One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 26
By Laurence Lerman
If you haunted Manhattan's arthouse movie theaters back in the Seventies—I use the term haunted because they’re all ghosts now—then you probably caught a film by Alberto Grimaldi. The prolific Italian movie producer died of natural causes on Saturday, January 23, in Miami, at the age of 96.
All in, Grimaldi produced more than 80 movies, the bulk of them in the late Sixties and Seventies, when many of the great bold-faced European filmmakers were making their most idiosyncratic work. Notably, the arrival of Grimaldi's films in America often marked the first exposure a new generation of homegrown cinephiles had to such undisputed Italian masters as Federico Fellini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gillo Pontecorvo, Sergio Leone, Phillippe de Broca and Sergio Citti. Another masterful Italian filmmaker, an American named Martin Scorsese, probably saw many of Grimaldi’s productions on New York’s arthouse screens decades before he would also find himself working with him.
Grimaldi’s films were first screened in New York at a time when seeing the name of a foreign director on a movie marquee floating above a busy city sidewalk elicited a quiet but potent thrill. Back then, popping into such long-gone Upper West Side theaters as the Regency, the New Yorker, the Cinema Studio or the Embassy 72 St. Twin (among others) dangled the promise of something fresh and unconventional. Something exciting, sexy. Or maybe even scary.
I was a young teenager in Jersey during those years but, even then, I got a charge out of reading the exotic titles fanning out across New York among the movie ads in the Village Voice that my dad used to bring home from the city.
There was Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Casanova (1976); Bertolucci’s 1900; Citti’s Bawdy Tales (1973); De Brocca’s The Devil By The Tail (1970); and Pasolini’s titillating literary trilogy of The Decameron (1971), Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1978), alongside Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), his unnerving Fascist-era update of the Marquis de Sade’s 18th Century tome of the same name. All are Grimaldi productions, along with dozens of other sexed-up comedies, thrillers, documentaries, giallos, arthouse staples like Pontocorvo’s Burn! (1969) with Marlon Brando and curios like Dan Curtis’s lousy haunted mansion flick Burnt Offerings (1976), which was produced in America (when it probably never should have been made at all).
My first encounter with Mr. Grimaldi probably came during the memorable opening credits sequences of a pair of his most unforgettable films. First off was the greatest Spaghetti Western ever produced, Leone’s transcendent The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a 1966 masterwork that may have featured three American stars, but one that bled marinara through and through. Like other Italian oaters of the era, this one made it to Saturday afternoon TV relatively quickly back in the early Seventies, which is when I first saw it. I can actually remember first seeing “A Film Produced by Alberto Grimaldi” etched out in large black letters over a blood-red background during the film’s animated titles as Ennio Morricone’s landmark theme howled behind them. (Grimaldi also produced 1965’s excellent For a Few Dollars More, the second entry in Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” following 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars.)
I also have a vivid memory of Grimaldi’s name on the opening crawl of what may have been his best known or, at least, most notorious film. “Alberto Grimaldi Presents” was in white lettering on a black background this time, at right center screen next to one half of Francis Bacon’s blazing 1964 “Double Portrait of Lucian Freud Frank Auerbach.” Set to Gato Barbieri’s slinky score, that was the startling opening image of Bertolucci’s 1972 Last Tango in Paris. It’s a movie that really got New York talking—albeit more about its content and director than its producer. It is worth noting that, immediately following that milestone, Grimaldi’s next production, though a bigger, costlier one, was the infinitely less controversial USA-Italian co-production Man of La Mancha (1972), a critical and commercial failure.
The last feature Grimaldi produced before retiring was Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York, the epic historical drama loosely adapted from Herbert Ashbury’s 1927 nonfiction book. The film’s credits list 16 producers, including big-time Hollywood players Graham King and Michael Ovitz, not to mention Harvey Weinstein, whose brusque interference in the film’s production has been frequently noted over the years.
There’s no way of knowing what Grimaldi specifically brought to the lavish film, but I’d like to think he had a lot to do with the production’s large-scale sets, colorful costumes and extravagant design, which smack of his brand of sumptuous Italian cinema of the Seventies. Nearly 20 years later, those remain the best parts of the film.
At a cost of $100 million, Gangs of New York was one of the most expensive films Grimaldi ever produced, a far cry from his first-ever production 40 years prior, the 1962 Spanish Western (or “Paella Western,” which is how were they were commonly referred to back then, if you can believe it) Shades of Zorro. But somewhere in between that long-forgotten zero-budgeter and his bank-busting final one, Alberto Grimaldi made a whole lot of films worth remembering.
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.