Probably the biggest mystery of Tinto Brass’ career is why he chose to move from commercial ventures like the spaghetti western (Yankee / Yankee l’americano), giallo and dramas to sexploitation in the early seventies, and then move on almost exclusively to softcore erotic comedies.
Cult Epics’ DVD release of Deadly Sweet / Col cuore in gola (1967) doesn’t clarify things, but the film as well as Brass’ fairly consistent commentary track shed light on a career phase few knew existed: he once made normal movies.
Well, not quite.
Brass remains a cheeky anarchist at heart, but he’s chosen to assess his career phases in two: “B.C.” (which focused on elements of death using grotesque humour to lighten up otherwise dour scenes) and “A.D.”, his current phase, wherein he chose to focus on love (mostly via the female bottom).
The two phases seems a bit broad, because even in glancing at his filmography, his career has gone through many stages: his early years in Italy, the handful of movies made during the London film boom during the swinging sixties, the sexploitation/hardcore years, and his current period that deals with things erotic and funny (including politically incorrect sexism, and an obsessive focus on the bare or pantied bottom). His budgets of the past few years have become increasingly miniscule, and yet from the tenor of his gravely voice on the DVD commentary track, it seems he’s quite content making small movies that hyper-fixate on things that make him laugh (and rise).
Back in 1967, Brass was apparently part of a wave of European talent that came to Britain and took advantage of the locale and the liberal filming atmosphere where, according to the director, one could run around the city with a film camera and shoot whatever one wanted so long as it didn’t create an upset; permits were minimal, fees were reasonable, and the image he describes is of a once-tolerant town.
Much has been said of the American studios who set up satellite operations in Britain and bankrolled a series of films – such as Privilege and The Penthouse (both 1967) – before pulling out and leaving the indigenous industry in freefall, but if films like Brass’ Deadly Sweet, Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971), and Enzo Castellari’s Cold Eyes of Fear / Gli occhi freddi della paura (1971) are any indication, Europeans were equally interested in transposing their own genres to ‘exotic’ London, and take advantage of the local atmosphere.
The difference among these three Italian filmmakers lies in their sensibilities: Castellari remained active in key genres throughout his career – western, giallo, and crime – whereas Fulci moved on almost exclusively towards horror, yet both directors treated death, torture, and cruelties with total seriousness; moments of torment were the high points in their films
As Brass explains, during the early fifties he grew up in a city where there were as many brothels as cinemas, and by placing the two recreational vices on equal footing, it also explains why there are satirical and grotesque elements in his work.
Deadly Sweet, though, is totally bereft of his standard visual fetishes: there are no butt shots, moments of crotch groping, or sets designed to resemble the female form, and that’s a shock considering those elements have been part of his canon for 33 years. In 1967, Brass was a cheeky agitator who didn’t want to follow stylistic rules and genre conventions.
If his giallo is a sample of his mindset during his London period, then as a director, he was a bit of an avant garde artist who liked to pitch absurd elements high, and pay homage to his peers, much like Godard and Truffaut riffed and honored their own respective film idols. He admits that making the heroine’s brother a commercial fashion photographer was a nod to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), and a seduction scene in the studio is a riff on the famous camera threesome between actors David Hemmings, Jane Birkin, and Gillian Hills.
Of course, being Brass, things are sillier. Ewa Aulin as Jane Burroughs (a reference to Jane Birkin?) does a striptease behind a white diffusion sheet, and Bernard (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is her de facto Tarzan, who plays the stock drum set with increasing fervor (filmed with an undercranked camera) until he tears off his clothes, swings through the sheet on a rope, and makes crumply love to Jane on the studio floor. (The film’s occasional narrator even attributes a quote – one of several peppering the film – to Antonioni, which made contemporary audiences giggle.)
Deadly Sweet is best regarded as a Hitchcockian thriller lensed by Godard after an espresso bender. The pacing is fast, but the actually story scenes could be reassembled into a 45 min. short because, being thin on plot and treating the characters as archetypes in a half-satire mode, much of the film consists of Bernard and Jane running or riding through parts of London, which naturally beget montages underscored by Armando Trovaioli’s organ jazz score. These sequences are outright fluff, and are the kind of light padding that wouldn’t be in a straightforward giallo. (Case in point, Fulci’s Lizard is larded with trippy and bloody flashbacks of well-endowed naked women rather than giddy lovers in a bird sanctuary.)
Dario Argento tried to lighten the mood in Deep Red / Profondo rosso (1974) by intercutting a goofy series of screwball seduction exchanges between the musician/teacher (again David Hemmings) and the annoying heroine (Daria Nocolodi), but by focusing on dialogue, the scenes were talky and very clumsy. Brass’ approach reduces such padding from clumsy expositional dialogue to cinematic simplicity – namely a chase – and maintains a loopy, buoyant mood by having his villains look silly: the leader has a Hitler moustache, and a midget sycophant likes to watch the emerging lovers from a distance. The emphasis is on the visual and musical, and that approach is often what buffers the moments when Brass is obliged to return to the plot since he’s still making a commercial film.
Those scenes include rescuing the heroine from a disintegrating London flat, a love scene, a bout of sadism at a dog racetrack, and the inevitable unmasking of the killer in the final reel, but even in those moments Brass chooses a visual and editorial style that he classifies as pop art, since the film is an explosion of commercial and graphic art and images.
In fact, in shooting the film almost gonzo style, Brass also captures the commercial and folk imagery of London far more naturally than expected. The street scenes (and even a tease sequence in a double-decker bus) are very docu-drama (particularly the obviously stolen shots of onlookers intercut as the lovers talk, argue, and pet themselves in the bus), but he also uses the footage to give the film a pulpy, comic book feel.
The rescue sequence was actually filmed to match storyboards by Italian artist Guido Crepax (creator of the Valentina series), and there are some simple in-camera and lighting effects that create moving comic panels as the two heroes, lover Bernard & Jane’s brother Jerome, make their way to the top floor. Just as unique are flash-cuts to fast-zooms of drawn words like ‘POW’ or ‘SMASH’ whenever someone is punched.
When scenes get nasty – as with the torture scene – Brass doesn’t show details, and instead uses multiple flash-edits of light bulbs and facial reactions; this approach also includes re-photographed workprint edits, with dirty splicing tape and harsh backlighting to boost the contrast.
Even today, Brass edits most of his films, but his collaborator in Deadly Sweet was Franco Arcalli, a brilliant cutter best-known for cutting Giulio Questi’s bizarro-giallo Death Laid an Egg / La morte ha fatto l'uovo the following year, and later editing Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist, The Last Tango in Paris, and 1900.
The rescue sequence is a major highlight because of the way sounds and images evoke the way we read a suspenseful sequence in a comic book: we re-read word blocks, retain flashes of drawn details to bridge and orient character movements between panels, and create our own flashes of sounds - something Arcalli and Brass exploit by cutting a banal 1-10 verbal countdown as a series of breathy flash edits between the linear shots that show the rescuers getting ready to burst into the room where the heroine lies half naked and tethered.
Brass admits the reason the film switches to black & white at times was due to the low-light locations – the rotting flat, the London subway system – that mandated faster film stock, but the shifts form a nice stylistic touch in a movie already exploding with graphic pop art.
There’s also some play with colour filters that give some scenes a hyper-reality. The simplest example is the aforementioned seduction/tease in the double-decker bus where the light from a changing signal lamp glows on Trintigant’s face; and the most elaborate has the camera placed behind an almost invisible wheel of multicolored gels in the nightclub where Bernard sees Jane on the dance floor. As the camera holds on Bernard’s POV, his mood is somewhat complimented (or perhaps teased) by the slow colour tints as red follows blue, enhancing the club’s already sexually energized atmosphere.
Deadly Sweet is maybe too loose in plotting, and the lack of a strong story means the Brass’ refreshing film technique becomes a bit tiresome around the midpoint, but it’s a unique giallo by deliberately not taking itself too seriously when most derivations rely on sex, nudity, sleaze, and violence to keep viewers interested. Brass was more interested in form and genre bending, and one does see elements of his signature style, which includes the use of primary colours in set design, a daring editorial style, the use of the zoom lens, and an obsession with masks – pictorial, statue, or human – as part of his fascination with voyeurism.
(Masks are particularly dominant in Caligula, and the theme of voyeurism is just as potent in Deadly Sweet, because Bernard is frequently seen peering through circular or rectangular orifices, much in the way Brass’ characters in his late career erotica look and gaze through windows, peepholes, or through visual aids.)
1967 was a pivotal year for several of the film’s participants: Aulin would appear next in the sex comedy Candy before co-starring with Trintigant in Questi’s Death Laid an Egg the following year; cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti (Sodom and Gomorrah) would go on to shoot most of Brass’ subsequent films; and Brass himself would make a few more London films before moving into outright sexploitation (Salon Kitty) and hardcore (Caligula).
Hopefully Cult Epics will release the director’s remaining London films and provoke the director into discussing how and why he chose to move away from genre standards into more controversial fodder that pretty much wrecked any chance of returning to mainstream cinema.
Brass doesn’t seem to have any regrets, but upon an invite to the U.S. where he was courted by a major studio, he was offered Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, a project he wanted to delay in favour of a more personal project, L’urlo / The Howl (1970). With the Burgess project dead, he returned to London and made two films with Blow-Up co-star Vanessa Redgrave, Drop-out (1970) and La vacanza / Vacation (1971). Exactly what transpired between 1971 and 1975 is something one hopes the director will address in Cult Epics’ next wave of DVDs.
For their Deadly Sweet DVD, Cult Epics have an uncut print that's roughly around 1.85:1, and while the colours and detail are consistent and fairly sharp, the PAL to NTSC conversion is a bit coarse, sometimes causing a faint moire pattern. In addition to the steady commentary track, there's a trailer, and a brief still gallery.
Other Tinto Brass releases from Cult Epics include Deadly Sweet / Col cuore in gola (1967), Attraction / The Artful Penetration of Barbara / Nerosubianco (1969), Howl, The / L’hurlo (1970), The Key / La Chiave (1983), Miranda (1985), All Ladies Do It / Così fan tutte (1992), Voyeur, The / L'Uomo che guarda (1994), Frivolous Lola (1998), Cheeky / Trasgredire (2000), and Private / Fallo! (2003).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan