Saturday, March 20, 2010

In short: The Sewer Rats (1974)

The car belonging to a man with a crippled leg (Richard Harrison; throughout the film only identified as "Cripple") breaks down in the muddiest part of nowhere. The only thing amounting to civilization close by is a muddy conglomerate of hovels populated by a handful of men (among them Gordon Mitchell) of dubious sanity and clearly lacking morality. Oh, and there's a single woman, Rita (Dagmar Lassander), the wife of one of the men. While everyone is busy keeping dangerous secrets and looking for gold in an old abandoned mine, she spends her time sleeping around with most  of the men, and laughing maniacally.

Although he has been greeted without enthusiasm, the nameless man decides to stay around for a while, sending everyone around him scuttling to find out what his hidden reason for staying might be. Is it after one of them? There are so many secrets going around that it's hard for the men to decide. Rita for her part tries her best to add the stranger to her collection of trophies, but he's a hard sell, driving the poor woman into provoking the other men even more.

It will just need a little more effort until everyone will be at each other's throats completely.

The Sewer Rats is a nice, grimy and decidedly muddy thriller that has ambitions on being a neo noir. Everyone here is basically a sleazier variation of one noir character type or the other, mixed up by throwing the more Spaghetti Western hero-like Harrison into the fray with them. The men (and the woman) are all decidedly unpleasant, but the film isn't as cynical as it could be - a few of them get slightly redeeming qualities, which proves helpful when the time of the big violent denouement comes and the viewer should care about what happens to them. Between the sleaze and the grime, the film shows some humanist strains - mostly in the way Harrison treats some of the other characters - that I found thoroughly surprising and quite satisfying.

A film like this always risks to become just a bit too cynical and falling a bit too much in love with wallowing in the mud (figurative and non-figurative). For me, films that go too far into that direction sometimes tend to lose the punch they are supposed to have. When everyone is an irredeemable bastard, I find it hard to care about anyone.

The Sewer Rats' Director Roberto Bianchi Montero avoids that pitfall more or less. While especially everything to do with Rita is as sleazy and exploitative as possible (and can well be read as quite misogynist), there are also moments of unexpected compassion for her, and it is this compassion that makes the downbeat tendencies of the film work all the better for me.


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