Thursday, November 2, 2017

Retro Review: THE SALAMANDER (1981)

(UK - 1981; US release 1983)

Directed by Peter Zinner. Written by Robert Katz and Rod Serling. Cast: Franco Nero, Anthony Quinn, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Claudia Cardinale, Sybil Danning, Christopher Lee, Cleavon Little, Paul Smith, John Steiner, Renzo Palmer, Anita Strindberg, Jacques Herlin, Marino Mase, Fortunato Arena, John Stacy, Andre Esterhazy, Nello Pazzafini, Tom Felleghy, Gitte Lee. (R, 101 mins)

Based on the 1973 novel by Morris West, the long-in-the-works conspiracy thriller THE SALAMANDER began life as a screenplay adaptation by TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY creator Rod Serling, left unfinished following his death in 1975. It languished for several years until Robert Katz (THE CASSANDRA CROSSING, THE SKIN) reworked and completed it. The film finally went into production in 1980, with veteran editor Peter Zinner making his directing debut at 62, fresh off his Oscar win for editing 1978's THE DEER HUNTER. Zinner was a late-blooming hot commodity at the time, as his other credits included 1967's IN COLD BLOOD, 1972's THE GODFATHER and 1974's THE GODFATHER PART II, but he really was a hired gun at heart, as his work on THE DEER HUNTER was sandwiched between esteemed prestige projects like 1977's TINTORERA and 1979's THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH. Shot entirely in scenic locations throughout Italy and featuring an all-star cast, THE SALAMANDER should've been a hit but was a DOA dud worldwide. It was another in a string of flops from Sir Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment, the British company that produced THE MUPPET SHOW and had some hits like THE MUPPET MOVIE, ON GOLDEN POND, and THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, but lost a ton of money over 1980-81 on expensive bombs like the Village People's CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC, the Farrah Fawcett-pursued-by-horny-robot-in-space sci-fi dud SATURN 3, the Clive Cussler adaptation RAISE THE TITANIC!, and the ill-fated THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER. ITC had distribution through various means, whether it was their own Associated Film Distribution or major studios like Universal and 20th Century Fox, but after being released in Europe in 1981, THE SALAMANDER remained unseen in the US until it turned up in one theater in NYC in May 1983 before being bum-rushed off to television and a belated VHS release in 1986. Pathfinder released it on DVD with no fanfare in 2002 but otherwise, it's spent 30 years in relative obscurity despite a cast packed with cult icons and big-screen legends and it's just been resurrected on Blu-ray courtesy of Scorpion Releasing. It's nice that it's available again and in a quality presentation, but it should come as no surprise that THE SALAMANDER isn't exactly an unsung classic waiting for its day in the sun.

The film opens in Rome with the assassination of beloved Gen. Panteleone (Fortunato Arena), a beloved statesman, WWII hero, and champion of democracy in his younger, post-war years. The truth behind his murder is buried and "natural causes" is the reason given to the public. Carabinieri officer Col. Dante Matucci (Franco Nero) is assigned to investigate, along with his big brotherly mentor Capt. Stefanelli (Martin Balsam). Both are stonewalled by everyone, from Panteleone's heir apparent Gen. Leporello (Eli Wallach) to Italy's counterintelligence chief Prince Baldasar (Christopher Lee), and the body count rises as anyone Matucci questions or is about to question turns up dead. After tying Panteleone's death to a decades-long string of assassinations of war criminals staged to look like suicides--pulled off by a hit man known as "The Salamander," the long-retired alter ego of billionaire industrialist Bruno Manzini (Anthony Quinn)--Matucci uncovers a plot to orchestrate a coup d'etat by a renegade group of military officials and high-powered politicos attempting a Make Italy Great Again move by taking the country back to the Mussolini glory days.

Matucci's investigation also involves a momentum-killing romance with Polish spy Lili Anders (Sybil Danning, who had just co-starred with Nero in Enzo G. Castellari's THE DAY OF THE COBRA), some ballbusting with his NATO-based USMC buddy Malinowski (Cleavon Little), and a sadistic and profusely sweaty torturer known as "The Surgeon" (Paul Smith, doing his usual MIDNIGHT EXPRESS stink-eye side-glancing act). Even with the cast and the potentially intriguing story, THE SALAMANDER just never catches fire despite the heroic efforts of a typically excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith that belongs in a more exciting movie. It gets bogged down in sequence after sequence of Matucci going to see someone, interviewing them, and then moving on to the next person. Zinner offers one low-energy car chase in which both cars crash through oddly-placed fruit stands right on cue. Intermittently-deployed voiceover narration by Nero is a clear indication of Zinner scrambling to cover gaps in the narrative, and most of the big names--Quinn, Lee, Little, Wallach, Claudia Cardinale (as Leporello's wife)--have little more than extended cameos. Balsam has one great bit where the camera slowly moves in on his aging face as he delivers a devastating monologue about how he, as a young man during WWII, stepped out for cigars and returned home to find his entire family massacred, but then Zinner ruins it, breaking the spell by inexplicably cutting to a reaction shot from a cat. There's a little oomph offered by some third-act sleaze, with Mrs. Leporello having a torrid affair with her husband's aide-de-camp Roditi (John Steiner, dubbed by Larry Dolgin) and the discovery that Gen. Leporello has a thing for very young girls, plus some unintended hilarity with a torture scene leading to a Franco Nero/Paul Smith brawl, with a hirsute Nero sporting nothing but a jockstrap with his bare ass flailing all over the place and nearly giving Smith a faceful of his taint. THE SALAMANDER is an interesting curio if for no other reason than that cast, all of whom are fine and do what's expected of them (Lee's smug, sinister Baldasur allows him to pull out almost every move in his "pompous prick" arsenal), but it proved to be one-and-done for Zinner as a director. After the film's failure, he returned to his regular job, earning an Oscar nomination for editing 1982's AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and several Emmy nominations for various TV gigs, including the epic 1983 ABC miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR and its 1988 sequel WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, winning for the latter. Zinner died in 2007 at 88.

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