Sometimes, life can be a mystery… and sometimes, you kind of know what you’re getting into but still step into that trap door straight to hell.
In 1964, stoked after the huge box office success of Dr.Strangelove, Columbia Pictures was poking around the film world looking for something guaranteed to be the next big movie and had the wild idea to extend unlimited funding to a new project directed by the great Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear, Diabolique). Based on some striking test footage, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno was, for all intents and purposes, going to be an innovative and mature film that had the potential to make millions for the company while making an even bigger star out of Sissi trilogy star Romy Schneider. Three weeks into production and 185 cans (about 14 hours) of film later, one of the main cast members quit, three production separate teams of 150 people were out of work, and Clouzot had a heart attack that ended up shutting production down for good.
Those cans of film were sitting somewhere in France for decades thanks to the insurance company that ended up with them, but thanks to the obsessive persistence of Serge Bromberg and a meeting with Clouzot’s second wife in an elevator, we have this somewhat spectacular documentary (co-directed by Ruxandra Medrea) that sheds a bit of light on the destined to fail project. While the documentary is quite amazing, you’re in no way getting anything close to a completed version of Inferno despite all that footage that was shot. Most of it was camera tests of actors, loads of exterior tests, and visual effects shots galore in assorted states of completion. All of it was silent, although parts of a separate soundtrack were found and added into the documentary along with parts of the script read/reenacted by Bérénice Bejo and Jacques Gamblin. That said, there’s a lot to absorb here, but the overall takeaway seems to be “Here’s what happens when you throw money at a problem and it doesn’t solve itself, folks.”
(Thanks, Flicker Alley!)
The film was to be a drama about a older man (Serge Reggiani) who seems to have killed his younger wife (Schneider) in a jealous rage after confronting her about what he believes to be her alleged affairs. While it’s a somewhat mundane story idea done to death, there was definitely cause for Columbia to throw that unlimited funding at this. Clouzot’s plan to shoot in black and white for the story segments and bold color for the husband’s jealous visions (which may or may not have been his imagination). This, plus the use of other innovative on-set and in-camera effects and the director’s detailed storyboards and script seemed to insure the film would be wrapped up tight as a drum and maybe even on time.
Now, Clouzot wasn’t exactly know for being the kindest to his actors (yes, that was real crude oil covering poor Charles Vanel in The Wages of Fear), so there was no doubt the cast here were in for a world of stress. The documentary does indeed show and tell in a few areas from Schneider’s frustration at the many tests that required multiple takes and complex lighting and makeup effects. Lead actor Serge Reggiani (who looks like the love child of Rowan Atkinson and Walter Matthau) quit the film suddenly, forcing his part to be recast with the younger (and handsomer) Jean-Louis Trintignant. Actress Dany Carrel was slapped on the rear end in so many takes for one brief scene that makeup had to be applied to cover bruising and in one take where she had to hit the actor slapping her on his head with the sole of her shoe, she used the heel, which caused the actor to suffer a bleeding head wound. Ouch and ouch, indeed.
There’s more, but you just need to see this one for yourself. I will admit that I’d never paid much attention to Romy Schneider’s work outside falling asleep during that Sissi marathon two films in when TCM last ran them. Here, however, you can’t take your eyes off her every movement. Clouzot intended to exploit her beauty to its fullest and she’s quite stunning in those many test shots. She learned to water ski for a key scene (despite not being a swimmer) and even did a dangerous stunt (shot in reverse) that has her tied to some train tracks with an actual train rolling her way. Did I mention she’s topless for some reason? Actually, the film was certainly going to have some mildly erotic elements to it, so it’s more than a bit intriguing to wonder how this would have been distributed in America had the film actually been completed. I’d gather Clouzot wasn’t planning to reshoot a thing for the US market, but I’d also guess that Columbia would have found a way to edit a suitable version for the easily shocked.
Anyway, down to the special features, this seems to be pretty much the same as the Flicker Alley version save for the reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned Twins of Evil art and that illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Ginette Vincendeau. If you already own that, you might not need this at all. On the other hand, if you’re a double-dipper or just haven’t seen this amazing record of a film that was lost for decades, you’ll certainly want to snap this up and check out what could have been. Interestingly enough, there’s a 1995 film from Claude Chabrol based on Clouzot’s script (and starring Emmanuelle Béart!), so this just may be something to track down if you want to see how it turned out with a different director at the helm.
Score: A (90%)
Review disc provided by the publisher