A steamy blast from the past: Lollobrigida, 1959’s ‘The Law’ as sexy as ever
Was there ever as ludicrously, unapologetically sexy a movie star as Gina Lollobrigida?
She was the star of “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman,’’ but she wasn’t purely beautiful. Her carnality was a good test of how soon a man could turn into a dog. In 1959, not far from the apex of her international fame, La Lolla, as she was also called, appeared in Jules Dassin’s “The Law,’’ which gathered a bunch of international stars and let them drive each other crazy in an Adriatic fishing village.
MGM distributed the film in the United States in 1960 with a more blatant title (“Where the Hot Wind Blows!’’; that’s the studio’s punctuation), and it promptly faded into obscurity. “The Law’’ returns today, opening at the Kendall, and the opportunity to see what Lollobrigida could do with a crooked smile or a roll of her eyes — let alone a simple street dress — is well worth the price of entry.
An agronomic engineer named Enrico (Marcello Mastroianni) travels east from Milan hoping to help prevent malaria and looking for a housekeeper. He winds up at the home of the village don (Pierre Brasseur), who offers his most luscious caretaker, Mariette (Lollobrigida). He can spare her. His retinue includes Mariette’s brother-in-law (Paolo Stoppa), who, like most of the men here, seethes with lust for her.
Enrico is less flagrant and more enlightened, choosing to banter and flirt with Mariette, who rejects his job offer but tells him she’d be open to a marriage proposal. Meanwhile, the local crime boss (Yves Montand) is also in pursuit. Mariette plots to exploit one man in order to be with the other.
Until he was blacklisted in Hollywood, Dassin was a clever, fearless film-noir director (“Brute Force,’’ “The Naked City,’’ and “Night and the City’’ are his). By the mid-1950s, he was in Europe working on a pretty interesting second act, chiefly built around Melina Mercouri, who has a secondary part in “The Law’’ as a wife in love with the crime boss’s young son.
A restored print of his uncommonly quiet, fitfully astonishing French heist film “Rififi’’ (1955) resurrected him for cinéphiles’ reconsideration. What’s interesting about “The Law’’ is how easily Dassin could have turned Roger Vailland’s novel into a conventional noir, in which Mariette’s scheming is the dramatic engine. Instead, he chooses to explore his screenplay’s sexual and gender dynamics (asking, for instance, is a woman’s lust secondary to a man’s?).
The resulting movie doesn’t entirely work. Most of the characters jerk back and forth between passion and passivity. They’re volcanoes one minute, mesas the next. Savagery courses through the town somewhat reductively — the only man who doesn’t blow his top is Enrico. (There’s also a technical matter: It was a Franco-Italian coproduction, but the Italian characters speak French. Mastroianni and the infrequently heralded Stoppa were unconvincingly dubbed with other voices.)
Still, the roiling aspect of human nature gives Dassin a chance to do things that still seem weird and shocking. Take the scene in which the women of the don’s house strap Mariette to a table and proceed to enviously whip her for going out for the evening, as a man might. Short of a Roger Corman production, I’m not sure I’ve seen such thing. The difference is that Dassin isn’t going for eroticism. He amplifies the disturbance by placing the camera above the table, as in an operating theater, while belts fly in and out of the frame. Oh, and Lollobrigida’s head rests in a bowl of chili peppers that makes her like a Medusa. Mariette survives. In fact, she seems stronger than ever.