Along with the rest of the world (or a certain part of it, anyway), I was heartbroken to hear of the death of legendary Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis last week. One of the most prolific men in the history of cinema, with a career stretching from 1940 until 2007, De Laurentiis oversaw the creation of movies across the spectrum from challenging, innovative art-house films all the way down to the crassest knock-offs that money could buy.
Though neither I nor no-one could claim to be a true expert on this man’s work, running close to 200 movies, I thought I would still try to do my little part to pay tribute to the kaleidoscopic breadth of his filmography.
10 Essential Dino De Laurentiis Productions
The Italian Prestige Picture: Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Federico Fellini had just become the big new star of the Italian film scene with La strada when he teamed up with De Laurentiis that is in some ways a perfect encapsulation of the producer’s M.O.: take a thing that worked and do it again but sexier. Literally sexier, in this case: Cabiria adds to the basic story of an angelic, striving figure played by Giulietta Masina a job as a prostitute. One of the most internationally respected films of its day, proof that De Laurentiis’s eye for audience-pleasing was no enemy to art.
See also: La grande guerra (1959)
The Pretentious Euroart: The Stranger (1967)
In the 1960s, icy, artsy pictures by the likes of Antonioni and Bergman were as much a bandwagon as anything else – and De Laurentiis was never one to pass up a bandwagon. Which is why he teamed up with Luchino Visconti and star Marcello Mastroianni on an adaptation of one of the most important modernist novels, a film that is harshly intellectual even by the standards of the form; it is neither particularly well-regarded now nor derided, but simply lumped in with the “lesser Viscontis”, good enough to be worth seeing and not much better. I think De Laurentiis would have wanted it that way.
See also: The Witches (1967)
The Glitzy Eurotrash: Diabolik (1968)
Horror director Mario Bava joined forces with De Laurentiis to make one of the most appealingly trashy lifestyle porn films ever made: and he did it on literally one-sixth of the budget De Laurentiis had arranged. Which needless to say, made the producer insanely happy, all the more so since this gaudy tale of a master criminal played by John Philip Law running around a gorgeous Pop-Art version of Europe and being cooler in five minutes than you and I will be in our whole lives put together, turned out to be a minor hit. If you haven’t seen this one (and you probably haven’t), it is vital that you change this fact
See also: Barbarella (1968)
The New Hollywood Cinema: Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Looking across the Atlantic to the bold new world of intelligent adult entertainment being met with critical and financial acclaim, De Laurentiis threw his lot in with Sydney Pollack in the creation of one of the best paranoia thrillers of an era where that genre reached its pinnacle: at once challenging and entertaining, it combines art and fun in a way that typifies not just its historical moment, but also its producer’s best and noblest ambitions to win both mass appeal and respect.
See also: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976)
The Jaws Rip-Off: King Kong (1976)
“Nobody cry when the shark die. When my Kong die, everybody gonna cry.” These words (or ones like them) have been carved into stone as the most legendary utterance of a legendary man, who genuinely believed that more soul and heart was all that stood between Jaws and even bigger financial success. Which is what drove him to sink a sum of money unfathomable in those days into a remake of such absolute batshit awfulness that 29 years later, Peter Jackson got points just for failing to make a King Kong as bad as De Laurentiis’s. The producer rebounded, of course, but time has not redeemed his grandiose hubris one bit.
See also: Orca (1977)
The Tacky ’80s Fantasy Film: Flash Gordon (1980)
“FLASH! A-AH! SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!” The most lurid color cinematography of any of the Star War knock-offs, plus Max von Sydow at his slummiest, Topol at his most gregarious, BRIAN BLESSED!, sets and costumes by Danilo Donati so grand and otherworldly and hypnotically over-determined that one cand hardly fathom how they can stand up, a delightfully bland hero to avoid getting in the way of it all, and of course, Queen’s legendary theme song combine to make one of the best candy-colored crazy pills in history. An exhausting film, but amazing.
See also: Conan the Barbarian (1982)
The Stephen King Picture: The Dead Zone (1983)
Nobody as keyed in to popular tastes as De Laurentiis could fail to notice that Stephen King was growing in popularity at the turn of the ’80s, and his first of several King adaptations, directed by David Cronenberg in an uncharacteristically subdued mode, came out just about one year into the first big wave of King films. Not terribly memorable – I’d call it the least interesting of the director’s major works – but De Laurentiis was ever more eager to make a buck now, rather than win a memorial twenty years from now.
See also: Maximum Overdrive (1986)
The Crazy Auteur Vehicle: Blue Velvet (1986)
And sometimes, he wasn’t. Having to promise David Lynch a free project in exchange for Dune, De Laurentiis did not personally produce this nightmarish fantasia of sex, drugs and robins, but it was made by his company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, and he put strict demands on the length of the film (which Lynch obeyed to the precision of one single frame of footage), though he could do nothing about its content. The resulting controversy doubtlessly made him happier that stricter oversight could have: it guaranteed that the film would be a hit if only because of perverse curiosity. That it is, years later, widely regarded as a masterpiece, is an pleasant bonus.
See also: Cobra Verde (1987)
The “Respectable” Sexploitation Flick: Body of Evidence (1993)
Right in the hear of the Golden Age of the Erotic Thriller, and just at the tail end of Madonna’s period as Queen of Edgy Pop Culture, De Laurentiis had the obvious idea of combining the two things in one ghastly, giddy concoction that works not remotely on any level except as a fascinating car crash: mix a terrible performance even in the context of Ms. Ciccone’s *ahem* dubious film career, with stupidly self-conscious kinky sex, Willem Dafoe looking stunned at how howlingly awful the project he’s been roped into turned out to be, and you have one of the worst – and most hypnotic – films of a dreadful subgenre.
See also: Nothing can replace Body of Evidence
The Hannibal Lecter Sequel: Hannibal (2001)
The quintessential De Laurentiis story, to me: after taking a bath on Michael Mann’s Manhunter, adapted from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon in 1986, the producer refused his contractual right to have first dibs on Thomas Harris’s next novel, The Silence of the Lambs. When that proved to be a stupid decision, De Laurentiis jumped on top of the third book in the sequel like a hyena; spearheaded the remaking of Red Dragon with Lambs and Hannibal star Anthony Hopkins; and more or less threatened Harris into writing a prequel. None of these three features enjoy anything like the acclaim or popularity of Lambs – or even Manhunter – but that eternal optimism that made De Laurentiis sure that this time, the new Lecter film would be a smash hit; that is to me, the heart of what made the man an international treasure. There is no line between the schlocky and the earnest in De Laurentiis’s world, and for that we should all be thankful.
See also: Hannibal Rising (2007)