Friday 21 January 2022

Lisa and the Devil (1974)

Director: Mario Bava
Writer: Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone
Stars: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Silva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinti, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Franz von Treuberg and Alida Valli

Index: 2022 Centennials.

In some ways, Guy Madison and Telly Savalas, born only two days apart, had similar careers. Both were best known for a television role that kept them busy for multiple seasons, but both had racked up plenty of credits on the big screen before that and had many more to come after, a majority of them in leading roles across a whole slew of genres and a three and a half decade span. There are differences too, of course, the most obvious being that Savalas landed much more prominent films than Madison but also that they started no fewer than seventeen years later. Madison’s first credit was in 1944 and his last in 1979; Savalas didn’t arrive on that big screen until 1961 but he stayed there until 1995, even though he had died a year earlier. One other similarity is that there’s just so much for me to choose from in their filmographies, but I’m not unhappy with my choices. This one is a dreamlike (or nightmarish) horror movie from 1974, an Italian, West German and Spanish co-production but shot and originally released in Spain.

One reason I chose it is because I’ve reviewed other likely candidates for other people or have them slated for other projects, while this one was directed and co-written by the incomparable Mario Bava, one of those directors whose name guarantees that a film is going to be interesting at the very least and likely more. This one is certainly interesting, shot with a haunting eye and told in such a way that we’re never quite sure what’s real. It may be that nothing is real and the entire film is a daydream generated in the very first scene, or maybe the second. A whole discussion could be had about which, if any, moments are spent in our reality. Whatever the correct answer to that unanswerable question is, it’s probably fair to say that at least the majority of the picture is the product of Lisa Reiner’s imagination, whether aided or not, and she’s played by the delightful Elke Sommer, who had starred in Baron Blood for Bava in 1972 but who I remember for comedy in Carry On Behind and as a joyous foil to Inspector Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark.

If we can trust anything we see in this film, it ought to be that Lisa Reiner is some sort of tourist, who arrives in the central Spanish city of Toledo on a bus. The first stop is at an ancient fresco on an outside wall, depicting a bald and grinning Devil carrying off the dead. It’s a memorable depiction of Satan and it takes little imagination to equate it with the next person we meet. Lisa wanders off to visit an antiques shop and right there, purchasing a mannequin and a model carousel, is a living embodiment of that very Devil, wearing the flesh of Telly Savalas. We recognise him immediately, even though we initially only see him from behind, because he’s magnetic in this picture, both in it and somehow above it, orchestrating everything that happens like a puppeteer. While he surely plays the important character in the movie, it doesn’t seem that way to the others or to the script. It’s his charisma that clues us in on that because he can amble into a dining room, casually trailing a food trolley behind him, and yet still dominate the scene.

It’s as Lisa recognises this man as the Devil from the fresco that everything suddenly feels off. She escapes the building and roams the suddenly empty streets of this ancient city, impossibly lost and accompanied only by eerie music. When she finally sees a man, he vanishes round a corner. When a woman appears in a window, she withdraws calmly without acknowledging Lisa’s presence. Of course, the first character to interact with her is Telly Savalas’s, not yet named but happy to play with her mind before pointing in what may or may not be the right direction. The other is a lover, clearly the man the Devil’s mannequin was modelled on, who calls her Elena and tumbles down some steps to his death in a scuffle. So she runs for help, ending up in a car belonging to a mismatched couple, which stops outside a mysterious mansion after its engine burns up, where they’re greeted by—you’ll never guess—Savalas, now identified as Leandro, the butler to a blind Countess and her romantic son, who is eager for them all to stay the night.

Clearly these aren’t things we can write off as mere plot coincidences; there’s deliberate intent behind them and we have to look at everything that follows from the perspective of questioning that intent. If Lisa is a puppet, who’s the puppeteer and what story has he in mind for the show? Is she the only puppet and, if not, how many others move under the power of invisible strings? Given that nobody breaks the fourth wall, are we the only audience for this show and, if not, who else is being played to as well as with? Is the consistent inconsistency in chronology a deliberate attempt to emulate the twisted logic of dreams or just a victim of a very artistic approach, where mood and style trump detail and substance at every opportunity? Certainly Mario Bava had carte blanche to make this film however he deemed fit, with complete creative control, perhaps for the first time in his career, because producer Alfredo Leone, pleased with the reception of their first collaboration, Baron Blood, wanted to see what Bava could conjure up without limits.

I always appreciate that approach, even when the auteur in question bites off more than they can chew with that level of freedom. I adored this one and have been thinking about it a lot in the days since watching it with increasingly wide eyes. I loved some things immediately, starting with the use of locations. The moment that Lisa walks out of the antiques shop and takes her wrong turn into an impossible maze of ancient empty streets, I found myself grinning at the sheer artistry of it all. While some of this was certainly shot in Toledo, I believe that these memorable streets are mostly an Italian village called Faleria, also seen in Bava’s 1966 movie Kill, Baby... Kill!, while the mansion is a composite of a derelict castle outside Madrid and a villa in Rome. Wherever the locations happen to be, they’re shot magnificently by veteran cinematographer Cecilio Paniagua and, uncredited, Bava himself. Surely the director’s intent was for Lisa to be lost not just physically but also in time.

Apparently the film was shot silently, with dialogue added in later, which was probably done because of the varied backgrounds of the actors but which coincidentally plays into the dreamlike logic of a demonic puppet show. Savalas was American, of course, but born Aristotle Tsavalas to two Greek immigrants. Sommer was German, born in wartime Berlin as Else Schletz-Ho, but relocated to England as a teenager. The other major name is Alida Valli, as the blind Countess, whose early career was lauded both by critics as a serious actor and by fans as a sex symbol; she was Italian but born in a city that’s now in Croatia. Her screen son was also Italian but the other key players hailed from all over. The couple in the car were Spanish and Yugoslavian, though their chauffeur was Italian. And the mysterious lover, Carlo by name, who keeps on reappearing, was Venezuelan. Shooting silently probably made sense.

Other details of the casting make ironic sense too. For instance, that Venezuelan, Espartaco Santoni, was quite possibly typecast in his role as an mystery man with a one track mind because he was nicknamed Casanova in real life. A personal quote of his—“I was always a strong believer in the institution of marriage”—is particularly ironic, given that he married nine women, divorcing seven with one marriage annulled, and being romantically linked to dozens of others, including actresses like Edwige Fenech and Ursula Andress and other celebrities like Princess Caroline of Monaco. I can’t find a reliable source for one note of IMDb trivia, but it does seem believable that Lisa and the Devil’s shoot was interrupted at one point when the police arrested Santoni for bigamy and fraud. It’s no stretch to imagine his single note on screen womanising continuing off screen. I can also imagine Savalas being as playful as his character in real life, Alida Valli as icy and her screen son, Alessio Orano, as hopelessly romantic, because he was also an artist.

It’s the story that’s been most prominent in my thoughts, perhaps oddly given how confusing the script is. This isn’t a film to trust in the usual ways, that what’s thrown onto the screen for us to see is what’s actually happening, that time is unfolding at the usual rate that we expect or that characters who we see murdered were alive or are now dead. Everything springs from the film’s initial question—is Leandro really the Devil?—because, if he is, then everything we see is surely him orchestrating a grand scheme for his own reasons and if anyone can break the laws of physics and the rules of cinema at the same time, it’s Satan. And, if we follow that thought to its reasonable conclusion, then he’s actually staging multiple shows for multiple people. There’s one for Lisa Rainer, the primary character otherwise, but it intersects with a few others in different ways, almost as if she’s really the link in an anthology movie. From her perspective, she is, but from ours, it’s always Leandro.

One story that she finds herself part of is Max’s, the Countess’s son, because he’s still mooning over a long lost lover called Elena, a lady who may well be imprisoned somewhere in the mansion, and Lisa looks exactly like her. Maybe she’s her reincarnation and a gleeful Max can woo her all over again so their destiny together doesn’t go horribly wrong this time. Another story she finds a role in is the Countess’s, because her husband turns out to be Carlo, Elena’s lover, who died by accident in the maze of streets while Lisa was lost but continues to appear alive and well throughout the film anyway. And, of course, if the car she finds a ride with stops at the Countess’s mansion because she’s in it, through diabolical manipulation, then she’s also the trigger for the endgame in the tale of its owners, aging Francis Lehar, his young wife Sophia and their willingly available chauffeur, George. By the way, I don’t count any of that as spoilers, because I’m still not sure of what happens in this film and I’ve watched it. These characters may not exist.

I wonder how Bava pitched this to Telly Savalas. Did he give him the same creative freedom that producer Alfredo Leone gave him? It’s certainly an unusual take on the Devil and one that feels like he improvised on the fly as much as planned ahead of time after a reading of the script and a chat with the director about his intentions. It’s telling that, in pretty much every scene he’s in, Leandro could be considered a supporting actor, if not a bit player, but Savalas owns this film and everything in it is done because the Devil we have to assume he’s playing wants it to be done and that way. He’s a puppeteer playing a puppeteer masquerading as a puppet to everyone around him, including his apparent employer, happily taking orders because they’re all part of his grand plan, one he takes glee in hiding from everyone with whom he interacts, who may or may not be anything more than the nested dolls that they appear to be at points, and us too, because we can’t help but feel that he’s interacting with us just as much beyond the screen.

And all of that, the choice of role and the choice of how to play it feels like it’s something that would happen very late in an actor’s career, when he’d already become famous, made his money and done everything expected from him, so that whatever’s left in his filmography is whatever he wants to do for no better reason than he wants to do it. It’s completely shocking to realise that Lisa and the Devil was made in 1973, the year that Savalas played Theodopolus Kojak for the first time in a TV movie for CBS by the name of The Marcus-Nelson Murders, which spawned the TV show Kojak, which was vastly successful for five seasons, making Savalas a huge and universally recognisable star across the globe, one with an Emmy and two Golden Globes for his trouble. So, while he certainly had a career before 1973 and a successful one too, he wasn’t the established star we would have expected him to be when he agreed to star in a film like this one. His star was firmly about to rise, even if it would do so because of Kojak rather than Lisa and the Devil.

Whenever he actually became a star, his life was certainly an interesting one. He was born in New York to Greek parents and spoke only Greek until he started school. He learned English quickly and even won a spelling bee at the age of twelve though, hilariously, he didn’t receive his prize until 1991. He worked as a lifeguard after graduation, but was drafted into the Army in 1941, discharged as a corporal two years later after a serious car accident. After a year recuperating in hospital, he went into show business, but not in any way you might expect. He studied radio and television production at the Armed Forces Institute, before hosting radio shows for the State Department. From there, he became a director of special events at ABC and even an executive producer for the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, where he hired Howard Cosell for his first television job. He hadn’t even considered acting, his production work not his primary goal either. He’d obtained a psychology degree in preparation for medical school, but got sidelined.

However, he was asked if he could recommend an actor with a European accent for an episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre and did so, only to end up covering for his friend, who couldn’t do it after all. One episode soon became six and there were other shows too and it all just escalated from there. He was thirty-seven when he took that first role, thirty-nine when he debuted on the big screen in a gangster biopic, Mad Dog Coll, easy casting for his natural tough guy demeanour; he’d played both Al Capone and Lucky Luciano on television the previous year in The Witness. Mad Dog Coll came along in 1961, the same year as his first regular slot on TV, a show called Acapulco, but he wouldn’t find a second until Kojak. He was kept busy in character roles, but it was in movies that he made his name, landing early roles in Cape Fear, Birdman of Alcatraz and The Greatest Story Ever Told, shaving his head to play Pontius Pilate, a decision he never reversed, staying memorably bald throughout his career.

We’re likely to remember him in sixties films like those, The Dirty Dozen and the Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in which he played the villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. However, his first leading role came that same year, 1969, in Crooks and Coronets, a crime comedy in the UK. Other milestones followed, including an indie thriller from 1977 titled Beyond Reason that didn’t only feature him as a star, but as writer and director as well, two roles he never returned to (outside of directing a few episodes of Kojak), as well as a few more unexpected works: he was in the commercial that introduced the world to Diet Coke; he narrated a trio of travelogues for UK cities; and he hosted a video teaching wannabe gamblers how to win at blackjack. His life continued to be interesting too: he was a successful poker player in Las Vegas; a chart topper in the UK and Ireland for a spoken word cover of Bread’s If; and the owner of a winning racehorse, Telly’s Pop. He even brought electricity to his parents’ home of Ierakas in Greece.

The snippet of trivia that’s most pertinent for this review is his fondness for lollipops, initially a jarring sight in Lisa and the Devil, as I’d assumed that it was a character trait of Theo Kojak. Instead, Savalas was a heavy smoker who was trying to quit the habit and he used lollipops as an aid towards that goal, both in this film and on Kojak. It actually makes this movie even more surreal, because it’s as if Savalas isn’t just playing Leandro, or rather the Devil playing Leandro, but maybe the Devil playing Telly Savalas playing Kojak playing Leandro. Given that this was shot right before that initial TV movie, it’s not what happened, but he has enough of a twinkle in his eye that being that outlandishly meta still makes sense. My final question is whether I should follow up Lisa and the Devil with a bastardised version of it released a year later as The House of Exorcism to cash in on the success of The Exorcist. It’s the same picture but with more risque scenes of a foul mouthed Elke Sommer and a framing story with exorcist Robert Alda. Then again, maybe not.

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