Referring to any Federico Fellini film as a lost gem might seem rather absurd - after all, this is a name that is instantly recognisable to many, a name that has almost become a byword for Italian and European auteur cinema. One just needs to think about his Academy Award winning 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, a work that has helped create a certain popular idea of Italian lifestyle (and has even provided us with the eponym 'paparazzo').
In 1968, Fellini collaborated with Roger Vadim and Louis Malle on a portmanteau film, Spirits of the Dead. Anthology films were very popular in 1960s European film production, and, maybe because of their very nature, were usually met with mixed reviews. A personal favourite of mine is Boccaccio 70, a film that should be sought out not only for Fellini's solid contribution with Le Tentazioni del Dottor Antonio, but also for Mario Monicelli's smart and yet very tender satire, Renzo e Luciana.
Spirits of the Dead had a long and suffered production: French producer Raymond Eger wanted to make a film featuring seven Edgar Allan Poe stories with a different director for each episode but only three of his original choices accepted. Orson Welles, Luchino Visconti, and Claude Chabrol all declined the offer. Fellini was lured into the idea by co-producer Alberto Grimaldi because he hadn't worked in two years (his sci-fi project The Voyage of G. Mastorna had collapsed in pre-production) and needed the money.
Fellini's segment Toby Dammit shares very little with its Poe source - instead, what is we have is sheer excess, a drugged, apocalyptic romp that cuts right through the heart of post-economic miracle jet-set society. Terence Stamp plays a successful but disintegrating English actor arriving in Rome to play the part of Jesus in a ‘Catholic Western’. The film is a Faustian nightmare right from the beginning: strong, clashing hues reinforce the hallucinatory aspect of almost every sequence. A sinister vision, a pale little girl with a bouncing ball, haunts the protagonist - he thinks she looks like “an absurd mime act”. Nino Rota’s score can only be defined as a hellish and discordant sound collage. The usual gallery of grotesque characters (journalists, fashion models, television personalities, sycophants) Fellini loved to mock take on a whole new infernal aspect – these are real monsters with no redeeming qualities.
The film makes effective use of subjective point-of-view shots: we are seeing the world through the eyes of Toby, who, exhausted by what surrounds him and unconfident about his abilities as an actor, goes through an extreme range of emotional states. He is an unreliable, but terribly sharp narrator; he is the reason why the film also works as a pungent satire of the entertainment industry. Toby insults a female broadcaster during an interview (“Is it true you’ve done unsavoury jobs?” “Yes, but I’ve never been a TV reporter”) and then spends most of the evening at an awards ceremony wallowing in booze and self-pity. When he is presented to the audience as a great Shakespearian actor, he delivers part of the monologue from Macbeth, confesses he is a failure as an artist and leaves the stage to go for a drive in his new Ferrari. He speeds through the labyrinth-like streets of Rome’s outer suburbs in an effort to leave the city. Soon he finds he is unable to escape: he repeatedly comes across dead ends, road blocks and, in an absurdist twist, cardboard cut-outs of people. He finally gets to a collapsing bridge where he sees the demon-girl again and decides to make a final, defiant jump into the abyss – with horrific consequences.
Toby Dammit was Fellini’s 11th film and an incredibly successful attempt at a horror story, a genre that had been in demand in Italy since the early 1960s. The director was open to all sorts of influences and borrowed heavily from vernacular and popular culture - for instance, he constantly found inspiration in variety shows and the circus. He was also interested in genre cinema: he credited the 1926 peplum Maciste in Hell as the film that inspired him to become a director. With Toby Dammit he gives the impression of being fully aware of the rich heritage of Italian horror. With its use of vibrant primary colours, technical flourishes and exaggerated camerawork, the film is stylistically close to Mario Bava’s mid-60s films, and even pays an explicit homage through the malevolent devil-girl haunting Toby – the same figure had appeared in Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill (1966). In my eyes, Toby Dammit exemplifies something that really shouldn’t work - a marriage of high-art preoccupations and popular cinema’s formulaic structures and conventions. The latter has traditionally been neglected by mainstream critics and has only recently become a legitimate subject of study: it has finally moved on from fan sites and fanzines such as The Gore Gazette, Cinefantastique and Trashola to finally reach mainstream film culture (Italian B-movies featured at the Venice Film Festival and later at a 2006 Tate Modern cinema series) and academia. Many Giallo and horror films have been released on DVD for the first time by thriving young companies like Shameless and Arrow Films.
Toby Dammit is quite possibly my favourite Fellini film. The director, quite possibly shaken by the health and economic concerns he was going through at the time, exchanged his singular brand of surrealism for something a lot more unsettling: he took horror conventions to a whole new level of excess and nihilism and realised something truly unique. Go seek it out now, and you won't regret it.
'Toby Dammit' is avalaible on DVD (as part of 'Spirits of the Dead') thanks to Arrow Films.