Friday 9 December 2016

Exploito All’Italiana:
Blazing Magnum / ‘Strange Shadows in an Empty Room’
(Alberto De Martino, 1976)

Shot in Ottawa, Canada with a largely American cast, ‘Blazing Magnum’ is one of those latter-day Italian co-productions that tries so hard to hide its Italian origins that viewers coming to it blind may be apt to think they’ve simply stumbled upon some sublimely ridiculous Canadian TV movie. For those of us ‘in the know’ however, the fingerprints of producer Edmondo Amati and director Alberto De Martino (whose other joint ventures included 1974’s ‘El Antichristo’ and 1977’s ‘Holocaust 2000’) can be identified all too plainly in the movie’s woefully damaged plotting and unwavering dedication to the cause of senseless mayhem.(1)

Though often listed as a poliziotteschi on the basis that it is a ‘70s cop movie made by Italians, ‘Blazing Magnum’s transatlantic status lends it an entirely different feel from the kind of crime films being made in Italy at around the same time, and, despite Amati and De Martino’s obvious desire to crib as much as possible from the gospel laid down by ‘Bullitt’, ‘Dirty Harry’ and ‘The French Connection’, the end result isn’t quite like any other crime film I’ve ever seen.

To cut a long story short, what I think happened here is that the scriptwriters (see footnote above) had an unused treatment for a run-of-the-mill giallo lying around, but, realising that this wasn’t really what internationally-minded producers like Amati were looking for in the mid’70s, they took the decision to graft a load of testosterone-huffing, hard-boiled cop action onto the shell of their story, whilst crucially failing to actually incorporate the latter elements into the thread of the pre-existing narrative in any meaningful fashion.

What emerged, needless to say, is an unwieldy genre Frankenstein whose Hollywood cast and incongruous Canadian locations (presumably adopted for tax shelter purposes) serve to further confuse the film’s identity – especially given that the giallo segments are leavened with just about enough horror and sleaze elements to allow the film to be misleadingly foisted upon the U.S. public as ‘Strange Shadows in an Empty Room’, with a proto-slasher poster to match (see below). (2)

As such, we first meet Captain Tony Saitta (Stuart Whitman) – an allegedly rule-breaking, mad dog middle-aged cop with an incongruously compassionate, sleepy demeanour – as he single-handedly takes down a gang of violent, heavily armed bank robbers, his titular Magnum leaving two of the perps dead, as the remaining crook cowers before him and begs for mercy. (PRO-TIP: apparently if you stand behind a column and just step out to pick them off quite quickly, those desperate criminals with high calibre machine guns just *won’t stand a chance*.)

Whilst Tony was doing that however, he missed a call from his sister Louise, a drama student played by the at-least-thirty-years-his-junior Carole Laure (who probably won’t thank me for listing her other credits as including ‘Naked Massacre’ (1976) and ‘Get Out Your Handkerchiefs’ (1978)). Later that night, poor Louise is dead, her heart having mysteriously failed shortly after she was given a tonic by one Dr Tracer (Martin Landau) when she had a funny turn at a campus party.

When it transpires that Louise had been seen in public earlier that day having a violent argument with said doctor, her brother is on the case, and for the next twenty minutes or so, everything goes a bit ‘Colombo’ as we trudge through earnest interviews with the deceased’s nearest and dearest and unnecessary background on Landau’s character. (Though a fine actor, Landau is such a pointless red herring here he might as well have come to work in a fish costume.) No Magnums, blazing or otherwise, are in evidence, and at this point this movie’s prospects ain’t looking too hot, to be honest.

Stick with it though, because when ‘Blazing Magnum’ does heat up – oh boy.

The first sign that we’re in for something a bit more memorable than an afternoon TV time-waster comes when, out of nowhere, we see a streetwalker violently bludgeoned to death in a darkened alleyway, then witness her dismembered remains discovered the next morning when some unlucky construction workers fire up the conveyor belt at a local quarry. All of which is a bit of a shocker, to be honest.

Before you know it, the great John Saxon (sadly under-utilised here as Whitman’s exposition-spouting partner) has managed to keep a straight face whilst delivering the immortal line, “Remember that girl we found in the rock crusher? Turns out she wasn’t a girl at all!”, and, armed with some tenuous connection to the death of his sister (I forget quite what), Captain Saitta immediately hits the nearest sex shop for some leads on Ottawa’s transvestite hooker scene.(3)

This promptly leads our hero to a swanky rooftop apartment shared by three drag queens, who are seemingly busy dolling themselves up for a day(?) on the town. Saitta barges in and starts firing questions at them without even identifying himself, which isn’t very nice, but even so, the drag queens’ reaction is a bit excessive.

Basically, they immediately set out to kill him like a pack of wild animals - hurling furniture, lunging at him with knives, and eventually leaving him dangling by his fingers from the rooftop. Needless to say, when Tony gets back on his feet to retaliate, there follows what I believe is referred to as a ‘knock-down, drag-out fight’, incorporating several slow motion plunges through shattering French windows and concluding only when Saitta has the last conscious cross-dresser cornered at gun-point in their en-suite swimming pool.

I confess, it took me quite a while to retrieve my jaw from the floor after this outburst of wanton fury, but I needn’t have bothered really, as from hereon in, ‘Blazing Magnum’ just never lets up.

The great thing about the series of adrenaline-pumping action sequences that comprise the middle half hour of this movie is that they are so brazenly gratuitous, so totally removed from the vaguely credible chains of cause and effect that usually drive such police procedural storylines, that they barely graze the surface of the central murder mystery plotline at all. Instead, we watch with something near to awe as each contrived set-piece concludes with Sciatta merely discovering another who-cares-anyway ‘clue’ that he could have more easily ascertained simply by talking to people – and sometimes not even that.

A perfect case in point comes when, whilst working through a list of known fences who may or may not have handled the stolen necklace that may or may not hold the key to his sister’s death (or something), Sciatta pursues a fleeing suspect for a full five minutes of screen time in a desperate foot chase through a crowded subway station, eventually cornering him in a toilet cubicle and forcing his head into a full wash basin trying to make him to “talk!”, as members of the public look on aghast. We then cut immediately to Whitman back above ground, sharing a coffee with Saxon in the patrol car and saying something to the effect of “eh, that guy didn’t know anything”, before they head off to terrorize the next poor rube on their list. Incredible.

This pattern is repeated, amplified to the power of ten, for what is unquestionably ‘Blazing Magnum’s highlight – an prolonged car chase that must be seen to be believed. This begins when Sciatta knocks on the door of another fence, who again flees for no readily apparent reason [well to be fair, the way Whitman’s character behaves in this film, I’d probably run away from him too] and jumps in his bad-ass ‘70s muscle car. Sciatta is soon behind the wheel of his own bad-ass ‘70s muscle car, and the chase is on.

A blatant attempt to top the legendary chase in ‘Bullitt’, this sequence may lack the tension and technical acumen of Peter Yates’ film, but in terms of pure, death-defying spectacle, it beats it hands down. I mean, seriously folks – I may have been pretty snarky about this film up to this point, but the stunt-driving showcased here is incredible, becoming more so as the chase continues far beyond the point at which we might have naturally expected it to end, eventually climaxing with a jump-through-the-middle-of-a-moving-train stunt that would have done mid-‘80s Jackie Chan proud.

Though it is largely captured through fairly conventional long-shots, and takes place on obviously cleared streets and disused parking lots (complete with conspicuous piles of empty cardboard boxes), this is nonetheless high octane, gonzo action movie business of the highest order, and whatever those drivers got paid, it wasn’t enough. Mercy, as the Big O might have exclaimed.

By the time the chase concludes, both cars are mangled wrecks, still skidding after each other on their sides along a final few hundred yards of empty highway. And when the drivers emerge and dust themselves down, can you guess how the ensuing conversation goes? As I recall, it’s something like;

SCIATTA: ah, sorry about the scratches, heh heh
FENCE: no worries cop, what can I do for ya?

I really have no words with which I can express my reaction to that. I’d make a sound, but it doesn’t really work in written text.

Seemingly realising that they’re never going to be able to top that in terms of action, the final half hour of ‘Blazing Magnum’ reverts back to the giallo/thriller angle, as the desperate killer, realising the cops are closing in, and breaks out a big, shiny knife to begin stalk n’ slashing his/her (no spoilers here, folks) way through the remaining cast in much the way that desperate killers are want to do in these things.

This last minute reign of terror begins with a botched attempt to take out Whitman’s sister’s angelic blind roommate (played by a pre-‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ Tisa Farrow), thus demonstrating that the script-writers have also seen the Audrey Hepburn movie ‘Wait Until Dark’ (1967), and precedes to bring us a few bracing moments of theatrical gore and entry-level misogynist sleaze, before the inevitable cavalcade of twists, flashbacks and curtain pulls finally bring us to an agreeably loopy, magnum-blazin’ finale that I won’t spoil for you here.

And, there you have it ladies and gents – ‘Blazing Magnum’, a film that truly has it all.

Actually, the one thing it WAS missing, and that I think may have raised proceedings to a whole new plateau of inadvertent genius, is a scene in which Tony Sciatta is hauled in for a meeting with his superior officer, to explain why, in the space of one working day, he has instigated a brawl that caused extensive property damage and left two people unconscious, nearly drowned an innocent man in a public bathroom, written off his car after driving it straight through a toll-booth and contributing to at least six major traffic accidents, and interviewed an important witness at gun-point in a motel room doorway…. all in the pursuit of a case he hasn’t even yet been officially assigned to work on!

I mean, maybe that’s just the way the cops roll up in Ottawa, but lord, imagine what Harry Callahan could have done with such a free hand. Hell, maybe someone over in ‘70s-movie-cop-land should have put the two of them in touch and suggested a job swap… especially given that Stuart Whitman spends most of this movie looking as if he’d be happier attending a poetry reading at the City Lights bookshop.

Well, anyway. I’m sorry to have relied so heavily on the “…and then this thing happens” school of movie-reviewing on this occasion, but when faced with an item like ‘Blazing Magnum’, it really seems the only sensible option.

By any conventional yardstick, this is not a good film. The direction is formulaic, the pacing, plotting and tone are all a complete mess (as is discussed at length above), and, whilst no one is questioning the chops of Whitman, Saxon or Landau, performances remain wooden throughout, in that particular “what the hell am I doing here? I’ll just say the lines” manner common to ill-conceived international co-productions the world over.

Shallow, cynical and pointless as ‘Blazing Magnum’ may be though, it is nonetheless – as I hope I have made clear above – the kind of movie that will leave action/exploitation fans utterly satiated, beaten into submission by more ridiculous fun stuff than they can possible process in one sitting. So if that sounds like a recommendation to you - take it!

Whilst I hate to fall back once again on food metaphors, watching ‘Blazing Magnum’ eventually ends up feeling a bit like sitting on the sofa for ninety minutes with a plate of cheap hamburgers in front of you, gradually eating them just because, well, you might as well.

A feeling of bloated dissatisfaction and vague spiritual emptiness is the inevitable result, but nonetheless, I feel it is a challenge many of my readers here will wish to take on - so pass the f-ing ketchup and let’s get on with it, I’ve got the disc right here.


(1) We may also wish to note at this point that screenwriters Vincenzo Mannino and Gianfranco Clerici went on to collaborate on such projects as ‘House On The Edge of the Park’, ‘The New York Ripper’ and Fulci’s ‘Murder Rock’, whilst each can also boast a similarly illustrious (ahem) list of solo credits.

(2) Whilst on the subject of this movie’s faux-horror re-titling, I can’t express the extent to which it saddens me that, even during the high watermark for human civilization that was the 1970s, there apparently weren’t enough punters willing to buy a ticket to see Stuart Whitman and John Saxon in ‘Blazing Magnum’, as advertised by the poster at the top of this post, when it hit their local cinemas. Proof positive that, then as much as now, people just don’t know what’s good for them.

(3) For more memorable examples of John Saxon knocking off ludicrous dialogue like a pro, see my earlier ruminations on ‘Blood Beach’ (1980).

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