This stylish adventure about those pert calf-length pants that are back in vogue contains 36% more swashbuckling than your average movie about pants. Oh, and Judge Barrie Maxwell, ever the dapper bloke, reviews it.
The Scarlet Kidd…or is it…Captain Pimpernel?
With the Second World War over and his time at PRC at an end, director Edgar G. Ulmer returned to Europe where, in Italy, he soon had the opportunity of working on a film with a budget that was much more substantial than he was accustomed to. The film was The Pirates of Capri, a straightforward swashbuckling sort of picture featuring a masked hero who was an amalgam of Captain Kidd, Scarlet Pimpernel, and Zorro.
All Day Entertainment has now released this film on DVD as Volume 4 of its Edgar G. Ulmer Collection.
Facts of the Case
Count Amalfi, confidant of Queen Carolina at her court in Naples, is also secretly Captain Sirocco—leader of the peasant underclass seeking to overthrow the oppression of the ruling aristocracy. The chief instrument of the ruling class's attempts to capture Sirocco is Baron von Holstein.
The usual blend of court intrigue featuring the foppish Amalfi and peasant uprisings (taking from the rich to feed the poor) orchestrated by Sirocco leads to a final confrontation with von Holstein. The ensuing sword fight sees Sirocco triumph and all that that ensures: a revolution won, the Queen spared, the bad guys vanquished, and he gets the girl!
If you got the impression from the above summary that you might have seen this film before, you're probably right. Oh, you may not have seen The Pirates of Capri specifically, but any one of a dozen others will do. From a story point-of-view, this is strictly a retelling of a combination of the tales you all know so well about Robin Hood, Zorro and the like. Unfortunately for The Pirates of Capri, it doesn't hold a candle to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, WB), The Mark of Zorro (1940, Fox), or The Sea Hawk (1940, WB).
While the story is old hat, The Pirates of Capri does have some interest, however. Edgar Ulmer was the director and that usually means that we can look for some aspects that are just a little offbeat or unexpected for such standard material. There was a larger budget to work with than Ulmer was used to and he makes the best of it. His staging of the action scenes is well done, for example. Both the opening pirate attack and the closing sword fight are effectively staged, cut, and lit—adding both urgency to the action and heightening tension. There are also memorably composed scenes that linger in the memory. One is a shot of a person on a cliff overlooking the sea, the character silhouetted against the sky while blowing on a shell. In another instance, during a raid on the island by von Holstein's men, Ulmer focuses briefly on the fear and uncertainty of a young girl caught up in the surrounding turmoil.
One imagines that Ulmer had a hand in shaping the screenplay too. Certainly there is a somewhat greater depth to the complexity of the Amalfi/Sirocco character than is normal. The relationship with the Queen is interesting, for Amalfi recognizes her innate goodness and knows her real problem is weakness in dealing with the aristocracy. So his desire is to overthrow the latter while preserving the former. The Amalfi/Sirocco character is not like the other tragic, doomed figures that one normally finds in Ulmer's work (such as in Detour, Bluebeard, or Ruthless, as examples). After all, he triumphs in the end. But the character is certainly not without ambiguity. He woos his fiancée in both of his identities; Sirocco shows himself as Amalfi to the pirates; and in the "Beauty and the Beast" play within the film, he has his loyal sidekick Pepino pretend to be Amalfi pretending to be Sirocco. In the end, despite his close relationship to the peasants as Sirocco, he and his fiancée are separated from them—as though making a curtain call, as others have noted—implying that he will never be really part of them.
Aside from Ulmer, the other chief asset of the film is Louis Hayward who plays the lead role. Hayward seemed to relish playing both Amalfi and Sirocco. He looks stylish and adept in the sword fights, although it's unclear how much of them he did himself. That said, he's no Errol Flynn. Hayward was a close friend of Ulmer's and worked with him frequently (The Strange Woman, Ruthless). The two would attempt to mount a television series in later years.
All Day Entertainment has done their usual nice job with this latest entry in the Ulmer Collection. The film is transferred from a 35mm preservation positive and looks pretty reasonable for a film of this vintage. The black-and-white image (presented full frame in line with the original aspect ratio) is generally clear although a little dark from time to time with attendant loss of shadow detail. Some speckling is present. The mono sound is fine with only occasional occurrence of age-related hiss. The disc's chief virtues are its supplements.
There is an informative sixteen-minute behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film that relies principally on interviews with Ulmer's widow and daughter—Shirley Ulmer and Arianne Ulmer Cipes respectively. This is followed by a photo archive of stills and family pictures related to The Pirates of Capri. The real bonus is a 30-minute TV pilot "Swiss Family Robinson" that was to be the first of a series that Ulmer and Hayward would collaborate on (each were to direct alternate episodes). Completed in 1958 by Ulmer, in colour, this is the only episode known to exist and has apparently been unseen since it was first made. It begins with one of Ulmer's miniature shots—of a wrecked ship on an island coast. The pilot's image looks quite good. Colours are bright and clear with natural-looking fleshtones. There is some edge enhancement noticeable and some scenes are a little dark, but generally, the effect is pleasing. This first episode offers nothing too startling in terms of story line, but the characters are winning and nicely acted. The networks did not pick up the series and it is not known if any other episodes were ever made.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there's a reason not to get this DVD, it lies in the mediocre story line. What happens in The Pirates of Capri is pretty predictable. So if you're looking for a good swashbuckler type of film, go and get The Adventures of Robin Hood or Captain Blood. (Oh, you say they're both topnotch films made more than five years ago, but also are WB films—therefore not available on DVD? Well, I guess you'll have to stick with The Pirates of Capri after all.) Otherwise, for what is strictly a B-film, I can't complain about the effort that All Day has put in on its DVD release.
Edgar G. Ulmer aficionados have to be pretty content with how well All Day Entertainment is looking after them. We now have four nice editions of his films. The Pirates of Capri is nothing to write home about as a film, but it has some nice touches for Ulmer devotees and an entertaining performance by Louis Hayward. The DVD is average in terms of film presentation, but there is a very nice array of supplements. By the way, the next title to be issued in the Ulmer DVD collection is expected to be Strange Illusion, currently scheduled for a September 18th release.
The jury is split on this one. Ulmerites vote for dismissal and uninformed swashbuckler fans vote to convict. The judge, being prejudiced in favour of Ulmer, rules for the defendant. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: All Day Entertainment
• Behind-the-Scenes Documentary
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