And so another London Film Festival becomes history! Let's have a few (or several many) words about the last three films we watched -- a modern silent classic from Spain and two from the fest's "Treasure" section where old movies are rediscovered or restored.
Blancanieves (2012): The Spanish title translates as "Snow White" and the film is a gothic and hispanic riff on the Grimm tale. It would be a little glib to describe the movie as this year's "The Artist", but the success of that film possibly created an acceptable environment for another silent gem. While this entry is neither as nostalgic or ultimately as 'feel-good' as the French charmer, it is a dazzling melodrama, burnished with sumptuous set design and filmed in glorious, crisp black and white. A renowned matador is distracted in the ring by his adored, heavily pregnant wife and is gored, initiating a series of tragic events. The wife dies in childbirth after giving birth to a daughter, beloved by the crippled warrior. His life is soon dominated by his new, vain, and avaricious wife, the lovely Maribel Verdu, who swiftly plots her husband's death and, in best wicked stepmother mode, dispatches young Blancanieves to be killed by a huntsman. The girl is rescued from near death by a group of bullfighting dwarfs -- six of them as it happens, including a female. They reluctantly take her in and continue to perform at minor fairs and corridas; one day the talent that she has inherited from her father comes to the fore as she saves one her hosts from the horns of a charging bull. Soon they become a celebrated act, until Verdu comes on the scene with her poisoned apple! Since this is not a Hollywood movie, we are spared the traditional happy ending, but are blessed with a charming and imaginative take on the familiar tale.
The Boys from Syracuse (1940): This film is another from my 'must see one day' list that turned out to be a massive disappointment. The show with a wonderful score from Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart was a big hit on Broadway in the late 30s. However when Universal got their grubby paws on it, they managed to dumbdown an erstwhile sparkling gem into a rather dubious production. The story is loosely based on the Shakespearian "Comedy of Errors" and is set in ancient Greece. Twins, both called Antipholus, and their faithful twin servants, both called Dromius, have been long separated, each believing the other set dead. When one pair come from Syracuse to Ephesus to rescue their condemned father, farcical (not) marital mayhem is meant to ensue. Apart from the very chunky script with its feeble attempt at updated humour, the main problem is with the largely B-cast. Allan Jones, a popular tenor of the day (best remembered now for his "Donkey Serenade") takes on the lead role and makes a relatively good fist of churning out classic tunes like "Falling in Love with Love". However, his sidekick played by one Joe Penner is a total disaster in the role. (No, I never heard of him either, but I gather he was vaguely popular back then and that this was meant to be his big movie breakthrough; it wasn't and he died shortly thereafter). The female cast is led by Martha Raye (always an acquired taste) as the slave's 'wife' and Rosemary Lane (one of the minor sister acts) as Antipholus' 'wife'. There is some consolation in the casting of the minor roles with dippy Charles Butterworth as the Duke -- constantly preceded by a fanfare from his trumpeters -- and Eric Blore and Alan Mowbray as a pair of impoverished tailors. Possibly because of its score, the film has now been preserved by the U.S. Library of Congress, but it is far from a 'national treasure' on nearly every other level.
The Big Gundown (1966): This restored 'spaghetti western' was an unexpected treat. For a start it is one of the very few in this genre that I have ever seen that was not dubbed, and watching the restored film in its original Italian improved matters no end. Directed by Sergio Sollima, not quite in the same league as Sergio Leone, it is probably his best film and was previously only available in abridged versions on the international market. It was one of the first Italian Westerns to move away from the story of an avenging hero riding into town to clean things up to more 'political' concerns. Lee Van Cleef takes on one of his relatively rare roles as the good guy rather than the sneering villain, playing bounty hunter John Corbett. He is being encouraged to stand for political office to further the ambitions of a local tycoon, but is first asked to hunt down a rogue Mexican called Cuchillo ("The Knife") who has been accused of raping and murdering a young girl. This role is taken by the American Cuban-born actor Tomas Milian who soon became a fixture on the Italian movie scene. As famed critic Dilys Powell wrote at the time, "the real stars of the film are Milian's sparkling teeth" or words to that effect. He gives a cheeky performance as he continues to elude the determined Corbett, who eventually discovers that he may be pursuing the wrong villain. In the meantime there are some amusing distractions, like Van Cleef rescuing a 14-year old Morman lass from Milian's lascivious intentions, only to discover that she is the not so innocent fourth wife of the wagon train's leader. With some stunning scenery and majestic photography, the film also features one of Ennio Morricone's most memorable scores. One of the minor characters is an effete monacled Austrian baron, employed as the tycoon's bodyguard, who tinkles out "Fur Elise" on the ivories during his downtime. Morricone brilliantly incorporates that theme in his stirring musical dramatics.
So it was a good ending to the week! Now it's back to the less esoteric pursuits of life...or perhaps not that mundane at all. We'll see...