Sunday, September 20, 2015

DVR Diary: THE BASTARD (I bastardi, The Cats, Sons of Satan, 1968)

There's a small genre of Italian caper films from the late Sixties set and often filmed in the U.S., including Machine Gun McCain, They Came to Rob Las Vegas, and Duccio Tessari's I Bastardi, that are the nearest things to modern-dress spaghetti westerns. They reflect a fascination with modern-day American among imperialistic Italian filmmakers that found its most aggressive expression in Zabriskie Point. The Italian films share a critical fascination with American commercial art and architecture that make them arguably more valuable documents of what the country looked like than many Hollywood films. The other films like Bastardi presumably are less critical of American culture than Zabriskie, but is it possible that there are implicit criticisms of, or at least commentary on the culture in the more generic films? Commentary, I suppose, can be read into Tessari's casting of Rita Hayworth in his film, insofar as Hayworth was an icon of film noir by virtue of her title roles in Gilda and The Lady From Shanghai. It's definitely a sad commentary to see her here, clearly past her prime, playing a lush all too convincingly, though on the other hand this may be her last fully committed performance -- over the top, in fact, in a way I can't recall seeing her before. But how else could she convince us that she was Klaus Kinski's mother? She's more than convincing, in fact; Kinski is reduced to a straight-man in her presence, and not because he was phoning in his performance this time. But what could he do? In a typical scene Kinski is trying to have a conversation with Giuliano Gemma, who plays Kinski's half-brother and the default hero of the piece. They're seated on a sofa while Hayworth is parading and raving in the background, above their heads on the screen. She seems like comic relief at first, though seeing Hayworth this way isn't necessarily funny, but as the film goes on she develops into something more nearly opposite that.

Gemma and Kinski are crooks, sons of different fathers neither knew, bound by crime and mother-love. Otherwise they're rivals, with Kinski determined to muscle in on Gemma's latest score. Gemma is tough, Kinski clever. We see how clever when Kinski's gang finally seem to have Gemma and his girlfriend cornered. Where are the stolen jewels? Beating Gemma won't make him talk, so how about slapping his girlfriend around? How about yanking down her undies and teasing rape? Gemma can't allow that, so he spills -- and then he finds out that the girl was in cahoots with Kinski, or else had changed sides on the spot. Revenge would seem to be in order, but Kinski tries to preempt that by having the tendons of Gemma's shooting wrist severed, effectively paralyzing his right hand.

But when did mutilation get in the way of vengeance? Gemma stumbles into a new romance and gradually trains himself as a southpaw. Knowing that Kinski plans an armored-car heist, Gemma preempts him by planning his own operation with a counterfeit armored car. That's not vengeance enough, though; Gemma wants a definitive showdown, but Mom won't tell him where Kinski's laying low. Gemma figures it out from the return address on some of Mom's mail. Then a reunion with his old flame rekindles his old feelings -- and hers, it seems; she'll help set Kinski up for the kill. But we're not surprised to learn that she's still playing him for a sap; she's actually going to set Gemma up for Kinski to kill, and at this point Tessari and his two co-writers apparently realized that they'd plotted themselves into a corner.

The final scenes have a deus ex machina quality that ends up suiting the tragedy Tessari had in mind. Gemma's staying in a motel in a small New Mexico town near Kinski's hideout and just going to bed when he notices a suspicious movement. The suspicious movement is coming from the ceiling lamp. Soon the whole room is moving; an earthquake has shaken up everyone's plans. Hayworth learns from a poorly staged TV broadcast that an unprecedented quake for that region has killed thousands of people. These were the good old days of TV news; the anchor is on for about a minute with this ghastly news, and then he sends us back to the regularly scheduled program. But things don't go back to normal for Hayworth, since she realizes in screaming horror that her boy Kinski's in harm's way. Meanwhile, Gemma has gotten out of his motel deathtrap and is running through the desert to chez Kinski, now a ruin. His old flame has been snuffed, but Kinski is buried alive. Gemma rescues him, but only because he won't let anything deny him vengeance, not even God. But while he may insist on the final word on the whole matter, there are other interested parties who'll have something to say before the film is over.

Bastardi isn't Tessari's best work -- the Alain Delon vehicle Tony Arzenta is his masterpiece as far as I'm concerned, and his Chicago-shot Three Tough Guys is a pulpy guilty pleasure. The problem here is that Gemma (at least as dubbed into English) is a relatively dull hero or antihero, with little of the charisma he brings to other films I've seen, while Hayworth's antics overshadow everything and keep the tone uncertain until the end. Kinski comes off the best with a restrained performance reminiscent to me of the weaselly characters the young Kirk Douglas played in his earliest noirs, the twerp who temporarily outwits the noble lug. The tragic finish cinches the impression that Tessari had attempted a kind of updated, broad-daylight film noir, with a genre veteran (Hayworth) blessing/cursing the next generation of lugs, thugs and femmes fatales. The pieces don't quite fit together the way he hoped, but to an extent you can admire the ambition.

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