Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Passport For A Corpse (1962)

Four war veterans raid a money transport. Although one of the men, Walter (Erno Crisa), has spent months planning the assault, something goes very wrong, and all of the men except for one are killed by the police. The survivor, whose name is Maurice (or Marco in the mutilated English dub of the film; he is in any case played by Alberto Lupo), is able to grab some of the money he and his friends were after and manages to flee. Maurice is positive that the police know who he is and are now after him, but he has to make one final visit with his girlfriend, the weird-early-60s-film-stripper Helene (Helene Chanel).

Helene didn't know about her boyfriend's mad plan beforehand, and at first tries her best to convince him to give himself up to the police, but when Maurice makes it clear to her that he'd have no hope ever getting out of jail again, she decides to go with his plan of escape. Helene herself just needs to cross the border to France and wait there for Maurice, but the man can't risk crossing the border in the normal, legal way. Maurice knows an old smuggler's route through the mountains, but he isn't exactly lucky.

That's not much of a surprise, especially since Maurice has already repeatedly met a mysterious woman (Linda Christian?). Her name might be Destiny or it might be Death, and there's just no escaping her gaze.

When Maurice's first plan for crossing the border doesn't work out, he spontaneously hides inside a coffin that is bound for France, but his ride has to turn round and he soon finds himself locked inside a cooler inside a morgue - the same morgue, it turns out, where the bodies of the robber's dead friends are waiting for their burial. This is not going to be Destiny's last joke on Maurice.

Mario Gariazzo's Passport for a Corpse is clearly influenced by the most bleak and pessimist arm of noir cinema, at least when it comes to its thematic interests and its outlook on life and death. It's a film about the world as an existential hell-hole, and without the personification of Destiny Gariazzo uses, the film would certainly deserve to be called intensely nihilist - but where there are metaphors walking around, there's no true nihilism to be found. Of course, living in a consciously cruel universe isn't much of an improvement over living in an utterly meaningless universe ruled by entropy, and doesn't make the film any less bleak.

While Passport for a Corpse is ideologically (and emotionally) close to the wellspring of noir, it is only from time to time visually comparable to its mother genre. Gariazzo doesn't use his black and white camera for much fancy (and thematically fitting) shadow play or any of the other visual extravagances that noir cinema used to step away from naturalism and to show its characters' inner turmoil on screen. Gariazzo's visual style is relatively static. The camera never puts itself actively into the viewer's consciousness, but it is this minimal and underplayed aspect of the film that is especially important in demonstrating that Maurice/Marco is caught in a trap even before he and his friends are setting their plan into motion. The camera always stays close to Marco, caging him in the minimalist (or cheap) interior sets from the very beginning. His ordeal in the coffin and the morgue are only an escalation of a situation that must have started before the viewers have laid eyes on him. Even the (decidedly non-staged) natural locations give no respite from claustrophobia. Nature is a cage build of mountains and a whiteness of snow that crushes visibility and hope.

It doesn't come as a surprise in a film like this that the acting and dialogue/internal monologue tend a bit to the melodramatic side. One could argue that the acting is decidedly fake, but I don't think "realism" is one of Gariazzo's goals here. Lupo and Chanel's rather exalted performances are not meant to portray psychologically deep characters, but to intensify the thematic pressure on the film's audience. This is not a film about people, but a film about concepts like desperation and futility, and Gariazzo is making damn sure that even the slower members of the audience will realize it. And if the acting and the dialogue still aren't enough to achieve that goal, you can always hit your audience over the head with a walking, mockingly laughing metaphor.

This sledgehammer quality of the film is at once its biggest strength (this certainly is a film that knows what it wants) and its biggest weakness. I found Passport for a Corpse's complete lack of subtlety quite distancing on an emotional level - which I don't think is what Gariazzo was going for -, but was still able to appreciate the film on the level of craft.

There's something to be said for the film's power of hysterical negativity.


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