Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Machine That Kills Bad People - 1952

"The Machine That Kills Bad People" - 1952
Dir. by Roberto Rossellini - 1 hr. 20 min.

Movie Clip

by Clayton Hollifield

I was lured into this one largely because of the bizarre, unwieldy title, "The Machine That Kills Bad People."  I'm not saying that I expected a murderous robot, but sometimes you just can't be sure until you watch the thing.  Also, I was aware that the title has been translated, and that the original Italian title probably sounds better.  I'm also unfamiliar with director Roberto Rossellini's work, although some quick Google-Fu reveals that he's someone that I probably should be more familiar with.  So watching "Machine" serves as my introduction to Rossellini's work, but is it a good introduction?  Well, there weren't any homicidal robots (spoiler!!!), but that's not make-or-break.

After a clever framing sequence, we're introduced to a small coastal Italian town, and some Americans who are returning after the war (that would be World War II) to buy up some land (currently the town cemetary!) and turn it into a resort for travellers.  They appear to run into an old man on a curvy road, but can't find hide nor hair of him, and continue on.  The town is the in the middle of a celebration for St. Andrew, which has ground everything to a halt.  The same old man that the Americans ran over appears, hale and healthy (sort of), in Celestino's (Gennaro Pisano), where he's begging for a place to stay for the night.  The entire town has St. Andrew on the brain, and Celestino thinks that the old man might be St. Andrew.  The old man shows Celestino a trick that allows Celestino to kill people with his camera (by taking a picture of a picture of someone).  Unfortunately, Celestino's judgment isn't perfect, and every time he kills someone, there are a lot of unintended consequences (mainly greed rearing it's ugly head), and he ends up having to kill someone else.

The first thing I was impressed with in "Machine" is the opening scene, a visually clever framing device that assembles the town out of cut-outs of buildings and people, before transitioning to the actual town.  I was less happy to see the device return at the conclusion of the film; I understand the bookend concept, but by the end of the story, having a omniscient narrator literally remove the pieces of the story that had just been told was an unwelcome reminder that the story was entirely artificial, which dulled the impact of the morality tale.   It might have been less jarring if the device had been revisited at any point during the meat of the story; as it was, I had forgotten about it until it reared it's head again at the end of the movie.

The story itself is basic, but effective.  It's a story of power corrupting, and greed getting in the way of anything good happening for anyone.  For me, it was functional, and was boosted by the great choice of setting, an Italian fishing town with seemingly endless amounts of stairs.  Visually, there's a lot to feast your eyes on, which is always nice.  And the comedy was solid.  Plus, the last act had a ton of people throwing around the sign of the horns; Ronnie James Dio would be proud.  My main problem with the story (and it's less of a "problem" than a glitch) was that the real story was about Celestino and his camera's drone strikes, and the story presents itself as something different.  We're introduced to the town through the planned machinations of the Americans, but their story ends up as not much more than having to shuffle from hotel to boarding house over and over again.  They're largely inconsequential to Celestino's story, whose reactions to examples of greed and selfishness (and his ability to punish those actions) make up the bulk of the movie.  By the time that becomes apparent, it seems in retrospect the Americans are there pretty much only to pad out the run time.  "The Machine That Kills Bad People" is already pretty slight at 80 minutes, and if they were excised from the film (along with the framing device, which I kind of like), it might barely be pushing an hour.

There's not much in the way of great performances, or unforgettable scenes in "Machine."  It's pretty good, a pleasant ride, and feels a lot like a stage play translated into a film.  But the setting is beautiful, and has Miss America 1946 (Marilyn Buferd) in what passed for a bikini in those days, and there are some laughs to be had.  From what I gather, "Machine" is important because the director did other important, memorable work, and without that this would just be some random Italian film about a camera that really will steal your soul.

2.5 / 5 - Streaming

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