The Prisoner of St. Petersburg

hqdefault

Ian Pringle’s film ticks all the boxes to qualify as an obscure art film, perhaps too many boxes.

A talky, B/W film with a somewhat Wellesian visual approach, made in Germany by an Australian and  starring a British teen actor who speaks most of his dialogue in Russian, mispronouncing every word. The film takes themes and scenes from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Crime and Punishment. Best enjoyed with burnt-in Japanese subtitles.

I Vampiri (Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava – 1956)

dvd_snapshot_00.22.04_[2015.03.14_01.46.18]

When a young girl’s body is fished out of the Seine drained of blood, it’s up to the trench-coated reporter Lantin to discover the secret of the modern-day vampires, all the while resisting the advances of the melancholy Countess du Grand.

Cinematographer-turned-director Mario Bava flexes his creative muscles while performing a last-minute job of stitching together a poorly-plotted Riccardo Freda quickie. The meandering tale (co-scipted by the ultra-prolific Piero Regnoli) is a hodgepodge of kidnappings, mad scientists and family curses (with the inevitable dead relative’s portrait hung in a cobwebbed chamber) interspersed with deadly dull police procedural scenes. Moments of genuine tension are regrettably brief and I Vampiri is only marginally watchable thanks to some elegant crane shots and arresting interplay of light and shadow.

While there is no denying the sumptuousness of the well-composed shots, it’s unjust to call I Vampiri an atmospheric film, for it takes more than a fog machine and some fake skulls to weave macabre cinematic poetry. I Vampiri dedicates more running time to nondescript ballroom scenes and irrelevant police procedural scenes then to depiction of the mad doctor’s macabre experiments or the kidnappings which give start t the story. Freda directs skillfully yet indifferently, never reaching out to the audience. Concepts of emotional involvement and catharsis seem alien to the veteran director who must have been too exhausted hustling backers for money to breathe life into a potentially exciting film. Pacing is leaden with most actors appearing uncomfortable inside the spacious Cinemascope shots, plastered over with Roman Vlad’s generic score.

VAMPIRI Collage

Leading man Dario Michaelis’ acting amounts to little more than standing around looking skeptical with his hairdo perfect and trench-coat buttoned up; Antoine Balpetré’s crazed scientist easily elicits more sympathy than this perpetually scowling failure of a protagonist. Apart from the always dependable Paul Muller in a supporting role and some cleverly conceived and flawlessly executed visual trickery courtesy of Mario Bava, I Vampiri has little to offer. Renato Polselli would achieve livelier results four years later with his grotesque and entertaining L’Amante del Vampiro/The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), written by Ernesto Gastaldi.

La città si difende (Pietro Germi , 1951)

dvd_snapshot_01.03.50_[2015.03.12_19.21.24]

A surprisingly little talked-about film, Four Ways Out / La città si difende blends neorealism and film noir influences with somewhat uneven results.

Four amateur robbers pull a heist during a football match before splitting with bagfuls of cash. With their nerves frayed by the experience and seemingly the whole city against them, will these militant paupers live to enjoy their new-found wealth? The fact that, despite their misery, they’re not devoid of compassion, works against these would-be gangsters. Each time one of the robbers behaves humanely, the consequences are grave, with the most intelligent gang member meeting a particularly nasty end. Speaking of ends: the finale sees a desperate youth give in to the mother’s tearful pleading and hand himself over to the solemn and horrifyingly grey cops. Thus, the law at its’ most bureaucratic and the family institute connive to bring yet another doomed generation to its’ knees.

germi Collage

La città si difende is a an imperfect film, a film at odds with itself but also a fascinating film. It’s not clear who’s side the filmmakers are on: while undeniably a attempt at social criticism, the films sways between sympathy for the robbers and their condemnation.

germi Collage 2

Whatever misgivings one might have regarding the overall message, the casting is dead on, from the excellent leads to the bit part players: the stroppy ticket officer on the tram, the creepy lowlifes Paul Muller’s desperate ex-painter gets mixed up with, to the stern, pig-faced cops – every rugged tormented face tells its’ own story.

paul muller Collage

La città si difende presents the viewer with a fairly rare opportunity to see the prolific Swiss actor Paul Muller in an early and substantial role. Muller, with his distinctive looks, went on to appear in dozens of genre films, including Jess Franco´s low-budget masterpiece Eugenie De Sade (1971) and the Fantozzi films with Paolo VIllaggio. Muller´s face is the face of European cinema, he has acted alongside such stars as Alain Delon (Plein Soleil) and Ingrid Bergman (Viaggo in Italia), worked with E.M. Salerno and Andrea Bianchi, Umberto Lenzi and Riccardo Freda.

PicMonkey Collage

Cinematographer Carlo Montuori (Bycicle Thieves) and camera operator Goffredo Belissario should have been decorated for their achievement, as technically La città si difende is beyond praise. Knowingly framed and expertly photographed in high-contrast black and white, the film’s visual impact is undeniable. Night scenes in particular are highly atmospheric, the impressively mobile camera capturing terrified characters as they scuttle through nightmarish post-war Rome, dwarfed by the towering blocks of flats.

La città si difende may bot be for everyone  but it’s most definitely cinema.