Color, 1981, 101 mins. 25 secs.
Directed by Peter Zinner
Starring Franco Nero, Anthony Quinn, Martin Balsam, Sybil Danning, Christopher Lee, Cleavon Little, Paul L. Smith, John Steiner, Claudia Cardinale, Eli Wallach, Anita Strindberg
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Pathfinder (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)

The The SalamanderEuropean trend of The Salamanderpacking as many stars as possible into glossy stories preferably based on paperback bestsellers was sliding down rapidly when this thriller based on a pulpy conspiracy novel by Morris West (The Shoes of the Fisherman) about nefarious activities in the decadent continental aristocracy. The British-American-Italian co-production would have probably been a sure thing in the early '70s, but when it actually opened, the film bombed in the few countries where it opened and proved to be a costly misfire for U.K. company ITC in the wake of its biggest box office disaster, Raise the Titanic. However, any film with that cast can't be entirely without interest, and there are just enough weird touches to make it worth a look for the curious.

When a major Italian politician and military legend ends up dead under fishy circumstances, Italian police inspector Dante Matucci (Nero) works with his supervisor, Captain Steffanelli (Balsam, in his third crime role opposite Nero after the superior Confessions of a Police Captain and Smiling Maniacs), to figure out the significance of a salamander calling card left at the scene. The same signature keeps popping up at high-profile deaths in the country, with signs pointing to an international assassin, Bruno Manzini (Quinn), who went under the name of the Salamander before becoming a reputable businessman. Soon The SalamanderDante is teaming up with The Salamanderprofessional escort and covert spy Lili (Danning) to rifle through an intimidating roster of possible connections including a snooty prince (Lee) in charge of counterintelligence, an American boat captain (Little), and a foul-tempered general (Wallach). Of course, his investigation goes so far up the ladder that his own life soon appears to be at stake.

The first hour or so of this film is a relentless talk fest with Nero basically moving from one office or apartment to another for conversations about the title character. However, it's always fun to see Lee talking down to anyone, Franco included, and there's never a bad time to put Danning in a role anywhere. Things also start to take a bizarre turn past the halfway point once the conspiracy angle really kicks in, with the always glowering Paul L. Smith (Pieces, Sonny Boy) stealing the movie in his two big scenes as "the surgeon." That includes the admittedly unique sight of Nero (and his fearless stunt man) wearing only a jockstrap and engaging in a wall-slamming fight with Smith after some electrode cardiac torture, a moment in cinema history not easily forgotten. Adding some class to the film is a terrific score by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith, who always proved to be an MVP for ITC with titles like The Boys from Brazil and The Cassandra Crossing. In addition to Lee, Danning, and Smith, fans of Euro-cult movies will also have fun spotting familiar faces in the supporting cast including a juicy bit for John Steiner (in between his gigs on Caligula and Tenebrae) and a small appearance by giallo queen Anita Strindberg.The Salamander

The SalamanderBarely seen in the U.S. at all via a handful of theatrical screenings and its belated VHS release from Charter and mediocre-looking first DVD release in 2004 from Pathfinder (sporting a director's commentary and Nero interview available nowhere else), The Salamander can finally be seen on its best behavior via Scorpion Releasing's 2017 Blu-ray release. The transfer is miles ahead of past presentations, with much healthier colors and more refined film grain than before along with aesthetically pleasing 1.78:1 framing that feels about right even if it's opened up a bit more on the top and bottom than what was seen in theaters. The DTS-HD MA English mono track also sounds satisfying, particularly when it comes to the Goldsmith score. The film can also be played with a new audio commentary with producer Paul Maslansky (incredibly, one of the other producers on this film was Erwin C. Dietrich, who produced many '70s Jess Franco films and a ton of German sex comedies). Moderated by Bill Olsen and Damon Packard, it's a thorough look at the production of the film which he regards as a pleasant conjunction of international talent (apart from financial problems under indie companies like ITC) under the guidance of one-shot director Peter Zinner, better known as the editor of such films as The Godfather I and II and The Deer Hunter (or, at the other end of the spectrum, the music editor and supervisor for They Saved Hitler's Brain). Also included is a new video interview with John Steiner (5m53s), chatting briefly about how he got into Italian cinema and enjoyed the heyday of American Film Market movie deals. You can also enjoy the very eccentric camera framing, complete with a rubber duck hovering centimeters away from the lens. The theatrical trailer is also included along with bonus ones for Barbarosa, City on Fire, FIrepower, The Passage, and Killer Force.

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Reviewed on November 19, 2017.