Arrow Video: The Witches (1967) - Reviewed

The anthological film isn’t going away anytime soon, with the horror film circuit and art-house circuits generating them presently like no tomorrow.  The Italian anthological film, however, became a short lived curiosity through the late 1960s, bringing together numerous beloved Neorealist and/or New Wave filmmakers you’d never expect to see sitting in the same room together.  Whether it be Boccaccio ’70 which brought together Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini and Mario Monicelli or Spirits of the Dead which united Roger Vadim, Louis Malle and Fellini once again, the trend is something of a time capsule looked upon decades later.  Among the last and least seen items to emerge from this brief movement was producer Dino De Laurentiis’ The Witches, a bawdy sketch comedy intended to showcase his new starlet wife, actress and Miss Italia winner Silvana Mangano. 

One of many films to utilize the title, including but not limited to the Hammer Horror film released a year prior and the 1990 Nicolas Roeg family horror film, the opening animated credits of an Hanna Barbera styled cartoon witch flying over the city scape and the title itself bear little relation to anything to do with witchcraft.  Instead the film unites the aforementioned Visconti, De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mauro Bolognini and Franco Rossi to film pretty much whatever they wanted with the money provided by De Laurentiis.  The end result is an uneven, occasionally meandering but often entertainingly sexy romp which sports inarguably the weirdest bit part of Clint Eastwood’s acting career with a behind-the-scenes story that is equally strange.

Of the segments, Pasolini’s and De Sica’s are the ones which stand out as the most visually inventive when they aren’t being completely bizarre, drifting into fantasy and flights of fancy whereas Visconti’s doesn’t really go anywhere and both Rossi and Bolognini’s segments are shorter than the shortest segments on The ABCs of Death.  Visually Visconti brings in many of his regular team players and the soundtrack by Piero Piccioni is often wonderfully melodic and catchy.  Pasolini’s frankly goofball segment with hyperkinetic colors and a penchant for speeding up the footage for absurdist effect ala Charlie Chaplin manages to add a few musical contributions by Ennio Morricone and stands as a fast and loose precursor to his Trilogy of Life and Theorem

The real reason to dig into this overlooked entry, long unreleased in the United States of course is Vittorio De Sica’s segment, sporting Clint Eastwood at the tail end of his career in spaghetti westerns directed by Sergio Leone.  While the rest of the film is shot in Italian, De Sica’s segment was shot in English and later dubbed over in Italian.  The end result is truly jarring, hearing some Italian man’s voice come out of Clint Eastwood, though the Arrow Video disc also includes the original English language track for those who can't think their way around the dubbing.  

Even more jarring is his characterization, playing an inattentive and ineffectual nebbish ignoring his wife who fantasizes about being an object of desire by mass hordes of men while stirring her husband’s jealousies.  Reportedly Eastwood was given the choice between taking $25,000 or $20,000 with a Ferrari thrown in for good measure if he agreed to do the film for Dino De Laurentiis, naturally agreeing to the Ferrari deal instead.  After all the effort and in the wake of Eastwood’s career taking off, United Artists went ahead and bought the picture in an effort to keep it from being seen, making Laurentiis' negotiations to get him into the film seemingly all for naught.

Arrow Video fans and consumers of Italian cinema, particularly of the anthological kind, really don’t have much to chew on here aside from seeing some of the directors indulge in visual ideas not usually associated with their work.  De Sica’s fantastical segment plays in stark contrast to his often neorealist style glimpsed in Bicycle Thieves though some of the more outlandish dream sequences resemble the finale concluding Miracle in Milan.  Pasolini’s segment couldn’t be further up in orbit if it tried, as far removed from how his career began (and especially how it ended) as one could imagine.  Having seen the dense but often wonderful Boccaccio ’70 prior to this, which sports my personal favorite Fellini segment to date, I was somewhat disappointed in this rarely seen endeavor and found much of Laurentiis’ ‘vanity project’ intended to launch his newlywed’s career to be underwhelming.  But it had it’s moments.

- Andrew Kotwicki