VHS Discoveries: Italian Genre Films from Hercules to Bronson

14 Apr

My first exposure to English-dubbed Italian genre films was when I saw TV commercials for “sword ‘n’ sandal” movies when I was a child, including HERCULES, HERCULES UNCHAINED, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES. I didn’t get to see any of these in theaters at the time but would eventually see all of them on TV. The first film of this type I would see on the big screen was GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS, starring “Hercules” himself, Steve Reeves, and it played on a double bill with JET OVER THE ATLANTIC, a low-budget black-and-white American thriller set on an airplane, in January 1960, when I was six years old. Two years later, I saw several more Italian mini-spectacles when I began patronizing the Tremont Theater, which offered triple features of movies that had already played every other theater. Among the films I saw there were THE TROJAN HORSE, also starring Reeves; THE MONGOLS, starring Jack Palance and Anita Ekberg; LAST OF THE VIKINGS, starring Cameron Mitchell; and THE MINOTAUR, starring American Olympic athlete Bob Mathias. On March 10, 1963, I saw my first all-Italian double feature, SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD and WARRIORS FIVE, chronicled here on March 10, 2013 in my blog entry entitled, “March 10, 1963: The Making of a Film Buff.”

(Steve Reeves as Aeneas in THE TROJAN HORSE)

Eventually, “peplum” (the term used in Italy for mythical muscleman movies) gave way to Italian westerns, along with Italian sci-fi and horror, and eventually Italian crime films, all of which I saw various examples of in neighborhood theaters over the years. I saw even more on television, as Italian genre films became a staple of local commercial TV stations in the 1970s and ’80s. I even wrote about some of them in an article I did called “9 Lives: Lost Treasures of Late-Night TV” for the March-April 1980 issue of Film Comment, my first published article. The title refers to Channel 9 (WOR-TV in New York), which ran so many foreign genre movies in those years. The films covered in the article included three Italian films, Damiano Damiani’s CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN, starring Franco Nero and Martin Balsam, Mario Bava’s HATCHET FOR A HONEYMOON and Dario Argento’s DEEP RED. Among other Italian films I first discovered on TV were BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE FAMILY, DIRTY HEROES, WIPEOUT and THE ITALIAN CONNECTION.

Later on, so many of these movies turned up on VHS from a variety of distributors who specialized in non-Hollywood genre films acquired from TV syndicators and aimed at filling up video store shelves. Looking in used video bins in the 1990s, I found tons of VHS copies of these films at cheap prices and built up quite a collection. Video quality varied on these releases from pretty good to pretty bad. Most of them were made from pan-and-scan prints, which means we rarely got to see these films in their proper aspect ratio.

Only the most fan-friendly distributors, such as Anchor Bay, made a point of releasing titles in letter-boxed VHS editions.

Eventually, a lot of these titles made it to DVD. However, many of them showed up on public domain box sets of varying quality with many titles added in poor-quality pan-and-scan copies that seem to have been dubbed from the old VHS editions. These sets were marketed like this:

Here’s what DEATH RIDES A HORSE looks like in one of those sets:

Granted, one DVD box set like this, which stands on the shelf and takes up the same amount of space as a trade paperback, eliminates the need for several boxes of VHS tapes stored in a closet. Unless, of course, as is so often the case, the films I have on VHS are not available in any other format.

Some companies, including Anchor Bay, Blue Underground, Raro Video and Image Entertainment began releasing quality editions of Italian genre films on DVD and Blu-ray of select titles they could get the rights to.

I recently dug out my boxes of VHS editions of these films and began watching select titles, some for the first time. There’s a certain nostalgia factor involved, recalling the feeling I had when first discovering these films. Also, when I watch the VHS copies, it often approximates the way I first experienced these films. In the case of DIRTY HEROES, the VHS represented an upgrade since I had only seen the film on black-and-white TV sets and seeing it on VHS marked the first time I’ve seen it in color. The way it looked, pan-and-scan, must have been exactly how it would have looked on a color TV as broadcast by Channel 9 or Channel 11 (WPIX) back in the 1970s.

A special case in point is THE FAMILY (1970). This was an Italian crime drama directed by Sergio Sollima (THE BIG GUNDOWN) from a script co-written by, of all people, Lina Wertmuller, and it featured two American stars, Charles Bronson and Telly Savalas, and a British leading lady, Jill Ireland. It was produced in 1970 as CITTA VIOLENTA (VIOLENT CITY) and released in the U.S. in 1974 as THE FAMILY, after the success of DEATH WISH had made Bronson a major Hollywood star and led to a deluge of Bronson’s European films in the U.S. I first saw it on a black-and-white TV around 1977 in a print cut for TV. I eventually did see it in color and, years later, I picked up a VHS edition of it that offered only the cut TV print, with a running time of 90 minutes.

It wasn’t until 2008 that I saw the complete film on a DVD released by Blue Underground.

Here’s what it said on the DVD case:

“This presentation of VIOLENT CITY is complete and uncut, featuring scenes omitted from all previous English language releases. Because these restored scenes were never dubbed into English, they are presented here in Italian with English subtitles.”

After I watched the film, I was quite certain that a number of the scenes presented in Italian had been included in THE FAMILY, in English, so I dug out my VHS copy and watched it again, confirming my belief. Here is the assessment I included in my Amazon.com review of the DVD, starting with my reaction to the legend on the DVD case:

…Which means characters, including those played by Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland, start speaking badly dubbed Italian without warning throughout the film. The dialogue switches back and forth between English and Italian often within the middle of a scene. And whole scenes are played out in Italian, even though I seemed to recall having seen them in English in the earlier version of the film. After finishing the DVD, I got out my VHS copy for comparison purposes and, sure enough, several scenes that were in Italian on the DVD were indeed in English on the VHS. Therefore, the assertion that “these restored scenes were never dubbed into English” is simply not true.

I don’t know why the makers of this DVD didn’t make more of a rigorous effort to get the full English soundtrack, but it seriously compromises the presentation of the film and hampered my ability to enjoy it. Besides, I didn’t find any of the previously missing “restored” scenes all that crucial to the film. Did we really need all that filler racetrack footage with an Italian announcer? I would have preferred a fresh DVD transfer of the theatrical cut known as THE FAMILY that played in the U.S.

Does the film hold up otherwise? Well, the things that seemed fresh to me 30 years ago when I first saw it on TV now seem kind of slight. There are a few memorable scenes (the opening car chase, the racetrack hit, the brilliant elevator ending), but the overall effect is not what it used to be. Bronson seems kind of slack here. Second-billed Telly Savalas is very good, but he enters the film at the one-hour mark and is seen in only a few scenes afterwards. Ireland’s one-note bad girl only starts to get interesting in her very last dialogue scene with the lawyer who helped engineer her rise to power, but then they get on the elevator… The only element that really retains its dramatic power is Ennio Morricone’s crackling score, one of his most memorable outside of the Leone films. To be fair, I should also add that the cinematography is well served by the picture quality of the DVD, marking a vast improvement over the full-screen VHS version.

Eager to hear the Morricone score again, I watched the VHS again last week, since it was a handier copy. It took me back to the way I had first experienced it on TV. Being shorter (by some 19 minutes) and not hobbled by distracting switches to Italian dialogue, it was a much more enjoyable experience than I had watching it on DVD. I’m not saying that the VHS offers comparable visual quality. It certainly doesn’t. But pan-and-scan offers a certain compositional advantage that widescreen doesn’t, particularly in movies where closeups are so necessary. Let’s compare two shots from two different scenes in the film, a close shot of Bronson and a closeup of Ireland, in both VHS and DVD:

The pan-and-scan closeup of Bronson cuts out unnecessary background detail. And the Ireland closeup is starker, closer and has so much more power than the widescreen composition. In the widescreen shot, she seems like the victim, tottering between the two men, whereas in the pan-and-scan closeup, she dominates and the other two men are just pawns to her queen, a thematic twist that the film bears out in subsequent scenes.

Watching DIRTY HEROES (1967) on VHS this past week for the first time in color was quite a revelation. It’s a World War II adventure spurred into production, perhaps, by the success of THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) and it led to a long string of Italian WWII movies that culminated in INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) which starred Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson and inspired Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009). DIRTY HEROES has a far-flung plot involving a group of American POW escapees; a Nazi general married to a Jewish woman; the Dutch resistance; SS machinations to prolong the war; and a plot to steal Dutch diamonds from the Nazis and either turn them over to the Dutch or keep them in the hands of the POWs. It gets a little implausible at times, but it moves well for a film this long (121 minutes on my VHS copy) and had a fairly large budget for a film of this type, with location shooting, airplane action, a tank battle, an underwater sequence and a POW camp. The international cast is led by Frederick Stafford (TOPAZ), Curt Jurgens (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), Daniela Bianchi (FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE), Adolfo Celi (THUNDERBALL), Anthony Dawson (DR. NO) and one American name player, John Ireland (RED RIVER). As you can see, it was a cast well-known from Bond movies (plus one Hitchcock star). Of this group, I believe only Ireland, and possibly Jurgens, dubbed their own voices in English. It’s not a great film, but I enjoyed watching it. The VHS copy captures the filmic quality of the transfer print in a way that was true of TV broadcasts back in the day, but is less true of DVD transfers or digital broadcasts today. It has grain, which provides, for me at least, a pleasing texture. Film grain does not often survive the transition to digital media. Here are closeups from the VHS edition of Stafford and Bianchi:

In contrast, I put in a recent DVD edition of an Italian crime thriller I remember fondly from its TV broadcast back in the 1970s, THE BOSS (1973), which ran on TV as WIPEOUT!, and is now available on DVD as part of the Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection, with three other Di Leo films, from Raro Video. At 109 minutes, the film was about 19 minutes longer than its TV print and seemed to move much slower. The images were pristine but it didn’t look at all like it would have looked on TV back in the 1970s or on a VHS copy. I do, in fact, have a VHS copy and I compared the two. The VHS is not preferable because it has higher contrast and is darker during the night scenes, but it does have that filmic texture that I like. In watching the DVD, I kept seeing images that would have benefited from pan-and-scan because it would have made the closeups seem closer and eliminated some of the dead space on either side of the actor.

The film itself, about a power struggle among various mafia factions in Sicily, is simply not very good, despite starring Henry Silva and Richard Conte, and wouldn’t have hurt from being watched on a decent VHS copy or a TV print. Not every film needs to be seen that clearly and not every film needs to be restored. At times, this film looked way sharper and cleaner than it deserved to. It never looked like this on TV or in a grindhouse theater in the 1970s.

Also, there is one scene in the DVD edition (pictured above between Pier Paolo Capponi, left, and Gianni Garko) in which the soundtrack suddenly reverts to Italian, necessitating a sudden switch to subtitles. This lasts a few shots before reverting back to English. This is the only time this happens in the film as presented on the DVD and there is no warning about this on the DVD case or on the film itself. Sure enough, when I checked my VHS copy all the dialogue that was delivered in Italian in that scene was absolutely there in English.

I’m not suggesting that companies like Blue Underground and Raro Video shouldn’t do what they’re doing. I’m sure I could find quite a few other films in their catalogs that justify the effort. I just happened to pick two unusual examples. I certainly support these companies by buying their releases. I’m just saying there are good reasons to hold onto our VHS copies.

And there are indeed plenty of cases where we want to see the best possible copy of a film, e.g. the Sergio Leone westerns. Although, even there, restoration fever can cause problems. About ten or so years ago they announced a restored version of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and premiered it on AMC (American Movie Classics). I was appalled. The newly inserted scenes were completely unnecessary and were newly dubbed by the noticeably 35-years-older voices of two of the stars, Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach, and another actor substituting for the voice of the late Lee Van Cleef. The carefully constructed rhythms of the version I’d long known and loved since seeing it for the first time in a Times Square theater back in 1969 were thoroughly disrupted by the new scenes which added extraneous background detail that we simply didn’t need. I worry that younger viewers seeking to discover Leone for themselves will be drawn to the so-called “restored” version and never experience the magic of the original theatrical cut I saw so many times in theaters back in the day. In any event, I’m lucky I still have my favored cut on both VHS and DVD:

There are other cases where widescreen DVDs are preferable. Every time I see a pan-and-scan print of an Italian spectacle, I lament the loss of background detail, particularly in films with lavish sets and hundreds of extras. My only copy of THE TROJAN HORSE, which I saw in widescreen in a theater 52 years ago, is from a pan-and-scan print. However, when new DVD editions of films in this genre come out, they tend to get it right. For instance, I recently purchased THE SLAVE from the Warner Archive. This 1962 production starred Steve Reeves as the son of Spartacus and was designed as an unofficial sequel to the big-budget 1960 Hollywood epic, SPARTACUS. It was directed by Sergio Corbucci, who would later make his name as the director of Italian westerns, including DJANGO and THE MERCENARY. It’s a widescreen DVD and my recent viewing of it was the first time I’d ever seen it. Unlike most sword ‘n’ sandal movies, this one was shot largely on location in Egypt. When we see the pyramids and the Sphinx, and a host of other ruins, we are assured that they’re the real thing and not some papier maché replications done at Cinecitta.

Some sixth sense tells me this is one film that just might not be preferable on a pan-and-scan VHS tape.

All I’m saying here is that different formats and different media give us different experiences and we shouldn’t automatically reject one set of experiences because the media that provided it have been supplanted by something new and technically more polished. When we initially watched these films on black-and-white TV sets or on tattered screens in sub-run neighborhood theaters, we weren’t looking for polish.



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