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Ulysses, La Strada and Popeye: Jim Hemphill’s Home Video Recommendations, Holiday Edition

La Strada

One of the more interesting periods in the history of Italian cinema is the era of international co-productions that followed neorealism; kicked off by the massive success of MGM’s 1951 extravaganza Quo Vadis, the Italian film industry entered a boom age in which the location shooting, social consciousness, and limited resources of neorealism gave way to spectacular sets, glamorous Hollywood stars, and lavish budgets thanks to the country’s abundance of breathtaking scenery and attractive production incentives. One of the most expensive and entertaining of the 1950s historical epics was Ulysses (1954), a gorgeously photographed and cleverly written adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey from producers Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis starring Kirk Douglas in the title role. (It’s now out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber with an outstanding commentary track by Italian film expert Tim Lucas.) The movie was a dream project of G.W. Pabst, who planned it for years and was slated to shoot the picture in 3-D, but for whatever reason he dropped out late in the game and Italian journeyman Mario Camerini stepped in to direct. Camerini had made his name in the 1930s as a pioneer of “white telephone” movies, a subgenre of comedy that gave Camerini a reputation as the Lubitsch of Italy; his light touch and interest in relationships carries over into Ulysses in interesting ways, particularly in scenes between Kirk Douglas and the various women in the picture – an extended sequence in which he is seduced by a sorceress has an amusingly witty, down to earth flavor that coexists nicely with the film’s enormous sense of spectacle. In general, Ulysses is a movie of odd tonal combinations and extreme shifts in scale, probably due to the large number of cooks in the kitchen; there are seven credited writers on the project, including Hollywood legend Ben Hecht and noted author and playwright Irwin Shaw, and by all accounts Kirk Douglas and others tried to exert as much power over the project as Ponti and De Laurentiis. Whether by design or accident, the cacophony of voices yields satisfying results, as the idiosyncrasies of Ulysses are what make it compelling. 

The same year that Ulysses was released, Ponti and De Laurentiis produced a far less expensive but ultimately more impactful film, Federico Fellini’s La Strada – which also happened to share a star (Anthony Quinn) and editor (Leo Cattozzo, who would go on to cut a number of Fellini pictures) with Ulysses. La Strada was the movie that really put Fellini on the international map, and though its rugged rural setting feels closer to neorealism than it does to the polished grandeur of Ulysses, in fact it was one of Fellini’s first steps away from the tradition in which he had made his name. While the neorealist classics Fellini worked on as a screenwriter, like Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, centered on economic problems, La Strada was more concerned with emotional and spiritual dilemmas – a shift in focus that led leftist critics of the time to view Fellini as a traitor. Of course, they hadn’t seen anything yet – after La Strada Fellini’s work would grow increasingly introspective in subject matter, zeroing in more and more on the director’s own fantasies and neuroses and less on any kind of discernible contemporary reality. Yet at the same time Fellini also, with his increasing commercial success, was able to work on larger and larger canvases, creating his own version of the Ponti/De Laurentiis-style spectacles with 1960s masterpieces like and Fellini Satyricon – he was both the most epic and the most insular auteur of his time. La Strada, , Satyricon and a dozen other Fellini pictures are all included in Criterion’s new Essential Fellini boxed set, an exemplary package that is required viewing for Italian cinema enthusiasts and Fellini partisans. While Criterion has released many of these movies before, there are also several new titles here, such as the 1955 crime picture Il Bidone and Fellini’s penultimate film, Intervista, along with previously out of print pictures like Nights of Cabiria. Taken together with the wealth of supplementary materials that accompany each disc, the films selected provide a hugely edifying opportunity to study the arc of a great career, and to see how that career intersected with and deviated from norms of the Italian film industry at the time.      

Fellini disciple Robert Altman’s most Fellini-esque movie, the spirited 1980 musical comedy Popeye, is also newly available on Blu-ray. Working from a script by cartoonist and Carnal Knowledge scribe Jules Feiffer, Altman is surprisingly faithful to the mythology established by E.C. Segar’s comic strips while still bending the material to his will; in its tale of an outsider arriving in an insulated community of eccentrics, Popeye plays like a Disney version of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and the busy ensemble mise-en-scène, cacophonous sound design and lively widescreen framing are consistent with the aesthetic Altman established in classics like MASH and Nashville. As played by Robin Williams, Popeye is another of Altman’s hapless misfits who enters a corrupt world that refuses to accommodate his purity; the difference between Popeye and The Long Goodbye or McCabe is one of slight tonal shifts, as Altman moves away from the tragedy and irony of his earlier pictures toward a more childlike and fanciful perspective. He’s helped along in this regard by a stellar array of collaborators that includes not just Feiffer and Williams (as well as familiar faces from Altman’s stock company like Paul Dooley, hilarious here as Wimpy), but cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, production designer Wolf Kroger, and songwriter Harry Nilsson. (One of the many musical highlights is Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl singing “He Needs Me,” the song Paul Thomas Anderson repurposed so effectively in Punch Drunk Love.) At the time of Popeye’s release its qualities were overshadowed by stories of its chaotic production in Malta – the entertainment press reported on its schedule and budget problems with such glee and frequency that the film wrongfully developed a reputation as a bomb. (In fact, it made more than double its cost at the box office, making its inclusion in books like James Robert Parish’s Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops lazy at best and willfully misleading at worst.) 40 years later it’s possible to fully appreciate Popeye for what it is: a beautifully proportioned blend of personal expression and popular entertainment, and a jubilant vehicle for Williams’ considerable talents. The Paramount Blu-ray contains several excellent making-of featurettes by Keith Clark and Julie Ng that add to the fun. 

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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