Thursday, February 1, 2018

Retro Review: THE WITCHES (1967)

(Italy/France - 1967; US release 1969)

Directed by Luchino Visconti, Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Rossi and Vittorio De Sica. Written by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Cesare Zavattini, Age-Scarpelli, Bernardino Zapponi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Fabio Capri and Enzo Muzzi. Cast: Silvana Mangano, Clint Eastwood, Alberto Sordi, Toto, Annie Girardot, Francisco Rabal, Massimo Girotti, Ninetto Davoli, Veronique Vendell, Elsa Albani, Leslie French, Clara Calamai, Marilu Tolo, Dino Mele, Helmut Berger, Laura Betti. (Unrated, 111 mins; US version 104 mins)

Whether it was horror films like TALES OF TERROR, BLACK SABBATH, and DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS or international non-horror offerings like BOCCACCIO '70, YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW, WOMAN TIMES SEVEN, and SPIRITS OF THE DEAD, anthology films were popular box office draws throughout the 1960s. The concept was enthusiastically embraced by Italian and French directors, and these projects would often be a summit of legendary filmmaking talent: BOCCACCIO '70 featured segments from Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and Mario Monicelli, ROGOPAG assembled Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and relative historical footnote Ugo Gregoretti, while SPIRITS OF THE DEAD drew Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim. De Sica was a particular fan of the format, directing all three segments of the Oscar-winning YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW and all seven stories in the Shirley MacLaine-starring WOMAN TIMES SEVEN. Along with Visconti, Pasolini, Mauro Bolognini, and Franco Rossi, De Sica was also involved in the five-part anthology THE WITCHES, a Dino De Laurentiis production designed as a showcase for his wife, Italian actress Silvana Mangano. Making her mark when she was just 19 years old in Giuseppe De Santis' 1949 neo-realist classic BITTER RICE, Mangano was one of Italy's busiest actresses throughout the '50s and '60s, but she never broke out into international stardom like perceived rival Sophia Loren, the wife of Carlo Ponti, another big-time Italian mogul. Mangano starred in major Italian productions like 1959's TEMPEST and 1961's BARABBAS, but despite being married to one of the biggest producers in the world, she never appeared in a Hollywood movie until she emerged from a decade-long retirement in 1984 to play Reverend Mother Ramallo in David Lynch's DUNE.

THE WITCHES gives Mangano plenty of opportunities to show her range but ultimately, it's a disastrous vanity project with very little to recommend it, with the segments ranging from tolerable at best to excruciating endurance tests at worst. Visconti directs the first segment, "The Witch Burned Alive," a shrill and grating look at the trials and tribulations of stardom with Mangano as Gloria, a famous actress attending the ten-year anniversary party of her friend Valeria (Annie Girardot) and her philandering husband Paolo (Francisco Rabal). She gets drunk as the other partygoers revel in her embarrassing predicament, removing her makeup and some of her clothing while she's passed out and when she comes to, she's nearly seduced by Paolo before getting into an argument with her agent on the phone. Taking up an unacceptably indulgent 40 minutes (Visconti clashed with De Laurentiis over the segment and wanted to expand it to feature length), "The Witch Burned Alive" might be trying to say something about the sycophancy of fandom and the eagerness to take down celebrities, and as such, it's a potentially interesting precursor to the era of message boards and social media, but the execution is just painful. Bolognini directs the second segment, "Civic Spirit," with Mangano stuck in a traffic jam because of a car crash and offering to take the injured and profusely bleeding accident victim (Alberto Sordi) to the hospital. She passes several hospitals and clinics along the way and ultimately drops him off in the middle of the street when she arrives at her destination, having simply used him as an excuse to get where she was going a little quicker. The segment runs just five minutes and feels like a half-baked SNL skit, but it's amusing in a CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM sort of way, reminiscent of the episode where Larry picks up a prostitute in order to have the bare minimum number of passengers in his car to use the faster-moving carpool lane.

Even worse than Visconti's segment is Pasolini's "The Earth Seen From the Moon," with Mangano as a green-haired, deaf-mute beauty named Absurdity who becomes the object of affection for widower Ciancicato Miao (beloved Italian comic Toto in a Larry Fine wig/bald cap combo) and his orange-pompadoured son Baciu (Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli). Ciancicato and Absurdity eventually marry and he carries her off to his shack in the dilapidated shantytown he calls home. Pasolini seems to be going for a garish Fellini vibe here, but there's also a pronounced element of slapstick, with some sped-up Benny Hill-type running, the generally clownish performances and endless, shameless mugging of Toto and Davoli, along with a framed portrait of Chaplin that foreshadows Davoli's homage to the Little Tramp in Pasolini's 1972 film THE CANTERBURY TALES. Regardless of the intent, "The Earth Seen From the Moon" is Pasolini at his most insufferably self-indulgent. Things pick up with Rossi's "The Sicilian Belle," where Mangano has her heart broken, setting off a chain reaction of escalating revenge and shotgun deaths in her small village. It's basically a bunch of guys getting blown away, but like Bolognini's story, it benefits from running around five minutes, thus rendering it incapable of wearing out its welcome.

THE WITCHES was shot in late 1965 and early 1966 but wasn't released in Italy until 1967, and it would be another two years before it was picked up by United Artists, dubbed in English, and relegated to their short-lived foreign acquisition division Lopert for a very brief NYC run in the spring of 1969. It was quickly withdrawn and didn't resurface until 1979, when UA included the shortened English-dubbed version (104 minutes compared to the 111-minute European cut) in a late-night TV syndication package, but even then, it wasn't in regular rotation and remained extremely difficult to see. The only reason THE WITCHES is ever mentioned today is thanks to the unlikely appearance of Clint Eastwood in the final segment, the De Sica-directed "An Evening Like the Others." Eastwood is Carlo ("Charlie" in the US version), the buttoned-down, conservative bank executive husband of Mangano's bored housewife Giovanna. He's preoccupied with work and doesn't pay attention to her like he once did, and would rather stay in and go to sleep than take her to a movie. Giovanna drifts into Fellini-esque fantasy worlds where she's desired by other men and makes Carlo pay for not appreciating her. In the fantasy side of the segment, she ultimately leads a mob of men to a massive arena in Rome, where she does a striptease to emasculate a hapless Carlo. Other than the novelty of seeing Eastwood in such an unusual setting in the most obscure film of his career, the closing segment is another dud. Mangano is fine, but broad comedy is not Eastwood's specialty and he appears to be in physical pain stuck in a suit and black-rimmed reading glasses that serve as an unintentional early look at one of his FIREFOX disguises. Eastwood, who was paid $20,000 with a Ferrari thrown in, shot his segment in between FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. At this time, he was a major star in Europe, but when THE WITCHES was filmed, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was still over a year away from its belated 1967 US release. Eastwood was still a relative nobody stateside, best known as a TV star thanks to his time on RAWHIDE, which was cancelled in 1965. In Italy, however, he was already an established pop culture phenomenon, with De Sica poking fun at his "Man With No Name" image by having Carlo in gunslinger garb in one of Giovanna's fantasies and then sighing in disinterest at the meta notion of taking Giovanna to see A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

Silvana Mangano (1930-1989)
Over 1967 and 1968, United Artists distributed all three of Eastwood's Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns in the States, as well as HANG 'EM HIGH, his American debut as a lead on the big screen. All were smash hits, and as a result, UA effectively (and understandably) buried THE WITCHES despite showing Eastwood in a cowboy hat on the US poster art. Eastwood doesn't even appear until around 80 minutes in, but as bad as this is is, at least the final segment serves as required viewing for Clint completists. Just out on Blu-ray from Arrow Video's "Arrow Academy" prestige line (with both the Italian-language European cut and the English-dubbed US version), THE WITCHES flopped hard in Italy, but that didn't deter De Laurentiis from producing another Mangano-focused anthology film--with returning directors Bolognini and Pasolini, and cast members Toto and Davoli joined by Italian comics Franco and Ciccio--with 1968's CAPRICCIO ALL'ITALIANA, which was an even bigger box office bomb, and without a Clint Eastwood onboard, was never even released in America. THE WITCHES and CAPRICCIO ALL'ITALIANA failed to make Mangano the international star that Sophia Loren was, and the colossal failure of both films effectively ended her career as a leading lady. Mangano stayed busy in supporting roles in Visconti's DEATH IN VENICE, LUDWIG, and CONVERSATION PIECE, but after ending her acting sabbatical with DUNE, she only appeared in one more film, the 1987 Marcello Mastroianni drama DARK EYES. She and De Laurentiis divorced in 1988 after he became involved with longtime producing partner Martha Schumacher (FIRESTARTER, CAT'S EYE, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE). The grandmother of popular celebrity chef Giada De Laurentiis, Mangano was only 59 when she died of lung cancer in 1989, an iconic figure in Italian cinema who just never managed to find success outside of her homeland like the Sophia Lorens, the Gina Lollobrigidas, or the Claudia Cardinales of her day.

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