Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Hyena in the Safe (1968)

Comic book, cartoon, and now film character Harley Quinn had a pair of hyenas as pets (though they didn’t make an appearance in the Suicide Squad movie; more’s the pity).  They’re names were Bud and Lou (get it?), and they obeyed her as dutifully as any lap dog might.  I thought they were a great choice for her character, not least because I always had a thing for hyenas.  I don’t know what it is, but, outside of having Bionic Bigfoot as a bestie, a hyena would be my second choice (at least when I was a lad).  Odd, really, since there’s so much else about the animals that puts me off.  They stink.  Sure, they have a jaw that can deliver five hundred pounds of pressure per square inch, but they’re also scavengers; hardly the most auspicious of traits.  They always look like they have mange (hey, maybe they do).  Then there’s that laugh, that shrill cry that would get on my nerves no end if I had to listen to it daily.  Come to think of it, what the hell did I ever think made these beasts so attractive?  Unironically, there is no hyena, literal or figurative, in Cesare Canevari’s A Hyena in the Safe (aka Una Iena in Cassaforte).  Considering all the other ultra-hip flourishes in the film, I’m more than a little surprised by this decision.

Six criminals from all over (Germany, Spain, France, Italy, England, and Tangier) converge on a mansion.  The group has reunited to open the safe full of diamonds that they stole from a bank in Amsterdam, and each of these louts has one of the six keys needed to open the safe.  Tensions rise, and things get just a little weird when one of them can’t find his key.

Canevari showcases a wicked hand for stylistic touches from start to finish.  As Klaus’ (Stan O’Gadwin) car pulls up to the estate, his headlights start off in the distance and stop immediately in front of the camera.  He fires up a butt in complete darkness, the only light the cherry on the cigarette.  Carina (Karina Kar) comes on the scene, and as she walks through the pitch-black night, she is suddenly illuminated by Klaus’ headlights.  Later, her legs take center frame in the foreground, moving to reveal Anna (Maria Luisa Geisberger), the ringleader.  Mirrors and such are used deftly throughout the film.  Junkie Albert (Sandro Pizzochero) goes into withdrawal, and the camera angles and cutting reflect his torment, twisting and turning like his insides.  Everyone is dressed up like they’re going to a carnival (though they never attend it, there is one going on out in the streets, but I believe these people would have dressed the same no matter what).  The word “Fine” sits in a corner of the screen for the last few minutes of the film, out of focus, a large, yellow blob drawing your attention until it’s actually time for the credits to roll.  The thing about all of this is that this movie is far longer on style than it is on sense.  Sometimes this is okay, even fitting, but here I just found myself being confused much of the time.

This disarray, I’m beginning to think, is intentional, not incompetence.  First off, the film was made in the Psychedelic Sixties, when chaotic editing and non sequiturs were a common practice in line with the youth counterculture of the day (heavily influenced by the burgeoning drug culture of which Albert has become a victim).  As such, this movie fits in nicely with any given episode of Laugh-In or The Banana Splits or just about any other filmic or televised media that tried to be in touch with the youngsters.  I think you get the idea.

 Second off, the plot is a cat’s cradle of internecine manipulations, with everyone trying to fuck over everyone else, and duplicity is the byword of the day.  Juan (Ben Salvador) puts the moves on Albert’s gal Jeanine (Cristina Gaioni), who may or may not have lifted the key off Albert.  Anna tries to align herself with Juan against Steve (Dmitri Nabokov), then it turns out she is really in cahoots with Steve.  And it goes on from there.  The point is, the way the film is constructed, we can rarely trust what we are seeing because of the information skipped between scenes.  We are left in the same state of doubt and suspicion because we are adrift in the story the same as the film’s characters.  This is only reinforced by the constant extreme closeups of everyone’s eyes.  They accuse, they stare disaffectedly, they lust, they suspect, often all at the same time.  And we can trust none of them.  This leads to the CCTV that watches all of the characters and through which we will observe a standoff between two of them late in the runtime.  

Third off, I think the film may ultimately be a portrayal of one of the character’s descent into Hell and madness.  The film is loaded from stem to stern with oddly sinister touches, and one of the film’s final beats has this particular character go insane in a phantasmagoric onslaught of images.  It’s the culmination of the queasy mélange of incidents that begins with the avarice of all the characters and moves swiftly downhill from there.

There is also an uneasy playfulness in the film, most singularly captured by the Burt Bacharach-ian score that persistently pummels the audience’s ears (like, say, a hyena’s cries?).  Think of the main title theme to the 1967 Casino Royale, and you have an idea (even though I quite like that song, hearing it every couple of minutes becomes tedious).  It distracts and even detracts from the film’s innately tense premise.  Furthermore, there is the character of Callaghan (Otto Tinard), an odd, older man in a bowler hat who just sort of meanders through the movie.  At one moment in the film, a character states in direct address, “We’ve arrived at the last scene, and only you and I remain to act it out.”  There is also a variety of deathtraps and gadgetry that would be perfectly at home in a James Bond or a James Bond knockoff film of the day, including, but not limited to, an electrified garage door, a crypt that opens to reveal a lair of sorts, a room that floods with water, etcetera.  If anything, it’s these elements that take the film down from the heights it could have achieved more than its anarchic editing does.  A Hyena in the Safe is one of those films worth seeing more as an oddity than as any sort of required viewing.

MVT:  The film has style to spare, and it spares nothing in its style.

Make or Break:  I think that the second or third time you hear the film’s score, you’ll know whether or not you can endure it for the film’s remainder.

Score:  6.5/10        

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