Thursday, October 30, 2008

Toby Dammit: Or Never Bet the Devil Your Head

"Toby Dammit: Or Never Bet the Devil Your Head" (Federico Fellini, 1968) Fellini adaptation of the obscure Edgar Allen Poe story of a rake whose egotism gets the better of him has been making the rounds this year at the film festival circuit and receiving the attention and the acclaim it is due. Made as part of a European Poe omnibus (and released in the U.S. by AIP--who'd been producing their own Poe adaptations). under the title "Spirits of the Dead" aka "Histoires Extraordinaires" or "Tre Passi Nel Delirio." The other adaptations were Roger Vadim's heavy-breathing "Metzengerstein" starring Jane and Peter Fonda as incestuous cousines, and Louis Malle's dull S & M piece "William Wilson," despite starring Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon. As the Fellini was the Grand Finale, I wouldn't be surprised if folks walked out of it before the Fellini segment. They missed a chilling masterpiece.

Fellini transposes the premise to a Hellish '60's Italy where international film-star Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp), in a perpetual state of drunkenness, is whisked off a plane to a television interview, and then feted at a party filled with high-rollers and press to celebrate the start of production of a religious Western.*

Fellini spends much of the time satirizing the fawning excesses of the film industry and the predatory/co-dependent nature of the Press, and proves he knows how to throw a party. Dammit keeps drinking and sinking into a deeper funk when he's seduced by an Italian "hostess" (to the accompaniment of Ray Charles' cover of "Ruby") and turns philosophical when a reporter asks him if there is a devil, which Fellini turns into a simple, unsettling Vision. The evening ends when Dammit's handlers take him off-leash, giving him the disposal of a sports-car. there follows a nightmarish "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" through the narrow Rome streets (which clearly influenced the "Durango '95" sequence of Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange").

The high-octane combinations cannot end well. But Fellini steers it back to Poe for an appropriate, ambiguously grisly finish. Clocking in at 37 minutes, "Toby Dammit" is a compact mini-movie, but is filled with imagination and good ideas. Were it not for "
Nights of Cabiria," this Fellini vision of Rome as Hell would be my fave Fellini.

* Peter O'Toole was supposed to star, and dropped out. Earlier in the decade he'd played all of the Angels in John Huston's "The Bible," produced by Dino DeLaurentiis. Perhaps it was a little too "on the nose."

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