Monday, November 30, 2020

By the Gods!

David Prowse and Madeline Smith in UP POMPEII (1971)

David Prowse died on Novembre 28 at the age of 85. David appeared in a handful of genre films but he's most famous for having played Darth Vader. In this scene. Frankie Howerd (standing) trips over the couple making love in a sauna. It's a brief scene but at least we see him. Prowse appeared in dozens of movies and even more TV shows. R.I.P., David.

PEPLUM Movie Poster

French poster of SIEGE OF SYRACUSE (1960)

In English, the title is SYRACUSE - THE END OF AN EMPIRE. Just under the title there's another title it's also known as: LA CHARGE DE SYRACUSE. And then it's also known as LE SIEGE DE SYRACUSE.

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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Article of the week: THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN Blu-ray review

THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN (1961) starring Donald O'Connor (Aladdin), Noëlle Adam (Djalma), Fausto Tozzi (Grand Vizier), Terence Hill (Prince Moluk), Michèle Mercier (Princess Zaina), Milton Reid (Omar), Alberto Farnese (Bandit Chieftain), Aldo Fabrizi (Sultan), and Vittorio De Sica as the Genie. Directed by Henry Levin and Mario Bava. Original title: Le meraviglie di Aladino.

With the current release of a new Blu-ray edition of THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN, I fell the need to go over it and give it the attention it deserve. You see, the more these BR editors of PEPLUM movies are sold the greater chance more titles will follow suit.

This review has been posted at the 'permanent' Article of the week page.

Summarizing the story of this Donald O'Connor movie is not an easy task. So I'll try to do it with pictures.

A procession for Prince Moluk.

Aladdin's mother buys a tiny lamp at a market. She gives it to him but he believes they're too poor to afford it and decides to return it. Unbeknownst to his mother or him, the lamp has as genie living inside of it. At the same time, Prince Moluk (Terence Hill, credited as Mario Girotti) arrives in a colourful procession, in preparation for marrying Princess Zaina (Michèle Mercier), the daughter of the Sultan who is also expecting a newborn. Aladdin (a miscast Donald O'Connor) follows it from a rooftop and accidentally falls through a skylight. This is where we meet Djalma (Noëlle Adams, below).

Later, as Aladdin tries to return the tiny lamp to the merchant, he comes across some food. Starving, Aladdin steals two baskets of food. The seller catches him in the act and he suddenly finds himself being chased by a gang of people, including Omar (Milton Reid). During the chase, Aladdin crosses path with Fakir (Marco Tulli) who later would play an important part of the story.

As Aladdin is chased around, he tries hiding in a little hole in a wall but inside dogs are living there. Aladdin catches fleas from the brief encounter with the dogs and starts scratching himself all over. As he tries to keep the gang of angry merchants at bay, Aladdin uses the tiny lamp to scratch himself with and accidentally releases the Genie (played by a bored looking Vittorio De Sica).

The Genie grants Aladdin a wish to scare off the merchants, by making him a giant. This works as all the merchants run away. Aladdin interrogates Omar (Reid) who becomes a slave to Aladdin. From now on, Omar does all of Aladdin's biddings.

The Grand Vizier (an excellent Fausto Tozzi) arrives to his massive tent and his greeted by the Magician (Raymond Bussiere, below).

The Magician has created life size dolls, one male who looks like Prince Moluk (below, Terence Hill of course) and a near naked female, who is a killing machine. She can kill a man with a simple hug (see below at the Uncredited actors). This part of the plot is not really clear but one assumes that the Grand Vizier would use these dolls in a plot to overthrow the Sultan.

The Grand Vizier wants to know if Princess Zaina (Mercier, above) is worth it and sends out a scout to draw a picture of her (below).

This happens as the Sultan (Aldo Fabrizi, above) is briefed by his High Priest (?) of the status of his expectant wife. The High Priest tells him that the new baby will be a son. This birth will happen on the same day of the marriage between Prince Moluk and Princess Zaina.

In the meantime, not shown here, Aladdin and Omar leave the city in a convoy of the bad guys, while Djalma (Adams) joins Prince Moluk's caravan. The caravan of the bad guys (lead by Alberto Farnese) ambushes Prince Moluk's caravan.

Omar and Aladdin find themselves alone in the middle of the desert as the convoy ran off to attack the Prince's caravan.

While under attack, Prince Moluk decides to switch identities with one of his guards (above). The actor who takes the place of the Prince is unidentified (see Uncredited actors below)

Djalma participates in the battle but like the newly disguised Prince, she becomes a prisoner of the convoy.

Aladdin and Omar, stranded in the middle of nowhere, start seeing mirages. The mirage looks like the waterfall scene from THIEF OF BAGHDAD (1961)

Omar and Aladdin come across two beautiful women dressed as Las Vegas showgirls. They think the women are also mirages but they're not. They are desert Amazons.

Aladdin and Omar (below) are pampered by the bevy of beautiful women. They soon learn that they will be dispatched after making love to the Amazons, with Aladdin set to be the Queen Amazon's lover while Omar is set for the rest of the women. 

In a pinch, Aladdin conjures the Genie and begs him to whisk him and Omar away from the Amazons, to be with Prince Moluk and that's were the two end up (above), not knowing Moluk had switched identities. 

The Grand Vizier announces to the Sultan of Prince Moluk's death. This creates issues in that the Sultan's daughter will have to marry someone else and the Grand Vizier offers his hand.

Aladdin, Omar and Djalma are prisoners in some underground lair. The Prince is also with them and after admitting of his identity to the three, Aladdin thinks up an idea: of catapulting the Prince with a palm tree (below).

A beautiful shot.

Above and below: The Grand Vizier has Djalma hung up, bound and naked, and attempts to torture her in order to get the location of Prince Moluk. This is a kid's movie.

The magician gets the altered Male Doll to dance and play the flute to calm down the baby he's holding, to swap later with the soon-to-be-born son of the Sultan. Good scene.

Prince Moluk saves Djalma (and covers her up)

The magician and a midwife are about to do a baby swap as the Queen, who's never shown, is set to give birth.

With Prince Moluk dead and the newborn being a girl, the Sultan has no choice bu to marry his daughter, Princess Zaina, to the Grand Vizier.

Above and below: Aladdin stands in for the Male Doll and starts performing for the Sultan and company. The set and costumes of the crowd are all from THIEF OF BAGHDAD.

In a continuation of the ceremony, a huge basket is brought into the ceremonies and Prince Moluk pops out of it with the actual newborn, which throws the Grand Vizier's entire plan into chaos.

During the big battle scene, which is straight out of THIEF OF BAGHDAD, the Grand Vizier is alone and riding a donkey after the Genie helped Aladdin.

As I said, not an easy story to summarize.

The movie is a comedy. Is it funny? Personally speaking, I didn't laugh at any of the jokes throughout the movie. Does that mean the movie is not good or doesn't work? No but some of the humour is quite cringey. For example, below, Prince Moluk finds Aladdin and Omar hanging in cowhides, in some bizarre torture process. The scene was meant to illicit laughter but for me it was the opposite. It's too silly to even make any sense. But if one forgets the attempts of humour and look at it in a surrealistic way, it's not bad. It becomes more of a collection of whacky scenes than a flat out comedy. The story is propelled not by a logical set of actions but more of a never-ending collection of events created by happenstance or coincidences. This way, the movie sorta lives up to the title THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN.

One disappointing aspect of the screenplay is how it leaves many characters introduced throughout the movie with no conclusion. What happened to the Killer Lady Doll? We don't know.

The two female leads are mainly there for their looks. Noëlle Adam does a bit more than Mercier but at one point in the story she's bound and hung naked. One has to remind themselves that this is supposed to be a kid's movie. Donald O'Connor is Donald O'Connor. You either like his schtick or you don't. Personally, it didn't bother me much because that's what O'Connor does in all of his movies but there's no doubt that having him play Aladdin was problematic in more ways than one. His age for starters but I won't spend more time discussing this. It is what it is. The actors that come across the best are Terence Hill, Fausto Tozzi and Milton Reid. After watching the movie in this pristine state, it's quite clear that Hill was the star of this project. He stole almost every scene he was in and showed great potential of him becoming a leading man. Tozzi was also excellent in his role as he clearly relished playing the main villain. And finally, Milton Reid who appeared in other PEPLUM movies and was the evil henchman in the Bond movie, DR. NO. For once, he had an actual role even though he's just a sidekick of sorts to Aladdin. 

I've always had issues with this movie, for multiple reasons but mainly because of the many conflicting aspects in it. I have to remind myself all the time that this is a kid's movie, one that has torture, swapping babies at birth, men burned in fire, naked woman hung up and gagged, a near naked killing doll, etc. It's a collection of dubious stuff wrapped up in a beautiful package. And it is a beautiful looking film. The production owes a lot to the Steve Reeves movie, THIEF OF BAGHDAD, which, imo, is way superior to this. Both movies were produced by the same production company, and Reeves was even suppose to star as Aladdin, which is mind boggling. The changes they made to accommodate Donald O'Connor sorta worked better than had Reeves starred in it. But it's still sorta an uneven mix: some obviously great aspects (production, cinematography, score by A. F. Lavagnino...) mixed with sorta uninspired stuff such as the convoluted story (8 people credited for it) or Vittorio De Sica as the Genie. De Sica apparently disliked the whole experience and it shows. 

Henry Levin directed 80% of the film, with Mario Bava directed the rest, and was also responsible for the movie's (uneven) special effects. The only reason this movie was released on Blu-ray was mainly because of Bava's name. Even if Levin was responsible for most of the movie, Bava fans view this as a Mario Bava movie. It's an odd thing with Mario Bava and his fans: if Bava was involved in any aspect of a movie, no matter how limited, his fans consider it a Bava movie. I like Mario Bava but I always roll my eyes when I hear this near fanaticism for his work.

Unidentified actors

The movie has a staggering number of actors who are uncredited. 

The actor who played Djalma's father is not credited.

This actor is not credited. He's familiar though.

This slave, seen briefly, is Janine Hendy, who also starred in THOR AND THE AMAZON WOMEN and THE MONGOLS, amongt other titles. She's the only one I was able to name.

Prince Moluk's assistant is played by an uncredited actor.

The life-size doll who is capable of killing someone with a hug is not credited. She is seen throughout the movie.

The Sultan's 'High Priest' is not credited.

The man Prince Moluk swaps identity with is not credited. He's eventually killed by the Grand Vizier.

None of the Amazons are credited, including the Queen seen here. I could try to figure out who's who from looking at other movies but I didn't have time to do this.

The excellent dancer who plays the altered Male Doll is not credited.

Above and below: two actors with lines who are not credited.

This actor appears in two scenes and he's not credited.

Cut scenes

The runtime for the original Italian version is 100 minutes at 24 frames a second.

The Blu-ray's runtime is 1:33:25, or 93 minutes and 25 seconds at 24 frames per second. That means the BR is missing a little over 6 minutes.

To compare, I have three additional copies of this movie: one taken from a French DVD. Another taken from an Italian TV broadcast. The third one is from a US TV broadcast. Both the French and Italian versions are at 25 frames per second (PAL) while the US TV broadcast is at 24 frames per second (NTSC). 

The French is 1:36:56, or 96 minutes and 56 seconds at 25 frames per second (PAL). Nearly 97 minutes long. This means the French copy is uncut (a movie filmed in 24fps will be shorten in the PAL system at 25fps). The Italian version is a few seconds shorter than the French version...but both are basically uncut.

The runtime for the US TV broadcast is nearly 1:32:00, or nearly 92 minutes. The missing scenes in this version reflect the missing scenes of the Blu-ray.  

So what scenes were cut from the original Italian version?

Above and below: Noëlle Adam, as Djalma, starts dancing to get some money so she can go to the major wedding of Prince Moluk and Princess Zaina. The scene lasts almost 2 minutes and is a big chunk of the missing 6 minutes. In this scene, Djalma is introduced to the Prince (without revealing who he is) and it establishes a connection between the two.

A brief scene when Prince Moluk (Hill) switches identities with a guard. I don't know why this was cut.

The man who stood in for Prince Moluk is killed by the Grand Vizier: the man falls through a trap and his mauled to death by lions. What a bad ending for him.

Prince Moluk swimming for his life after being catapulted out of the lair. In this scene, guards throw lances at him in a vain attempt in killing him.

A scene with Djalma strung up naked. The scene in the new Blu-ray is shorter and this moment when she turns around to look at Aladdin was cut. 

Blu-ray review

The Blu-ray is fairly barebones. There's only a commentary by Bava expert Tim Lucas. That's it. There are trailers but nothing else.

So this brief review will focus on the quality of the transfer. For the first 20 minutes, the movie is not that great looking. The source seems to be from a second generation print or even from a 16mm print. The contrast is bad and the image is blurry. Just look at the screengrabs of my summary to view the less than perfect quality of the image. After 20 minutes, the image is pristine, clear and stunning. The movie now looks like it was shot yesterday. The film's colourful sets and costumes really pop out. It's really worth watching it this way. 

So what happened with the first 20 minutes? To give you an idea, just compare the two scenes with the same setting. Click on them.

Above: the image is not as sharp or clear as the one below, taken later during the good part of the transfer. Notice the curtains, the vest and the general details of the Terence Hill's face. Below is pristine and perfect.

Final thoughts

I like it and this new release showcases the film's artistic qualities. But the story is a mix bag and the final result is far from what they attempted to do, which was a laugh out loud comedy. It's fun but it's not a hilarious movie. It was worth purchasing the Blu-ray. Aside from the issues with the image during the beginning, I'm happy with it. Bring on more releases, please.

A solid 7 out of 10.