Starring: Lea Lander, Riccardo Cucciolla, George Eastman, Maurice Poli
Director: Mario Bava
Best known for his lush Gothic horrors of the ’60s such as The Mask of Satan and Black Sabbath, Mario Bava ended his career trying to reinvent himself for ’70s audiences with this gritty, hardboiled thriller. Sadly, the film was shut down during editing when the producer went bankrupt and it languished unseen for almost thirty years. What we have here, under the title Rabid Dogs, amounts to a workprint that Bava would have continued to hone had the money not run out.
Rough edges and all, it’s an extremely powerful work, tense, nervy, forceful – the sort of compact, low-budget, high-impact film you would expect, not from an old master, but from a hungry young director on the make. A gang of robbers stage a violent stick-up, but when their getaway car lets them down, they grab a female hostage (Lea Lander) and then hijack a passing motorist (Riccardo Cucciolla), who has a sick child on the back seat. The majority of the film consists of the six of them cooped up in the car trying to evade the police. It’s a volatile situation. The leader of the gang, Doc (Maurice Poli), is a cold, ruthless pro, but the other two can barely control themselves – especially the loutish Thirty-two (George Eastman), who immediately begins drooling over the woman, Maria, reducing her to a state of abject terror. Thankfully, the driver, Riccardo, an anonymous-looking middle-aged man, seems just about able to keep his head.
The near-method approach to the making of the film (it was shot in two weeks in high summer on the roads around Rome), added to the fact that it unfolds in something like real time, pay off in intensely physical performances and a stifling atmosphere drenched in sweat and animal passions. You can practically see the actors melting in the sweltering August heat. Lea Lander, in particular, looks hardly to be acting at all. It’s not just the torn clothes and the lank, matted hair, it’s something deeper: in one startling close-up, her pupils are like pin-pricks.
Based on an Ellery Queen tale, the story cracks on towards a cynical and unsparing conclusion, with moments of jeopardy and black humour along the way, and it’s all helmed with great energy and assurance in hot, sandy spaghetti western hues. Given that this was Bava’s attempt at a more rugged approach, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover just how sharply stylish Rabid Dogs looks on this Blu-ray release. Leaving aside the occasional drop in resolution and shifting in colour caused by the insertion of a few lower grade elements, the HD transfer is on the whole astonishingly good – immaculately clean, with no grain, and searingly crisp. An early scene in an underground car park, where you’re looking from behind the police at the gunmen in the middle distance, has a wonderful depth of field and some vivid pops of colour, and a medium shot that follows soon after of an unfortunate female hostage lying dead on the concrete floor is particularly striking (and as meticulously composed as anything you’ll see in Blood and Black Lace).
As well as this warts-and-all “authentic” version of the film, you also get Kidnapped, a re-edit of Rabid Dogs prepared by Mario’s son Lamberto Bava, who added some unnecessary linking material (cutaways to a full-scale police search and a few other scenes) and a new Euro-disco soundtrack. Although technically not that different to the original, in spirit it feels a bit bland and Michael Winner-ish. Once again though, the picture is excellent.
Turning to the extras, there’s a 9-minute chat with Umberto Lenzi, who talks about the violent gangs from Marseilles who moved into Milan in the ’70s and who were the inspiration for the decade’s tough guy movies. There’s also a 16-minute “making of” from the time of the release of Kidnapped. We learn about the shooting process, with various versions of Riccardo’s car mounted on a flatbed that was turned into a mini film studio, about the problems that resulted in the film’s disappearance into legal limbo, and about the commendable role Lea Lander played in rescuing it and getting it seen. These entanglements are explored in greater depth on the audio commentary by Video Watchdog‘s Tim Lucas, who also supplies lots of background on the cast and divulges many other fascinating snippets of info, such as the fact that Al Lettieri (Sollozzo in The Godfather) shot on the movie for a week but was finally let go because his heavy drinking made him impossible to work with. All in all, Bava fans are going to absolutely delighted with this fine release of a film which deserves to rank among the director’s very best.