Louis Hayward in tights!
Edgar Ulmer’s reputation rests largely on a series of no-budget, claustrophobic noirs and thrillers like Strange Illusion, Bluebeard, and of course Detour. But this director was nothing if not versatile, occasionally helming larger-budget films with major stars (The Black Cat and Strange Woman come to mind) as well as action pictures that brought Ulmer’s visual talents outside the cramped confines of the studio into authentic locations. Into the latter category fall such intriguing films as the 1950s western The Naked Dawn and two historical epics, Hannibal and The Pirates of Capri. If Hannibal is mostly overshadowed by beefy Victor Mature and an even beefier pack of elephants, The Pirates of Capri shows Ulmer in full command of his powers as a pictorialist. Shot in Italy both on location and on the enormous sound stages of Cinecitta, the film has enough visual beauty to justify by itself the oft-repeated claim that Ulmer was the heir to the Rembrandt of silent film, gay icon F. W. Murnau.
A title informs us that the setting is “Italy, 1798,” specifically a huge ship whose elaborate riggings and sails Ulmer’s camera lovingly tracks in a series of breathtaking compositions. But there’s something amiss on the ship, which carries both large caches of arms and some upper-class snobs. Into this dramatic setting leaps the masked Captain Sirocco (Louis Hayward), a notorious pirate and leader of a proletarian revolt against an increasingly cruel Neapolitan aristocracy. Sirocco and his band attack the ship from rowboats, confiscate the weapons, and terrorize the snobs. But Sirocco pauses briefly to court a beautiful woman, Countess Mercedes de Lopez (Mariella Lotti). Sirocco must wear a mask because he’s also Count Amalfi, a bewigged fop who’s the chief adviser to Queen Carolina (Binnie Barnes), the “sister of Marie Antoinette” who’s terrified that “the people,” as she calls them, will deal her the same fate. Amalfi’s nemesis – and the people’s, and the queen’s – is Baron von Holstein (Rudolph Serato), who controls the police and is secretly behind most of the terror wrought on the people. (Sirocco isn’t the only “masked” character here.) The film gracefully follows the romance of Sirocco and Countess de Lopez, Sirocco’s attempts to save the queen (who’s not so much mean as a mess), and the escalating revolt, captured in dramatic scenes of the storming of an island and the royal palace.
Ulmer’s skill as a director of action is evident throughout the film but particularly in the opening sequence and in a duel-to-the-death between Sirocco and Holstein. While Louis Hayward won’t erase the memory of Errol Flynn, he’s a stylish and skillful swordsman, almost acrobatic in his leaps and parries. Much of the allure of Pirates comes from these swashbuckling sequences. Ulmer brings a different but no less exuberant approach to several “entertainments” within the film. The first occurs during the opening scene when a group of acrobats amuse the nobles on the ship with various routines before revealing themselves as pirates. In another sequence, Count Amalfi stages an elaborate and dramatic “Beauty and the Beast” play before a vast, shadow-drenched curtain. Hayward must have relished the Amalfi role, given the energy and wit he applies to his mincing, hankie-waving, eye-fluttering dandy persona.
Hayward is indeed one of the film’s major draws. A frequent collaborator with Ulmer and a lifelong friend (he even lived with the director’s family sometimes, according to daughter Arianne), Hayward injects life into what at first seems to be an unremarkable Zorro-like character. He captures with equal panache the drag-queenish vanity of Amalfi and the witty heroics of Count Sirocco. While the notes included with the DVD stress that Sirocco/Amalfi is that rarity in Ulmer, a character who isn’t destroyed by film’s end, critic Bill Krohn has rightly noted the significance of the last shot, in which hero and heroine (Countess de Lopez) are “separated – as if for a curtain call – from the revolutionary masses whom the hero leads, but to whom he will never belong.”
Ulmer fans have come to expect visual interest in his films, even the most minor ones. The combination of a larger-than-usual budget and outdoor photography in Piratesseems to have stimulated the director in a way not often seen in his career. There are tableaux here that could instructively be excised and studied for sheer compositional verve. One example is a startlingly beautiful shot of a silhouetted figure at dusk, perched like a bird on the edge of a towering cliff above the sea, blowing a conch shell. In a set-piece like Holstein’s attack on the island where the arms are hidden, Ulmer isolates the specific within the universal, letting his camera linger briefly on a gorgeous shot of a child caught up in the chaos of revolution.
All Day Entertainment surprised some Ulmer watchers by giving the deluxe DVD treatment to Pirates of Capri rather than, say, Ruthless or The Naked Dawn, both of which have a higher reputation. But it’s hard to complain given both the intrinsic interest of the film and the richness of the disc’s extras. In addition to a fine transfer (digitally mastered from a 35mm preservation positive), there are informative interviews with Ulmer’s widow Shirley, daughter Arianne (who appeared briefly in Pirates,) and the daughter of producer-writer Victor Pahlen; an archive of rare stills and artwork; and a resurrection of the first (and only extant) episode of Ulmer’s bizarre attempt to break into television, Swiss Family Robinson. The latter is worth noting as being unmistakably Ulmerian, from the creepy, fog-enswirled opening miniature of the crashed ship being assaulted by waves at night to the orphan character Alice, who wanders in the same kind of psychological haze that afflicted Detour’s Al Roberts. Shot in Mexico in 1958, Swiss Family Robinson was pitched to the networks but no one bought, not surprising given the grim and disturbing atmosphere in this alleged kiddie show.