Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Master Touch

Un Uomo Da Rispettare, which translates as A Man To Respect, is a 1972 Italian-German co-production, directed by Michele Lupo and starring Kirk Douglas, Florinda Bolkan and Giulano Gemma. The film did not open in the United States until May 1974, but when it did it came out as the somewhat more action-oriented and strangely sexually titled The Master Touch. Probably no one here ever saw it.

In it, Steve (Kirk Douglas) is a master thief who, immediately upon being released from a three-year prison sentence, is approached by a Hamburg crime lord called Miller (Wolfgang Priess) to steal $1 million of premium payments from the International Insurance Company. Steve declines the offer since his previous turn at working for Miller is what landed him in jail in the first place. But Steve begins to plan the robbery on his own against the wishes of his wife, Anna (Florinda Bolkan). He enlists the aid of (rather oddly) a circus trapeze artist named Marco (Giulano Gemma) and plots a fool-proof way to rob the insurance company while diverting attention away from the fact that his is “the master touch” that pocketed the funds.

The film fascinates in what was then-current technology, much as Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes did the year before, and how an old-fashioned caper is not be outdone by mere new-fangled technology. A “master touch” is all it takes. But, like all caper films of note, particularly the existential caper films of Jean Pierre Melville or Henri Verneuil, a successful job never secures a successful end. The idea of doing something dangerous on your own against the more powerful people whose idea it was in the first place also has a neat Wall Street parallel in the brilliant yet little-known cable TV film Barbarians at the Gate (1993).

The film is rife with many beguiling moments, but is notable for several key elements. First of all, the actors are all pros at the top of their game. They not only convince you these people exist, but they make you care for what’s happening to them. Kirk Douglas is superb. He brings a gravity that only an old-school Hollywood actor can, playing his gentleman bandit (for the most part) with a twinkle in his eye and some tears that can’t be seen. The beautiful Florinda Bolkan, who has the thankless role as “the woman” or the “long-suffering wife” here, is magnificent as always; saying more in a glance or a look than her excellent command of English ever could. She is, to my mind, one of cinema’s finest actresses but her choice of many genre parts – all of which she plays with tremendous aplomb – has probably unfairly marginalized her from serious consideration as a great artist.

Like Bolkan, other strong genre regulars inhabit the seemingly seedy film such as Wolfgang Priess (The Bloodstained Butterfly, The Fifth Cord) as the crime boss Miller, Romano Puppo (Street Law, The Big Racket, Gangbuster) as Miller’s henchman and character favorite Bruno Corazzari (Seven Blood Stained Orchids, Puzzle, The Cynic The Rat and The Fist) as Eric, the Stan (John Cazale) from The Conversation-like electronics expert who provides Steve with his gear.

Undoubtedly, however, one of the most memorable sequences here is the unbelievably realistic looking car chase that happens 37 minutes into the film. The chase, which surely ranks among cinema’s most breath-taking, is staged with such verisimilitude – long before computers could make things look this real – that you’re inclined to gasp, wince and want to look away many times throughout the six-minute sequence. The only problem is that the chase is precipitated not by the good-guys dogging the bad-guys a la Bullitt or The French Connection but by a childishly petulant grudge held by a very un-smart thug, who seems to have plenty of time from his henchman duties to nurse his tortured little feelings and, oh, trash, the on-again/off-again rainy streets of Hamburg and nearly slaughter half its population. Still, while the chase often threatens to become ridiculous, it makes for some truly remarkable cinema.

The film was directed by Michele Lupo (1932-89), one of Italy’s many genre directors, in a rather flat style that can only be called workmanlike. He relies on the strong presence of his actors, the strong sense of location that Hamburg naturally provides and the particularly graceful way Tonino Delli Colli (1922-2005) photographs it all. Yes, it’s a hack job. But all of these plusses negate Lupo’s fairly pedestrian take on the proceedings.

The cinematography is probably what makes this film so singularly mesmerizing. Tonino Delli Colli (1922-2005), who shot many of the well-known films of Federico Fellini, Pier Paulo Pasolini and Sergio Leone, is particularly adept here where architecture is concerned. He leaves the actors to the director, which means the actors are pretty much on their own throughout. Delli Colli’s camera swoops around the insurance building (at times visually quoting Louis Malle's fateful caper film Ascenseur pour l'echafaud/Elevator to the Gallows), the pawn shop, the interior of Steve and Anna’s drab little house and Marco’s circus tent with a sure hand that constantly evokes some sort of chill, recalling the cool architectural finesse photographer Vittorio Storaro lent to the giallo Giornata near per l’ariete/The Fifth Cord (1971) (also effectively scored by Ennio Morricone) and the strong sense of architecture present in the recent film The International. Delli Colli, on the other hand, films these places in such a way that brings out their utter lack of personality and total lack of warmth or human feeling. The only place that has any love in it – the house that Anna and Steve share – Steve considers to be “a dump” and allows Marco to invade without any thought whatsoever to Anna.

Another one of the film’s superior advantages is Ennio Morricone’s sad, nearly fatalistic score. Appropriately located somewhere between the romantic and crime thriller styles his music was exhibiting to excess at the time, Morricone properly scores The Master Touch like a film noir, with a trumpet echoing through a long, dark night of the soul. One can almost feel the icy sting of a cold morning rain, just before sun-up and the miserable fate that probably befalls us all in Morricone’s plaintive trumpet wailing. In my estimation, Morricone’s main theme, “Un Uomo da Rispettare,” is among the ten or eleven best main themes he’s ever done for a film. To wit, it can be heard, in its full eleven and a half minute glory on the excellent 2005 Ipecac Morricone compilation titled Crime and Dissonance.

A soundtrack album to Un Uomo da Rispettare featuring nine tracks, totaling about 36 minutes of music, was issued in Italy in 1972 on CBS Records. It features the entrancing eleven and a half minute title track; the ballad titled “A Florinda” (the first of the two tracks with this title), the sadly romantic theme used for the argument/discussion scenes between Anna and Steve (perfect to hear how Morricone scores a breaking heart); “L’Incarico,” a brief but welcome jazz version of the main theme; and “18 Pari,” one of Morricone’s great breezy bossas (which I don’t recall hearing in the film). A CD using the same great cover graphics (shown above) and the same track line up was issued by Sugar Music in Japan in 1995. The album was also issued in 2002 in Italy on the Hexacord label and three tracks from the soundtrack (“Prima di Lasciarla,” “A Florinda” and “18 Pari”) appear on the 2005 Dagored compilation titled The Library Vol. 1: Ennio Morricone. Suffice it to say, all of these recordings may be hard to find now, but the title track appearing on Crime and Dissonance is currently available from iTunes.

It’s not a great film. It’s not even one of the better films attached to Kirk Douglas, Florinda Bolkan, Tonino Delli Colli or Ennio Morricone. But Un Uomo Da Rispettare/The Master Touch is worth savoring for the contribution, if not collaboration, of each of these cinematic masters.

About the DVD: Unfortunately, it seems The Master Touch has fallen into public-domain hell where free-market devils banking on Kirk Douglas’ name are legally able to produce endlessly awful versions of the film, which probably deserves much, much, MUCH better treatment.

There are many different versions of this film currently available on DVD and most of them are hardly worth the effort – even at five or ten bucks a pop. The copy I finally secured after much trial and tribulation is the Passion Productions version, issued in early 2002. The box art, pictured above, is simply awful and worse than some of the other versions out there. But the film on the region-free DVD is probably worth the purchase price.

The film, which claims to run for 112 minutes actually runs for 96 minutes (like most of the other versions, I think) and it is presented in a very watchable, near-widescreen format. It’s matted, not the 1:66:1 aspect ratio of a true widescreen production, as the opening credits clearly show. The print quality is also marginal at best. Not the best you’ll ever see.

Scratches, yes. Grain, whoa yes. But the light levels are decent – and nothing at all like some of the shoddier looking productions of other films that claim to be digitally enhanced. Consider some of the cobbled-together prints of “lost films” some of the majors put out on DVD and you won’t feel so put out by the seven bucks this one will cost you.

I’m not sure if a true 112-minute version of the DVD exists. I welcome anyone who can point me in the right direction of one. However, if anyone wants to know, I got mine from amazon.com. I’ve waited years for Criterion or some other major player to do this film justice. But it’s probably never going to happen. Never.

5 comments:

dka said...

Thanks for pointing me in the direction of this film. The extract from the score on Crime & Dissonance was my favourite track on that compilation. I managed to get a copy of the dvd from Amazon that was Region 0 so viewable here in the UK. The picture quality was not the best but enjoyed the film tremendously. I seem to have a vague memory of the opening sequence so I may have seen it years ago. Let's hope it one day gets a proper re-release.

Anonymous said...

Hey there,
I f$%king love this movie!
its not made well but they tried.
the acting is great and you really feel bad for kirk at the end... a real seventies movie!
I found a 120 min version at amazon.ca try them now as I just bought one.
I have having a hell of a time trying to find the full soundtrack for this movie :(

Erwin V.
erwin at consultant dot com

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