way (it’s quite a hard filone to define, to be honest…)  In reverse order:

5. Argoman the Fantastic Superman. Bit of a toss up between this one and Flashman for the fifth spot, but Argoman the Fantastic Superman just about wins out.  It’s an incredibly silly film – Roger Browne stars as a masked superhero-stroke-jewel thief, Dominique Boschero as a sexy villain intent on the usual world domination thang – but it’s also extremely good fun.  Sergio Grieco really knew how to direct these 60s style action films.

4. Hypnos follia di massacro. This is an unusual one, it doesn’t feature a masked superman, any elaborate heists or, quite frankly, anything you normally associate with the genre.  What it does have is Robert Woods investigating subliminal messages on TV, which cause certain viewers to commit homicidal acts (I think The X Factor has a similar effect on me).  The villain of the piece wears a weird mask and seems to have been modeled on Santo and / or Diabolik. It’s been claimed that David Cronenberg was influenced by this for Videodrome, and it’s a strange, moody film that’s worth watching.  I don’t know if it ever came out in English, it’s certainly worthy of a fansubbing job.

3. Superargo vs Diabolicus.  The first real genre entry, this came before Diabolik and was possibly just as influenced by the Mexican Santo movies.  Ken Wood (Giovanni Cinafriglia) stars as Superargo, a masked wrester, spy and general superhero, trying to save the world from crazy genius Diabolicus (Gerard Tichy) and another sexy villain (Loredana Nusciak).  Colourful, wildly entertaining and well made, this is a good one, and available with English audio options on lovely DVD from Pulp Video.

2. Three Fanstastic Supermen.  Oh boy, this is a silly film.  Directed by Gianfranco Parolini, it follows the adventures of FBI agent Brad Harris and two thieves (Tony Kendall and Nick Jordan), who are – you got it – trying to save the world from another crazy genius, in this case Jochen Brockmann, who’s so nasty he even shuts small orphans in a giant freezer.  Boo hiss!  It’s typical Parolini stuff, full of acrobatics and energy, and just demented enough to make it stand out.  It did so well there were about fifty sequels, most of which were bad, some of which were just abominable.

1. Diabolik.  The daddy of the bunch, this is the best known of the cine-fumetti, and the best as well.  John Philip Law stars as the titular character, a prolific jewel theif and general trickster who has to deal with a mafia boss (Adolfo Celi) and an incompetent politician (Terry-Thomas) amongst others.  Mario Bava directs it all with his usual flair, making for a quite wonderful film.

What do you think?  Any objections or differences of opinion?  Please post your own lists!

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The Soul Keeper

The Soul Keeper

Roberto Faenza's The Soul Keeper

Aka Prendimi l’anima, L’âme en jeu
90 mins
Italy / France / UK
A Jean Vigo Italia, Les Films du centaure, Cowboy Film production in association with Medusa Film and Leandro Burgay editrore
Distriobuted by Medusa Distribuzione
Italian release date: 17-01-2003
Director: Roberto Faenza
Story: Roberto Faenza
Screenplay: Giampiero Rigosi, Elda Ferri, Alessandro Defilippi, Gianni Arduini, Roberto Faenza, Hugh Fleetwood
Cinematography: Maurizio Calvesi
Music: Andrea Guerra
Editor: Massimo Fiocchi
Art director: Giantito Burchiellaro
Cast: Iain Glen (Jung), Emilia Fox (Sabina Spielrein), Craig Ferguson (Fraser), Caroline Ducey (Marie), Jane Alexander (Emma Jung), Michele Melega (Pawel), Daria Galluccio (Renate), Joanna David (Sabina’s mother)

Torinese director Roberto Faenza has been around a few years now.  Starting off with a couple of psychedelic, controversial productions in the late sixties, Escalation (68) and H2S (69), he’s probably best known for Copkiller (83), featuring, weirdly, Harvey Kietel and Johnny Lydon (then riding on the success of his post-Sex Pistols career).  Since the mid-nineties, he’s been surprisingly active, shooting a film every couple of years and picking up a handful of awards (most particularly for Look to the Sky, his 93 film starring Jean-Hugues Anglade). Although his work has lost some of its cult appeal as it has become mature, it’s always interesting, well made and highly professional.  The closest comparison I can think of is with Pupi Avati, another filmmaker who has strong local ties and is respected, but not necessarily well known overseas.

Like many of his films, The Soul Keeper is strongly written and features an interesting, capable cast.  It revolves around twin narrative strands, both of which feed into one another.  In the first, Carolini Ducey plays Marie Franquin, an attractive academic who becomes fascinated by the case of Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who, suffering from hysteria, was treated by Carl Jung, featured in his writings and then, seemingly, disappeared.  In order to discover more about Sabina’s life, she travels to Moscow, where she joins forces with Fraser (Craig Ferguson), a Scottish historian who becomes interested in her research.

Intertwined with this, we discover more about the story of Sabina (Emilia Fox) and Jung (Iain Glen).  His first patient after branching out from his mentor, Sigmund Freud, she had been admitted to his care after several unsuccessful attempts at treatment elsewhere.  Initially prone to wild mood swings and self-harm, his sympathetic approach slowly leads to an improvement, and eventually she’s well enough to leave the hospital and take up the study of psychiatry herself.  The two of them begin a passionate affair which is, of course, doomed, not least because Jung (Iain Glenn) is already married and has a small child.  When he tries to break off the relationship, she doesn’t take it at all well and – pausing only to have a minor breakdown, qualify as a fully fledged doctor, get married and have children – returns to Moscow, where she sets up ‘The White Nursery’, an experimental institution for disturbed children.  Russia, though, is in the grip of the Communism, and psychiatry isn’t something that Stalin is particularly keen on.

Emilia Fox and Iain Glen in The Soul Keeper

Emilia Fox and Iain Glen in The Soul Keeper

This is a stately, rather understated production, which you can imagine going down well on the festival circuit.  The story itself is unquestionably fascinating.  Sabina Spielrein was a figure who had been rather forgotten by history until a series of letters between her, Jung and Freud were discovered and published by Aldo Carotenuto, one of Italy’s foremost Jungian psychologists.  Seeing as hers was a passionate story involving key cultural figures and important historical events, it’s not hard to see why it appealed to Faenza.  The only problem is that he doesn’t quite manage to do it justice: with a bit more budget behind it and more epic ambitions, this could have been a big winner, along the lines of The English Patient.

As it is, it’s well made and interesting, but you don’t get entirely caught up in the drama.  Several key sections are skimmed over: the background to Sabina’s illness is never examined, and the final 30 minutes, which covers her life back in Moscow, feels rather rushed (which, considering it includes her setting up her hospital, falling foul of Stalin’s purges and then, as a Russian Jew, being executed during a Nazi massacre, contains more than enough subject matter to make up a film in itself).  Certain characters are sketchy, not least Emma Jung, who might as well not have featured and, frankly speaking, the film as a whole wouldn’t have been harmed if the modern day sequences had been dropped and the historical story had been given a bit more time to develop instead.

It’s still a good film, well worth a look, it’s just you can’t help but feel it could have been something more.  Emilia Fox does a decent job in a difficult role, she also appeared in The Pianist the same year, so obviously had a thing for rather heavy international productions at the time and Iain Glen, who also has a thing for interesting film choices, appeared in Faenza’s more recent The Case of Unfaithful Klara (2009).  Lower down in the cast are a couple of familiar faces: Giovanni Lombardo Radice, of Cannibal Ferox and City of the Living Dead, appears briefly, and Emma Jung is played by Jane Alexander – no, not that Jane Alexander – an English ex-pat who made her name hosting game shows on Italian television and has also appeared in the likes of Buck and the Magic Bracelet (99) and Tornatore’s The Star Maker (95).

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R.I.P. Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray in Totò, Peppino e la malafemmina

Dorian Gray with Peppino De Filippo and Totò in Totò, Peppino e la malafemmina

Dorian Gray was the somewhat bizarre pseudonym of Italian actress Maria Luisa Mangini, who became a big star in the 1950s.  She’s not as well known today, outside of Italy at least, mainly because she wound down her career just as the kinds of Italian B-Movies she appeared in were starting to gain International attention.

Born in Bolzano in 1936, she made her theatre debut, aged just 14 (if her date of birth is to believed), in the revue Votate per Venere in 1950, alongside Erminio Macari and Gino Bramieri.  She then acted on stage opposite the likes of Alberto Sordi, Ugo Tognazzi and Raimondo Vianello, winning the prized Maschera d’argento.

She appeared in films at around the same time, appearing in no less than 5 films in 1951 alone.  She only really started concentrating on her cinema career in the mid 50s, when she gave up her stage work and appeared in the likes of Totò, lascia o raddoppia? and Totò, Peppino e… la malafemmina (56), making her a big domestic star.  Although primarily known for her comedy roles, she also appeared in more celebrated productions, having prominent supporting roles in the likes of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (57), Antonioni’s Il grido (57) and Comencini’s Mogli pericolose (58), for which she won a Silver Ribbon.  In the early sixties, she had a stab at other genres, in the peplum Colossus and the Amazons (60) and action film The Legions Last Patrol (62).

Her last appearances were in the entertaining anthology, Thrilling and the obscure giallo Fango sulla metropoli (65), after which she retired without a trace.  She committed suicide on Feb 16th 2011, shooting herself in the head in Torcegno, Trentino, where she lived.

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The First Los Angeles Spaghetti Western Festival

One for our US readers, be there or be square:

The First Los Angeles Spaghetti Western Festival will take place Saturday, March 19th, 2011 at the historic El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, California. The all-day event will feature films, live music and special guests, including:


* A Fistful of dollars – Sergio Leone’s ground-breaking classic!
* Dead Men Don’t Count – The World Premiere Screening of Wild East Productions newly-remastered release!
* Gatling Gun – One of Quentin Tarantino’s Top 20 favorite spaghetti westerns, courtesy of Dorado Films.
* Ultra-rare spaghetti western trailers, compiled by Wild East exclusively for the festival!
* Films and trailers will be presented in DVD-projection format.


Join us for a panel discussion with actors who were there during the heyday of spaghetti westerns. Robert Woods, Michael Forest, Brett Halsey, Dan van Husen, Richard Harrison, Jack Betts (Hunt Powers) and Neil Summers will share their stories and reminiscenses in a conversation moderated by Tom Betts, of the highly-acclaimed “Westerns…All’Italiana!” blog.

Hey Tom, you kept this quiet!

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A Quiet Life

Another one that passed me by last year, not sure why – this has a story and cast that means it’s of some interest.  According to Cineuropa:

The Italian actor of the moment, Toni Servillo plays Rosario, a chef hiding a criminal past in Claudio Cupellini’s Italian-German co-production A Quiet Life, which hits Italian screens November 5 though 01 Distribution and will be released in Germany in early 2011.

Rosario, who’s been living in Germany for 12 years, “is a man in hiding, a hunted animal seeking shelter in a lair made up of three different languages that he speaks: Italian, with his employees; German, with his new family, his wife and their son; and Neapolitan with the son that appears from the past and threatens his new life,” said the actor, who was born a few kilometres from Naples and stars in French director Nicole Garcia’s Un Balcon sur la mer (coming out domestically on December 15 through EuropaCorp).

Beneath the white uniform of the cook with the quiet life lies a former killer who hoped he had put violence behind him, “but Rosario lives in constant terror of being found out, because you can’t run away from your past. The story, which centres around fatherhood, is classical, a tragedy”.

Cupellini, making his second film Chocolate Lessons, shot A Quiet Life with great skill and a partly German crew, in the style of a thriller based on current events. But, says the director, his intention was to “depict an existential theme typical to modern stories: man’s duplicity”.

The film, which may be selected in the upcoming Berlinale’s Panorama section, was produced by Fabrizio Mosca for Acaba Produzioni (Nuovomondo, Galantuomini) with EOS Entertainment and France’s Babe Films. Mosca has a lot of faith in the capacities of the film’s international seller, Beta Cinema, which is taking A Quiet Life to the American Film Market, which opens tomorrow.

So it sounds like this might be one that actually gets an international release at some point in the future.

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Close Encounters of the Sergio Corbucci kind…

Here’s an interesting bit of information I’d never come across before.  During the filming of Companeros, Sergio Corbucci claims to have seen a flying saucer!  Here’s a translated interview with the director from c1983:

Interviewer: Meanwhile, here’s another testimony, that of Sergio Corbucci, a director who glimpsed a UFO years ago.  How did this happen?

Corbucci: Oh yes … we were filming a movie during the end of the day in the sunset, we were doing a close-up of an actor Volodymyr Palahniuk, i.e. Jack Palance, and I looked up into the sky behind him and saw a strange object.  It wasn’t just me, but all the crew, a strange inverted bell like a top with big, big balloons, transparent, it was in the sky and swaying, almost still a lot of time…  so we shot this thing and so we thought it was just a strange thing, then whne we returned to Madrid in the evening and reported it to the officials, we heard of similar reports, and some people had taken similar photographs….

Interviewer: Ok, here we see the image that was shot by the Corbucci’s cameraman

Corbucci: Here, this is the object exactly as you see, a kind of inverted bell that has these big balls, and I figure that this had to be about at least two or perhaps three thousand metres away, maybe more, but if it was even further away it would be as big as aircraft carriers.  The strange thing, you see, is that these are the same ones that were seen in Madrid,

Interviewer: And this isn’t the original document, what happened?

Corbucci: Well, returning to Madrid that evening I was approached by some…

Interviewer: We were told officials

Corbucci: Perhaps officials.  In short, the U.S. embassy staff asked me if they could see the original material that was in the lab, I agreed.  It was laboratory material, but I made a copy of everything and then I gave them the original

Interviewer: Which disappeared, ufologists say that now it’s maybe in Washington in some top secret place.

Corbucci: So the strange thing, perhaps more than anything else, is that then the next day I saw another thing … we were going to move to another location the next day, about 250 km away… we were all talking about what the papers were saying when we arrived to work at  Cuerca, and again we saw the same object, but unfortunately this time we didn’t have the camera because we were still waiting for it to arrive…and this object was approached by military aircraft… it stayed a long time, then disappeared…

Apparently the story was confirmed by Christian De Sica (was Christian De Sica anything to do with Companeros???)

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Spaghetti Westerns ride off into the sunset…

Here’s an article about Spaghetti Westerns I’ve just translated from an old issue of La Stampa, back in December 1966.  [Translating this was a sod, so don't take it as gospel, it's far from 100% accurate!]

Bad news for lovers of the Spaghetti Western, which has proved unable to replace the Amercian western and, after a moment of great and unexpected success, has suffered a scary decline. In 1964, one of the the two films to take more than two billion was Per un pugno di dollari, the film that started the genre,  by Sergio Leone. In the following year, the only film to make that figure was Per qualche dollaro in piu), which took a billion in less than sixty days.

Among the four to reach one billion were Un dollaro bucato and Il ritorno di Ringo. The few dollars of investment were transformed into large figures at the  box office, they had deep and rapid success.  But here, summing up, il Giornale dello Spettacolo announces: “The rapid decline of the western.” The selection on the part of the the public, it continues,  has begun earlier than expected, leaving big questions for producers of commercial films. If the western ends, it’s narrows their ark of success. So the  short western season was euphoric and is ending unexpectedly. And certainly it’s true that directors who had been involved – such as Tinto Brass, Lizzani,  Vancini have all moved on, while Duccio Tessari, who along with Leone initiated the succesful formula, has tried his hand at satire with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and is even starting work on an Italian musical.

There are many reasons for this decline which neither Lizzani nor Vancini can halt, even if the former tries to make use of actors such as Pier Paolo  Pasolini and Lou Castel, the intelligent actor from Pugni in tasca, and intends that his Recquiescant is about “something of a modern Don Quixote, a knight  of ideals but at the same time determined and aggressive.” The basic reason is the confounding need for innovation – understood in its true meaning – and  fashion, which corresponds to the particular predisposition of the public at any time, whether it be good or bad taste. To be fashionable often accompanies  the passing of a former fashion (and this is true of cinema, things pass, then come back into vogue from time to time with modifications).

It seems that the people behind the boom, when questioned by a weekly in Milan, aren’t able to give satisfactory answers or to have critically examined the  reasons for the success of “a product that had been exclusive to Hollywood but instead was miraculously revived in Italy”. Duccio Tessari, the most  thoughtful of the filmmakers, says; “in short, we play a bit with the western formula and people have more fun.” Tessari acknowledges that the violence is  often overdone, and notes that while writing the screenplay of Per un pugno di dollari he and Leone would joke about “killing another five, no, three were  enough!” In the first Ringo there are seventy eight deaths, in the second it’s in the nineties.

The writer Luciano Vincenzoi talks about meeting Leone. When asked what he liked most about the good westerns, he said: “the final duels. So the director  suggested that I put together a film that highlighted such scenes, twenty points of maximum tension coming from the very first shots. The model isn’t so  much the old westerns, where such scenes were infrequent and generally towards the climax, but Bond. In Bond, out of sixty scenes at least fifty involve  some kind of suspense. The original westerns were too watered down.”

So in this violence and suspense, do we also find sadism? Sergio Corbucci recognizes that these are truly stories of perversion, they contain everything:  savage cruelty, necrophilia, drugs. “We even kill children!” Tessari replies: “Violence is what you want, not sadism, as this would be far too serious, we  wink at the audience. It’s the same game played by matadors, who sometimes resort to farce. And I think even the most bloody scenes are funny.”

Like Tessari, Vincenzoni insists there is violence, but it’s also satire of violence. But what is this satire, is it real or imagined? And does not the  violence have the upper hand? If it is true, as is pointed out by Leone, that the old westerns lacked historical perspective, and that the spaghetti  westerns have critical depth at their heart, that the films are also produced with serious intent?

To such questions, the best response is as one of those viewers who responding to a debate between directors of westerns all’Italiana hosted by a periodical,  wrote that the westerns, and in particular Per un pugno di dollari, will not go down in history. Since then, there have been many westerns all’italiana, and  their success has given wings of courage to those involved to expand their decalarations. Their boasts of their differences to Hollywood westerns, continues  this writer, is merely a claculation of numbers of killings, a spririt of violence. Is it fashion?

As Corbucci himself says: “Now I can’t think of any more ways to kill people I just hope it all ends soon, at first I enjoyed them, but after having made  four of these films my initial curiosity has passed, I don’t enjoy it any more.” And it’s no more fun for the public who watch them.  And yet an answer to the decline of western autarkic Be ‘is right in the debate alluded to. Now – is Corbucci speaking – we no longer know how to kill  people, forced to seek the applause: there remains to be invented? “I just hope it ends soon: at first the thing I enjoyed, but after having made four films  in this genre, the initial curiosity has passed, I enjoy it more. ” The public is not more fun to see them.

I guess the interesting thing is that even in 1966 people were saying the genre was coming to an end, whereas in fact it would continue in reasonable health for another three years, stutter, and then revive in the early 70s.

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