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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Salamander (Blu-ray)
The Salamander (Blu-ray)
Scorpion Releasing // Unrated // October 31, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 26, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
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A forgotten but big-scale international thriller with an all-star cast, The Salamander (1981) is an adaptation of Morris West's (The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Devil's Advocate) 1973 same-named novel, initially adapted into screen form by Rod Serling, who died in 1975, long before the film that eventually was made. Robert Katz, a Brooklyn-born writer specializing in stories set in Italy, and sentenced to 14 months in prison (eventually overturned) for defaming the memory of Pope Pius XII in his book Massacre in Rome, later a film, wrote the final script.

Set in Italy, the movie stars Italians Franco Nero and features Claudia Cardinale, but they, like the rest of the international cast, speak only English. A British-Italian co-production, The Salamander has a lot going for it, including a believable, highly suspenseful premise, several fine performances and character vignettes, an excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith, some gorgeous Italian and Swiss scenery, and so forth. But the movie doesn't tell its story very well, hampered as it is with extraordinarily clumsy narration by Nero's character, and a labyrinthine plot both hopelessly confusing yet simplistic at once. Still, it has enough good moments that it's certainly worth a look.

Even after seeing the film, with all its expository narration, I can't quite describe the plot in any detail, but here goes: special security police Col. Dante Matucci (Franco Nero) attends the state funeral of a murdered general. Aided by mentor Captain Steffanelli (Martin Balsam), a Jewish-Italian who lost his family during World War II, Matucci's murder investigation quickly expands to the larger threat of an imminent military coup by the country's fascist elite.

Initially suspicious of Lili Anders (Sybil Danning), the late general's mistress but actually a Polish spy working for the mysterious Woodpecker (Jacques Herlin), Matucci and Lili work in tandem to locate proof of the fascist plot, documents stolen from the general's safe. He also cautiously allies with Bruno Manzini (Anthony Quinn), part of the underground anti-fascist movement during the war, whose organization, using the code name Salamander, secretly continued assassinating war criminals after. The primary suspects are arrogant General Leporello (Eli Wallach) and counterintelligence director Prince Baldasar (Christopher Lee).

The Salamander tells a potentially intriguing fascist plot quite badly. The film could have used an explanatory prologue tracing the fascist revivalism from Mussolini to present-day Italy, and perhaps subtitles to identify the major players and their titles as the story's important characters are introduced. Instead the writers opted for Nero's narration. He speaks English well but not well enough to get across the gravity of the plot. Rather, his voice-over has the gee-whiz tonal quality of Nero reading a children's fairy tale. Further, what he says too often attempts to fill in blanks of what should be shown rather than told to the audience.

By about midway through I pretty much gave up trying to catch all the nuances of the plot and focus instead on The Salamander's other qualities. For starters, there are scattered good scenes: a secret meeting between Matucci and General Leporello's unfaithful wife (Claudia Cardinale) which doesn't turn out as planned; an extremely well-acted scene with Steffanelli telling Matucci about a wartime trauma that still haunts him; a grueling torture scene with Matucci subjected to the sadism of a specialist known only as "The Surgeon" (Paul Smith, very intimidating).

Shot all over Italy and parts of Switzerland, the scenery is gorgeous and the Blu-ray's new high-def master brings out that quality quite well. Jerry Goldsmith's score is excellent, deserving of a soundtrack release if there isn't one already. Sybil Danning is better and more believable than one might have expected, while Christopher Lee, adopting his familiar stuffy, aloof British aristocrat persona, seems out of place as Italian royalty, though it's nice to see Lee's real-life wife, Gitte, playing his wife in the film. And a couple of the picture's big action set pieces deliver.

Video & Audio

A Scorpion release of an ITV Studios title, The Salamander, is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, approximating its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The image looks very good throughout, and the 2.0 (mono) DTS-HD Master Audio sound comes off as reasonably good. No subtitle options and region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements include a trailer, "audio thoughts" by co-producer Paul Maslansky, and a curious new video interview with co-star John Steiner (playing Cardinale's lover) that looks like it was shot while a distracted, nearly ambushed Steiner was getting ready to head out for a pint of ice cream.

Parting Thoughts

Not at all bad but neither as good as it might have been, The Salamander is Recommended.






Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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