Judge Adam Arseneau had a hard time getting The Salamander into his DVD player. Those things really bite hard.
The world's most expensive calling card. It will cost you your life.
The Salamander has all the makings of a timeless thriller. Let's go through the list: an all-star cast consisting of Christopher Lee, Anthony Quinn, and Franco Nero; directed by Oscar-winning editing superstar Peter Zinner; scored by the prolific Jerry Goldsmith; based on the best-selling novel by Morris West; and adapted for the screen by the king of adaptations, Rod Serling. Plus, it features car chases through the glorious streets of Rome to boot. In theory, the movie has everything going for it. By all measure, it should be a classic.
But have you seen it? Have you even heard of it? Probably not, I'd wager. The Salamander is one of those long-forgotten titles languishing in obscurity and remembered only by the actors who actually starred in the film, and even then, only barely. But now that this bit of esoterica is available on DVD, the real question is: Should you see it? Or are some things better left forgotten?
Facts of the Case
When a high-ranking Italian officer is found dead in his office, the victim of murder, Carabinieri Dante Matucci (Franco Nero) is on the case. Dante discovers an inlaid business card left at the crime scene, with a picture of a salamander on it. As he begins to question the officer's political allies and friends for possible leads, Dante realizes that nobody seems particularly broken up about the murder. In fact, the deeper Dante presses the issue, the more the conspiracies begin to add up, uncovering Polish spies, treacherous government officials, and a Fascist plot to overthrow the entire government!
Dante soon realizes that that politics can be a dangerous business. When the conspirators realize that Dante is getting too close to the truth, they are determined to remove him from the equation. In desperation, he seeks help from the one person who may be able to help him…the Salamander!
A winding and complex espionage thriller, The Salamander will spin you around like a tetherball as you try to follow its subtle twists, conspiracies, and coups d'état. Like all good espionage thrillers, one gets the impression that the transition to the silver screen stole much of the book's original thunder and complexities. In attempting to stay true to the material, the film seems to make sacrifices in the pacing department. For example, there is an emphasis on the inherent treacherous and duplicitous nature of Italian politics, where enemies come at you from all sides, from among friends and foes alike, and there is nothing clear-cut about allegiances. Obviously, this is a point the filmmakers think we must keep in mind in order to appreciate the story's subtleties, since we are constantly reminded of it. I am sure this is illustrated wonderfully in the novel, but in the film, it feels ambiguous and misguiding, and seems lost in the translation. To me, all the politicians simply seem like jerks. I can relate to that.
For a film that features such fantastic car chases around the Coliseum and through the streets of Rome, it is ironic that The Salamander has pacing issues. Like some out-of-control roller coaster, the film alternates between languidness and sheer frenzy, speeding up and slowing down at the drop of a hat. The first ten minutes throw us neck deep into political intrigue, mystery, conspiracy, and espionage, then by the time we catch our breath, the film's pacing has slowed to a virtual standstill. And so it goes, back and forth until the climax, where rather than going full-tilt with a dramatic nail-biting finale (like it starts to), the film hits the clutch, backs up, and goes in a different direction, opting for a softer, nicer ending…the big babies. What a shame. Worse, these seize-ups leave a bitter taste in the mouth, like lingering unpleasant reminders of the slowdowns and ambiguity of the film rather than the thrilling bits. Had it gone the dark direction, The Salamander might have procured a name for itself that transcended the ages. As it stands, well…you know.
Despite the pacing, The Salamander does not suck. It has its share of snafus, of course—while the acting from Franco Nero, Christopher Lee, and Anthony Quinn is all top-notch, the rest of the cast is pretty hammy, with a side order of ham. And amusingly, rather than simply allow the events to play out, the protagonist actually narrates the film internally in the first person, in order to help smooth over the incongruent bits or confusing moments whenever large segments of the original story are cut out. It's a cute trick, but kind of the cheap way out. However, the film has a lot of things going for it: a great cast; stunning location shots in Italy and Switzerland; and a reasonably engaging screenplay. I find it more offensive than any other espionage thriller of its era, and though time has taken its toll on the film, it would certainly suffice as a rental one slow evening.
As far as the video is concerned, well…an apt choice of nouns on my part, because that is exactly what this DVD looks like—video. For visual purists, this is one teeth-clenching transfer. First of all, you get a letterboxed transfer, which right off the bat makes everyone with a widescreen television cry. Second of all, it's one of the strangest transfers I have ever had the misfortune to see—incredibly soft and blurry images with leaking edges, distortions, and a sneaking suspicion that this film was shot entirely on VHS tape, free of charge. The fact that it was actually shot on 35mm only makes it worse, like a-slap-to-the-face worse. To illustrate my point—and I am not joking about this—when I sat down to watch this film, in my head I dated the film somewhere in the late 1960s or early 1970s based solely on the transfer. I almost had a heart attack when I looked up the date of the film on the internet.
Despite all the general crappiness and terrible quality to the transfer, the colors have managed to survive reasonably well. The film looks quite nice in tones of red, orange, and gray. The film shows some spotting and damage, but not nearly as much as I expected to see. Black levels are not nearly as abysmal as one might expect. But that's about the limit of nice things I can say about this transfer. We're talking a hair's breadth from VHS quality here at times. And that's just not sexy.
Audio fares better than video, but infinitesimally so. The sound, a meager stereo presentation, is almost so nondescript as to be hilarious. There is no oomph, no definition to the soundtrack. It sounds…functional. For a thriller, functional is not going to cut it. The Jerry Goldsmith score comes lilting out of the speakers like a drunken man lurching out from an alley, zigzagging each and every way, a bizarre yet oddly energetic French horn-and-strings affair. It is an esoteric little score, kind of ironic considering the relative obscurity of the film. The audio track is so pallid and transparent that rear speakers can barely figure out how to negotiate the signal, even in simulated surround sound mode.
Now, considering how piss-poor everything came out on the technical side, surprisingly, we are given a reasonable offering in terms of supplements that help to smooth over the general banality quite nicely. Of course, the standard trailers, biographies, and still galleries are included, which we can chuck straight into the bin as "standard fare" and move straight on to the nicer points, such as a 35-minute interview with Franco Nero discussing his career and his experiences on the set of Salamander. This is a pleasant little treat, considering the relative obscurity of the actor (at least, in North America—you savages probably know him from Die Hard 2 and nothing else) and should make Nero's fans quite happy. In addition, we get an audio commentary track with director Peter Zinner that takes the interesting form of an interview; as we watch the film, an unseen interviewer prompts the director to discuss certain scenes and asks certain questions about the shoot, the location, and filming. An atypical approach to a commentary track, admittedly, but it seems to work well—one gets the impression that Zinner wouldn't be too talkative if it weren't for the interviewer repeatedly jabbing a sharp stick into his side. Good job on the extras for a film this obscure, I must say.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I did not dislike The Salamander, the thought had occurred to me that this film was forgotten for a reason. As cruel as that may sound, the thought had occurred to me.
That's all I'm saying.
Ironically, in The Salamander, we find all the pieces assembled for a gut-wrenching, politically intriguing, well-acted masterpiece of espionage, and yet the film manages to extinguish its own flame before it even gets a chance to burn bright. Not like it would have burned particularly bright, of course—this is a B-level espionage flick from the early 1980s, after all. But all joking aside, this is a reasonably well-produced, well-written thriller. The film may not be an Oscar-winner, but it hardly deserves this level of abandonment. If you ask me, far worse movies than The Salamander deserve to be forgotten this badly.
I can think of no reason not to recommend it for a rental one night, other than that the DVD transfer could suck a tennis ball through fifty feet of garden hose. So alas, The Salamander will probably continue on through history completely unbeknownst to the masses, while films like Gigli will stand the test of time.
Oh well. It happens. What can you do? It's like the old saying goes: When you're making an omelet, sometimes you drop the eggs, fall and break your leg, and when the ambulance comes to take you to the hospital, the paramedics eat your omelet, and --
Wait a minute. That isn't how the old saying goes.
The court finds The Salamander not guilty on the charges of being a terrible film, but shall not overturn the film's cultural banishment at this date, in part due to the terrible visual transfer onto DVD.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Director Peter Zinner
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