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CANI ARRABBIATI (1974)
Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava
Story and Screenplay: Cesare Frugoni and Alessandro Parenzo
Camera operator: Emilio Varriano
Editing: Carlo Reali
Additional Editing: Angelo Marzullo
Music: Stelvio Cipriani
Main Players: Riccardo Cucciolla (Riccardo); Maurice Poli (Doc); Lea Lander (Maria); Luigi Montefiori (Thirty-two); Aldo Caponi (Blade); Erika Dario (Maria, the hitchhiker); Gustavo De Nardo (Gas station attendant)
Alternate titles: Rabid Dogs; Semaforo Rosso; Red Traffic Light
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
SYNOPSIS:

Doc, Thirty-two, and Blade are three desperate criminals. Together, they hold up a small drug company for the week's wages, killing several people in the process. However, before they can escape, their car is decimated in a shoot-out with the police. Taking refuge at a nearby parking garage, the men take over another car and secure an innocent bystander, Maria, as hostage. With Maria in danger, the police agree to hold off, but Doc knows that it is only a matter of time before the authorities spot their car. The situation is neatly resolved when they pull up behind another car at a red traffic light. The driver of the car, Riccardo, is forced at gunpoint to drive Doc and the others to safety. Despite Riccardo's pleas that he has to get his child to a hospital for an operation, the thieves force him to continue driving.

A little while into the trip, Maria asks Doc to allow Riccardo to pull over so she can relieve herself. However, once she gets a chance, she breaks free. As she frantically runs through a corn field, with Thirty-two and Blade in hot pursuit, Bava builds an almost unbearable level of suspense. Her eventual recapture is a foregone conclusion, but the viewer cannot help but share in her anxiety and terro. Once captured, Thirty-two and Blade torture her both physically and mentally. Since she used the fact that she had to relieve herself as an excuse to get Doc to let her go, the two men force her to urinate right in front of them. The fact that one's sympathies rests with Maria insures that this act of humiliation does not come across as gratuitour or in poor taste, but Bava still forces the viewer to face the cruel reality of the scene.

The trip then continues without disturbance. However, when Thirty-two becomes intoxicated, his actions begin to draw attention to the car. Doc and Blade both attempt to restrain him, but he gets more and more out of control, finally attempting to rape Maria. Rather than risk attracting the attention of the police, Doc shoots Thirty-two, wounding him fatally. Blade is completely shaken by this incident, but he understands that Doc had no other choice. The depth of characterization which Bava gives to these characters is quite striking. Doc's pained reaction as he shoots Thirty-two, and the equally pained reaction of Blade, seems completely genuine. Though they are thieves and murderers, they still reveal a certain degree of humanity, and their interactions with each other suggests a kind of familial bond. The first shot does not kill Thirty-two, however, but it does render him completely helpless; for the remainder of his screen time, he simply stares aimlessly into space, and never utters a word.

Soon after this incident, Riccardo tells his captors that they need to stop for some gas. However, when they finally reach a station, the attendant tells the men that he is on his break and will not be available for an hour. Thinking quickly, Blade forces Maria to tell the attendant that they are rushing to get her child to the hospital and cannot wait that long. The old man quickly relents. Another complication arises, however, when a hitchhiker pressures Doc into giving her a lift. As she opens the back door, Thirty-two's hand, covered with his own blood, slumps into view. Though the hitchhiker fails to notice this, the attendant does. Rather than risk a scene, Doc allows the girl to come along and they are on their way again. The attendant then returns to his cot with a shrug. This character is an innocent bystander, but his apathy says much about the way that, in Bava's eyes, the public at large reacts in such situations.

The presence of the hitchhiker is clearly annoying to the other passengers. Ironically enough, her name is also Maria, establishing a connection to the only other significant female character in the film. It was Thirty-two who, earlier in the film, had made the connection between this name and the Christian Madonna. This is not an accidental move on Bava's part, however, as they are both destined to become martyr figures in a world which is dominated by greed and apathy. This "other" Maria is completely oblivious to the reality of the situation and does her best to lighten the mood, but when she notices the bloodly wound on Thirty-two's neck -- which was previously covered by a blanket -- she is forced to pay with her life. Blade stabs her in the throat, and Doc tells Riccardo to pull over so that they can dispose of the bodies. Maria's body is then unceremoniously thrown over a cliff, while Riccardo and Blade carry the still-breathing Thirty-two down to the bottom of the hill, only for the latter man to shoot him in the head in order to put him out of his misery. Blade's reaction to this act is one of violent disgust. He cries, wrenches and vomits, all in a vain attempt to purge himself of his grief. Here again, the multi-dimensional aspect of the characters comes through, as Bava emphasizes the emotional ties between the three thieves.

The group finally reaches their destination: a ruined villa where Doc has stashed a back-up car, and the appropriate papers which will enable him and Blade to flee the country. In order to secure their safety, Doc and Blade are fully prepared to kill not only the two adults, but the comatose child, as well. Doc orders Riccardo to remove the child from the car. as he does so, he is able to withdraw a gun, concealed in the child's blanket, and catch his would-be assassins off-guard. He shoots Doc and Balde to death, though the latter man is able to kill Maria before he expires. Riccardo then moves his son to the car which Doc has planned to use for his own escape, and promptly steals the bag full of money which is clutched in Blade's fingers.

Pulling over at a gas station, Riccardo puts through a call to a woman who is sobbing with grief. He assures her that he son is all right . . . but that if she ever wants to see him again, it will cost her three billion lire.


CRITIQUE:

Originally planned to be released in 1975, CANI ARRABBIATI ran into trouble when its main financial backer was killed in an automobile accident. For Bava, this represented another bitter defeat. Much like LISA E IL DIAVOLO, this film was a pet project for the director, and the fact that it, too, was prevented from seeing the light of day had a devestating effect on Bava. However, its eventual release in 1996 was a fortuitous event for Bavaphiles everywhere, all of whom were totally unprepared for such a bleak, bitter, and totally realistic crime thriller.

Seen within the context of Bava's other work, CANI ARRABBIATI makes a profound impression on many different levels. In his essay on the film, which accompanies the special DVD presentation of the movie, Tim Lucas suggests that the film reveals much about Bava's decision to devote his life to art. Quite simply, this is the only time in Bava's career that the director strove for absolute realism. The stylized lighting and architectural style which typifies his other work is conspicuous in its absense, and the story never strays into the realm of the fantastic. More than just being a change of pace, the film stands as a testament to the way Bava viewed the world. The stark, sparsely populated landscape is populated by people of little real value; the climate is charged with violence and greed. It is hardly surprising, then, that the director should have sought refuge in the never-never land of art. Moreover, this interpretation offers a telling commentary on the director's obsession with stylization. Overall, the director's view of human nature is a dark one, and if this view extends to the "real" world in which he lived, it seems perfectly logical that Bava should have created a completely artifical environment in which to set his films. The irony, of course, is that even in the hauntingly beautiful "imaginary world" of Bava's other work, violence is still the guiding principle.

As are so many of the director's films, CANI ARRABBIATI is very much about the deceptive nature of appearances. Riccardo assumes the role of victim, thus fooling everybody, including the audience. Bava provides an apparently happy ending (Maria is killed, but Riccardo and his "son" survive), only to undercut it by unmasking the fraudulent hero. In the same way that CINQUE BAMBOLE PER LA LUNA D'AGOSTO builds sympathy for an apparently sympathetic and victimized character only to reveal the villain lurking beneath the surface, so does this film hinge on an ironic revelation. Yet whereas CINQUE BAMBOLE, by virtue of its poor script and sketchy characterizations, only comes off as a limp joke, CANI ARRABBIATI is genuinely unsettling. Riccardo, brilliantly portrayed by Riccardo Cucciolla, is not a pillar of strength or morality; he merely seems to be a decent, ordinary man who is trapped in a nightmarish scenario. By revealing him to be a villain, Bava suggests that anybody is capable of being a murderer and, as the title suggests, the border between "civilized" behavior and animalistic conduct is tenuous at best.

Bava's inventive visual style helps to make this film one of the most intense and claustrophobic films ever made. Placing the characters in the microcosmic confines of a car for most of the running time already insures a certain degree of claustrophobia, but Bava adds to this in other ways. Especially effective is the way that Bava frames the actors: there are many tight close-ups, and group shots are framed in such a way that the performers on the periphery of the frame are cropped in half. Normally this would inspire claims of bad composition, but here it adds to the tension considerably. For 96 minutes, the viewer truly feels as though he/she is trapped along with the characters. Furthermore, Bava gives the film a hazy, humid look -- the sky seems to blaze with white heat, therby making an already uncomfortable situation almost unbearable.

The fact that this masterpiece -- Bava's last great work for the cinema -- remained unshown for so many years is nothing short of a travesty. However, now that the film is available, anybody with a serious interest in cinema is advised to search it out. It is truly one of Bava's greatest works.


Review © Troy Howarth


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