Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Fellini’s Toby Dammit

There is a long and fruitful tradition of not particularly faithful Poe adaptations. Best exemplified by Roger Croman and classic Karloff & Lugosi vehicles at Universal, scores of filmmakers took just enough from Poe to create something interesting. In 1969, some of the top auteurs in Europe got in on the fun, contributing to the Poe anthology film, Spirits of the Dead. In honor of his centennial, Federico Fellini’s 43-minute segment, Toby Dammit releases virtually this Friday, “at” Film Forum.

Ostensibly, Fellini adapted the story “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” but don’t get hung up on the details. The titular Toby Dammit is still a h-e-double hockey-sticks-raiser, but this time around, he happens to be an angry-not-so-youngish, classically-trained British actor, badly in need of rehab (ever so appropriately played by Terence Stamp).

Dammit has come to Italy to star in an allegorical spaghetti western funded by a Catholic arts agency, solely because he was promised a snazzy red Ferrari. Dammit is already in bad shape when he arrives and the boozy reception only makes him worse. Clearly, Dammit has not handled fame well, but he is also trying to self-medicate away hallucinatory visions of the devil chasing him in the guise of a little girl.

Toby Dammit
might be a relatively short genre film, but it is vintage Fellini all the way. Right from the start, he capitalizes on the postmodern dystopian vibe of the airport’s 1960’s space-age-chic décor to create a disorienting vibe. Arguably, this film could easily serve as a color addendum to , because it presents the trappings of fame in similarly caustic and chaotic ways. If anything, Dammit is a more intense viewing experience, in accordance with Poe’s maxims.

He wasn’t the craziest cat in Swinging 60’s London, but there is no denying Stamp has instant and complete credibility as Dammit. Frankly, throughout the film, Stamp looks like he was truly drunk, stoned, and experiencing horrifying visions of his own. That means it’s a terrific performance.

Toby Dammit
sounds great too, thanks to a prime Nino Rota score and a licensed Ray Charles track (“Ruby,” one of his jazziest). Fellini admirers can rest assured: Dammit is very Fellini. Yet, it still takes care of its Poe business. Even in Italy, Mr. Dammit cannot outrun his fate. Very highly recommended for Fellini, Poe, and/or Stamp fans, Toby Dammit releases virtually this Friday (11/6), as part of a double bill with La Jetee.