Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Amuck! (1972)

Greta Franklin (Barbara Bouchet) is the new secretary/transcriptionist for “renowned” author Richard Stuart (Farley Granger), who lives in a mansion on a small island off the coast of Venice, Italy.  Richard’s wife, Eleonora (Rosalba Neri) excels at delivering oeillades and hunting out on the marshes, and she takes a shine to Greta.  But Greta has an ulterior motive for taking the Stuart assignment, and it all hinges on what happened to Sally (Patrizia Viotti), Richard’s previous secretary.

Amuck! (aka Alla Ricerca Del Piacere aka Hot Bed of Sex aka Maniac Mansion [not to be confused with the video game] aka In Search of Pleasure aka Leather and Whips) is an ostensible suspense thriller directed by the late Silvio Amadio.  It all centers on a mystery, but said mystery and its surrounding story are so transparently obvious, you can almost see right through it and into several other dimensions in gazing upon it.  Richard is an untortured artist, and man, does he lay it on thick.  He literally speaks in purple prose.  Some examples: “It’s modesty that doesn’t allow me to be myself.”  “…decadent, corrupt, lost in the myriad facades of a doomed city.”  “A perfect crime is possible.  For a superior mind, of course.”  Richard truly believes his own hype, and it’s his and Eleonora’s attitudes that are the most intriguing aspects of the film.  They are the perverse elite, those so far above the throngs of plebes that they can only find pleasure in decadence and corruption.  They gather about them young turks like Sandro (Dino Mele) and the Lenny-esque Rocco (Petar Martinovitch) and unleash them to revel vicariously in their carnality.  For the men they bring into their circle, it is enough to delight in their brutish ways.  Men are allowed to do what they want, so long as it pleases the Stuarts in some fashion.  Women, on the other hand, need to be debauched and brought under sway.  They must be made to want to give pleasure for the others, who take it by will or by force.  

Richard and Eleonora play this game from similar, yet still opposite, ends.  Richard is the suave, Eurotrash, continental pseudo-intellectual.  His ardor is high-minded (witness his dialogue) and somehow stridently needy.  Eleonora appeals to the Sapphic side all women must surely harbor deep, deep down in their lower recesses (of European genre films).  She traipses into Greta’s room, while the secretary is in a state of dishabille, pretending to comfort her after a scare from the (very) abrupt appearance of Rocco on Greta’s balcony.  Eleonora drugs Greta, and the two make love.  What one would assume from this is that Eleonora is turning Greta away from a heteronormative lifestyle.  But Greta is, in fact, a lesbian, so the corruption isn’t corruption in the sense of forcibly changing one’s sexual orientation (which could equally be looked at as opening up the doors of self-discovery).  It’s corruption in a physical, sexual abuse sense.  Regardless, the scene is shot to titillate (the sex is shot entirely in slow motion), so it becomes little more than gratification of the audience’s prurient interest.

In this same way, Richard is treated as either homosexual or, more intriguingly, impotent (both equally evil in the eyes of the film).  Sure, he lays a little liplock on Greta, but he quickly demurs and backs off.  At no other time in Amuck! does Richard engage in amorous physical activity with another person, male or female.  Eleonora is the leading force of the couple.  She dominates everyone who comes into the mansion, male and female.  She is also a crack shot with a rifle, and is a far better hunter than her husband (traditionally an interest considered more masculine than feminine).  Richard does keep a gun in his study desk, but it’s a handgun (read: Eleonora has a bigger dick than Richard).  Richard thinks, Eleonora acts.  We can assume that Richard derives some form of pleasure in the sex going on all around him, but he doesn’t (or cannot) partake.  Richard, then, is submissive, weak, impotent, in character if not in physicality.

Outside of a select few moments, however, the film falls flat.  This is kind of tragic, since it has all the elements needed to produce a taut, sexy thriller.  It has good-looking (and, arguably more importantly, willing) leads.  The acting is solid, if unremarkable.  But the story has loads of potential, and Amadio insists on wasting it all.  There is no suspense to Greta’s investigation.  There is no real menace emanating from Richard and Eleonora (okay, there’s a little emanating from Eleonora).  The plot is as clichéd as a tubercular street urchin with sudden, violent coughing fits.  It’s often been said that films where the plot is bog standard may, in actuality, be trying to do something else with the material, to explore something within the confines of commonplace narratives.  But this is not the case with Amuck!.  There are certainly enough avenues the filmmakers could go down, but the narrative is about as straight a shot as driving Route 66 once you hit Oklahoma, heading West.  Sally, the whole reason any of this film occurs, is an absolute cypher.  She provides a convenient motivation for Greta to show up, she takes her clothes off a couple of times, but otherwise, she has no discernible personality (and that’s even in the scene when she’s not under the thrall of the Stuarts).  Thus, we have no reason to care if her disappearance is ever solved (regardless of the fact that there’s zero mystery to this film’s mystery).  She’s a MacGuffin but is by no means a Maltese Falcon.  Scenes meant to make an audience anxious become mere endurance tests to get to their preordained destinations.  It’s rare that there’s any tension in the film, which made my disappointment that much more pronounced.  Neri, Bouchet, and Granger all seem to be giving it their all, but it’s a little like pouring water into a bucket with no bottom.  The few sequences that actually engage stand out more because they remind one that there is so much more this film could have been than because they are especially satisfying.

MVT:  Since there’s nothing else about the film that aims high in most regards, I have to say that the sole reason to watch it is to see some naked female skin (particularly of the Bouchet and Neri varieties).  For some folks that may be enough of a sell.  For others it would be nice to have a compelling movie around these scenes, too.

Make or Break:  The duck hunt out on the marsh is surprising in that it actually maintains a bit of interest for a few minutes, but it also has a twist to it that is so implausible it made me rub my temples.

Score:  5.75/10     

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