Dennis-FearCurtain

A FINE PAIR AND THE LIMITS OF CLAUDIA LOVE


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This fall semester I started taking an Italian language class two evenings a week with my daughter, and Thursday night I was looking to decompress after our first big quiz. (Scores haven’t been revealed yet, but I think we did just fine.) So I started rummaging through my shelves and came across the Warner Archives DVD of Francesco Maselli’s A Fine Pair (1968), an ostensibly breezy romantic caper comedy which reteams Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale, a pairing their public was presumably clamoring for after their previous outing together in Blindfold (1965), a Universal programmer written and directed by Phillip Dunne, the screenwriter of, among many other notable movies, How Green Was My Valley. I’ve had a mad crush on Claudia ever since I first saw her in Circus World (1964) with John Wayne when I was but a youngster, and I always welcome the chance to visit movies of hers I haven’t yet seen. I was also hoping that she might speak a little italiano in A Fine Pair so I could bolster my current educational experience. As it happens she did, and I even understood some of what she was saying—a win all around, right? Well…

A Fine Pair features a typically nonsensical and, in the context of ostensibly breezy romantic caper comedies of the 1960s, fairly familiar sort of setup—Claudia’s an Italian jewel thief who travels to New York City to enlist the aid of Rock, a no-nonsense NYPD police captain and old friend of her father’s, in a scheme to contritely return the baubles she’s stolen from a prominent Austrian family before said family returns from an overseas trip so that she might escape punishment for her crimes. The thing that Rock doesn’t know is, the jewels Claudia’s claiming to have already stolen are fakes, and she means to use him to help her gain access to that Austrian family compound where she can pluck the real stash of gems.

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Will the self-serious police captain fall in love with his gorgeous, carefree, apparently amoral companion? Will the jet-setting lifestyle of the international jewel thief, and the added extra bonus of bedding and taking showers with La Claudia, eventually get good to Rock, compelling him to shed the trappings of his confining and molto convenzionale stateside mores? Will she unexpectedly fall in love with this relatively stiff and cranky hunk and suddenly feel pangs of remorse for luring him into a series of compromising criminal positions? Will the charming the couple prance around various stunning European locations, laughing, riding snowmobiles, drinking with abandon from le fontane di varie belle piazza? Will Rock find out he’s being used?

If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you’ll probably know the answers to these questions just like I did. But the prospect of ogling beauties like Cardinale and Hudson as they bop from the grit and bustle of New York City to the luxurious old-world cityscapes of Vienna and Rome on their sundry escapades holds a certain appeal, one that for some of us will be near irresistible. Unfortunately, director Maselli, best known for ripe dramas like Gli Indifferenti (A Time of Indifference; 1964), which cast Cardinale alongside Rod Steiger and Shelley Winters, and Codice Privato (1988) starring Ornella Muti, doesn’t seem all that interested in his glamorous stars, and he directs almost the entire movie as if he’s a rooftop or two separated from the main action, struggling to maintain interest and engagement.  He and his otherwise very talented cinematographer, Alfio Contini (Il Sorpasso, Zabriskie Point), have chosen to shoot nearly every situation, whether close-ups or master shots, with long lenses of varying extremity, and they deliver a movie filled with human and architectural splendor which has been interpreted with alarming distraction. Then, to compound the offense, they’ve turned the footage over to one Nicoletta Nardi, who by all appearances seems to have edited the picture in a dark closet with a tenderizing hammer and a meat cleaver. The result, exacerbated no doubt by Warner Archives’ decision to release the film in a grainy transfer cropped down from wide-screen Panavision, makes absolute hash not only of the locales, but also of simple one-on-one conversations between the actors. Maselli assembles his scenes with the basest regard for the fundamentals of continuity and pacing, and his camera always seems to be lunging and darting around, trying to follow the actors and keep them at least partially in the frame. A Fine Pair might just be the clumsiest and clunkiest attempt at frothy frolic I’ve ever seen.

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And given Maselli’s camera subjects, one might think a little lounging, some time to appreciate the lovely actors and their surroundings, would be appropriate, part of the design. But even when the movie does settle down, the lighting is often indifferent at best, impenetrable at worst, frustrating even the potential joy of luxuriating in all that apparently useless beauty. The movie’s central adventure sequence—the infiltration of that Austrian castle—is patently absurd on its surface and would never pass muster for audiences weaned on the sort of surreptitious high-tech shenanigans that are part and parcel of movies like Entrapment (1999) and the Mission: Impossible series. Rock deduces (because that’s what police captains do) that the castle is protected by a temperature-sensitive alarm system that can be disabled simply by heating up its cavernous halls. So, by some sort of fuzzily defined technological means, Rock hikes the temp up to about 190 degrees and the two sexy invaders get to work, he opening the safe where the jewels will be replaced, she seeking out the location of the treasure she really wants to get her hands on. But the heat ends up overwhelming them both and, this being a “sophisticated” romp, it’s not long before Claudia is down to her exquisite lace bra and panties, writhing on the floor in a pre-heat stroke-induced state of agony while Rock, thinking practically, douses her with a conveniently available bottle of seltzer water.

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God knows I have no objection to watching Claudia Cardinale soaking wet and undulating in her undies—the possibility of just such a spectacle might be one of the primary reasons a person like myself would ever be compelled to throw A Fine Pair (the jokes just write themselves, don’t they?) into his or her DVD player in the first place. But Maselli undermines even that base pleasure. He makes the cut-rate decision to indicate the intense heat radiating through the castle by tinting the frame red, because red makes you think, you know, “hot.” So the grandeur of Claudia and, in the spirit of fair play, eventually Rock both getting drenched under duress, a cinematic event which ought to least be imbued with some measure of good, dirty fun, ends up, under cinematographer Contini’s injudiciously grainy guidance, looking like a seedy Super-8 S&M porn film shot in a serial killer’s basement and lit by the dim glow of Rudolph’s nose. By the time Rock ends up dragging Claudia’s near-unconscious body out of the room and toward cooler climes, I found it necessary to turn my eyes away, as if I were seeing something truly transgressive, something I shouldn’t be seeing. To construct a scene like this so shoddily as to compel me to turn away from the sight of Claudia semi-nude, well, that ranks, if you’ll forgive me, as a cardinal, unforgivable sin in these blighted eyes.

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The one bright spot in A Fine Pair, other than the simple presence of Claudia Cardinale, comes courtesy of the lively champagne fizz of Ennio Morricone’s playful score, which at times gracefully creates the illusion of the good time the audience should be having. Rock Hudson looks trapped in the movie’s clutter, as if he hadn’t a clue what was being asked of him except to look tall and densely packed and vaguely grumpy. It’s up to the legendary Italian beauty to make this limp comedy seem less interminable than it inarguably does—90 minutes has hardly ever seemed like such an insurmountable sit—and she does as well with that task as any legendary Italian beauty possibly could.

As it stands, the picture is certainly for Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale completists only, and both actors would, with their very next films, come up with ample reward for the faithful having endured this one. Hudson would subsequently be featured in the sturdy blockbuster adventure Ice Station Zebra alongside Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown and Patrick McGoohan. And Cardinale, with the wind beneath her wings once again provided by Morricone, would fashion one of the most lyrical entrances in the annals of the movie western to begin her memorable appearance in Sergio Leone’s landmark masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. By any account those two films would be penance enough, and a much finer pair, despite the undeniable sex appeal of its two stars, than the one on display in Francesco Maselli’s fatally flaccid affair.

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A couple of weeks ago the BBC, that well-respected bastion of film culture, revealed its list of the 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century, as determined from the submissions of 177 film critics around the globe. Even more apparently random than the BBC commissioning such a poll is its timing—such grandiose subjectivity is usually reserved for the big anniversaries, like after 25, or 50, or maybe even after a hundred actual years have passed in a new century. But here we are, 16 years into this new one, and forces are already trying to marshal some sort of groundswell consensus of movie greatness.

Well, it all seems a bit early on, if you ask me. But on the other hand, the BBC didn’t ask me, did they? Frankly, I would have been damned surprised if they had, so much so that I probably would have registered my objections/confusion, however briefly, over the whole enterprise before excitedly going about filling out my ballot. And those that were asked were held to a list of 10 movies from which the ultimate list of 100 would be assembled. Well, the BBC’s top 10 alone features two movies (The Tree of Life and There Will be Blood) that wouldn’t even place in my top 100, and the rest of their top 10 features three that certainly would.

And since I like a silly list as much as the next critic who likes to complain about lists and pretend that she/he doesn’t enjoy making them, I decided to make my own variation on the BBC list. I couldn’t bring myself to label it “greatest” or “best” or anything like that—these are the movies released since 2000 that have meant the most to me and my movie-going experience in those 16 years. Nor did I feel compelled to stick to just 10. Like the BBC, I can be random too—if suddenly 2016 is the time we start bloviating about the greatest films of the century, then I can make a list as long as I want. I pick, um…. 40! For extra credit, you can even compare my list with the BBC’s and see for yourself just how out of touch I am with critical consensus! Think of the fun you’ll have declaring what a low-brow jackass I am!

Here then is a list of the 40 movies that have meant the most to me since the advent of the 21st century, in alphabetical order:

Antichrist (2009; Lars von Trier)

Birth (2004; Jonathan Glazer)

Boyhood (2014; Richard Linklater)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011; Joe Johnston)

Chi-raq (2015; Spike Lee)

CSA: Confederate States of America (2005; Kevin Wilmott)

Death Proof (2007; Quentin Tarantino)

Femme Fatale (2002; Brian De Palma)

Gerry (2003; Gus Van Sant)

Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem (2015; Ronit Elkabetz, Shlomo Elkabetz)

Gosford Park (2001; Robert Altman)

Grizzly Man (2005; Werner Herzog)

Holy Motors (2012; Leos Carax)

Idiocracy (2006; Mike Judge)

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In the Mood for Love (2001; Wong Kar-wai)

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Inglourious Basterds (2009; Quentin Tarantino)

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013; Joel and Ethan Coen)

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Jackass: The Movie (2002; Jeff Tremayne)

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006; Clint Eastwood)

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003; Joe Dante)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003; Thom Andersen)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015; George Miller)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015; Guy Ritchie)

Maps to the Stars (2015; David Cronenberg)

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Meek’s Cutoff (2011; Kelly Reichardt)

Mulholland Dr. (2001; David Lynch)

No Country for Old Men (2007; Joel and Ethan Coen)

O.J.: Made in America (2016; Ezra Edelman)

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014; Jim Jarmusch)

Perfect Sense (2011; David Mackenzie)

Premium Rush (2012; David Koepp)

Room 237 (2013; Rodney Ascher)

Seed of Chucky (2004; Don Mancini)

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A Serious Man (2009; Joel and Ethan Coen)

Speed Racer (2008; The Wachowski Brothers)

True Grit (2010; Joel and Ethan Coen)

25th Hour (2002; Spike Lee)

Under the Skin (2014; Jonathan Glazer)

The Witch (2016; Robert Eggers)

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Zodiac (2007; David Fincher)

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