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Silvana ManganoAged 18, she was post-war Italy’s (and probably Europe’s) first international post-war pin-up – ‘the Rage of the Continent’ as one British headline put it.  She was often described as the Italian Rita Hayworth – ‘the Rita Hayworth of the Italian periphery’ as director Giuseppe De Santis put it (or perhaps we might say, Rita Hayworth with underarm hair).  Italo Calvino described her as ‘the most beautiful girl I have ever seen … she has the face and hair of Botticelli’s Venus’.  Her career ranged from Neo-Realism to Melodrama to Commedia all’Italianna (forming a particularly enduring partnership with Alberto Sordi) to arthouse (Pasolini and Visconti gave her a new international profile in the late 60s/early 70s).  She was married to arguably the most famous (and controversial) Italian film producer of all time.  And yet Silvana Mangano has been overshadowed by the meteoric success of Sophia Loren that she partly paved the way for.  Like Gina Lollobrigida (Loren’s nearest rival), Mangano and Loren had first taken part in beauty pageants (Silvana was the first Miss Roma), both part of a generation of female stars termed the maggoriate fisiche (physically well endowed).  Even in Italy, where DVD stores have sections devoted to Loren, Anna Magnani, Totò or Alberto Sordi, Silvana doesn’t seem to have been remembered in quite the same way.

Bitter Rice 1

English language accounts can never quite get past her thighs (where Italian accounts are as likely to talk about her lips – the most beautiful in film history according to Federico Rocca).  According to David Thomson, ‘the gap between Italian neorealism and the striving after international markets … is straddled by the magnificent thighs of the teenage Silvana Mangano in Bitter Rice‘.  Riso Amaro/Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis, 1948) grafted raw glamour onto Neo-Realism and almost singlehandedly created the international market for Italian films.  While she had played small roles off the back of her Miss Roma victory, the film has the feel of a debut by presenting her so unforgettably as the voluptuous rice picker in tight shorts and torn stockings, the working class Italian girl seduced by dreams of America; chewing gum, dancing to Boogie-Woogie on the record player she carries with her, reading the glossy fotoromanzi in Grand Hotel.  She embodied a female sexuality not seen on screen before, owing as much to Anna Magnani as the voluptuous divas who would follow her – in the words of Giovanna Grignaffini, ‘a creature of the earth, rich with joyous sensuality, generous in its proportions, warm and familiar: a body-landscape’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTj40E-0HbA

Bitter Rice 2

Just how big was BItter Rice internationally?  It had a three month run in New York.  In the UK the subtitled version played in the West End for eighteen weeks, seen by 100,000 people – they were allegedly turning away 400 people every night. It even played some of the provinces (almost unheard of for a subtitled film) – it made more money in Leeds than any film to that date.  Then came the dubbed version, which was even bigger.  The early 50s was the peak of her international stardom – when Il Brigante Musolino (Mario Camerini 1950) was released as Outlaw Girl it went out with the tagline ‘Don’t tangle with Mangano!’  Given how many people owned the Bitter Rice pin-up, tangling with her was exactly what they were dreaming of.

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But by 1951 she had shed this image, slimming down dramatically  – by the time of her dual role in Camerini’s Ulisse/Ulysses (1952) as both Penelope and Circe, she had taken on a decidely ethereal quality (but could still summon a different kind of ‘earthiness’ when needed – she played prostitutes in both L’oro di Napoli and La Grande Guerra). The new slender Silvana is first seen in Alberto Lattuada’s Anna (1951), a film that might seem less epochal than BItter Rice but was in many ways just as successful and important.  In Italy, it was the first film ever to earn more than a billion lire, and it would be a huge international success (even though it is currently unavailable with English subtitles).  Mangano had a Sicilian father and English mother – some accounts use some slightly stereotypical notions of national character to explain the mixture of sensuality and reserve that seem to underpin her screen persona.  Even Teorema/Theorem (1968) – always seen as an auteur film (auteurs don’t come much more auteurist than Pasolini) – can be seen as a star vehicle in playing out this tension.  Playing the bourgeois mother compelled to pick up young men on the streets of Milan, her response to the angelic seducer played by Terence Stamp is not so very different to the respectable girls she played earlier in her career who can’t resist the dissolute charms of Vittorio Gassman.  In Anna, she plays a nun in a Milan hospital who has yet to take her final vows – she is propelled into flashblack by the arrival of an injured Raf Vallone, a flashback that begins with the most widely seen sequence from the film, her unforgettable performance of ‘El Negro Zumbon’ in a nightclub (watch this clip on YouTube and you’d need to be clairvoyant to guess what the rest of the film might be about).  Pre-veil Anna wants to commit to nice guy Raf but can’t say no to louche Gassman (both men are pretty much reprising their roles from Bitter Rice) – he has an extraordinary bachelor pad (considering he’s a bartender) with a nude painting over the bed.  The body cannot be denied and something keeps drawing her back into Gassman’s bed, and so the film presents her with a stark choice – an ‘immoral’ and unhappy existence submitting to carnal desire or complete celibacy.  Settling down with Raf and his respectable (presumably Christian Democrat voting) family is simply not an option.  This is a very Catholic melodrama. Shot in the style of a classic Hollywood melodrama, Anna is stunning – little wonder that critics sneered while audiences couldn’t resist.  The two songs from the film, ‘El Negro Zumbon’ and ‘Non Dimenticar’ were released as singles ‘by’ Mangano, even though her singing was dubbed by Flo Sandon – somehow they are her songs.  The film clearly left its mark – it’s one of three Mangano films featured in Cinema Paradiso (although we don’t see any of her scenes from Ulyssess) alongside the censor-baiting Bitter Rice.  The patrons of the Paradiso are seen watching ‘El Negro Zumbon’ (naturally!), but also the erotically charged sequence in which Gassman bares Anna’s shoulder as she lies across his bed – a scene used to illustrate Italian cinema’s gradual negotiation of censorship.  But the ‘El Negro Zumbon’ sequence makes its most irresistible guest appearance in Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario/Dear Diary – as it plays on the TV in a bar, he can’t help but join in with her dance. It’s that kind of number!

There are two elephants in the room in assessing Silvana’s career – her supposed ‘rival’ (although I suspect that rivalry was news to both of them – Lollobrigida was Loren’s rival) Sophia Loren, and her husband Dino De Laurentiis, who she married shortly after Bitter Rice.  Mangano and Loren appeared together briefly in Anna (the latter in a bit part, billed as Sofia Lazzaro) and then in different episodes in Vittorio De Sica’s L’Oro di Napoli/Gold of Naples (1954).  De Sica had earlier been dismissive of the maggoriate, but would play a key role in elevating the reputations of Sophia and Silvana – Gold of Naples is often seen as a turning point for the former’s star power and the latter’s reputation as an actress (Andre Bazin was moved to raptures by Mangano’s performance as the prostitute Teresa).  Comparing the two stars is understandable – both former beauty queens, both married to powerful producers (Loren to Carlo Ponti), both developing greater dramatic ranges than their early critics might have expected.  But there are also key differences between them.  Loren is strongly associated with images of the South – the dark Mediterranean beauty, voluptuous and passionate – while Mangano is a more fluid figure (a Roman girl with Sicilian and English heritage).  Loren would become the biggest Italian star of all time, pursuing Hollywood and Italian careers simultaneously – a kind of transnational stardom that is more common now than it was then.  Mangano was a more reluctant star (and an even more reluctant sex symbol) – her early career interrupted by periodic ‘retirements’ to have children.  Loren was extrovert and flamboyant.  While Mangano was charismatic onscreen, she was visibly uncomfortable as a public figure and seemingly uncomfortable with her own beauty – she never missed an opportunity to conceal it in some way (shaving her head for Jovanka e le altre/Five Branded Women 1959 or virtually transforming herself into Anna Magnani for Lo Scopone Scientifico 1972).  Witness her awkward appearance on What’s My Line? (where she again tries to conceal her beauty) from the 1950s.  Sophia had a ‘knowability’ that enables major stardom – a relatively stable screen persona over time.  Silvana was constantly changing her image – by the 60s she even looked a little like Monica Vitti, especially when blonde. She was an enigma – some Italian critics even likened her to Garbo – which made her a tougher sell than the version of ‘Italianness’ embodied by Loren and Lollobrigida.  As late as her obituaries in the UK press (in 1989), one senses a disappointment that she hadn’t just remained the curvaceous rice worker with those thighs that everyone fell for rather than the more complex figure that they couldn’t quite get a handle on. Easier to dismiss her as a one hit wonder than get to grips with her idiosyncratic career.

The ‘Dino factor’ complicates the picture further.  In a Guardian piece written in 2003 to coincide with a revival of Bitter Rice, David Thomson makes her sound a little like the Italian equivalent of Charles Foster Kane’s talentless wife, forced onto productions that are beyond her capabilities.  He presents her as a competent but limited actress (beautiful but with a face like a mask) kept afloat by a powerful producer husband but even then failing to achieve the success of her rivals.  He relates an anecdote of Dino forcing her onto Richard Fleischer for Barabbas (1961) as a cheap substitute for the obviously superior Jeanne Moreau – ‘no one was excited about her, and she must have guessed how often she was cast as a favour to her husband’.  In her previous film, Five Branded Women, she had been billed ahead of Moreau and in her next one, Il Processo di Verona (Carlo Lizzani, 1963) she would get the most acclaim and her first award since Gold of Naples.  Fellini had wanted her for La Dolce Vita (perhaps what Thomson means is that Hollywood wasn’t excited about her). If she lacked momentum as an international star – largely by not seeking to be one (and thus resisting her husband’s attempts to mould her career) –  she was visibly developing as an actress.  But nor do I want to present Dino as the manipulative bad guy – without his prompting, she might have abandoned her acting career altogether, and there is little in her career that anyone needs to be embarrassed by (he was a much smarter producer than he was often given credit for).

le streghe

Mangano shone particularly in the film ad episodi because the format allowed her to show her range, and because its emphasis was often on comedy (another strength).  La Mia Signora (1964) exploits her comic partnership with Alberto Sordi by having them play five different married couples.  But Le Streghe (1967) is arguably the most important of these films, even though it was more critically than commercially successful in Italy (and won her a further award) – its US release was allegedly blocked in an attempt to protect the macho screen persona of Clint Eastwood, playing his one non-Western role in Italy as her bland husband in De Sica’s episode ‘La sera come le altre’ (‘An evening like the others’).  With episodes directed by Visconti (‘La strega bruciata viva’/’The witch burned alive’) and Pasolini (‘La terra vista dalla luna’/’The earth seen from the moon’), it provided her passage to arthouse respectability – her next film edipo rewould be Pasolini’s Edipo Re/Oedipus Rex  (1967), only her second since before Bitter Rice not to be produced by her husband.  VIsconti would give her one of her best roles as a vain, bitchy aristocrat in Gruppo di famiglia in un interno/Conversation Piece (1974), but Pasolini would use her even more prominently as an idealised eternal mother – playing not only Jocasta but his own mother  in Oedipus Rex (the opening scenes recall his earliest memories of his mother’s face), a cameo as the Madonna in Il Decameron (1970).  In Theorem, the camera is as vlcsnap-2013-06-01-17h52m08s186besotted with her beauty as it is with Terence Stamp’s, and she gives one of her greatest performances.  But I don’t mean to pass over Le Streghe so quickly, another film in need of rediscovery – currently only available as an unrestored DVD-on-demand.  Some of the most enjoyable sequences in Mangano’s films make use of her dancing ability (she was a trained dancer who attended the Jia Ruskaja school in her teens).  It’s how we first encounter her in Bitter Rice, dancing to Boogie-Woogie on her record player, an admiring crowd enjoying her every move.  She’s meant to be ‘natural’ and unpolished in that film, dancing included, while Anna and in particular Mambo (Robert Rossen, 1954) give her more complex choreography to perform.  Visconti gives us another great (if teasingly brief) Silvana dance – the sinuous ‘Canzone delle Streghe’ she performs as the unhappy movie star Gloria, clad in a tight gold dress, the camera remaining tight on her body.  Piero PIccioni’s fabulous music fades abruptly as she faints mid-song.  In the Pasolini episode, she forms a comic trio with Totò and Ninetto Davoli.  But the De Sica episode is the most enjoyable of all, with Mangano and Eastwood as the couple whose marriage has lost its spark. Essentially De Sica ‘doing’ Fellini, it presents a series of fantasy sequences (Silvana carried off by fumetti characters, Silvana as a vengeful dominatrix, Silvana leading a Felliniesque parade, Silvana performing a striptease to a packed stadium watched by a hapless Eastwood).  And once again, ‘drabbed down’ as the bored housewife, she attempts to conceal her glamour before it explodes again in the fantasy scenes.

SilvanaMangano

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The move into arthouse co-exists with more populist films (as was common with Italian stars – Mastroianni, for example), one of which is one of her greatest.  Lo Scopone Scientifico (Luigi Comencini 1972) pairs her with Sordi one last time as a couple from the borgata (the peripheral slums on the outskirts of Rome) who play cards against their nemesis, the wealthy American played by Bette Davis who puts up the stakes for the game of scopo seemingly only to remind them once a year that they can never win.  During a period when art cinema was casting her in wealthy (and even aristocratic) roles, it took her back to the poverty of BItter Rice but not as the sexy rice girl – her Antonia is haggard, deglamorised, her hair tangled, a Magnani figure, earthy and resilient (even in defeat).

Lo Scopone Scientifico

Silvana Mangano was only 59 when she died. She made only two films after the death of her son Federico in a plane crash in 1981 – one of which was Dune (1983), produced by her now-former husband.  For a career spanning 40 years, her filmography is smaller than that of many of her peers – 35 films, excluding her pre-Bitter Rice bit parts.  She may have been a reluctant star, but she’s too good to be forgotten – non dimenticare.

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Early on in Deadlock, Roland Klick’s cult German Western, the marvellously named Charles Dump (Mario Adorf) finds the unconscious Kid (Marquard Bohm) lying unconscious on the side of the ride near to a metal suitcase.  Shortly before, we have seen Kid – face dirty and scorched by the sun (a malign presence in the film – the film’s most vicious character is named Sunshine), his arm bloody from a gunshot wound – staggering through the desert carrying the case.  On opening it, Dump finds it contains stolen money – no surprises there – and a jukebox record.  The money is ostensibly what Deadlock is all about – its three male antagonists appear to form and betray alliances with one another over it.  While it has a modern-day setting and its only Italian connection is one of its actors, Deadlock has Sergio Leone (and the Italian Western more generally) writ large upon it.  It’s a film of stare-outs, waiting for killers to arrive on trains, money (possibly) hidden in graveyards, a raincoat worn like a duster, desert heat and dust storms, double crosses and sadistic games.  It’s the type of film where cold-eyed killers bark ‘Where’s the money!’  But it’s also a film where a few moments later, the same killer insists that he doesn’t care about the money (and seems to actually mean it) – that it’s not about the money.  In some ways, it’s that record that tells us more about the film.  Firstly, because music is central to Deadlock’s enduring cult status – the soundtrack is by Can, comprising three tracks that appear on the ‘Soundtracks’ album (1970), and can also be played as extras on the German 451RedLine DVD of the film.  When the record is played on the (otherwise empty) jukebox, what we hear is Can’s ‘Tango Whiskeyman’ – several times in the course of the film.  As Kid plays the record repeatedly, his older partner Mr Sunshine (Anthony Dawson) suspects some kind of significance in it – ‘How long will this stupid game go on?’ he wonders.  During the climax of the film, the record sticks and perhaps reveals its real significance – these are characters in a locked groove, unable to escape or progress, fated to constantly return to the same point until death intervenes.  When Dump first finds Kid, he intends to kill him with a large rock.  He can’t go through with it and drives off.  He changes his mind and returns, clutching a monkey wrench to complete the task, but Kid (temporarily) gets the better of him.  Back at the almost deserted former mining town – population: three (Dump, what seems to be the local whore and her, and possibly his, daughter) – he keeps coming back to the matter of killing the weakened, wounded man.  He points a gun at him, then insists (seemingly to himself as much as anyone) that he will allow him to die from his bullet wound, prevents Jessy (Mascha Rabben) from removing the bullet (‘The bullet stays in!’) – and then finally does it himself.  At night, he clutches the stolen money as if in prayer, and sobs with self-loathing.

Three men play a series of deadly games over ill-gotten wealth – little wonder the film has been compared particularly with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Like Eastwood’s Blondie, Kid is ruthless up to a point but with some capacity for humanity (he wants to spare Dump and is protective towards Jessy) – both characters have their handsome features temporarily ruined by the brutal desert sun.  Mr Sunshine is the most like his counterpart, Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes – the sadistic older killer.  That leaves Dump as equivalent to Eli Wallach’s Tuco – an abject figure, a kind of Holy Fool.  But where Tuco is a quick-witted trickster – someone we like in spite of ourselves – Dump is a genuine all-out loser.  He isn’t a bandit but a low-level employee of the North American Mining Company – it isn’t clear what he actually does, although he boasts police powers.  Even his name is abject – seemingly both a reference to his living arrangements (he remarks that his bed stinks, at one point) and human waste (‘I’m a piece of shit!’ he declares whilst pleading for his life.)  As with Leone – and Peckinpah (another point of comparison one finds in some reviews) – this is an unremittingly masculine world (by which I mean, film.)  Jessy – beautiful but virtually mute and vacant-eyed, either mentally challenged or (as Dump seems to imply at one point) doped to the eyeballs – is passive and sexually available (‘She’ll do anything you want’, Dump boasts to Kid.)  But while Leone’s characters like to play their sadistic games – with nooses, with unmarked graves – they are more obviously and literally goal-oriented.  Deadlock is the kind of thriller that often prompts the word ‘existential’ – populated by uncommunicative violent individualists (and also men who unwisely talk too much) with a dawning realisation that they are engaged in a meaningless game in which every victory, including survival, is empty.  Take Point Blank, for example – another film about a man constantly demanding ‘his’ money – in which Walker’s (Lee Marvin) vendetta ever-diminishes into a series of mechanical acts of violence and the growing sense that he can’t fully remember why he started.

Mario Adorf gets the best role in the film, and he’s no stranger to such loser roles (in the films of Fernando di Leo, for example.)  In the English version, he gets the best deal with the dubbing, too – the gravelly line delivery is reminiscent of Jason Robards’ Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West.  But it’s Anthony Dawson who’s the revelation – not because he’s never impressed as an actor but because he might not have struck anybody as the Lee Van Cleef type.  A reliable, and occasionally inspired, British character actor, Dawson is probably best remembered as either the hired killer that Grace Kelly gets the better of in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder or as one of Dr No’s underlings Professor Dent, despatched in a particularly cold-blooded manner by 007.  He’s better still as the Marques Siniestro in Hammer’s  Curse of the Werewolf, a character who could easily have wandered in from a de Sade novel.  Here he’s grizzled, one eye nearly shut, sometimes seen striding through the desert like one of Leone’s hired killers, or waggling his fingers mockingly when Dump points a gun at him.  But ultimately even Sunshine isn’t entirely what he appears to be and so Dawson is called upon to do rather more than the more taciturn Van Cleef was generally required to.  With its spare narrative, striking performances and settings (a cowboy sign with an arm hanging loose that seems to mock Kid’s injury), and the obvious appeal of its soundtrack, it’s little wonder that Deadlock has a growing reputation as one of the best European Westerns.  It also makes you hear those Can tracks slightly differently, inevitably overshadowed on ‘Soundtracks’ by the mighty ‘Mother Sky’.  But if ‘Soundtracks’ ends with ‘She Brings the Rain’, once you’ve seen Deadlock, those first three tracks are likely to make you think of the sun – the burning, unremitting sun and its deadly namesake.

The 451RedLIne DVD features an excellent transfer (especially when upscaled) and German and English language tracks (no subtitles on the German track.)  Trailers are also available in both languages, but all other extras (bar the Can tracks) are in German only with no subs – a commentary by and interview with Roland Klick and an archive documentary about the casting of the female lead.

Buon Compleanno Il Re del Terrore

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of one of Italy’s longest running and most influential comics (or fumetti) – Diabolik, the adventures of a masked criminal anti-hero who commits ingenious crimes aided by his beautiful partner (in love and in crime) Eva Kant, a fumetti icon in her own right.  In case you were wondering, this is a very big deal.  Outside Italy (and to a lesser extent, France), the big D is probably best known (if at all) as incarnated by John Philip Law in Mario Bava’s incomparably magnificent Diabolik aka Danger: Diabolik! (Italy/France 1967), to my mind the greatest comic book movie ever made.[1]  In Italy, not knowing who Diabolik is would be like not knowing who Batman or Spiderman are. He inspires cult devotion, but he’s also a mainstream reference point – in advertising and in TV comedy sketches. I don’t think any franchise in the world produces classier or more beautiful merchandise – if I could find a way of getting that Diabolik sofa into the country, trust me I would.  To get a sense of the scale of the Diabolik franchise, check out the official website http://www.diabolik.it/

Three editions of Diabolik are published every month – Diabolik Inedito features new stories, while classic tales are reprinted in Diabolik R and Diabolik Swiisss! (the sound his dagger makes when it flies through the air.) The bi-annual Il Grande Diabolik features slightly more ambitious stories than the relatively formulaic monthly ones and sometimes more exciting artwork (if Giuseppe Palumbo was Diabolik’s regular artist, it would be a very different book.)  I must confess that it took me a while to work out that only one of the monthly editions featured new stories – the comic has changed comparatively little over the years (it even seems to deliberately avoid depicting technology that will date it.)  Since his transformation (fairly early on) from outright sadistic villain to a more noble anti-hero, Diabolik has never undergone the kind of upheavals that an American comic book hero like Batman has.  There’s a case to be made that Diabolik suffers from a certain conservatism and timidity on the part of publishers Astorina and that it would benefit from an overhaul by the Italian equivalent of an Alan Moore or a Grant Morrison. And yet it may be his very unchangeability that helps make him such an enduring icon.  Apart from his love for Eva, Diabolik is psychologically ‘flat’ – when he finally got an origin story (‘Diabolik, Chi Sei?’ no. 107, 1968) it didn’t even provide him with a real name, let alone any greater depth.  Raised on an island by a criminal mastermind called King, Diabolik was named after a panther that terrorised the island and was slain by King.  There’s some Oedipal potential in that set-up – Diabolik kills King and takes over his empire when he reaches adulthood – but our (anti-)hero remains as much of an enigma as ever.

It would be difficult to make a case for Diabolik being a ‘great comic’.  It’s initially derivative of Fantomas, the mysterious evil genius who haunted Paris (and enchanted the Surrealists) in the novels of Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, and countless films (starting with Louis Feuillade’s classic silent serial.)  Of the fumetti neri (dark comics) inspired by Diabolik, one of them is actually superior to it – writer Max Bunker (Lucianno Secchi) and artist Magnus’ (Roberto Raviola) Kriminal (1964-1974.)  Kriminal would be a more psychologically rounded character – motivated by the death of his parents to become ‘Il Re del Delitto’ (King of Crime), he was a kind of inverted Batman.  Bunker and Magnus also incorporated the kind of sado-eroticism that made Diabolik seem comparatively take – check out issue 5 ‘Omicidio Al Riformatorio’ (1964)  and imagine if Bava had filmed that.  But somehow Diabolik transcends his derivative, formulaic surroundings to be one of the great comic book characters – that it’s hard to say exactly how or why is part of his fascination.  He’s been celebrated as a pop art icon at the Rome exhibition ‘A Life Less Ordinary: Diabolik and Eva Kant’ (2009) http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/4452/1/a-life-less-ordinary-diabolik-and-eva-kant, while Eva was the inspiration for a shoe collection by fashion designer Ruthie Davis http://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/1789/1/between-pop-art-and-diabolik-ruthie-davis.

Diabolik was created by two Milanese sisters, Angela and Lucianna Giussani, in 1962.  The story goes that they found a copy of a Fantomas novel on a train, which gave them both the inspiration for the character and the idea of a format that commuters could carry in their pocket.  Rather disappointingly, I’ve never seen anyone reading Diabolik on public transport in Italy, but I make a point of doing so when visiting – thus betraying myself as not only a tourist but a tourist who’s about 50 years behind a popular trend.  The first issue of Diabolik ‘Il Re del Terrore’ shows the debt to Fantomas – a ruthless thief and killer, a master of disguise, pursued by a redoubtable police inspector (Juve in the case of Fantomas, Ginko in case of Diabolik.)  The Giussani sisters initially intended the setting to be France so that they could deploy the guillotine as a method of execution – they later established the geographically non-specific Clerville as Diabolik’s equivalent to Gotham City. Like his Parisian predecessor, Diabolik could be anyone – we learn about halfway through the first story that one of the characters has been the King of Terror from the start.  In the most memorable scene, Inspector Ginko pursues Diabolik into a field of scarecrows – as he leaves, one of the scarecrows opens its eyes (guess who.) In issue 3 ‘L’Arresto di Diabolik’, he borrows his method of escape from the climax of the first Fantomas novel – he drugs and disguises an innocent man to be guillotined in his place.

‘L’Arresto di Diabolik’ is important for another reason. Diabolik’s escape is aided by a beautiful young widow (and murderer of her late husband) – Lady Eva Kant.  Eva ostensibly derives from another Fantomas character, Lady Beltham, but in some ways she is Diabolik’s greatest claim to originality.  Lady Beltham may be Fantomas’ lover, but she is a conflicted character, tormented by the crimes she participates in but too infatuated to break free.  Eva, on the other hand, is a bad girl from the off – she’s closer to the slinky, cat-suited anti-heroine Irma Vep from Feuillade’s Les Vampires.  It’s become popular to suggest in recent years that Eva is a kind of popular Italian feminist icon, a harbinger of independence and modernity.  Such claims might require some qualification – she doesn’t quite achieve the equal status to Diabolik that Cathy Gale and Emma Peel do with Steed in The Avengers.  Nevertheless, she predates Emma Peel and was created the same year as Cathy Gale (1963) – she shares much with them, from the black jump suit to her widowed status.  Eva is an increasingly active and independent heroine, more recently having solo adventures (one of which retcons her murdering of her husband, now a villain responsible for destroying her family.)  She would also play a key role in the rehabilitation of Diabolik – in ‘Lotta Disperata’ (no. 15, 1964), she intervenes to prevent him from killing some hapless victims.  The King of Terror is furious – he’s referring to himself in the third person as he rants, which is a Level 3 Rage Alert with masked supervillains.  He actually starts to throttle her, before it dawns on him that he can’t kill the woman he now realises he loves.  Her conscience proves infectious and his journey towards anti-hero status begins.  In Bava’s film, Eva is played by the stunning Marisa Mell with enormous charm, and I wouldn’t want to change anything about her performance. But she isn’t really the Eva of the comics – she’s more like a Bond girl, scantily dressed, in need of periodic rescues and sexually available to the hero. Bava began shooting the film with Catherine Deneuve, but couldn’t get on with her – it sounds like she thought she was too good for the film.  But Deneuve would have been the perfect Eva (albeit perhaps in a different film with a different Diabolik – as Tim Lucas suggests, she would have overshadowed John Philip Law.)  Eva was, after all, conceived after Grace Kelly’s character in To Catch a Thief – the icy beauty turned on by crime.

Bava’s Diabolik is different in a number of ways from the fumetti version, an opulent colourful pop art film fashioned from a monochrome, hardboiled source. But it also gets to the essential fantasy at the heart of Diabolik in a way that the original never quite manages – two glamorous people who commit outrageous crimes and are so turned on by it that they can’t keep their hands off each other.  Their revolving bed exploits amidst mounds of cash are in contrast with their comic book counterparts, who we’re more likely to see reading the newspapers or watching TV.  I once saw the film on a triple-bill (at the much-missed Scala cinema in London) with the Adam West Batman movie (1966) and Barbarella (1967), a shrewd combo if ever there was one.  Tongue-in-cheek was the default approach to comic book heroes in 60s film and TV – Fantomas had returned in comic gadget-filled vehicles that depicted Juve as a buffoon, while Batman openly mocked its hero as a cowled stuffed shirt and showed the villains having all the fun (Catwoman, too, has much in common with Eva.)  Diabolik may share some of Batman’s campiness and love of gadgetry, and the underground hideout is more like the Batcave than the rather less flamboyant basement that he has in the original fumetti.  But while Batman is amused by the morally upright sexual abstinence of its hero,  Diabolik puts sex back into the mix, thus pushing it closer to the ‘adult comic’ world of Barbarella (these two Dino de Laurentiis productions also have John Philip Law in common.)  Most interesting of all is the film’s decision to relocate Diabolik to a kind of police state, corrupt and repressive, so that he becomes a counter-cultural hero, at one point destroying the city’s financial institutions.  A hero who strikes terror into the hearts of those who control and misuse the economy – hm, why might that still be such an appealing idea?

So join me in wishing the King of Terror a Happy Birthday – technically, he doesn’t blow out the candles until November but there’ll be celebrations of gli anni del terrore throughout the year.  Meanwhile, you have plenty of time to save up for a present.  Do remember that he has expensive tastes and remember, too, that he has excellent aim when throwing that dagger – Swiisss!!!!

 

An iBook version of the first issue of Diabolik ‘Il Re del Terrore’ is available at iTunes http://itunes.apple.com/it/book/diabolik-1/id491335603?mt=11&ign-mpt=uo=4


[1]Worst case scenario: they might have experienced Diabolik only via the perma-smirk snarkfest that is Mystery Science Theatre, in which case there is little hope for them.

This first blog entry originated in my ‘other life’ – as a paper at the Cine-Excess Conference at the ICA in 2008.  I don’t generally intend to include that kind of writing here, even though I’ll be blogging about the same kinds of things – movies, TV, comedy, comics etc.  Please note: subsequent entries will be shorter, too.  But there are two reasons why I’m releasing Linda Hayden from the ‘unpublished’ drawer (there’s a 70s exploitation film in there somewhere.)  Firstly, it never really found a proper home, partly because I didn’t want to footnote it to death and take some of the fun out of it in order to make it sound more ‘academic’.  Secondly, to merely report that I delivered it at Cine-Excess is only part of the story.  The day before I was due to give the paper, I was told that Linda Hayden would be in the audience and was very interested to hear what I was going to say about her.  Ok … so let me get this straight.  I’m giving a paper on Linda Hayden’s exploitation career, a career that includes at least one film that she seems rather touchy about (Expose – note the virtual absence of any real discussion of that below.)  Oh, and I’m focusing particularly on a film in which she plays an underage Lolita-type character (and was actually under 16 herself at the time.)  And she’s going to be in the audience?  No, no, that’s absolutely fine – no pressure, no stress.  Anyway, fortunately she really liked what you’re about to read – and being forewarned of her presence meant that I had a B/W still from Baby Love on hand for her to sign.  The whole experience did, however, leave me with the slightly unrealistic expectation that whenever I give a paper on a cult icon in the future, they will miraculously materialise in the audience, so I’m working on that Collinson Twins piece right now.

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When Linda Hayden was cast in Baby Love (1968), aged fifteen, the press referred to her as the ‘new Lolita’, comparing her with Sue Lyon, who’d been a similar age when she appeared in Kubrick’s adaptation.  While the film’s notoriety didn’t produce the major long term stardom that producer Michael Klinger had been grooming Hayden for, it did lead to an interesting, if characteristically (for British cinema) fractured and halting, career in horror (Taste the Blood of Dracula, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Madhouse), sexploitation (Confessions of a Window Cleaner/from a Holiday Camp, Let’s Get Laid) and a mixture of the two (Expose).  Her career and life connect to other cult figures like Klinger and actor Robin Askwith, with whom she had a fairly complicated relationship in the latter half of the 1970s (see his biography for one side of that story.)   While Hayden’s roles were varied, her early films exploit her youth and sexuality.  A new type of female character had emerged in 60s British cinema – Christine Geraghty calls her the ‘Darling girl’ (after Julie Christie’s film of the same name), unpredictable, liberated, pleasure seeking and manipulative.  In the heated imagination of British (s)exploitation, this produces Hayden’s more troubling persona – a psychotic, even demonic, child-adult, destroying the family (Baby Love, Taste the Blood of Dracula) or reassuring images of childhood (Satan’s Claw).  ‘Would you give a home to a girl like Luci?’ asked the poster for Baby Love, while a recent DVD featurette accompanying Blood on Satan’s Claw dubbed her ‘An Angel for Satan’.

There are two contexts for Hayden’s early persona.  Firstly, according to Christine Geraghty, the emergence of stars like Julie Christie can be linked to a sociological interest in young, sexually active, mainly middle class women in the 60s.  In studies like Michael Schofield’s The Sexual Behaviour of Young People, a key figure emerged – ‘the middle class, educated teenage girl who has a measure of control over her own pleasure and behaviour.’ This ‘new’ girl was ‘unpredictable, spontaneous, emotionally honest, sexually active’, even though movie versions tended to add a misogynist undercurrent – she could also be cold-hearted, capricious, irresponsible and shallow (like Christie in Darling and Judy Geeson in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.)  Secondly, in ‘An Angel for Satan’, Hayden refers to the period in which she emerged as ‘the sex nymphet era’.  A piece on Baby Love in Nova commented, ‘Lately the film industry as a whole seems to have a predilection for immaturity and inexperience as star qualities.’  While Carroll Baker’s performance in Baby Doll (1956) had established much of the thumb-sucking sexual iconography for the cinematic ‘nymphet’,  Lolita (1962) seems to have been a more direct influence on the late 60s cycle, perhaps because while Sue Lyon’s Lol was older than Nabokov’s, the actress was significantly younger than Baker had been.  Late 60s ‘nymphet’ movies include Age of Consent (1968), Candy (1968), and Twinky/Lola (1969.)  Some of the provincial British cinemas that screened Baby Love had shown Candy just weeks earlier.

Hayden’s career can be compared with that of another 60s/70s British star, Susan George – one could easily imagine them having each other’s careers (Hayden was actually auditioned for the Straw Dogs role.)  While George made exploitation films, too, including The Sorcerers (1967) and Die Screaming Marianne (1971), she made more of a transition into mainstream films, sufficiently so to have a Hollywood career. Three years older than Hayden, George can be seen as part of a minor trend where former child stars were starting to assume more conspicuously sexualised personas – Jenny Agutter, Hayley Mills.  Agutter and Mills still played nice girls, albeit with added nudity (virtually compulsory by the 70s), but George was a more provocative figure.   She played a nymphet role in Twinky, as the schoolgirl bride of porn writer Charles Bronson (I don’t know if this later made him more lenient towards paedophiles in Death Wish.)    Brian McFarlane refers to George’s ‘jailbait sexiness’ and ‘pouting sensuality’, and some of this adolescent sexuality carries into her adult roles like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974.)  In her most famous film, Straw Dogs, she is still a kind of child-woman, precocious, spoilt and manipulative, sticking chewing gum on Dustin Hoffman’s blackboard when he doesn’t give her the attention she wants.  Hayden, too, carried a kind of extended adolescence into some of her adult roles – in Expose, according to Monthy Film Bulletin’s review, she ‘pouts evilly even while remaining innocently wide-eyed.’

Baby Love was adapted from the debut novel of Tina Chad Christian.  Its central character, Luci is raised in a northern industrial town by a single mother (Diana Dors), who commits suicide rather than succumb slowly to cancer.  Luci is taken in by one of her mother’s former lovers.  Robert (Keith Barron) is not her biological father, but she desires him as a father as well as a sexual conquest.  Robert is a wealthy Hampton Court doctor, but also a kind of cold-hearted Joe Lampton figure, marrying into money through his frustrated wife Amy (Ann Lynn) – he’s a northern social climber made good in affluent London.  Their awkward son, Nick, rounds out this complicated family romance.  Luci sets out to seduce each member of the family, and soon has Amy and Nick under her spell, while Robert is both attracted and appalled by her resemblance to her mother, whose destructive sexuality she seems to have inherited – she nearly kills Nick and rakes Robert’s face with a fork (in a detail left out of the film, he already has a facial scar from a similar attack by her mother.)  In the film, the dead mother is an almost supernatural presence who both ‘haunts’ and ‘possesses’ Luci – she is played (in a non-speaking part) by Diana Dors, invoking a dangerous sexuality from an earlier moment in British cinema.  Michael Klinger bought the rights to the novel before it had even been published.  He had stepped down as head of Compton films the previous year and started a new career as an independent producer with The Penthouse (1967), and Baby Love would be the debut film of his new company Avton Films.  As Klinger searched for his teenage star, he told the press, ‘the 15 year old girl must look like an innocent girl who underneath is a woman, as every man who looks at her will realise.’  She was also supposed to be northern, but Linda Higginson was a middle class stage-school girl from Middlesex – her father Hayden Higginson was chairman of Sperlings Motor Car Company.  She had played small parts on TV, but this would be her film debut and Klinger promoted her as a major discovery.  The press was largely more titillated than outraged by someone so young performing nude scenes on screen.   Watford Evening Echo’s subheadings were fairly representative – ‘Nude Scene’, ‘Sugar Daddies’, ‘Teenage Body’.  References to Lolita and Sue Lyon (and, less commonly, Carroll Baker) proliferated, but Nova reported that ‘She dreams of parts like Julie Christie’s in Darling as well as a Mercedes with an old English sheepdog as passenger.’  This also seems to have informed the persona Hayden projected in interviews – she preferred older men, but her career came before long-term relationships.  ‘Boys find it hard to understand that I put my career above everything else, and they get angry when I stand them up because some American producer has flown in or something’, she told the Watford Evening Echo. 

Hayden’s age would figure prominently in the promotion of the film. In the US trailer, she addressed the camera directly and announced, ‘I’m old enough to make it but not to see it.’  The press had made much of the fact that, at 15, she was not legally old enough to see the racy X certificate film she had made.  The British premier was scheduled to coincide with her 16th birthday, with the invitations taking the form of copies of her birth certificate.  If this ostensibly confirmed that she was now old enough to see it, it also reminded people once more of how young she had been when she was making it.  The extent of this short-term fascination with Hayden and what she might represent as an emerging star is reflected by a cartoon that appeared in Today’s Cinema on March 19th, 1969 – a schoolgirl with her face painted like Luci’s is told by her mother, ‘I don’t care how Linda Hayden looks – get your face washed.’

When we first encounter Luci, in a scene intercut with her mother’s suicide, she is putting on a show for her friends.  Adjusting the skirt of her school uniform to a shorter length, she French-kisses a boy of a similar age, surrounded by a crowd of enthralled schoolchildren.  According to the shooting script, the kiss is ‘very innocent and childish, the result of a dare.’  At this stage, she partially recalls another 60s female star, Rita Tushingham, characterised by her more gauche, childish appearance and behaviour.  When Luci moves to London, there is much play on her lack of sophistication, as she negotiates cutlery etiquette at the dinner table.  Her childishness – framed with dolls and cuddly toys – has not yet taken on the nymphet connotations that it will in a later scene, where she sucks the thumb of one hand while the other partially cups Amy’s breast. When Amy takes her shopping at a trendy boutique, Luci gets changed in the shop window to much consternation, her exhibitionism naïve rather than provocative.  Now armed in revealing Carnaby Street fashions, the next scene signals the transformation of Luci when she goes to the cinema with Nick, where she is felt up by a sleazy older man.    According to the shooting script, ‘Her eyes are dreamy and mocking.  For the first time we discover the woman.’  In some ways, this is a scenario familiar from both Swinging London and British sexploitation films – provincial girl transformed by permissive London.  When Luci realises that her sexuality gives her a power she otherwise lacks, she immediately becomes manipulative and destructive.  During a strange near-rape episode by the Thames, where Luci and Nick are menaced by what the script calls ‘four swinging ex-public school layabouts with more money than sense’, she regards the pursuit as a game, her mocking laughter intimidating her would-be attackers and infuriating Nick, humiliated by the boys, one of whom mouths the word ‘queer’.  Later, she uses the episode to manipulate Amy into resisting Robert’splan to send her to boarding school.

 

After such a high profile debut, Hammer films might not seem to be the place to go to raise her star power – certainly not by the late 60s when the tide was turning against them.  Nevertheless, Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) is the most well-regarded, if not the most coherent, of the later Draculas – it suffers from an unresolved tension between its theme of generational conflict and the fact that a Dracula film’s gotta do what a Dracula film’s gotta do.  Hayden plays Alice Hargood, one of the three Victorian children who will turn on their fathers under Christopher Lee’s disinterested gaze – ‘The first … the second … the third’ he intones wearily after each killing (they don’t call him the Count for nothing.)  It isn’t clear how old Alice is supposed to be, but Hayden was approaching seventeen and the film is palpably titillated by the nastiest of the three patriarchs (Geoffrey Keen) threatening to whip her, his eyes visibly on her cleavage.  Instead, she brains him with a spade and assumes a Renfield-like role for Dracula, possessed but not vampirised, leading the other children to their dark liberator.  If the Count is the ‘father’ she desires, once again she is spurned – as Robert rejects Luci’s advances – but this time, she isn’t prepared to stand for it.  As she participates in the obligatory destruction of Dracula, she has effectively seen off two fathers, both sexually corrupt and neglectful.  In the world of Gothic melodrama, Hayden’s character is permitted to destroy the family with no real consequences for her.

From Hammer, Hayden went to Tigon, the company run by Klinger’s former Compton partner and now rival, Tony Tenser.  Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) is arguably Hayden’s best film and its cult reputation has grown significantly over the yearsAs Angel Blake, she plays a kind of Gothic nymphet, the leader of a 17th century cult worshipping a demon with a very distinctive mode of resurrection – growing different parts of himself on the bodies of adolescents.  If the werewolf is sometimes seen as the horror genre’s take on puberty, Satan’s Claw takes the idea much further, as rogue patches of hair provide corporeal warning of a degeneration into libidinous and cruel excesses.  Angel is already precocious at the start of film, her mocking laughter accompanying a scene where she finds the demon’s claw in a freshly ploughed field.  But she soon progresses to what Anthony Ainley’s priest calls ‘insolent ungodliness’, albeit of a type that he probably hadn’t envisioned.  In a sequence much fetishised by horror fans, Angel disrobes in an attempt to seduce him, and when that fails, she accuses him of attempted molestation.  As in Baby Love, if the eroticisation of adolescence is offered as a form of titillation, it is simultaneously represented as grotesque.  Angel grows enormous Klingon eyebrows as she becomes fully possessed.  In Baby Love, Luci paints on similarly grotesque eyebrows during a sequence when she announces, ‘I’m going to paint my face, and paint and paint, and be utterly evil!’

Critic David Taylor identifies Blood on Satan’s Claw’s two taboo themes as ‘the inherent evil of children and the overt sexuality of evil.’  One of the contemporaneous influences on Robert Wynne-Simmons’ script (particularly the figure of Angel) had been the case of 11-year old child-murderer Mary Bell, convicted in 1968.  Inspector James Dobson said of Bell’s murders, ‘There was a terrible playfulness about it, a terrible gentleness if you like.’  This ‘terrible playfulness’ translates into the cruel games played by the young cult in Satan’s Claw, which extend to rape and murder – their inability to empathise or acknowledge the pain and terror they inflict is still genuinely chilling.  But there’s a ‘terrible playfulness’ about Luci, too, who play-acts the role of her own angry mother as Nick lies unconscious in the shower.  Hayden played characters significantly older than Bell was, but this is suggestive of what sets her apart from the other nymphet stars who emerged in the late 60s.  As the Bulger case would many years later, the Mary Bell case seemed to lend childhood a frighteningly unfathomable quality.  In a controversial 1998 biography, Bell was reconstructed as a victim herself, of an abusive prostitute mother just as Luci’s destiny seems predetermined by her monstrous mother.  ‘Is she a Demon or just a Lost Child?’ asks Welwyn Times in a piece on Baby Love.  This is the question that Hayden’s early films keep returning to.  That they can rarely decide on a satisfactory answer is part of the fun.