Saturday 25 March 2023

An Angel for Satan (1966)

Director: Camillo Mastrocinque
Writers: Giuseppe Mangione and Camillo Mastrocinque, from a story of Luigi Emmanuele
Stars: Barbara Steele, Anthony Steffen and Betty Delon with Mario Brega and Claudio Gora

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Not all people important to film are stars. There are character actors who we see over and over again, so often that many of them become like old friends, even if we don’t recall their names. We could call that memory lapse the Al Leong Syndrome, after one of the omnipresent supporting actors of American action movies. Alternatively, we could call it the Mario Brega Syndrome, after the Italian actor who’s so instantly recognisable in so many spaghetti westerns and other Italian films, and he’s who I’m watching this for, because he was born in Rome a hundred years ago today. Before he found the cinema, he was known as Florestano Brega, who worked as a butcher, and was far less famous than his father, the distance runner Primo Brega, who was twice Italian champion at 5,000 metres and once at 10,000 metres. The young Florestano, with his huge frame and menacing features, was too perfect for the screen to avoid it for long and, after one appearance in 1947, became a regular thug, bully and gang member from 1958 onwards.

While he’s best known for westerns, not least the “Man with No Name” trilogy by Sergio Leone, in which he plays three characters, Chico in A Fistful of Dollars, Nino in For a Few Dollars More and Corporal Wallace in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he tended to end up cast as a senior enough heavy to get lines but not senior enough to get much screen time, even if he had become popular enough to land high up credits. Case in point: Death Rides a Horse, a 1967 spaghetti western I watched before this film for his centennial, where he gets the third credit after the film’s two imported stars, Lee Van Cleef and John Phillip Law. However, while he’s memorable, he doesn’t have much opportunity to shine, and he’s not one of the core characters who are sought in the central quest for vengeance. He has a lot more to do in this film, a black and white gothic horror from a year earlier, with the timeless Barbara Steele in a weird leading double role, so it seemed like an easy choice to remember him and his long career, with eighty credits over six decades.

Even though Un angelo per Satana is a horror movie, it’s a far less bloody affair than many of Brega’s westerns. In fact, it’s peaceful as it begins, with soft swells of orchestral music by Francesco de Masi and the lapping of the lake that Roberto Merigi is crossing to take up a commission. A recent drought has lowered the level of the lake substantially, enough that a sunken statue became visible above the waves, and he’s the sculptor who’s been hired by Count Montebruno to restore it. The catch, because there’s always one of those in a horror movie, is that we’re in the late nineteenth century and the superstitious peasants believe that the statue brings with it a curse that will bring disaster to the village. Sure enough, the two boatmen who both recovered the statue and ferried the sculptor to the Count promptly drown as they return home after their vessel mysteriously overturns. Brega plays Carlo Lionesi, the strongest man in the village, and, at least initially, one of the most prominent voices against the statue.

In fact, we meet him in the village inn, where Merigi is sketching the locals. Carlo isn’t remotely happy about this, talking about the evil eye and suggesting that the drawings will capture their essence and thus extend the curse to them, so he picks a fight with him. Brega was over six feet in height—how much so depends on where you look—and he was built like a brick outhouse, so he’s not the sort of local an artist might want to fight. However, Merigi acquits himself pretty well. He may actually have been taller than Brega, though he wasn’t close to being as broad, and he wins a fight he was clearly losing by breaking a stool over Carlo’s head. Outside, he meets a schoolmaster, Dario Morelli, and tells him he fought “the big man with a fist of iron”, which is a pretty solid description of Mario Brega. Morelli is far more educated than the peasants at the pub, and is passionately in love with Rita, one of the servants up at the villa, the personal maid to the mistress of the house, Harriet de Montebruno, who’s about to return from college to claim her inheritance.

And here’s where things get serious. Harriet is played by Barbara Steele, a British actress who made her name in a series of Italian horror films, starting with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday in 1960. Like that film, she’s given two roles here, Harriet being the overt one in the present day of eighteen hundred and whatever. The magnificent villa, which I would absolutely buy for a dollar, is hers, and the Count, who is her uncle, is merely taking care of it for her. She’s a lovely young lady, who you will not be shocked to discover is the spitting image of the statue that fell into the lake two hundred years earlier, a depiction in marble of her ancestor Madeleina de Montebruno. You will similarly not be shocked that she falls for the sculptor restoring it, who naturally has her sit for him while he does so because of the uncanny resemblance. To demonstrate that there’s tenderness in the heart of this elegant society lady, we’re let in on the secret that she’s scared of lightning, ironically just like my niece, also a Harriet.

While Harriet initially prevents us from hearing the story of Madeleina’s distant cousin Belinda, being a far too tragic story for the dinner table, we catch up soon enough, during the most gothic sequence in the film. Beyond the huge villa with its many servants and the focus on a statue to preserve a lady’s beauty for ever, there are many familiar elements here: storms and superstitions just to get us moving, but then a disembodied voice calling to Merigi with sensual invitation. It guides him up to a specific room so that a painting of Belinda can unfold itself and move weirdly as if it’s talking to him. Belinda was jealous, we hear, and tried to push the statue into the lake, tumbling to her death alongside it. Harriet is a witch, we’re told, the reincarnation of Madeleina, and if he falls in love with her, he’ll be cursed. At which point, Merigi collapses from the shock of the whole experience. And we, having been let in on the Count’s secret relationship with Ilda, the governess, can extrapolate the rest of the movie. Well, kinda sorta.

We still have a whole slew of questions, not least because Harriet starts to act very strangely, as if she’s been possessed by Belinda, but not consistently. Sometimes, she’s the elegant and tender Harriet, sometimes the brooding and wicked Belinda. Sometimes, as in one memorable scene with Merigi, she’s both, shifting back and forth as if she’s schizophrenic. Of course, it’s as Belinda that she wreaks havoc on the villa and the village both, seducing the gentlemen for reasons we don’t yet understand. She’s brutal with it as well. The first sign of horror we saw in the film was Vittorio, the mentally damaged gardener at the villa, who runs down the main street of the village like a lunatic as Merigi is arriving, wielding an axe. He’s harmless, says Sergeant, the caretaker. But Belinda has him change. She strips off in front of him as he hides his eyes, then asks him if he’s ever seen a lady nude. So she whips him bloody for looking and moves onto her next target, seed of obsession well and truly sown.

Brega is another of her targets, because Carlo is so big and strong, even if he has a wife and five children. When she finds him, he’s lifting a broken cartwheel all on his own, so she manipulates him into throwing it to demonstrate his strength, then dismounts and pretends an ankle injury to persuade him to carry her all the way back to the villa. Suddenly, he changes his tune about the evil eye and the cursed statue because the mistress is such a wonderful lady. She’s gained a new slave. And so the film progresses. Actually I was kept guessing somewhat, not about the sweep of the twist but about the details of it. Who was involved? Who knew? How much damage will be wrought before Merigi—because of course it has to be him—figures out what’s going on and unmasks the lighthouse keeper who would have got away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids? Well, the script, which may well be based on an 1881 gothic novel by Antonio Fogazzaro called Malombra, even though it isn’t credited, keeps us guessing more than I expected.

Barbara Steele is easily the most prominent actor here, if far more as the manupulative Belinda, who is perfectly displayed in black and white, than the warm Harriet, who deserves to be brought to life in colour. Because this is a gothic horror movie, we see much more of Belinda than Harriet and that’s fine. We have Ursula Davis as Rita to provide the film with warmth and Vassili Karamesinis is a worthy, if shy and reserved, partner for her as Dario Morelli. While Anthony Steffen is a perfectly capable leading man, both in romance and mystery solving, and Claudio Gora does exactly what is needed of him as Count Montebruno, even if his aging make-up is far too obvious, neither displays the charisma to challenge a scenestealer like Steele. Only two characters have that: Brega as a character too dim to see through how easily he’s being manipulated, so simply has fun with everything he does, even when it turns deadly serious, and one of his screen daughters, Barbara, played impeccably by a very young Betty Delon, who never acted again.

Fortunately, director of photography Giuseppe Aquari knew that Brega was playing a big bear of a character who’s thoroughly able to either make things happen or to stop them from happening any more, so was careful to play up his already notable size in every way he could, by having him loom over the frame or dominate the foreground. He does a lot of things cleverly, like having us see a lot of Harriet through reflections in mirrors, so emphasising her dual role, and exploiting both claustrophobic indoor shots with an eye for distance and wide open outdoor shots. He lensed a lot of films, but nothing stands out as particularly recognisable except to true aficionados of Italian cinema. The cast help him a lot here, most obviously Steele who flares her eyes so wonderfully, but Brega and Delon and others too, who endow simple scenes with real emotion, even if it’s through something relatively unobtrusive like raised eyebrows or an open mouth. All these factors come together to make the film a visual treat and an underseen gem.

Here’s where I’d expect to tell you a lot more about Mario Brega, but there’s annoyingly little information available online, the best in a special edition of The Spaghetti Westerns Podcast that hosts Jay Jennings and Tom Betts dedicated to him. Certainly, he was easily best known for his work in westerns, not just the timeless Sergio Leone titles but roles too in The Great Silence, The Ugly Ones and My Name is Nobody. Partly, this was because he made these while he was at his most imposing weight, reportedly over two hundred and fifty pounds, because he’s less obvious in clips of later films after he had slimmed down immensely. Betts mentions in that podcast that the only quote he could find of Brega’s real life suggest that he wasn’t far away from playing himself in these films, a character who’s larger than life and knows it, not a thug but someone easily led to that sort of life and able to fight his way out of it again. I'm sad that I don’t have further quotes to help flesh out the real Mario Brega but the only biography out there is in Italian.

However, for every western he made, he made three in other genres, as varied as The Pirate and the Slave Girl, a period adventure in which he was uncredited; Death Knocks Twice, a serial killer drama; and The Lusty Wives of Canterbury, an Italian version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Going back to Sergio Leone, he appeared in his gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America, but the majority of later films were comedies, four of them for Carlo Verdone. I know very little about these, though YouTube clips suggest he often played grandfather types late on, with a trademark pair of tinted glasses, and it seems like they tackled every genre but most often crime, from Bud Spencer action comedies like Even Angels Eat Beans, teaming an ice cream man with a wrestler as new hires of a gangster, through Convoy Buddies, with crooks working as truckers, all the way to Detective School Dropouts as late as 1986, with a pair of inept private dicks stumbling into a mob war that they’re utterly not equipped to deal with.

From that early debut in a 1947 war film, La mascotte dei diavoli blu, he worked his way through seventy-eight films and a couple of episodes of television shows in the mid-eighties, to an apparently serious drama called Crack in 1991, which title is a metaphor for the crack in society inhabited by a slew of characters in a seedy neighbourhood of Rome. That’s a far cry from the westerns with a bulky Brega invariably beating up someone notable or the comedies with grandpa Brega in his tinted glasses slapping his own butt at the young hippies. It’s also a long way from the superstitious peasant here in a gothic horror movie, falling quickly and strongly under the power of Barbara Steele, which I can understand. He has quite the heartrending end in this picture, which is unusual, as his western characters tended to meet suitably vicious ends: crushed by a barrel in A Fistful of Dollars, pushed off a train in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and into a coal heater in The Great Silence. In reality, he merely had a heart attack in 1994 at seventy-one.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I tend to steer clear of movies with the word "horror" in the description, but this one does sound interesting -- and I'm glad to know more about the movies of Mr. Brega!