Pietro Germi: Unknown Master of Italian Cinema

1 04 2011

Pietro Germi - Italian Film Director

When you think about Italian cinema, several names generally come to mind: Fellini, Visconti, de Sica, Bertolucci and possibly even Benigni.  One name that is rarely mentioned in cinema circles, but whom is one of my favorite Italian directors, is Pietro Germi.  Germi, unlike some auteurs, was able to expertly master the mechanics of both comedies and dramas, while all the time keeping his own style evident throughout.  Even a couple years ago as Wikipedia was becoming very popular, Germi still hadn’t an article on his life and career.  The article that is currently live for him on the site is one that I took the time to write myself.

Germi was born in Genoa, Italy in 1914.  After a brief excursion into nautical school, he decided to enter the film industry.  He attended film school in Rome and performed many functions on various sets including acting, assistant directing and occasionally writing during his youth.  His first film as a director was The Testimony in 1946.  Following this film, he released a film every year or two for the next 25 years as a director and, more often then not, served as either writer or co-writer as well.

Germi’s first films were in the Italian neo-realist style with a deep rooting in dramatic content.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the neo-realist style, it generally covered topics that were true-to-life and the protagonists were generally the everyman type.  In addition, the films were generally shot in natural locations as opposed to shooting in a studio and the cinematography and direction had a grittier, more realistic style to it than a polished Hollywood film.  Most all of his output during the 1950s was in this style and focused on dramatic content, though he would later be more known for his comedic efforts.  Just to give you a Germi starter kit so to speak, I’ll recommend three of his films that I feel will get you on your way to either liking or deciding that Germi’s work is not for you.

One of my favorite films from Germi’s dramatic material is 1956’s The Railroad Man. In addition to writing and directing, Germi also played the lead role of Andrea Marcocci.  Andrea is, as the title suggests, a railroad worker.  He is happy in his career and spends many a night drinking with his fellow workers after getting off the job.  However, after nearly colliding with another train while trying to avoid someone attempting suicide on the tracks, Marcocci is laid off.  Further misfortune begins to complicate his life after this incident, and between his problems at work, his drinking and troubles in his family life, Marcocci’s mood gets more and more despairing.  However, his youngest son Sandro (Edoardo Nevola), wants to help his father and through Sandro’s love and support his father is able to find some form of peace.  The film is a complex study of the everyman through the life of this common railroad worker.  It touches on the human emotion on every level throughout the film and is an outstanding example of the Italian neo-realist style.

"Divorce, Italian Style" - 1961

In 1961, Germi moved into comedic material and would stay in this genre for the majority of his career following.  The film, Divorce, Italian Style, would be his greatest success, winning him a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award and garnering a nomination for Best Director.  The film tells the story of Sicilian nobleman Ferdinando Cefalù, played with precision by famous Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, who hopes to marry his beautiful cousin Angela (Stefania Sandrelli).  The problem, however, is that he is already married to Rosalia, and in Sicily at the time it was illegal to get a divorce.  Determined to succeed, Ferdinando tries to manipulate a plan to get his wife caught up in an affair; then, when he “finds” her in the act, murder her and only receive a short sentence for an honor killing.  Mastroianni is brilliant in the part of Ferdinando and the film overall has amazing timing for comedic effect.  Following the international success of this film, many Italian comedies of the 1960s tried to emulate Germi’s style and there were a few direct off shoots of this movie.

The last Germi film I’ll go into detail on is his 1963 film Seduced and Abandoned.  It directly relates in style and mood to his previous film Divorce, Italian Style. Agnese Ascalone (Stefania Sandrelli) is the daughter of a prominent Sicilian miner, Vincenzo.  She is found in the kitchen by Vincenzo and her mother being seduced by her sister’s fiancee, Peppino.  To uphold strict Sicilian mores, Vincenzo demands Peppino marry Agnese instead.  The  resulting demand leads the story through one hilarious situation after another.  Saro Urzi, who plays Vincenzo, was perfect for this role as the frustrated, comical patriarch.  In America, he is probably best known for playing Signor Vitelli in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.

Unfortunately, Germi would pass in 1974 from hepatitis at the age of 60.  His last film was the mediocre Alfredo, Alfredo with Dustin Hoffman and favorite muse Stefania Sandrelli.  There are many other films in this brilliant Italian director’s repertoire worth seeing, but if you just want a tast of his comedic and dramatic style, then I feel these three films are a good place to start.  In my opinion, Germi’s abilities as a writer and director were as reputable as any of the other illuminaries of Italian cinema and hope his work will reach a wider audience in years to come.


Directors who Started in Other Departments – PART II

25 03 2011

As we move into the second part of this series, we will focus on directors who originally started as cinematographers.  The focus again will be prominent directors who were prominent cinematographers, which excludes one-timers like Christopher Nolan on Following or Gordon Willis’s one foray into directing with 1980’s Windows. Being a cinematographer first and foremost and having recently directed a short of my own, this entry in the series will be the closest to home for me.  As one of the more well known cinematographer-turn-directors, Nicholas Roeg, quoted about directing, “And later I thought, I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography.”

The Cinematographers:

Nicholas Roeg (1928- ) – Roeg began his career in the early 1950s as a clapper-boy, quickly moving up to camera operator by the end of the decade.  In the early 1960s, he continued to work as a camera operator and also had the opportunity to shoot 2nd unit photography on David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia under head DP Freddie Young.  He moved into the role of cinematographer during the 1960s as well, shooting such stark classics as The Masque of the Red Death and Farenheit 451, as well as lighter material such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His first film as a director came in 1971 with his breakthrough debut Walkabout, a film he also took a cinematography credit on.  His directing career would continue with my personal favorite of his Don’t Look Now, the eerily surreal Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie and Insignificance. After the mid-1980s, his output became more sporadic though he has continued to make films as a director, his latest being in 2007.

Andrzej Bartkowiak (1950 – ) – Bartkowiak trained at the esteemed Polish Film School in Lodz, Poland where many well-known Polish and international directors and cinematographers train.  He immigrated to the United States in 1972 and began working in commercials before working on his first feature as a cinematographer, Deadly Hero. His real recognition, however, came in a series of films he shot with one of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet.  Bartkowiak’s first film with Lumet was the dark cop tale Prince of the City, and followed this with Deathtrap, The Verdict and Daniel with Lumet.  Other notable films as a cinematographer include Oscar winner Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor, Twins and The Devil’s Advocate. Bartkowiak moved into directing with Romeo Must Die; his following films as director have all been in the action film genre.  He spent the entire decade of the 2000s directing, though it looks like he is moving back into the cinematographer’s seat for the upcoming Joel Schumacher film Trespass.

Jack Cardiff (1914-2009) – Cardiff is, in my opinion, one of the best cinematographers who has ever lived.  His work in early Technicolor is astounding and his ability to manipulate hues to fit the perfect mood for the story is astounding.  Cardiff began his career as a clapper-boy (in the camera department at least, he originally began as a child actor) and moved into being a camera operator a few years later.  His work as operator on Pressburger and Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, led to a relationship with the two directors that would later allow him to be the cinematographer on two of their best known films, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He won an Academy Award for the former.  Following Oscar nominations included War and Peace in 1956 and Fanny in 1961.  His first feature as a director was Intent to Kill in 1958; his most well known feature, however, was Sons and Lovers in 1960.  Sons and Lovers was nominated for seven Academy Awards including a nomination for Cardiff as director.  Coincidentally enough, fellow cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis shot Sons and Lovers and received his first of two Academy Awards for it.   Cardiff continued to direct intermittently into the 1970s, but it seems his true passion was his first love of cinematography; this he continued to do into his 90s with shorts and documentary subjects.

Ernest Dickerson (1951- ) – Dickerson began his career shooting music videos and, as a cinematographer, is probably best known for his collaborations with Spike Lee on such films as She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X. The same year he shot Malcolm X, he began his career as a director with the film Juice. After several features in the 1990s, Dickerson as has gone on to become a prolific television director.  His television directing credits include episodes of E.R., Heroes, The Wire, Weeds, Burn Notice, Dexter and The Walking Dead, among many others.

Freddie Francis (1917-2007) – Francis spent a short time as a camera assistant in the 1940s before becoming a camera operator and operating through the mid-1950s.  At this point, he began his career as a cinematographer and would go on to win an Oscar for Jack Cardiff’s Sons and Lovers in 1960 for Best Black-and-White Cinematography.  Following his win, he only shot a few more films before moving into directing with 1960’s Two and Two Make Six. Though most of his directing career was limited to horror and low-budget features, Francis said in an interview, “I got a lot of fun out of being a cameraman, but obviously directing is more interesting. One thing wrong with being a cameraman in Britain is that from the financial point of view you have to keep working all the time and you often have to work with people whose work, frankly, doesn’t excite you. When I got the opportunity to direct I decided to try it and if I wasn’t excited with what I did, well, that would be my own problem and no one else’s. But basically I love making films. If someone asked me now to photograph a film I still would.” (1976).  Interestingly enough, he did return to cinematography in 1980 with the popular film The Elephant Man. This return to cinematography must have revitalized his interest greatly as he continued to shoot films from then until his final feature Straight Story in 1999.  In his second wave as a DP, he would win another Academy Award almost 30 years after his first for the 1989 film Glory.

Ronald Neame (1911-2010) – Neame’s credits as a cinematographer were fairly extensive through the 1930s with Happy until the mid-1940s with David Lean’s Blithe Spirit. His directorial career began in 1947 with Take My Life. He continued his varied career as a director until the short The Magic Balloon in 1990.  His most known films as a director include 1960s Tunes of Glory (his personal favorite film of his own), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Scrooge and The Poseidon Adventure. Over his career he received three Oscar nominations which, oddly enough, were not for cinematography or direction; they were two for writing and one for special effects.

Barry Sonnenfeld (1953- ) – Sonnenfeld is probably best known, in cinematography at least, as being the Coen Brothers’ first regular DP before their longtime collaboration with British Cinematographer Roger Deakins.  His credits with the Coens included their debut Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing; other notable credits as a cinematographer are When Harry Met Sally…, Misery and Big. He moved into directing in the early 1990s with the first Addams Family movie and continued with the sequel, Get Shorty and both Men in Black films, among others.  He also dabbled in television with the creation and an Emmy award for the television show Pushing Daisies.

There are certainly other cinematographers who moved into direction from shooting, but none so with the success of these listed.  An honorable mention for this category can be Steven Soderbergh who shoots many of his own films under the pseudonym “Peter Andrews”.  However, I have never been a huge fan of Soderbergh’s personally shot movies and being that he didn’t actually begin as a cinematographer, I can’t add him to the main list.  Another honorable (much more so than Soderbergh) mention is Stanley Kubrick who began as a stills photographer for such magazines as Look! in the 1950s and shot his first film Fear and Desire.  Rumor has it Kubrick was also largely responsible for shooting Spartacus after not agreeing with Director of Photography Russell Metty on the look of the film.  As an interesting side note, Metty won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for Spartacus.

Directors who Started in Other Departments – PART I

22 03 2011

Some film directors start out knowing that all they really want to do is direct.  Others, for various reasons, have started in an array of other departments and moved into direction along the way at some point.  So, as a series of posts, I’m going to compile a list for your viewing pleasure of directors who started out being known for something other than directing.  Now, of course, many directors wear multiple hats, but the ones I list in this post and the ones following will be only directors who were prominently known for a role other than directing BEFORE they became directors.  To start the series, we’ll begin with editors turned directors:


Robert Wise (1914-2005) – Before winning Oscars for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, among nominations and accolades for many of his other films, Robert Wise was an editor.  Some of his editing credits include 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welle’s infamously cut classic.  However, probably his best known editing credit is for the film that constantly ranks among the best ever made, Orson Welles’s 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Interestingly enough, out of Wise’s eight Oscar nominations, his first was for editing Citizen Kane.

David Lean (1908-1991) – Before being at the helm of such epic masterpieces as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, Lean was working in the cutting room.  He started cutting his teeth in newsreels in the early 1930s before moving into cutting features such as Pygmalion and Pressburger and Powell’s 49th Parallel. By the time he moved into directing in the early 1940s, Lean had cut some two dozen features.  As a fitting ode to his former career, Lean would edit his final picture A Passage to India in 1984, ending one of the most impressive careers in cinema.

Hal Ashby (1929-1988) – Ashby started in the editorial department and would eventually only end up as primary editor on six features.  Though his quantity as an editor was not high, he was awarded an Academy Award in 1967 for cutting Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night. Norman Jewison, the director of the film, would go on to let Ashby direct a picture he passed on, 1970’s The Landlord. What followed would be, in my opinion, one of the most underrated careers of any director in mainstream cinema.  During the 1970s, Ashby would direct a slew of well-received motion pictures which includes Harold and Maude, Shampoo, The Last Detail, Bound For Glory, Coming Home and Being There. Though drugs and irrationality would end his career essentially in the 1980s, his film output the decade before is testament to a unique auteur of American cinema.

John Glen (1932- ) – Glen is probably best known for directing more James Bond films than any other, having directed all 5 Bond movies produced in the 1980s (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights and License to Kill).  Before being at the top of the super spy franchise, Glen started in editing.  His editing credits, outside of three prior Bond movies (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker), included British films Murphy’s War and The Sea Wolves, among many others.  To add to his already impressive resume, he also served as 2nd Unit Director on several of the films he edited including being in charge of the thrilling ski chase at the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me.

Peter R. Hunt (1925-2002) – The Bond series liked to grow their directors from the inside it seems, as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service director Peter R. Hunt was also an editor on the series before turning to directing.  Hunt, whose credits as an editor started in 1954, cut such Bond classics as Dr. No, Goldfinger and From Russia with Love. In addition to George Lazenby getting an opportunity of a lifetime upon Connery’s departure from the series, Hunt was able to move up as well in 1969 with Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It would be his only Bond film as director, though he did continue a directing career until 1991.

Anthony Harvey (1931- ) – English Director/Editor Harvey began as an assistant editor in the early 1950s.  During the decade he moved to full editor and in the 1960s edited several iconic films including a collaboration with famed director Stanley Kubrick on Lolita and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He served also served as editor on his debut film as a director, Dutchman.  His second film would become his most well-known and revered, 1968’s The Lion in Winter. For this film, Harvey would receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and both leads, Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, would receive nominations.  Hepburn would go on to win (her third of four).  Harvey has continued a sporadic career as a director with his last film to date being 1994’s This Can’t Be Love.

Robert Parrish (1916-1995) – Parrish’s career began first as an actor while still an adolescent.  He made appearances in several John Ford films, as well as the Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front  and as one of the newspaper boys in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.  Through his work with Ford, Parrish became an assistant director and later, and more prominently, an editor.  His editing credits include: The Battle of Midway, December 7th, Grapes of Wrath (assistant), Body and Soul and All the King’s Men.  He won an Oscar for Best Film Editing for Body and Soul in 1947 and was nominated for All the King’s Men in the same category as well.  In the 1950s, Parrish moved into directing with such films as Cry Danger, The Purple Plain and Fire Down Below, as well as working in television for such shows as The Twilight Zone (check the Twilight Zone Master Guide above for episodes he worked on).  He continued directing through the 1960s, being one of the five directors of the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967), and into the mid-1970s.  He had one credited film for a documentary in the 1980s, entitled Mississippi Blues.  Parrish died in Long Island, N.Y. at the age of 79.

Well, those are the ones I know of who began prominent careers as directors while first serving as editors.  If you can think of more people to be added to this compilation who began their careers as editors before turning to directing, then please comment and I will review and add to the list!

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