Monday, December 08, 2008

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN reviewed

Young Lina Leandersson gives a hard-to-shake performance in the exciting new Swedish horror film LET THE RIGHT ONE IN.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN [Låt den rätte komma in, 2008] is a new Swedish horror film of many distinctions, one of them being that it was based on a Swedish horror novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. The writer, whose book has been translated into English, reportedly moonlights or daylights as a stand-up comic and his writing would seem to confirm the theory that every comedian is a closet tragedian.
Directed and edited by Tomas Alfredson, the movie works best if you approach it (as I did) knowing absolutely nothing about it, which makes it seem an effort of conscious destruction just to write about it, so I'm going to do my readers the favor of being elliptical. Suffice to say that it's a film about a childhood relationship between two twelve-year-olds, Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and his neighbor Eli (Lina Leandersson), in which the two young actors succeed in giving psychologically rich performances that are so unusual, so refreshing within genre boundaries, that they feel almost immediately iconic. The strangeness immediately evident in their relationship turns out to have a supernatural cause and the film, rather than becoming a pure exercise in horror and shock and revulsion, becomes a tragic essay on the theme of amour fou and how love can make even monsters sympathetic and their most horrible traits forgivable. The curious title shared by the book and film refers to the discretion we should exercise in inviting new people into our lives and is derived from a song by Morrissey:
Let the right one in
Let the old dreams die
Let the wrong ones go
They cannot they cannot they cannot do
What you want them to do

Let the right one in
Let the old dreams die
Let the wrong ones go
They do not they do not they do not see
What you want them to

Let the right one in
Let the old things fade
Put the tricks and schemes (for good) away
I will advise until my mouth dries
I will advise you to

Let the right one slip in slip in slip in
And when at last it does
I'd say you were within your rights to bite
The right one and say, "What kept you so long?"
What kept you so long?

The movie isn't perfect (there's a scene involving CGI cats that goes a bit over the top), but despite one or two missteps, time may well prove it great. It's certainly rare for a horror film to be this emotionally moving and perversely enchanting; it's very likely to at least cross the minds of many audience members that Eli would have been a cool girlfriend to have at this age, despite her problems and the way one's proximity to her would complicate one's adolescence. The scene of Oskar and Eli's second embrace, when she enters his apartment uninvited, is actually heartbreaking in the way it underscores the mutual self-sacrifice each of them is making by reaching out to one another.

Eli (Leandersson) seeks temporary shelter in the bed of her misfit friend Oskar (Käre Hedebrant).

Those who, like me, are feeling alienated by the current direction of horror cinema will find this film reason to hope that the pendulum is finally swinging back to work that's more subtle, captivating and thought-provoking. There are scenes of remarkably subtle, Lewtonian horror (one of which specifically alludes to THE LEOPARD MAN) as well as some graphic moments graced with elements of poetry and, for those with the acuity of vision to grasp them, subliminal glimpses of Eli's real face. Also worthy of praise is the scenic yet cerebral 2.35:1 cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema, which captures nearly every set-up with a bisecting line, an off-kilter visual rhyme of the side-by-side arrangement of the neighbors' two rooms, or some geometric pattern that harkens back to the Rubik's Cube that initiates their contact.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is now in US theatrical release from Magnet Releasing. Don't wait for the US remake -- and yes, I understand those rights have been unimaginatively acquired, so the American branch of the genre is by no means out of the woods yet. I'm hopeful that Lindqvist, Alfredson and Co. will be able to resist the temptation to prepare a sequel, as it's a great pleasure simply to daydream about the stories these characters will likely share in the days, weeks and years following the invigoratingly open-ended closing shot.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fearwell to 4SJ

The Watchdog meets the Ackermonster, 1993.

The news was expected, but I was very sorry to learn that Forrest J Ackerman passed away last night, mere days after his 92nd birthday, and mere minutes before December 4th became December 5th -- the sort of detail I believe would have intrigued him, if he were writing this.
He and I had a modest personal history: I wrote to him for the first time (affectionately) in the pages of Dennis Daniel's book THE FAMOUS MONSTERS CHRONICLES, met him a couple of times at Fanex, was a personal guest at his Ackermansion on a day it was officially closed to the public, and even held hands with him for what seemed like a couple of minutes as Eric Hoffman struggled with my camera to nail this wonderful shot of he and I and his METROPOLIS robotrix all shaking hands together. There were times in my childhood that he seemed like one of the most important people in the world, and he certainly played a major role in the shaping of mine.
It's a natural feeling for those of us whose lives were changed by our introduction to Forry's Warren publications FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, MONSTER WORLD and SPACEMEN to feel as though part of our childhood has died, but you can't close a door that was blasted off its hinges. He made that kind of a difference. Admittedly, he was a controversial figure, beloved by hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) and disliked by others, some of whom had comparably outsized egos or perhaps felt they better deserved to inhabit his place in the epicenter of horror and sf fandom. I'd like to think that a biography will come forth someday that, in the right hands (they will NOT be mine), will show how much in the dark both sides of the argument really dwell. There seems to be very little middleground of opinion where 4SJ was concerned, but I suppose I inhabit it; I spent enough time with, or around, him to see and understand him from both perspectives. I know people who were personally upset and/or offended by things he did, but I don't think there's any question that he did more good, for more people, in his near-century among us than ill. He changed countless lives -- his activities surely helped to increase the production of horror and science fiction film genres in the 1960s, one of their most fertile and rewarding decades -- and, as I've said here and elsewhere before, his example defined the way I've been able to earn my living for almost twenty years.

There is a lot more to say about Forry, but I prefer to pay him the balance of my respects in VIDEO WATCHDOG #146 (our special "JAWS vs. APE" issue -- NOT!) , which I'll be writing tomorrow. Until then, you may find interesting this article, written by Forry in 2003, in contemplation of his own imminent mortality, which someone called "soundstage28" has thoughtfully posted on the Classic Horror Film Boards. It's the eighth posting from the top.

No Blossom on the Trees

Winter's not supposed to start until sometime in January, but the temperature here in Cincinnati tonight is in the teens, so I say it's here ahead of schedule. And I can't think of a more timely reason to recommend you check out this YouTube video of Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man performing "Funny Time of Year" in Nyon, Switzerland on July 26, 2003.

Though nearly ten minutes in length, it's one of the most gripping live performances I've had the pleasure of discovering at YouTube. Unfortunately OUT OF SEASON (Beth's superb album with Rustin Man) didn't attract the same level of attention as her Portishead albums, and consequently I don't think this particular show (in a tent!) has gone down in rock history, but -- my God! -- it deserves to. I'd stack this number up against most of the performances in MONTEREY POP or WOODSTOCK. That's Beth's Portishead mate Adrian Utley shredding it up on lead guitar.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"You Can't Buy A Ticket To See This Movie!"

... So teased the posters for THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! at the time of its 1968 release, and the ballyhoo has somehow adhered as prophecy. This well-crafted horror sleeper has become one of the most difficult to see of its era, though a number of its lesser fellow releases from The Fanfare Corporation -- like SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES and WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS -- have surfaced on DVD in recent years. Last week, I had the good fortune to see it again on DVD-R, for the first time since the early 1970s, when a cut version of this film "Suggested for Mature Audiences" ran on local television.
It stars Jack Lord, Susan Strasberg, Collin Wilcox (so memorable as Thedy in THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR's "The Jar"), Tisha Sterling and T.C. Jones (HITCHCOCK HOUR's "An Unlocked Window") -- and it probably works best if you have no idea who T.C. Jones is (or was; the actor died in 1971). The director was Gunnar Hellstrom, a Swedish expatriate who worked primarily in television (his 1967 WILD WILD WEST episode "The Night of the Running Death" also featured T.C. Jones), and the twisted screenplay was the best effort of Gary Crutcher, author of the subsequent snake melodrama STANLEY and the Joyce Jillson jigglethon SUPERCHICK.

Reviewing THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! for CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Joe Dante reported that the film contained "moments of Bava-like brilliance," and indeed it does. The film is obviously the work of a craftsman with a feeling for the genre, and it's regrettable that Hellstrom never made another horror picture. The only circulating copy of the film originated from a dim and faded 16mm print, so it's impossible to determine what cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was able to achieve with its color, but Hellstrom and art director Ray Markham adorn the story with subtle and decorative scares and a deliberately unsettling mise en scène cluttered with psychologically resonant geegaws like broken dolls. The story involves Lord, playing a Hungarian emigré hitchhiker in the American West, who has the good fortune to be rescued by a beautiful savior (Strasberg), who takes him to the secluded home that she shares with her mother and an older and younger sister, all very strange and unpredicatable women. Their home also maintains a roadside display of rattlesnakes and tarantulas -- Sterling's beloved pets -- which marks the picture as the missing link between Jack Hill's SPIDER BABY and Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. The family name here is Terry, a soundalike to the Merrye family of SPIDER BABY.

What unfolds once Lord gets to the house, where the various daughters proceed to fight over the right to mate with him by circulating disinformation about one another, is what came to be known for awhile as a "horror of personality" film (a term coined by Charles Derry's 1977 book DARK DREAMS: A PSYCHOLOGICAL HISTORY OF THE MODERN HORROR FILM [A.S. Barnes & Co., 1977]), but which is now termed "psychological horror." Strasberg as Tracey, to whom Lord is most drawn, is said to be a nymphomaniac with a history of violent break-ups; the plainish Willcox as Diz ("Diz N. Terry," perhaps?) is initially hostile to Lord but soon reveals herself to be very attracted and perhaps the most sexually experienced of the group; Sterling as Nan is the youngest and comports herself like Jill Banner's Virginia in SPIDER BABY, doting on a tarantula and acting like a child, unconscious of her own sexuality yet expert at deploying it to achieve her own ends. (In one of the film's most peculiar moments, a miniskirted Sterling dances provocatively to the psychedelic caterwaul of "Shadows," a forgotten song by The Electric Prunes ["I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night"]). The mother (Jones) is seemingly the most normal of the bunch... until we learn that she may have murdered her own husband, an act of extreme violence that drove her and her daughters to this secluded outpost. Everyone gets their own soliloquy, occasionally stopping the story's progress cold but at the same time deepening it and further disorienting the viewer, who receives so many alternate backstories that it's impossible to get one's bearings. The possibilities simply turn stranger and stranger until the film reaches a point where the volatile mixture cannot help but explode.

The film ends with a tantalizing freeze-frame of Susan Strasberg, chilling in its beauty, and in the days since I've seen the movie again, what I've most carried away from it is a greater appreciation of what this neglected actress brought to the cult cinema of the 1960s. The daughter of legendary Actor's Theater coach Lee Strasberg, Susan made this film when she was 30 -- thirteen years down the road from her Tony-nominated stage debut in the title role of the original 1955 production of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. (She had done some even earlier small roles in live television drama like GOODYEAR TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE and GENERAL ELECTRIC THEATER.) She worked on the stage, in television, starred in Hammer's psychological horror gem TASTE OF FEAR (aka SCREAM OF FEAR), and spent time making films in Italy before she returned to the States.
In 1965, she married the hot young actor Christopher Jones and, with him, signed a short-term contract with American International Pictures. It was under AIP's auspices that Strasberg made Roger Corman's THE TRIP (in which she is a compelling but almost incidental ingredient as Fonda's ex-wife) and Richard Rush's PSYCH-OUT, in which she played a deaf-mute searching the Haight-Ashbury scene for her lost brother. No one ever has control over what they'll be best remembered for, and one doubts that Strasberg knew while making PSYCH-OUT that she was giving what would arguably become her signature screen performance. After making CHURUBUSCO with Jones, they divorced. Neither she nor Jones went on to fulfill the promise expressed by the performances they gave at AIP, but Strasberg continued to make her presence known in horror and exploitation films. She was featured in episodes of NIGHT GALLERY and THE EVIL TOUCH, and features like SO EVIL MY SISTER, THE LEGEND OF HILLBILLY JOHN and BLOODY BIRTHDAY. And let us not forget (though she'd probably wish us to) she also gave birth to THE MANITOU.

By the time she had reached 30, Strasberg had transformed from the vaguely elfin ingenue of her earliest work, and the prematurely matured star of SCREAM OF FEAR, into a beauty whose sexiness was rooted in an unusual combination of silken good looks, sobriety and confidence. She was the opposite of what passed for sexy at the time, closer to the epicenter of what passes for sexy when one considers The Big Picture. There was something about her that made her better casting as the ex-wife than the wife, and perhaps better still as disillusioned, defensive loners. She made us want to reach out to her, despite the likelihood that our hand would be slapped away, at least initially. Her later career, heavy in guest spots on interchangeable TV shows about doctors and lawyers, emphasizes the trouble she encountered in finding a niche onscreen -- and, as much as I like her and have strived to make sense of her persona, I'm finding it difficult to write about her. Nevertheless, it's a tribute to her work in THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! that I finally got serious about wanting to know her better, and promptly ordered used copies of her two works of biography -- BITTERSWEET and MARILYN AND ME -- to spend some time inside her head. All that I know now, in my heart of hearts, is that Susan Strasberg mattered -- if only for the vaguely absurd reason that I now find it impossible to hear anything by the Strawberry Alarm Clock without being reminded of her and moved by the memory. She died of breast cancer in early 1999 at the much-too-young age of 60, only a few titles shy of 100 different movie and TV credits.
Bootleg copies of THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! do circulate online. Google the title and you're certain to find one or two sources.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Here's To A Happy Thanksgiving!

That's the newly slenderized me, toasting you in a photo taken last weekend at the WonderFest Reunion, an informal gathering of friends who enjoy each other's company, choice liquid refreshment, and the best sushi in the world. (Sapporo in Bardstown, Kentucky -- and it's not just me who says this; I also have it on the authority of sushi lovers from New York and Los Angeles and places in between, and I can personally attest to its superiority to what you can find in Toronto and San Francisco.)

Not that I would report it here, but I have no idea what I weigh at the moment. I stopped weighing myself because my weight loss seemed to hit a wall after I'd lost about 30 pounds, as my swimming regime started adding more muscle to my frame. It was discouraging to see the number on the scale staying the same, or sometimes going up a bit, so now I focus on those happy results that can be seen or measured -- for instance, I've gone down six notches on the belt I wore last summer. It was startling, in a nice way, to see myself in the reunion hotel's full-length mirrors, where I saw my former pear shape replaced by a midsection that goes pretty much straight up and down. Whatever I may weigh, it's my best weight in, I'm guessing, the past 20 years, and I'm in better physical condition now than I've been for most of my adult life. We haven't been back to the pool since we've been home (we're going back tomorrow), so I've been substituting a daily uphill mile walk on the treadmill and 100 abdominal crunches with a 40-pound weight, along with a few other exercises on the home gym.

I should apologize for not being here very often lately. Life is in the fast, interesting and sometimes stressful lane. We're far behind schedule on the next issue and will be jumping into another immediately after finishing. I'm taking a break from my work on the ME AND THE ORGONE screenplay to work on two outside writing projects, originally due in December but now due in January: a short story (that's turning into a novella) for an anthology of fiction based on the music of Nick Cave and a contribution to Filippo Brunamonti's forthcoming book about my dear friend Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni. My personal correspondence has also lately taken big chunks out of my days. There's so much to juggle that there's next to no time to do anything else, and to be honest, writing about movies has become something I only do when I absolutely have to do it. But I expect Video WatchBlog will be hosting another survey of VW's Favorite DVDs of the Year, which will probably start posting on December 15th, and you'll certainly see some other activity here before then.

In many ways, this has been the most amazing and transformative year of my life, and I have much to be thankful for, today: another blessed year with my adored and loving partner, and the unforgettable week in Los Angeles we shared; my core group of friends, mentors, muses and confessors; a new approach to living which has led to a renewed sense of inspiration, the production of good work, and an awareness of exciting things still ahead. I'm also thankful for the popular and critical success of the Bava book, for the awards it has won, for having finally made human contact with the Bava family by meeting Lamberto last month, for VW's ever-dependable roster of contributors, and for the millionth hit and visit to this blog!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Two Announcements

Donna has asked me to announce that we are currently offering a Holiday Discount on all of our products and services at http://www.videowatchdog.com/. Just click on the link on our home page, and you'll be led to a special code that will help you save 10% on your next order of $20 or more. That's almost $30 off the cost of the Bava book alone!

Secondly, by popular demand (truly), we have finally launched a VW CafePress store at www.cafepress.com/videowatchdog. Some of you have been pleading with us for years to reissue our classic design black VW T-shirt, and it's finally available again, along with some other designs and a plethora of other VW logo products (including coffee mugs!), as well as some items bearing Charlie Largent's "Mask of Satan" design from the binding cover of the Bava book. Even more "Mask" items will be added to the page sometime next week! A nice place to do some one-stop-shopping for that hard-to-please VIDEO WATCHDOG reader in your life.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How The West Was Reviewed, plus Quantum Notes

My "NoZone" review of HOW THE WEST WAS WON, featured in the December 2008 issue of SIGHT & SOUND (pictured), is now up on their website here. Furthermore, Kim Newman has a superb review of QUANTUM OF SOLACE in this issue, but you'll have to buy the magazine -- or at least rifle its pages on the newsstand -- to read it.

I saw QUANTUM OF SOLACE myself this week and agree with the general condemnation of the opening action sequence, which is so chaotically shot and edited that it's impossible to really tell much of what's going on or feel any of the consequences. I did notice that it was shot around a road tunnel location that features prominently in Mario Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK. Of course, feeling (or rather not feeling) is one of the movie's big themes, so it's possible that emotional disconnection is what director Marc Forster was going for here, but that doesn't excuse bad filmmaking. Basically, if an action sequence already has ten or more different things happening, often half of that number in frame at any given time, its success is reliant on the audacity of its staging, on mise en scène, and not on hopped-up, Avid-happy editing. The sequence looks well-planned, just poorly executed -- the stunt people must have been particularly pissed to see how the risks they took were glossed over by fashionably overdriven editing technology. Follow that with a dullish main titles sequence (not by Daniel Kleinman) and a Jack White theme song ("Another Way To Die") that's... um, not bad on its own terms, just inappropriate and unmemorable, and QUANTUM OF SOLACE is basically a lame horse before it has a chance to get out the gate.


Daniel Craig protects Olga Kurylenko in one of the better scenes from QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

But it gets better. The sequence in the opera house I found impressive, both in its staging and in its absolutely coked-out, numbed-up state of abstraction, but also because it gives this rather stripped-down adventure an opportunity to showcase some of the worldly opulence that defines what a Bond film is, or at least should be. Daniel Craig is a compelling Bond once again, though Bond himself doesn't continue to evolve in this continuation of the CASINO ROYALE storyline; in a sense, QOS betrays the final shot of the previous film by putting Bond back on the faster-and-furiouser "how 007 became such a hardass" track. I was impressed by leading lady Olga Kurylenko (who incidentally was the vampire lady from PARIS, JE T'AIME featured on the cover of VIDEO WATCHDOG #144), all the moreso because she's the first Bond girl who isn't treated as a Madonna or a whore (or at least a disposable luxury item); he can see that she's damaged goods like he is, and doesn't take undue advantage. The films have come a long way from women with names like Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead, and as Daniel Craig's Bond develops, it will be interesting to see what genus this series replaces them with. (Actually, there is a character here who's named on the cast list as Strawberry Fields, but she insists on being called "just Fields." Even so, Strawberry Fields isn't quite the same as calling her, say, Tempest Geespot; it actually harkens back to the Sergeant Pepper who worked at Scotland Yard in the Edgar Wallace krimis of the late 1960s, a proper if unintended tip of the hat to a film series that helped inspire this one.) Mathieu Amalric gives an interesting performance as the villain, but I've grown tired of his kind: the scrawny, decadent, greedy entrepreneurs who engineer outrageously contrived plots to garner them more worldly power than their apparent billions can provide. This kind of greed may be true to post-Gordon Gecko capitalism, but Bond villains should be larger than life and their plans should build to grandiose coups de theâtre, not bigger and more corrupt business deals. The movie strikes a genuine frisson with a passing visual reference to GOLDFINGER, but as good as it looks, as tragic a note as it strikes, it doesn't quite stand up to scrutiny; it's one of those ideas that is almost good enough to work but, almost immediately, shows a bankrupt brain trust raiding the franchise's jukebox for greatest hits. (I'll take advantage of that music analogy to add that I admired David Arnold's score, among his best and most original work for the series.)

I guess what I'm saying is that they should have saved this image for a proper remake of GOLDFINGER -- and I hate to say this, folks, but Fleming only wrote so many books and, if Barbara Broccoli and company are desperate enough to call their latest blockbuster QUANTUM OF SOLACE, remakes are inevitable. But look on the bright side: they might consider being faithful to the books the second time around. It worked for CASINO ROYALE.

PS: On a different topic, I want to send positive thoughts to my favorite living novelist, J.G. Ballard, on the occasion of his 78th birthday. His most recent volume of autobiography, MIRACLES OF LIFE, confessed that he is now living with advanced prostate cancer and I hope the day is at least passing comfortably.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Starting Our Second Million


This is the 795th posting here at Video WatchBlog, and I'm making it to proudly announce that VWb has just logged its one millionth visit -- and it only took us (us? YOU!) three years, one month and twelve days! Our millionth visitor, hailing from Denver, Colorado, logged in at exactly 7:44:01 pm. Maybe it was you!
Earlier this year, on February 22, I noted our one millionth hit, or page visit, but this is a different sort of milestone. Hits are a page count, driven up when the people who come to Video WatchBlog are curious enough to browse through its back pages (as I encourage everyone to do); the visits, on the other hand, are a head count of the folks who have come here to see what's new. I'm thankful to and appreciative of both varieties. I'm just happy that so many of you continue to come here on a regular basis -- something I'm still only aspiring to do.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

VW 145 On Newsstands Now

I've been tardy about mentioning this, but there is a new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG on newsstands now. A couple of correspondents have given us some good-natured ribbing about Rob Zombie's placement on the cover, but I make no apologies: if we can grab someone's attention with Shane Dallmann's attentive coverage of the Zombie oeuvre, or with Eric Somer's reviews of Greg McLean's WOLF CREEK and ROGUE, and thereby introduce them to the work of Georges Méliès and the wider world of fantastic cinema beyond, then we're doing our job. And even though Zombie's work is considered "alternative" and "extreme" by the real world, I daresay this is probably the most subversive and revelatory issue of anything that's catered to Zombie's following. For instance, this issue also boasts what the Swedish distributor of SWEDEN, HEAVEN AND HELL cheerfully calls "an insane amount of coverage" of that film -- and it was apparently enough to freak out at least one former MIDNIGHT MARQUEE reader whose subscription we stepped in to fulfill. So it may not be everyone's cup of Aquavit, but it's sure as hell mine; VW 145 is actually one of my favorites in our 19-year history, so please be daring and seek it out.

For a full rundown of the issue's contents, and a free sample, click here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

It's Ennio's Eightieth

"Now that you've called me by name..."
Enzo Santaniello as Timmy McBain in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.

If I had to trace the exact moment when the full weight of cinema's importance came crashing down on me, I could draw a straight line to that moment in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST when little Timmy McBain comes running down the corridor of his family's farmhouse and stops cold and incomprehending at the sight of his family's slaughter. The bodies remain offscreen as Tonino delli Colli's camera holds tight on his face, but the power of his trauma is conveyed by the long-delayed introduction of music into the film -- Ennio Morricone's music, Alessandro Alessandroni's distorted electric guitar foregrounded against a full orchestra whose rising and falling, mathematical cadence seems to count the last grains of time left to this young orphan's life.
Today, Ennio Morricone -- far and away our greatest living film composer -- marks the 80th anniversary of his birth. He is well aware of the impact and significance and, I believe, unmatchable quality of his Italian Western music, to the extent that it deeply annoys him, so I do not propose to write not much more about it. Instead, I would like to use this occasion to discuss my own lengthy prowl through the Maestro's back catalogue in search of music that, for me, would be capable of rivaling the unforgettable shock of my initial introduction to his work.
There is obviously no shortage of music of the highest quality in Morricone's filmography, found in pictures as well-known as THE MISSION or CINEMA PARADISO, or as beloved as DANGER: DIABOLIK, or as obscure as Veruschka and Meti una sera a cena. He has also written music that has imbued some otherwise tepid films with the very deepest and richest of emotions -- Adrian Lyne's version of LOLITA comes to mind, a film I like primarily because of what Morricone's music does for it. As surely as Morricone coined the musical landscape of the Italian Western, he did the same for the Italian thrillers of the 1970s, beginning with Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, but continuing with his THE CAT O'NINE TAILS (plausibly one of Morricone's Top 10) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, and carrying on with other examples such as WHO SAW HER DIE? (a particularly brilliant session), SPASMO, and the underrated Jean-Paul Belmondo vehicle Peur sur la Ville. I don't think it is possible to say of any other composer short of Bernard Herrmann, but the effect of Ennio Morricone on our understanding of the language available to cinema has truly been incalculable. But the full breadth and depth of that contribution is oh, so tempting to calculate.
Morricone's immensely moving, lyrical and magisterial score for OUATITW is an almost impossible act to follow, and yet he has "followed it" to say the very least. He has, in fact, continued by writing nearly 400 additional scores, with his current IMDb total reaching a staggering and unchallenged 486 film scores to date! His artistic achievement to date is already of such monumental proportion that one almost feels the need of two lifetimes in order to do it justice as a listener and commentator.
I recently posted here about Morricone's soul-stirring pop song "Se telefonando," which comes as close to his own standards of perfection as anything else I've heard -- but it's not film music. It was only within the past year or so that I finally heard something else from Morricone's catalogue that I believe -- in its romanticism, melancholy, majesty and drama -- stands as a true equal to the likes of such outstanding OUATITW tracks as "Jill's America" or "Man with a Harmonica." That cue is "Amore come dolore" ("A Love Like Sorrow"), a haunting 6:10 piece from Luciano Ercoli's 1970 giallo thriller Le foto proibite di una signora per bene. You can find a full rundown on the different issues of this soundtrack album and the various compilations on which its cues have been included here.
Le foto proibite di una signora per bene, which is available on DVD from Blue Underground as THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION, is only a passable giallo but it is one of the genre's greatest soundtrack albums. The music runs the full spectrum, from breathy bossa nova pop to organ-driven discotheque tunes (I can't help feeling that Radley Metzger would have killed to have "Allegreto del Signora" in his CAMILLE 2000) to some of the Maestro's best thriller music: suspenseful tracks that seem to accrue more and more silken spiderwebs and eerie lighting as they slither from beginning to end.
But when the album reaches "Amore come dolore," time stands still. I wish I could play it for you, but the best I can do is direct you to this not-always-work-friendly YouTube trailer for the film, which is mostly scored with the piece in question. Since I can't play the music for you in its entirety, the best I can do is to describe it as best I can:
It opens with a vulnerable, naked-sounding piano signature being tapped out on two notes by a single hand, which gains in complexity when it is joined by another hand playing doublets of three complementary notes, which lend the initial signature greater poignancy. A muted trumpet enters, so softly as to be easily mistaken for one of the deeper woodwinds, carried on a river of strings almost hesitant to veer away from the one or two sustained notes that most concern them -- and with the dawning sound of the muted trumpet, the piece acquires a sense of hopeful momentum as the sound of the strings seems to double, triple, with all the disparate components still searching for proper unity. As the lovely ostinati continues, it finally reaches a point (at 1:20) when electric bass enters to ground everything into a strong and coherent, almost jaunty emotion. At this point, pizzicato strings enter, echoing the initial piano notes, and these are soon doubled on electric piano, brightening the same notes that sounded so sorrowful in their initial solitude. As the piece reaches its halfway point, something happens to undermine the coherence and security of the melody: the piano notes tremble and a snare drum rattles as the orchestral strings stretch and bend, in the manner of wary sighing, over a further repetition of the initial piano signature, abruptly darkening the atmosphere of the piece. Slightly after the four minute point, the composition returns to square one with the piano signature repeated solo, and once again, the introduction of the strings and the muted trumpet bring a measure of hope that sounds more bittersweet in recovery after the middle part's unsettled detour.
Considering the title that Morricone chose to give this composition -- and "Amore come dolore" really has nothing to do with anything in the story of Ercoli's film, suggesting that the piece was either written independently of the film or had some other meaning for its composer -- it may be a musical representation of love found, love threatened or possibly abandoned, but love also recovered as the opening theme is once again recovered from its loneliness by a measure of optimism.
Upon discovering this music, I immediately added the Le foto proibite soundtrack to my iPod (which contains very little other soundtrack music, not even OUATITW), but it was "Amore come dolore" that I continue returning to, even today. I consider it one of Morricone's indisputible masterpieces; at six minutes and change, I find it always takes me on a musical journey as complete and fulfilling as, say, Pink Floyd's "Echoes." It's no surprise that, in the last decade particularly, "Amore come dolore" has become one of Morricone's most anthologized pieces.
I was into my obsession with this track for close to a year before it dawned on me that I didn't really know anything about the movie it was from. When I finally looked up THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION on the IMDb, I was flabbergasted to discover that it was scripted by my friend Ernesto Gastaldi, with whom I've maintained a warm personal correspondence for the past fifteen years. (In fact, Ernesto is interviewed in a featurette included on the Blue Underground disc -- as I happily discovered once I got around to watching it.) I was so pleased for Ernesto -- imagine having Ennio Morricone respond to something you have written with one of his finest pieces of work! -- that I couldn't resist writing to him and telling him how I had fallen under the spell of "Amore come dolore." He didn't remember the piece, so I sent him an mp3 file so that he could experience it for himself. He replied to me: "Wonderful music! I don't remember it as the soundtrack of my movie, [but] that music is perfect by itself."
Indeed it is. The full Le foto proibite soundtrack album, and individual cues from it, are available for download at MSN Music here. Whatever music you choose to ring in this milestone in the Maestro's life, I'm sure you'll join me in wishing Ennio Morricone many more years of health and joyous productivity.