Contraband (1980) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Jun 27, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Contraband (1980) (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Lucio Fulci

Release Date(s)

1980 (May 18, 2022)

Studio(s)

CMR International/Sandhurst (Cauldron Films)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: C
  • Extras Grade: A-

Review

Lucio Fulci is best remembered today for his atmospheric, gruesomely effective horror films like Zombi 2 or The Beyond, but he made notable efforts in a variety of genres. He started out working in comedy, and he also directed everything from spaghetti westerns to fantasy adventures. One genre that he didn’t spend much time exploring was poliziotteschi, the gritty crime films that reached their peak popularity in Italy during the Seventies. Contraband (aka Luca il contrabbandiere) was his sole contribution to that genre, and in typical Fulci fashion, it’s an uncompromisingly bleak and graphically violent look at internecine conflict among Italian criminal organizations.

Fulci wrote the screenplay for Contraband along with Ettore Sanzo, Gianni De Chiara, and Giorgio Mariuzzo, based on a story from Sanzo and Chiara. Luca (Fabio Testi) runs a smuggling operation dealing in low-level contraband like cigarettes and alcohol, but when one of his runs is disrupted by the police, he suspects that a rival may have tipped them off. His boss Perlante (Saverio Marconi) offers to investigate what happened, but in the meantime, everything starts to spiral out of control. As the bodies continue to pile up, Luca has to do what he can to stay ahead of the carnage, and to keep his own family safe as well. Contraband also stars Ivana Monti, Ferdinando Murolo, and Marcel Bozzuffi.

The actual narratives in Fulci’s films aren’t necessarily as important as the visuals, but Contraband is an enjoyably convoluted exception. Navigating the myriad twists and turns is part of what makes the film so entertaining. There are double crosses on the double crosses, and nothing is certain until a satisfying twist during the finale, where youthful ambition finally proves to be no match for age and experience—even Fulci himself joins in the action, in one of his most unusual cameos. There’s also a bit of perverse moralism in the vein of The Godfather or Goodfellas, where these criminals have their own code that makes them reject involvement with the drug trade.

It’s worth noting that the ending is far less satisfying for some of the female characters. Fulci has often been accused of being a misogynist, but that’s not really being fair to him, because he could just as accurately be described as a misandrist. The worlds that he created are harsh for women, but that’s because the men that he presents are either thoughtlessly cruel at best, or else vicious predators at the worst. He once told an interviewer, “Hell is already in us,” and that’s just as applicable to a crime thriller like Contraband as it to a horror film like The New York Ripper. Women are all too frequently caught in the crossfire in Fulci’s work, not because of any real malice that he had toward them, but rather because he had no faith whatsoever in the men who surrounded them. It’s a consistent theme throughout his entire filmography, and so the way that women are treated in Contraband makes sense when taken in that context. Fulci’s gangsters may have their standards, but women are still a secondary consideration for them. Their world is a cruel and sadistic one, with little room for empathy toward those who are the most vulnerable.

Cinematographer Sergio Salvati shot Contraband on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. This 1080p Blu-ray features a 4K scan of the original negative, and Cauldron Films has included the following note about it:

“While we believe this transfer is overall very pleasing for nearly the entirety of the film, there are a few brief moments where the original negative damage is apparent. We hope this doesn’t distract from your experience. Please enjoy this restoration from the original negative that was once thought unsalvageable.”

There are some scratches and other blemishes visible at times, including hairs around the edges of the frame. The grain is moderate and fairly even throughout the film. The image is soft overall, as Salvati favored diffusion filters to create a gauzy, hazy look, and there’s plenty of fog and steam on hand as well. As a result, the level of fine detail is sometimes lacking, but that’s how the film was shot. The colors are muted, but they also appear accurate to Salvati and Fulci’s intended look. Please note that there’s a sequence set in a club near the beginning of the film that makes extensive use of strobe lights, so caveat emptor for those who are sensitive to that kind of thing.

Audio is offered in English and Italian 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional English and English SDH subtitles. The disc defaults to the English language version, but it’s worth pointing out that Contraband wasn’t produced for the international market as were many other Fulci films of the era, so all of the actors were speaking Italian on the set. The English dub is also a particularly bad one. However, there’s another complication when comparing the two different versions. The Italian track is mastered at a much higher level than the English track, enough so that it has resulted in some significant distortion. The English track doesn’t have the same distortion, though there’s still a harsh edge to the dialogue. On the other hand, the score from veteran Fulci composer Fabio Frizzi sounds more robust in the Italian version, with deeper bass, even after accounting for level differences. Setting aside the question of languages, there isn’t a clear winner between the two from a perspective of quality, as they both have strengths and weaknesses. However, since the English dub is best avoided, that fact alone gives the Italian track a slight edge.

The Cauldron Films Limited Edition Blu-ray release of Contraband is a two-disc set that includes a CD featuring Frizzi’s soundtrack for the film. It comes with a reversible insert with the Italian theatrical poster artwork on one side, and the UK artwork on the other (where it was released under the alternate title The Naples Connection). Tucked inside that are five different two-sided lobby card reproductions, as well as a card that gives a track listing for the CD. Everything is housed in a side-loaded slipcase featuring the Italian poster art on one side, and an image from one of the lobby cards on the reverse. The extras include new interviews and a new commentary track, as well as a collection of archival interviews and trailers:

DISC ONE: BD

  • Audio Commentary with Troy Howarth, Nathaniel Thompson, and Bruce Holecheck
  • Interview with Giorgio Mariuzzo (HD – 13:24)
  • Interview with Ivana Monti (HD – 21:54)
  • Interview with Saverio Marconi (HD – 19:58)
  • Interview with Sergio Salvati (HD – 17:52)
  • Archival Interview with Fabrizio Jovine (Upscaled HD – 5:34)
  • Archival Interview with Venantino Venantini (Upscaled HD – 5:11)
  • Archival Interview with Cinematographer Sergio Salvati (Upscaled HD – 5:51)
  • Archival Interview with Composer Fabio Frizzi (Upscaled HD – 2:07)
  • Trailer – English (HD – 4:17)
  • Trailer – Italian (HD – 4:17)
  • Image Gallery (HD – 4:22)

DISC TWO: CD

  1. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 1 (1:29)
  2. You are not the same (2:56)
  3. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 2 (2:42)
  4. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 3 (2:01)
  5. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 4 (1:26)
  6. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 5 (3:13)
  7. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 6 (2:07)
  8. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 7 (1:57)
  9. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 8 (1:44)
  10. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 9 (2:00)
  11. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 10 (2:15)
  12. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 11 (2:48)
  13. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 12 (1:24)
  14. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 13 (1:59)
  15. Luca il contrabbandiere – seq. 14 (4:19)
  16. You are not the same (3:03)

The commentary track features Cinema Arcana’s Bruce Holecheck, Mondo Digital’s Nathaniel Thompson, and Troy Howarth, who wrote the book Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films. They call Contraband an unusual film made under unusual circumstances, especially since it was a relatively late contribution to the poliziotteschi genre. They discuss the production as well as most of the major actors, including the briefly glimpsed trans actress Ajita Wilson, and delve into the mysteries of her biography. They also talk about Fulci himself, and describe him as a misanthrope rather than a misogynist (though that still doesn’t quite capture the nuance of Fulci’s worldview). They freely acknowledge the issues with the English dubbing—well, two out of three of them do, anyway—and end the track by giving credit to those from whom they derived some of their information, which is always a nice touch.

In the first of the new interviews, screenwriter Giorgio Mariuzzo gives an overview of his lengthy relationship with Fulci, and talks about why the director chose him for some projects, and Dardano Sacchetti for others. Even when the two writers worked together, they never actually met. Ivana Monti opens her interview by sharing some biographical details, including how she got into acting, and talks about her cinematic influences. She eventually gets around to Contraband, including all the indignities that she had to suffer for the sake of the story. Saverio Marconi’s interview is a candid one, acknowledging the mistakes that he made in his own career. He says he had a wonderful relationship with Fulci, but after he unintentionally insulted the director, they never worked together again. Finally, the interview with Sergio Salvati proves why he worked with Fulci on ten different films, as he clearly had the highest respect for the man. Salvati admits that Fulci did occasionally get upset with actors, and so there could be friction on the sets, but he loved his crews.

The archival interviews were originally recorded for the 2008 DVD release of Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered Volume 1. Actors Fabrizio Jovine and Venantino Venantini offer their memorials for Fulci, acknowledging that he could be challenging to work with, but that the results were worth any difficulties. Salvati praises Fulci’s voluminous memory about films and film history, while Frizzi calls Fulci a huge friend, with huge flaws.

It’s an impressive collection of extras for a film that hasn’t been readily available in the United States. While they primarily consists of static interviews, they do contain valuable insights into a prickly but talented director, and the inclusion of Frizzi’s energetic soundtrack makes the package a particularly appealing one. Contraband won’t be for everyone, as it’s every bit as gruesome as the most extreme of Fulci’s work in the horror genre, but it’s an essential part of his filmography.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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