One of the most interesting periods in the history of Italian cinema is the era of international co-productions that followed neorealism. The Italian film industry began with the massive success of MGM's 1951 extravaganza Quo Vadis in a boom age when shooting, social awareness and limited resources of neorealism thanks to spectacular backdrops, glamorous Hollywood stars and lavish budgets made way for the country's abundance breathtaking landscapes and attractive production incentives. One of the most expensive and entertaining historical epics of the 1950s was Ulysses (1954), a beautifully photographed and skillfully written adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey by producers Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis with Kirk Douglas in the title role. (It is now available on Blu-ray from the Lorber cinema with an outstanding commentary track by Italian film expert Tim Lucas.) The film was a dream project by G.W. Pabst, who had planned for years and was supposed to shoot the picture in 3-D, but for some reason dropped out late in the game and Italian journeyman Mario Camerini stepped in as a director. Camerini had made a name for himself in the 1930s as a pioneer of "white telephone" films, a subgenre of comedy that earned Camerini the reputation of a Lubitsch of Italy. His light touch and interest in relationships has an interesting effect on Ulysses, especially 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 funny, down to earth one Taste goes well with the enormous spectacle of the film. In general, Ulysses is a film with strange sound combinations and extreme scale shifts, probably due to the large number of chefs in the kitchen. There are seven recognized authors on the project, including Hollywood legend Ben Hecht and well-known writer and playwright Irwin Shaw. Kirk Douglas and others tried to have as much power over the project as did Ponti and De Laurentiis. Intentional or accidental, the cacophony of the voices gives satisfactory results as the quirks of Ulysses convince them.
In the same year that Ulysses was released, Ponti and De Laurentiis produced a far cheaper but ultimately more impactful film, La Strada by Federico Fellini, which also happened to share a star (Anthony Quinn) and an editor (Leo Cattozzo) Cut One Series of Fellini pictures) with Ulysses. La Strada was the film that really put Fellini on the international map, and while its harsh rural setting feels closer to neorealism than the polished grandeur of Ulysses, it was actually one of Fellini's first steps away from the tradition he himself is in found had made his name. While the neorealist classics Fellini scripted, such as Roberto Rossellini's Open City, which focused on economic problems, La Strada was more concerned with emotional and spiritual dilemmas – a shift in focus that led left-wing critics of the time to view Fellini as a traitor. Of course, they hadn't seen anything – after La Strada Fellini's work became increasingly introspective, focusing more and more on the director's own fantasies and neuroses and less on any kind of discernible contemporary reality. At the same time, as his commercial success grew, Fellini was able to work on larger and larger canvases and create his own version of the Ponti / De Laurentiis style glasses with masterpieces from the 1960s like 8½ and Fellini Satyricon – he was both the most epic and island-shaped author of his time. La Strada, 8½, Satyricon, and a dozen other Fellini images are all included in Criterion's new Essential Fellini box set, an exemplary package required by Italian movie lovers and Fellini partisans. While Criterion has already released many of these films, there are also some new titles here, such as the 1955 crime picture Il Bidone and Fellini's penultimate film Intervista, as well as previously out of print images like Nights of Cabiria. Together with the plethora of supplementary materials included with every CD, the films selected offer an extremely edifying opportunity to study the arc of a great career and to see how that career intersects and differs from the norms of the Italian film industry of the time.
Robert Altman's Fellini-esque film, the spirited musical comedy Popeye from 1980, is also new on Blu-ray. Based on a script by Carnal Knowledge caricaturist and writer Jules Feiffer, Altman is based on the mythology of E.C. Segar's comics surprisingly faithful while still submitting the material to his will. Popeye plays in his story of an outsider who arrives in an isolated community of eccentrics, like a Disney version of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and the bustling Mise-en-Scène ensemble, the cacophonic sound design and the lively widescreen composition are right in line with the aesthetic Altman established in classics like MASH and Nashville. As played by Robin Williams, Popeye is another unfortunate outsider of Altman who enters a corrupt world that refuses to live up to its purity. The difference between Popeye and The Long Goodbye or McCabe is a slight shift in tone as Altman moves from the tragedy and irony of his earlier paintings to a more childlike and imaginative perspective. He's been backed by a stellar number of staff in this regard, including not only Feiffer and Williams (as well as familiar faces from Altman's corporation like Paul Dooley, who is hilarious here as Wimpy), but also 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 that Paul Thomas Anderson so effectively repurposed into Punch Drunk Love.) At the time of Popeye's release, his qualities were about from stories overshadowed its chaotic production in Malta – the entertainment press covered its schedule and budget problems with such glee and frequency that the film erroneously developed a reputation as a bombshell. (In fact, it has more than doubled its box office cost, including it in books like James Robert Parish's Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops Is Lazy At Best And Purposely Misleading At Worst.) 40 years later, it's possible to fully appreciate it Popeye for what it is: a beautifully proportioned blend of personal expression and popular entertainment, and a cheering remedy for Williams' formidable talent. The Paramount Blu-ray contains several excellent making-of features 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 streamed on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.