Sunday, January 19, 2020
QUEEN OF THE HIGH SEAS (Le Avventure di Mary Read, 1961)
Best known for horror films, Umberto Lenzi began his career making period swashbucklers, starting with this 1961 outing inspired by the crossdressing pirate of the Caribbean, Mary Read. The film takes almost nothing from the little actually reported about Read, apart from her being a pirate and occasionally dressing in men's clothes. Her cohorts Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham don't appear in this picture, which seems to be set a few generations before Read's own time. Mary (Lisa Gastoni) is introduced in England as an aspiring master thief, attended by mentor/sidekick Mangiatrippa (Agostino Salvietti). Temporarily taken prisoner, she meets cute, within the confines of her male disguise, with wastrel aristocrat Peter Goodwin (Jerome Courtland). Goodwin will later be tasked with taking down the infamous pirate Captain Poof, not knowing that this is none other than Mary, whose true identity he eventually discovers. It wasn't always this way; once upon a time, believe it or not, there was a man named Captain Poof, but having accepted Mary as part of his crew, there soon was not enough room on his ship for two domineering personalities. Almost as a matter of course, Mary kills Poof and takes his place and his name. Having already proven herself an omnicompetent sailor, she soon demonstrates her mastery of pirate strategy to a crew initially reluctant to transgress beyond Poof's privateering mandate. In time, "Captain Poof" becomes the terror of all nations, but Mary eventually must choose to love or kill Peter Goodwin. Queen actually was Gastoni's Italian film debut, the Italo-Irish actress having spent her teen years in England and breaking into film there. She went on to do a number of swashbucklers, as well as some of Antonio Margheriti's sci-fi films, and I'm curious now to see whether those later films followed Queen's example and allowed Gastoni to be an action heroine. While the historical Read seems to have been little more than Jack Rackham's psycho doxy, Lenzi's protagonist is a virtual superwoman, at least by the standards of Sixties Euro-genre movies, as well as an irresistible charmer. Lenzi himself looks impressive as an (almost) first-time director. Whatever its budget, Queen appears to have better production values than many of Hollywood's soundstage-bound potboiler pirate movies of the previous decade. It may not have the intensity of violence Lenzi would later be known for, but it's still more energetic than many of its genre contemporaries. I suppose he would have been recognized as a promising talent, though the fulfillment of that promise would take forms unanticipated here.