One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 6
By Laurence Lerman
I was reading an article on doubles and doppelcängers in the cinema, highlighting movies like Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique (1991) and a large chunk of Brian De Palma’s filmography (beginning with 1972’s Sisters), and I noted one I wasn’t familiar with—a European production by Italy’s Lucio Fulci that was partially shot at Rome’s renowned Cinecittà Studios, which I wrote about last week.
With dozens of writing and directing credits to his name, Fulci, over one two-year period in the late Sixties, banged out a comedy (Operation Saint Peters, 1967), a spaghetti western (Massacre Time, 1967), a crime thriller (Double Face, 1969) and a historical drama (The Conspiracy of Torture, 1969). Into this mix came the 1969 mystery tale One on Top of the Other, Fulci’s first giallo, that uniquely Italian thriller-horror-mystery genre hybrid he later became strongly identified with (along with such genre stalwarts as Mario Bava and Dario Argento).
Set in San Francisco, One on Top of the Other (also known on these shores by the considerably more lurid title Perversion Story) concerns a not-so-scrupulous doctor (Jean Sorel of Belle du Jour fame) who may be behind the death of his asthmatic wife (lusty genre queen Marisa Mel) in an insurance scam that will set him up for the rest of his increasingly good life. It’s when the good doctor’s dead wife reappears in the form of a blonde-tressed stripper and working gal that things really get tricky…
A not-bad mystery with a satisfying resolution, the Italian import is feathered with a healthy dollop of nudity and erotica set to a seductive San Francisco vibe that’s reminiscent of Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo, the ultimate in doppelgänger films.
As my cinematic stream aimed Italian—and Cinecittà—I decided to sample something from one of the country’s bigger hitters. Allowing for the wave of tension and anger everyone’s going through, I swung for the fences with something even more potentially upsetting than our current reality: Luchino Visconti’s The Damned.
Made the same year as Fulci’s considerably lower-budgeted effort, writer/director Visconti’s The Damned chronicles the downfall of Germany’s Essenbeck family, a wealthy industrialist clan that has begun doing business with the Nazi Party in the early Thirties. (They’re fictionalized stand-ins for the country’s Essen-based Krupp family.) The film opens with a large gathering in the family’s baronial mansion on the night of the 1933 Reichstag fire, and it all goes downhill from there, with two more hours of family backstabbing, murder, suicide, child molestation, incest and—let’s not forget—the rise of the Nazis.
Most of the action is set in a mansion, which despite its sprawling luxuriousness, increasingly feels like a claustrophobic deathtrap. At the film’s center—and away from the residence—is an extended sequence of the infamous “Night of the Long Knives” purge, which is here depicted as an SA officer homosexual orgy ending in a machine-gun massacre.
Serious stuff, yes, but coming from operatic stylist Visconti, it all looks rich, handsome and lascivious, as do stars Dirk Bogarde and Ingrid Thulin.
The decadence of The Damned gave me a hankering for a little bit of the Weimar Republic by a homegrown film and filmmaker who needed only to walk down the street to pick up the flavor. I passed on the era’s most popular actresses in their signature roles—Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box (1929) and Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930)—and decided to lighten up the mood with 1933’s Victor and Victoria.
A German musical comedy written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel (a prolific Jewish filmmaker who worked for some 20 years in Germany until leaving in 1937 when things turned really ugly), Victor and Victoria begat the simultaneously shot French-language version George and Georgette (1934), the 1935 English version First a Girl, a 1957 West German remake and, of course, the beloved 1982 Victor/Victoria and subsequent 1995 stage musical, both directed by Blake Edwards and starring his wife, Julie Andrews.
Schünzel’s Victor and Victoria is a lot of fun, with superstar German actress Renate Müller starring as the lovely Berlin cabaret singer whose circumstances inspire her to pretend to be a man pretending to be a woman. As I grinned at how many sequences in the film were directly lifted by Edwards for his Victor/Victoria (particularly the flavorful musical numbers), I remembered that my wife had told me she’d wanted to check out the 1989 Sylvester Stallone/Kurt Russell buddy-cop movie Tango & Cash, which contains a scene in which Russell disguises himself as a woman—an exotic dancer, no less—to avoid getting busted. Perfect. I could synch up my stream with V and V’s cross-dressing storyline.
We were only about five minutes into Tango & Cash when my wife realized that, oops, she had actually been thinking of 1988’s Tequila Sunrise. Well, they both came out around the same time, they both starred Kurt Russell, they both had “T” in the title—it could happen, I reasoned. So, we zapped Tango & Cash—which is filled with the kind of homophobic cracks that today’s screenwriters wouldn’t be caught dead writing, alongside its frenzied gunfights and chases—and poured ourselves a Tequila (literally and cinematically).
Tequila Sunrise’s “childhood friends on opposite sides of the law” story is tried and true—it probably goes even further back than James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces, an early favorite. This time around, Russell is a Los Angeles police detective, his high school buddy Mel Gibson is a former coke dealer keen to go straight, and Michelle Pfeiffer is the stylish restauranteur who digs them both.
This very cool, very good-looking L.A. neo-noir about a trio of very cool, very good-looking L.A. people was written and directed by Robert Towne and gorgeously shot by Conrad L. Hall. The challenge to the boys’ friendship and the ensuing romantic triangle works better than the film’s law and order angle, which brings co-stars J.T. Walsh and Raul Julia into the fray. What works best are the three leads savoring some of Towne’s most crackling dialogue this side of his screenplay for Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown. (“Just looking at you hurts,” Russell admits to Pfeiffer at one sexy juncture.)
Well, my wife liked Tequila Sunrise.
The same battling buddies theme—and one that has a similar Eighties drug wars backdrop—features in my next choice, 1987’s Extreme Prejudice. Walter Hill’s rugged action thriller stars a lean Nick Nolte as a tough Texas Ranger and a slithery Powers Boothe as his childhood friend, a former police informer who’s crossed into Mexico and become a major cocaine trafficker.
Though it’s not without its complexities—there’s a parallel plot involving a black ops operation run by a rogue Army major plotting to snatch some drug cash—Extreme Prejudice is more of a meat-and-potatoes affair than the sleekly restrained Tequila Sunrise, ending with a climactic showdown in a Mexican village filled with more automatic weapon, rifles, pistols, coke and casualties that you could shake a kilo at. Mounted for maximum mayhem, director Hill, who penned Peckinpah’s 1972 favorite The Getaway, does an admirable job of updating the explosive finale of his one-time mentor’s classic 1969 The Wild Bunch for the Eighties.
An aside: Years back, I was at an industry party and had a drink with the fine character actor William Forsythe, one of Extreme Prejudice’s featured badasses. I asked him about the film and distinctly recall him ordering another bourbon before responding.
“Are you kidding? Shooting a Walter Hill film in El Paso? With heavyweights like Nolte, Boothe, [co-stars] Rip Torn, Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown?” He laughed. “I can tell you we drank a helluva lot more at the end of the day than we’re drinking now.”
He was right—I must have been kidding.
Come to think of it, I think I’ll have another drink, too.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.