Edgar Ulmer on a budget

Just saw Edgar Ulmer's Pirates of Capri, about the pirate Sirocco (Louis Hayward), who raids the ships of Queen Carolina (Binnie Barnes) the same time he doubles as Count Amalfi, Carolina's favorite courtier, and am I exaggerating matters a bit much if I say this is at least as enjoyable as--and perhaps more visually interesting than--The Adventures of Robin Hood? Louis Hayward affects what sounds like a Spanish accent (actually, he's supposed to be Italian) when masked as Captain Sirocco and the oddest titter this side of Steve Buscemi (or do I mean Beavis?) when playing Count Amalfi ("You're very talented, Amalfi!" "Thangk kew! Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh!").

Ulmer juggles a somewhat complicated plot that throws together revolutionary fervor, talk about social reform, and intricate court intrigues, making room along the way for grand ball scenes, a breathtaking escape (Hayward or his stunt double--but Shirley Ulmer claims Edgar always made his actors do their own stunts--drops down what looks like a hundred-foot building in 24 seconds), and a massive palace takeover scene straight out of the French Revolution (this is the Revolution with a happier ending).

You'd think Ulmer, used to four-day shoots on zero budgets in films like Detour, would be lost in a production this big, but he directs as confidently as Cecil B. DeMille, using the sumptous costumes and gorgeous sets (built in the legendary Cinecitta Studios) to give the film a luxurious texture, at the same time employing noir shadows, crisp editing, and odd camera angles to keep you alert, visually stimulated.

It's full of sly moments of character revelation (Amalfi in a carriage with his Countess orders soldiers with spears to charge a gang of unarmed convicts, showing that Amalfi (or Sirocco, in posing as the Count) has his ruthless side, while the Countess, disgusted with the charge, has her softhearted side). Hayward's Sirocco is remarkably likeable, even with the vocal eccentricities (or is it because of them?): he has an easy Bruce Wayne/Alfred Pennyworth chemistry with his loyal aide Pepino (Mikhail Rasumny), and real erotic tension opposite the Countess Mercedes de Lopez (Mariella Lotti), who despises the Count she's forcibly engaged to, the same time she's secretly in love with the pirate. There's a surprisingly complex treatment of Queen Carolina--Sirocco believes that she's a kindheartedwoman frightened and out of her depths, and insists on protecting her from the revolution (the same time he's mounting it). He's trying to play the game both ways, attacking from without, eating away from within, not just because it's effective, but because he's a believer in both sides--in the justice of the people's cause, and in the goodness of the queen (you wonder if maybe there isn't a love quadrangle here--Amalfi loves the Countess loves Sirocco loves the Queen). Ulmer doesn't stint in giving us the complexity of the problem Sirocco/Amalfi's solving, the same time he manages to make us believe in the hero's confident, surefooted (he has to be, the slightest slip and he could be hanged as a traitor or shot as a reactionary) way towards a solution. Wonderful, surprisingly intelligent fun.

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