A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
Many decades ago I heard a comment made by a respected scholar, and affirmed by a graduate student whom he later hailed as England’s greatest film critic, concerning the merits of destroying all films that did not live up to any canonical cinematic Great Tradition definitions. They both believed that MGM was correct in its attempt to destroy all copies of Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight (1940) so that the 1944 remake would suffer no comparisons to its supposed superiority. Although I often feel the same way about films such as Toxic Avenger and most of Quentin Tarantino’s work, my rational side feels that preservation of everything is important since cultural standards often change over the years and new perspectives emerge. This was the key argument recently made by Phillip Gillett in his book Forgotten British Film. I also remember a comment made by the late Professor Herbert Marshall whom I met in SIUC when I arrived in the 80s. He mentioned that it was easy to be an expert on world cinema in the 1930s when so many works were not available. These are important arguments since lack of availability or poorly available copies of certain films easily prejudice viewers as to the merits of certain directors and films. Though I would need a lot of convincing about Toxic Avenger and The Hateful Eight – but would never advocate their destruction.
In the light of this introductory paragraph, I must acclaim the diligent scholarly work of Roberto Curti as well as a pioneering publisher that has brought out so many important books in the past that would be dismissed by prestigious companies who prefer instead to inflict dubious and unreadable products on an unwary readership as well as sectors of an academic community indulging in nostalgic intellectual denial (a case in point). Should one accept the comments made in this first cited example above one would lose not only access to works that now appear to be important but also books arguing in defense of talents often arbitrarily rejected. In Riccardo Freda: The Life and Works of a Born Filmmaker (McFarland, 2017), Curti has written an impressive work characterized by persuasive prose, well-researched footnotes, and bibliography/filmography in terms of a director whose work is relatively unknown outside areas of the European film community and American experts such as Tim Lucas and others. While critically aware of Riccardo Freda’s personal failings and cinematic misfires, Curti has written an important study that has not only contributed to my searching out other films by the director in addition to Caltiki The Immortal Monster, but also revealed a very significant talent who does not deserve solitary confinement to Italian Gothic horror for which he is most well-known, good as these films are. This study stimulates discovery or re-discovery of this director dependent on one’s background. It is also the first book that questions certain observations contained in Tim Lucas’s equally well-researched study of Mario Bava, but I will leave it to further debate as to who may become Richard Jaeckel or Skip Homeir in a situation that may resemble opening and closing scenes in Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950).
Following acknowledgements and introduction, the book contains fourteen detailed chapters rounded off by an epilogue sadly depicting a talent in his declining years still capable of offering much more to his industry, as various references to un-filmed projects reveal. Born in Egypt to a wealthy family in 1909, the future director later described himself as a “born filmmaker” possessing an iconoclastic personality and vision that took issue with many of the prevailing trends of his days, such as the Italian Neo-Realism that he detested. “I don’t care about cold films, literary films, films that lack participation, films that do not take the audience into account. Those I wanted to make are films that the crowd takes part in, films that are able to arouse it” (2). In other words, he was a visceral filmmaker attracted to several genres, most notably the Gothic, Thriller, and Epic that he always managed to make his own whether with talented collaborators such as Mario Bava (seen in this scene from Spartaco, 1953) or other equally accomplished colleagues behind or before the camera such as his Hitchcock/Hawksian muse Gianna Maria Canale or Barbara Steele, with whom he would make the remarkable L’Orrible Segreto del Dr. Hichcock (1962) and Lo Spettro (1963).
Freda’s available work is well searching out whether in restored DVD or Youtube. Even non-English subtitled films such as I Miserabili (1948) with Gino Cervi as Valjean and German-Jewish exile Hans Hinrich playing Javert in a manner foreshadowing Freda’s later damned Gothic character, Spartaco (1953), and I Vampiri (1957) are worth watching for moments of breath taking visual style mostly absent from today’s impoverished cinema. Freda knew the visual achievements of both silent and classical sound cinema often employing influences in his own works that were never derivative but appropriately transformative. His technique resembled Charles Willeford’s appropriation of Franz Kafka and Henry Miller as described by Don Herron in his informative freewheeling biography appropriately produced by an independent publisher since it is as uncanonical as most of Freda’s greatest achievements. “The way he actually used all these influences was not mere imitation, as it was in the case of so many other writers now forgotten…He chose to adapt the thoughts and styles to his own needs” (1).
What attracts any viewer is Freda’s proficiency in directing both big budget and low budget films of several genres, not just horror. He revealed frequent ability to utilize striking camera movement and distinctive lighting to many memorable scenes in several films. The lighting in these extracts from Le sette spade del vendicatore (1962), starring Brett Halsey, is little short of extraordinary. Learning his craft in the 1930s, Freda in his early film Don Cesare di Bazan (1942) introduces a particular type of tracking shot that will become one of his distinctive signature techniques emphasizing dynamic movement and emotional resonance: “The camera moves like a living presence, passing behind groups of people while exquisitely crossing the whole environment, and the scene if choreographed like a fresco, with different depths of field and a keen eye on composition and the movement of extras” (33; see also Curti’s description of the 360 degree mobile crane shot in the 1945 comedy Tutta la citta canta on p.45).
Freda knew, or intuitively sensed, the significant work of predecessors and peers such as Dreyer, Ford, and Hitchcock. He often visually referred to them in a similar manner to as Charles Willeford did to his influences but employed them in the most unlikely generic situations. Curti sees Dreyer and Hitchcock influences in Il Figlio di d’Artagnan (1950) starring Freda’s brunette equivalent to the Hitchcock blonde – Gianna Maria Canale (80) and the ageing Duchess du Grand in I Vampiri is modelled on the old lady in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) with the witch burning sequence in Maciste all ‘inferno (1962) evoking The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Day of Wrath (1943), as Curti suggests (130, 163). Ford citations are prolific possibly due to Freda’s love of horses and Ford’s association with westerns. Stagecoach (1939) appears a popular reference from the beginning of Freda’s career onwards, as in Don Cesare di Bazan (in which Curti also sees influences of Griffith, Murnau, and Lang; on p.33), La vendetta di Aquila Nera (1946), Il Conte Ugolino (1949), The White Warrior (1961), and his only Italian Western La Morte non Conta I Dollari (1967). Misspellings as in the title of Dr. Hichcock and the surname of another character in Lo Spettro fool nobody since “The Master of Suspense” was a key influence not only on Freda but later Gothic/Giallo disciples such as Dario Argento, so much so that Freda repays the compliment in referring to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) dark gloves and costume in his last film Murder Obsession (1981). Klaus Kinski undergoes several Rebecca (1940) haunting moments reworked by the director in Das Gesicht im Dunkeln (1969) as well as a two Freda signature red lighting sequences. Despite the fact that actor and director did not get along (no surprise, knowing Klaus!) Freda changes Klaus’s usual persona from murderous psycho into “haunted man” very similar to Humphrey Bogart in Conflict (1945) and the close-up of handcuffs towards the end is certainly another nod to Hitchcock. Like Ford, Hitchcock is there from the beginning as Curti notes concerning certain parts of Il Cavaliere Misterioso (1948), Il Tradimento (1951) Caccia all’uomo (1961), Roger la Honte (1966), and Murder Obsession as well as his dark Gothic horror explorations in Dr. Hichcock and Lo Spettro. Not even Shakespeare was safe from Freda’s generic reworkings. Curti notes (209, 206) that Freda’s version of Romeo and Juliet (1964) not only contains some Hitchcock elements but also begins very much like a Western with a possible link to Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) well before the release of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Freda was later known for his abilities involving creativity on a shoestring – assuming he was interested in the project in the first place – but he often brought this imaginative process to high- as well as low-budget projects and provided some very unique cinematic moments in his work.
Described as “an individualist” who “looked at politics and organized religion, the foundation of organized societies, with barely dissimulated annoyance” (4) Freda often filled old generic bottles with new wine shaping “a new genre out of nothing, like a sculptor turns inanimate rough matter into a fully proportioned figure” (127) overthrowing previous conventions creating new generic worlds of gods and monsters as he did with so many diverse films such as the earlier Don Cesare di Bazin (1942) and Aquila Nera (1946), I Vampiri, the necrophilia world of Dr. Hichcock, marriage as a cinematic cannibalistic battleground in Lo Spettro. His final Gothic film, Murder Obsession (1981), reveals Freda not regarding the style as hesitant in the way Andrew Britton examined it in his essay “The Devil Probably” (2). Curti’s description suggests the potential for a fertile debate over the validity of this particular cinematic and literary device.
On Murder Obsession, the director returned to the primordial core of his conception of Gothic: a family melodrama, excessive and morbid, soaked with psychoanalytic undertones, in which the horror blossoms and feeds on the dynamics of parental relationships…`The story nevertheless interested me. What can happen in our tragic childhood? What are the consequences when guilt and murder mingle?’ the director observed, while offering a psychoanalytic reading to his film. The weight of the past is connected to a horrific primary scene that is repeated twice – half-Rashomon, half-Marnie – to bring to the surface the torments of the unconscious which previously took the shape of grotesque nightmarish creatures. Freda’s ultimate mockery is to load his unhappy Oedipus with a burden of guilt that is not his own…To Freda, as it has ever been, evil is a vital part of human nature, and as such it will always win. (277)
This is less nihilistic than it seems, but more a recognition of destructive forces existing in the world, internally and externally, that Freda’s better films depict in one way or another.
Riccardo Freda’s work is full of many moments that transcend their generic framework. Although he directed only one Italian Western, several of his earlier films contain moments that evoke a particular use of action and generic infusion always threatening to take over the entire film. In the opening scenes of I Miserabili, Valjean (Gino Cervi) attempts to escape on a mine carriage pursued by prison guard horsemen reminiscent of a Western posse. One of the most exciting sequences in the same film involves the battle between troops and 1848 revolutionaries, In Il Cavaliere Misterioso, Freda films a Russian bear hunt against a snowy landscape with some of Catherine the Great’s servants leading the chase on skis. Later, in the film, Casanova attempts to escape pursuing Cossacks against a snowy mountainous region, anticipating scenes in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952) and The Far Country (1954) in the same way that Christian Jacque’s French film noir Voyage sans Espoir (1943) anticipates both post-war American noir as well as having camera movements that would have made Hitchcock jealous if he ever had seen them. These operate in the same way that the horseman scenes in Sergio Leone’s The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) starring a perpetually smirking Rory Calhoun anticipate the director’s later achievements in redefining the western genre.
From his early post-war films onwards, the Gothic that Freda would develop in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and its successors is never far away. The expressionist use of red filters certainly anticipates Hitchcock’s techniques in Marnie (1964) intimating that either bizarre minds think alike or one Master has borrowed from another. Il Cavaliere opens with a torture chamber scene showing the hero’s brother stretched on the rack in Gothic noir visual imagery. It will end with a long shot of the Palace San Marco with the hero walling into the distance. But the sunny location conclusion cannot disavow the melancholic aura of the previous scene where Casanova recognizes that he has lost his only true love to an enemy he can never defeat – Death.
As well as accomplishments in terms of visual style, much of Freda’s work contains many powerful evocative moments and it is these elements that reward seeking out his films on Youtube and elsewhere. Even the otherwise dreary The White Warrior contains isolated moments of pleasure not just in the performance of Gerard Herter (first seen in low-angle shot attempting to drill his pet dog like a deranged Erich von Stroheim) whose villain is far more interesting than Steve Reeves but also in the hero’s escape on horseback, disrupting a Tsarist Grand Ball and passing a rose to the more interesting heroine played by Scilla Gabel who frequently uses her court connections to save the career of her incompetent husband Herter revealing the director’s equestrian interests combined with the action we have all been waiting for in the finale. Although Freda was later known for “creativity on a shoestring” in terms of the lower budgets he had to work with on later films, many instances of iconoclastic inspiration often occur in his earlier films such as Aqila Nera that opens with a battlefield scene borrowing footage from Michael Curtiz’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and ends with a horseback duel between hero and villain (3). As Curti notes, “As usual, his heart was in the action scenes” (89) as well as an explicit nude bathing scene edited out from the 1954 dubbed American release version The Vengeance of the Black Eagle, which also anticipates his later use of this feature when censorship codes relaxed.
Freda is a director whose work deserves further exploration and it is to Curti’s credit that he has begun this process for those of us coming late to his work. The next stage must be the production of digitally remastered copies of his films since Freda is definitely a neglected talent whose work requires greater accessibility in terms of seeing a broader picture of post-war Italian cinema than has hitherto been the case. Excavation is always important for significant material to be unearthed. It must be preserved and not rejected in terms of any critical perspective that may prove arbitrary and limited in future decades.
1. Don Herron, Willeford. Tucson, AZ: Dennis McMillan Publications, 1997, p.94.
2. Andrew Britton, “The Devil, Probably: The Symbolism of Evil.” The American Nightmare. Eds Robin Wood and Richard Lippe. Toronto: Festivals of Festivals, 1979, pp.34-42.
3. Pointed out by Mike Nevins who loaned me his American released dubbed copy of the film on my visit to St. Louis, June 18, 2017.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh UP, 2016).