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Remembering Dino – The key films of producer Dino De Laurentiis

From Fellini to Flash Gordon, from classics to high-camp, a look at the films that defined the career of Italian producer and master showman Dino De Laurentiis

Bitter Rice (1949)

In the neorealist swirl of post-war Italy, young bespectacled producer Dino De Laurentiis, on a salary at Lux Film, worked alongside writer/director Giuseppe De Santis in this down-at-heel rice-field romance. The film starred Silvana Mangano as heaving peasant girl Silvana – she became a star and, soon after, De Laurentiis’ wife.

La Strada (1954)

De Laurentiis had produced over 50 films in Italy before partnering with arthouse king Federico Fellini for La Strada in 1954. “One day Fellini called me and said, ‘Dino, nobody wants this film of mine. I’m sending over the screenplay, and we’ll see if you’re interested.’” And that, according to De Laurentiis, is how Fellini’s poetic masterpiece began. The film was an international hit, and earned de Laurentiis his first Oscar, for Best Foreign Language Film.

The Nights Of Cabiria (1957)

A second teaming with Fellini, again starring the director’s doe-eyed wife, Giulietta Masina. After the drifting fable of La Strada, Cabiria is a return to a more direct neorealism, with Masina’s feisty working girl encountering a cross-section of Roman life while stroll through the lamplit capital. It’s De Laurentiis’ best Italian film, and earned him a second Oscar.

Barabbas (1961)

Dino was never shy of chasing a box-office trend, and in an era of biblical epics and runaway productions, Barabbas was his sandy shot at the big time. And, while it doesn’t quite measure up to its big influences Ben-Hur and Spartacus, the production has serious heft, and Anthony Quinn is suitably anguished as the man released from crucifixion ahead of Christ.

Barbarella (1968)

A unique and disastrous meeting of De Laurentiis’ European sensibilities with a Hollywood budget and stars. The result is a barely-constructed sex-com sci-fi overflowing with gauche props and camp-glitz set design that, like polyester and savage bowl cuts, has somehow become cultishly fashionable.

Waterloo (1970)

A master of international financing with a taste for the epic, De Laurentiis put Waterloo together as a $40 million co-production with Soviet cinema factory Mosfilm. It’s dramatically solid, but the real draw is its size – over 16, 000 Russian military extras that put director Sergei Bondarchuk in charge of the world’s seventh largest standing army.

Serpico (1973)

With thirty years in the business De Laurentiis relocated to Manhattan in the early 1970s and became an independent producer for Paramount. The producer bought the rights to Peter Maas’ book for $450,000 on the strength of a few pages, and pulled strings with friend and Paramount boss Charles Bluhdorn to make sure his dream team of Lumet and Al Pacino made the film.

Death Wish (1974)

As a producer De Laurentiis relied heavily on his own taste and intuition in picking projects. So it’s remarkable that his track record flits so quickly between art house and pure trash. Luckily, this is good trash, with Charles Bronson’s geologically-faced everyman turning mad vigilante after his family is killed. “I didn’t ask myself whether it was a fascist film or any crap like that,” the producer stormed. “I understood it was a story the public could identify with.”

Three Days Of The Condor (1975)

The pendulum swings again, with De Laurentiis setting up the framework for this brilliant, shadowy post-Watergate thriller starring Hollywood golden boy Robert Redford. It’s among the producer’s finest films, worthy of mention in the same breath as All The President’s Men and The Conversation, as Redford’s sweater-wearing CIA bookworm trips over the wrong secret and ends up on the run.

King Kong (1976)

Another of Dino’s blockbusters paid for with a spiderweb of international financing. The producer engineered a thriving circus of publicity surrounding the film, centred around the star attraction – a giant mechanical version of Kong built at a cost of $1.7 million. While the uneven result was not the tragic epic the world anticipated, neither was it the flop it was widely reported to be, making a healthy profit for De Laurentiis and Paramount.

Flash Gordon (1980)

De Laurentiis’ slate was uniquely eclectic, with bona fide masterpieces sitting alongside camp trash like 1968’s Barbarella and Flash Gordon. It’s a shameless attempt to chase the Star Wars dollar, with a fair-haired hero battling an evil space empire, except here fuelled by a Queen soundtrack and smothered in spandex.

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Conan made a star of Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in the context of early-‘80s Hollywood seemed to come from nowhere. But for De Laurentiis there must have been a clear link back to the mythical peplum epics that ruled the Italian cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Schwarzenegger was hand-picked as a modern day Steve Reeves, and triumphed in this heavy-handed but successful vehicle.

The Dead Zone (1983)

Hungry for raw material, De Laurentiis struck a deal with Stephen King that would see him produce several films based on the author’s work including Firestarter, Cat’s Eye, and the awful but still awesome Maximum Overdrive. The best – all right, only good one – was The Dead Zone, not least because De Laurentiis coaxed a fresh-from-Videodrome David Cronenberg into directing. Cronenberg reshaped the script and formed a very effective partnership with shock-faced hero Christopher Walken.

Dune (1984)

Perhaps the producer’s greatest folly. Again it’s De Laurentiis hunting the Star Wars crowd, this time with an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s multi-million selling sci-fi novel. His eye for talent correctly identified director David Lynch as a future star, but the dreamy auteur was the wrong man for the job, obsessing over details (the wonderfully crafted Harkonnen homeworld) and losing his grip on the monster project, leaving us with a fractured snowglobe of a potential epic.

Blue Velvet (1986)

The flipside to the Dune coin. With De Laurentiis now managing his own mini-studio, Lynch was given final cut on this far more modest suburban mystery. What he came up with surprised everyone and struck upon the dark ethereal tone that would define his career. Blue Velvet is a bona fide masterpiece, a uneasy Freudian inspection of white picket Americana, a Hardy Boys adventure that descends into perversion and obsession.

Manhunter (1986)

Released just weeks apart from Blue Velvet was this less-heralded but arguably just as influential serial killer thriller. Having established DEG after the release of Dune, De Laurentiis was not just producing films but distributing them. This meant a down-shift in budgets and led the producer to work with some of Hollywood’s most interesting new filmmakers. Among them  Micael Mann, who delivered his often overlooked precursor to Silence Of The Lambs starring Brian Cox as cinema’s first Dr Hannibal Lecktor, full of the blue-tinged silhouette style found in later classics Heat and The Insider.

Evil Dead II (1987)

Yes – De Laurentiis really got around in the ‘80s. Sam Raimi and friends were struggling after the poorly received Crimewave, only for Dino to dig them out of a hole. The way star Bruce Campbell remembers it, a crew member happened to mention to Stephen King they were short of money for a sequel. “With that, Stephen called Dino, Dino called us, and we found ourselves in his gigantic office. Twenty minutes later, a deal was in place.”

Assassins (1995)

This Sly Stallone versus Antonio Banderas action flick might be unremarkable summer box-office grist, but it also showed that half a century after he started producing movies, De Laurentiis could compete at the very top. Stallone’s popularity was cresting, but he was still a superstar with enough heft to drag the film into the red overseas. And the film’s screenplay was an original by the soon-to-be-huge Matrix creators, the Wachowski brothers.

Breakdown (1997)

By the late ‘90s De Laurentiis was beginning to ease off the production pedal. But he still found time to unearth this criminally unsung kidnapping B-movie. Written and directed by Terminator 3 helmer Jonathan Mostow, the film’s big asset is Kurt Russell, on hugely watchable and determined form as the husband whose wife disappears after a roadside breakdown. The low-budget thriller is tight, tense, and comes with a crunchingly satisfying pile-up conclusion.

Red Dragon (2001)

When Manhunter flopped De Laurentiis passed on the follow-up, Silence Of The Lambs, and regretted it deeply. Many of his later films were an attempt to recapture the largely bolted Lecter horse – Hannibal, Hannibal Rising – and the best of them all was this Manhunter remake, starring Ed Norton, Ralph Fiennes and, of course, Anthony Hopkins.

This text originally appeared in Total Film #176 and on totalfilm.com

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynsey Wallis permalink
    July 17, 2014 7:55 pm

    Whoever wrote this was an idiot. The Dead Zone was not the ONLY adaptation he did of a Stephen King book that was good, Firestarter and Cat’s Eye were AWESOME! In fact they are better remembered today than The Dead Zone is. Proof that critics don’t know shit.

  2. July 17, 2014 8:33 pm

    Well, I really like that you took the time to comment. It’s a shame you called me an idiot.

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