February 6, 2012

Son of the Red Corsair (1959 film)

Directed by Primo Zeglio. Written by Fede Arnaud, Alberto Liberati, and Primo Zeglio. Based on the novel by Emilio Salgari

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Here I was all set to open this review by talking about how great of a lead Lex Barker is. As Count Enrico di Ventimiglia, son of the long dead Red Pirate, he cuts a tall, dashing figure with a sharp gaze and a charming grin. Famous for playing Tarzan, he has a solid physicality that drives the action forward when he's flashing a blade or swinging on a rope, but he also has a touch of class that wears the frills and buckles of 17th century aristocracy quite well. This is a man of lineage, but who devotes himself to going to sea with the men under his rule and fighting alongside them. When he needs to be prim and proper, he is, and when he needs to get down and dirty, watch out. Barker is a great adventure leading man, a chiseled charmer who gets the girl, foils his foes, and wins vengeance for his betrayed father. I'd recommend the film for his performance alone... but now I read this was shortly after he allegedly spent three years raping the young daughter of his then wife, Lana Turner. It doesn't undo the great work he does on screen, but it sure dampens my enjoyment of the sight of him quite a bit.

So why don't we instead talk about the leading lady, Sylvia Lopez as Carmen di Montelimar. The sister-in-law of the local Marquis (Fanfulla), she finds herself in the midst of not one, but two family dramas. First, there's the mysterious man, Count Ventimiglia, who showed her and her shipmates kindness and respect after sacking her vessel to catch a single traitorous man. He's intriguing, he charms her time and again, yet realistic doubts arise as evidence is planted that makes him seem to be the culprit behind crimes committed against her. To her credit, she doesn't give into her passions and trust him with a swoon - she stands up to him and even turns on him at a major point, following the evidence until its validity can be disproved. Secondly, she's dealing with her brother, Miguel (Luciano Marin), a captain of the guard whose smitten with and wants to marry her handmaiden, Neala (Vira Silenti), who is then kidnapped by the Marquis who wants to marry the girl himself because she's secretly the heir to the throne and treasures of one of the native kingdoms. Oh, and she's the long-lost half-sister of Count Ventimiglia, which brings all the pieces together. There a lot of plot here, but Carmen takes it all in a firm stride, trusting her own intelligence and instinct, and never giving in to the cheap plotting of easy emotions. She meets the love of her life, but heaven help him when he looks guilty of kidnapping her friend. She's captured and tortured by the Marquis, but she never gives into his flogging and fights back until the very end. Sylvia Lopez is wonderful, and even if Rex Smith makes your stomach turn, it's worth watching for the charm of her... oh, Sylvia Lopez had leukemia at the time this was shot and died less than half a year later? Geez, this film can't catch a break. You know what, though? It's still worth it as a legacy role for Lopez as she really does do a fine job. Even though I now wish she'd bit Lex Barker's tongue off every time he slipped it in her mouth.

So. We've got two leads who anchor a wonderful film, but each brings with them the baggage of hindsight: one for what he did leading up to this, the other for her fate soon after. How does the rest of the film hold up? Surprisingly well. To start with the weaknesses, this film is very blandly and cheaply shot. The costumes and sets are nice and lush - likely stock pieces already lying around the Cinecitta lot from more elaborate productions - but no matter now lovely the scenery on display, it's shot at very stiff, basic angles that flatten it out and fail to capture much of the energy we're getting from the script, the actors, the music... pretty much every other aspect of the film. Especially the music. Oh, the music. Rollicking and exciting and melodic. Great adventure stuff. But I digress. One of the problems with evaluating the cinematography is it was shot in 2.35, but the only copy available - a very basic and grainy DV-R from Something Weird * - is a 4:3 pan & scan transfer, with several shots where a visible scan shows the original full width of the frame. That said, I stand by my criticism that it feels very cheap, with each of the main sword fights being little more than a single shot with maybe a few feet of tracking, which takes all the half decent choreography and doesn't do anything to accentuate it. And in the opening pirate ship battle, all we see are the decks of the two ships, never at the same time (likely the same set dressed twice) and a mere two brief stock shots of boats on the water to try to give us scale. It doesn't work. It's not cinematic, instead feeling little more than a televised stage play. There's a couple moments where we're out on real mountain roads with galloping horses or a nice moment where we push into a ballroom filled with puffy gowns and powdered wigs, and it must be pointed out that all of the scenes are very well staged, but the way things are filmed is painfully basic and mediocre.

[* This isn't a knock against Something Weird as it's likely the best version that's available out there for them to use, and their print-on-demand release is fitting, appreciated, and recommended.]

The other major problem is that this is a really damn convoluted story. Ventimiglia needs to find the Marquis' henchman so he can find the Marquis so he can find his sister. The sister is in love with her mistress' brother, but is kidnapped by her mistress' brother-in-law, who killed the hero's father and who's sister-in-law - we're back to the mistress - is now the love interest of Ventimiglia. There's so many twists and turns and false identities and manipulations and betrayals and bonds and rescues and kidnappings... oh, and there's that looming group of native delegates who want to make the sister their queen even though she doesn't know her mother was herself a queen, who married a pirate, who was killed by the mistress' brother-in-law.

See what I mean?

And then we get to the supporting roles. In my review of the book, you'll see I mentioned that most of the story was stolen by Count Ventimiglia's right-hand-man Mendoza and a castle guard named Don Barrejo who later joins their ranks. The third member of their bunch, Don Hercules, has been dropped from this adaptation, but Mendoza and Barrejo are present and accounted for, and Saro Urzi and Roberto Paoletti do equally admirable jobs bringing their roles to life. This Mendoza is a little too plump to convince in the middle of a sword fight, but he's got a strong pair of hitting hands, a dependable gleam in his eyes, and a great delivery that always sells his one-liners. There's even a fantastic scene where he and the Count corner an evil aristocrat and, while the Count goes into interrogation mode, Mendoza knocks off the man's wig, then pulls out a knife, casually cutting off one lock of the man's real hair after another, until he finally grabs the man's ear and readies it for the next slice. Paoletti's Barrejo, as in the book, is an unassuming walk-on role at first, but then we see his boisterous energy and skill with a blade, best demonstrated when he charms his dance hall lover while cleaning her establishment of drunken snobs, one blade whack or comical spill at a time. The chemistry between these two is wonderful, and while I'm a little bummed their screen time is limited, I'm not complaining because they're now servicing the plot of Ventimiglia instead of shoving it in the shadows while they steal the spotlight for a routine.

Comparing the film even more to the book, it's quite fascinating how faithful of an adaptation this is at times, how loose at others. The climax is mostly original, with other parts from the book picked out and rearranged to the point where the centerpiece of the novel is now the film's opening and the novel's opening is now the film's centerpiece. As convoluted as I mentioned the plot to be, it's actually far more involving than the book, keeping the focus on the Count instead of his men, and while the book was plotted with broad incidental strokes, this is more of an intricate web. Things feel far richer in this take, far more captivating and interesting. There's deeper connections to these people which give their choices and the consequences far more weight than the fun but ultimately light swashbuckling of the novel. Also, much of the book's troubling ethical grey zone is no longer present. The people the Count is fighting against truly are despicable, traitorous foes who betrayed his father instead of merely condemning him for legitimate crimes. The reality of piracy is shown as mercenaries the Count is forced to hire attempt to rape and pillage against his orders, with the Count holding himself and his crew to a higher, more noble standard, and stepping between the traditional pirates and their would be victims. This is a man who isn't wicked or destructive. He's taking risks and breaking the law, but never to a point of going against his conscience. And other than the assault on the ship in the opening, he doesn't sack entire populations to get his way. His gang is much smaller than in the book, operating more through tricks, stealth, and assumed identities than sheer overwhelming force. The only other place they attack as a group is the Marquis' evil fortress of insidious doom and torture implements for the big finale, and it's hard to feel bad about any losses that came as a result there.

I went into this film not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's not a lost classic, but it is a clever, intelligent, exciting film that, despite some weak photography and moments of confusion, is filled with energy, colorful characters, and a complex web of relationships. It's funny, it's dramatic, it's romantic, it's sweeping. It takes a flawed but rousing book and turns it into an equally rousing and a bit less flawed movie, and I really recommend tracking it down, especially for old swashbuckler fans. And don't let the English dub of the only available version hold you back, because all of the uncredited voice actors gave it their all with personality and distinction, and the adapted dialogue, credited to a Polly Stevens, is sharp, witty, and absolutely nails the energy of the rest of the film.

Now if only I weren't still lingering on the alleged off screen acts of Lex Barker who, if truly guilty, should have had his genitals chewed off and flung back at him by Tarzan's friendly little helper, Cheetah.

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