BluRay/DVD Reviews

INFERNO

By • Aug 24th, 2011 •

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I know that you all know that one of the most exciting cinematic experiences is the miraculous discovery of some lost treasure, whether in partial shape (Tod Browning’s THE UNKNOWN, or the Hitchcock film just found in New Zealand), or in the shape of excised footage or rushes (my THE MELTDOWN MEMOIRS,or the documentary accompanying Criterion’s release of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), or the enlarging of a pre-existing release after a millennia of inactivity (METROPOLIS, or John Wayne’s THE ALAMO).

INFERNO falls into the second category. Director-Co-Screenwriter Henri-George (DIABOLIQUE) Clouzot suffered a heart attack three weeks into a film that was giving everyone involved heart attacks for having to deal with his bizarre aesthetic concepts and general indecisiveness, and 300 cans of rushes and tests were squirreled away for well over thirty years. My only gripe with the Flicker Alley release is that it didn’t make clear that the ‘supplemental’intro’ by Serge Bromberg, the film collector/doc producer who spearheaded this project, is absolutely necessary to see first to create the most pleasurable way to enjoy the feature doc. His tale of ineffectively wooing Clouzot’s widow is most amusing, suspenseful, and exasperating, and then finally – cut to the doc, and the cliff-hanger ends well.

People were looking at footage from the film on You Tube for some time before it hit our shores, and the viral word-of-mouth was that it was some of the most unique and beautiful cinematography ever shot. Actress Romy Schneider (who would have been a great choice for a remake of CAT PEOPLE) stands swathed in swirling colored lights, their pin-points revolving in her eyes. I was certainly intrigued. And now, the verdict is in.

I think it would have been an excellent film, often jarringly subjective, experimental, not easily accessible to a mass audience. Clouzot (WAGES OF FEAR) had been impressed by Fellini’s 8 1/2 a year or two earlier, and not only was the Italian film highly experimental stylistically, it was Fellini’s own story, stuck in a mid-career/mid-life dilemma about what to do next and how to do it. The bold form of 8 1/2 imbeded itself in Clouzot’s mind as a goal to strive for, but the precise form his own film would take, which its American backer (Columbia Pictures) gave him financial carte blanche to determine, seemed utterly beyond Clouzot’s abilities to externalize. As part of this perfect psychological storm, free-floating visual artists were set adrift with their cameras and their film, to while away months upon months with only periodic visits from the director, creating new in-camera tricks to approximate the film’s overriding theme of jealousy. And once principal photography commenced, the cast and crew found themselves in a dreadfully similar position – they weren’t getting much assistance from the insomniac-plagued director, who brought in extra camera crews and strove to accelerate the pace accordingly. But it didn’t work. Nothing worked. The heart attack must have seemed a godsend to many of those on location. But sadly, the rushes look great. Clouzot was definitely on to something.

There are some talking-head sections, gussied up nicely with projection screen action in the background, during which people close to Clouzot during the production expound upon its disintegration. No one ever doubts his gift, or his vision, but his ability to pull it off was another story entirely. No one seems to feel he was capable of doing that essential directorial task, and they all are in agreement that he was taking the rest of them down with him, kicking and screaming (louder and louder as the days went by).

I am reminded of another doc from the 60s called THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS, which neatly covers the disaster that almost was I CLAUDIUS, directed by Joseph van Sternberg, produced by Alexander Korda, and starring Charles Laughton, Merle Oberon, and Emlyn Williams, in 1937. Marlene Dietrich, no longer creatively attached to Sternberg at the hip, but intensely concerned about his faltering career, offered to forgo her then-huge salary on a Korda film, provided the producer hire Sternberg to direct I CLAUDIUS. And then, as fate would have it, the film was never finished, nor did Dietrich get her forfeited salary.

As impressed as I am by INFERNO’s dazzling color footage, it’s the cleverly choreographed B&W shots that really left my jaw hanging. The camera follows an actor, then pulls away furtively, latching onto some other bit of action going on simultaneously, usually headed in another direction. The dislocating rhythm of these moves seems like a dominant stylistic choice, and one I haven’t seen used to such a degree anywhere else. It’s a great loss that this wasn’t finished. But it’s almost equally wonderful that it’s been saved and presented in terrific form in this documentary.

Included as a Supplemental is another doc, an hour long, called THEY SAW INFERNO with additional interviews and footage from the main doc, with more time devoted to how optical effects were done. Costa-Gavras, an Assistant Director on INFERNO, remembers it well, and extols what it could have been. An amusing story by one of the other participants describes a morning on an island, after which the crew left and forgot to take Clouzot and DP Claude Renoir with them. Renoir eventually swam for help. Also, speaking of swimming, there’s some great water-skiing footage of Romy Schneider in both docs, and it is revealed that in fact she couldn’t swim – as long as she was up on the skis she was fine. A very game lady.

Now let’s find Jack Cardiff’s outtakes from the 1953 CinemaScope WILLIAM TELL, starring Errol Flynn on the cusp of his decline, but still looking flamboyant. We’ve seen the stills, I’ve talked with Cardiff about it, and the prevailing opinion is that those frames are lost in the bog of time. But here’s INFERNO, back among the living after 45 years. Wouldn’t it be nice if…

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One Response »

  1. Hi,

    My name’s Chris from France. I am so interested in Flynn’s life and Career ( I read books, magazines, have (almost) the complete collection of his films.

    Since you have he chance to meet and talk to Jack Cardiff (great great ciematographer!!), do you know by any chance where the Jack Cardiff’s outtakes from the 1953 CinemaScope WILLIAM TELL are? I read it was “locked” in Boston’s university after Roddy McDowall passed away. (he who used to collect Flynn’s Home movies and would have had given them there)..legend?

    hoping to reat you soon

    best regards

    Chris.-

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