Alternately hilar­i­ous, ter­ri­fy­ing and gar­ish­ly beau­ti­ful, Toby Dammit (1968) is the Fellini mas­ter­piece you’ve nev­er heard of — the last full flow­er­ing of a pro­tean genius’s most ful­ly real­ized cin­e­mat­ic period.

It’s also a film that wouldn’t exist if schlock­meis­ter Roger Corman hadn’t made a series of vari­able but ambi­tious Edgar Allan Poe movies for American International Pictures, star­ring the ulti­mate movie ham­bone, Vincent Price.

Commenced in 1960 and span­ning about a decade of pro­duc­tion, the AIP Poe Cycle cre­at­ed run­away hits by the stan­dards of B-​moviedom, in part because it fea­tured A-​minus lev­el pro­duc­tion val­ues, includ­ing peri­od cos­tumes and col­or cin­e­matog­ra­phy by the likes of Nicholas Roeg. Corman’s Masque of the Red Death is prob­a­bly the best of the bunch if
you like trip­py 60s décor; Pit and the Pendulum is the scari­est, along with The Premature Burial — an inde­pen­dent pro­duc­tion Corman mount­ed star­ring AIP reg­u­lar Ray Milland when Price proved unavailable.

But by far the most styl­ish film to come out of the Poe cycle is a dis­tant adjunct: Fellini’s Toby Dammit, cre­at­ed as one seg­ment of an inter­na­tion­al Poe omnibus film that was actu­al­ly dis­trib­uted by AIP in America, with the char­ac­ter­is­tic addi­tion of a deli­cious­ly over-​ripe link­ing nar­ra­tion from Price.

The anthol­o­gy film in ques­tion was called Spirits of the Dead, and its oth­er two Poe install­ments — Metzengerstein, direct­ed by Roger Vadim, and William Wilson by Louis Malle, both have their fans, though I per­son­al­ly find them both unre­lieved­ly dull. Aside from the icky coup of cast­ing his then wife Jane Fonda oppo­site her broth­er Peter as the love inter­est, Vadim’s piece in par­tic­u­lar is just flat out un-​cinematic — poor­ly paced, bad­ly framed, som­nam­bu­lis­ti­cal­ly per­formed. Malle’s is just bor­ing­ly pro­fi­cient. Which is actu­al­ly kind of worse.

Spirits of the Dead European onesheet

Fellini’s film on the oth­er hand is a majes­tic, despair­ing and entire­ly achieved work, and a fit­ting com­pan­ion piece to 8 12 and
Juliet of the Spirits, the twin mas­ter­pieces that pre­ced­ed it.

In the very auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal 12, Fellini had cre­at­ed a new visu­al lan­guage designed to reflect the streams of con­scious­ness — the move­ment between rever­ie and real­i­ty — of his own over­ac­tive mind. Surreal, circus-​like and wide­ly imi­tat­ed, 8 12 is the source for such oth­er cin­e­mat­ic auto­bi­ogra­phies as Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (and The Pickle, Mazursky’s unfair­ly maligned final film); Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Ken Russell must have seen 12 and been struck as if by the hand of God — almost every film he made once he became a name” direc­tor derives from what can only be thought of as a mis­un­der­stand­ing of Fellini’s approach, which Russell seems to have tak­en as a license to put pret­ty much any­thing he could think of up on the screen. And don’t get me start­ed on Nine of 12 Women.

With Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini applied his car­ni­va­lesque new cin­e­mat­ic lan­guage to a por­trait of the woman he new best: his wife Giulietta Masini, with bril­liant if at times over­wrought results. In a sense, Juliet is an exper­i­ment, and a tran­si­tion­al work, ask­ing the ques­tion: Could such a pri­vate lan­guage, so wed­ded to the way Fellini him­self thought and felt, be tied to a por­trait of some­one else?

Terence Stamp as Toby Orpheus in Night Town

With Toby Dammit, Fellini answers that query with a resound­ing Yes” by cre­at­ing an entire­ly fic­tion­al char­ac­ter (one whose strug­gle has noth­ing to do with Poe) and build­ing a visu­al mas­ter­work around him. Toby, played riv­et­ing­ly by Terence Stamp in what is eas­i­ly the best English-​language per­for­mance in any Fellini movie, is an actor in cri­sis, being eat­en alive by his tumor­ous self con­tempt. He’s come to Rome for a satir­i­cal rea­son, made all the more hilar­i­ous because it’s imag­in­able if not plau­si­ble: he is to star in a Spaghetti Western based on the life of Christ.

But Toby is also an unmit­i­gat­ed drunk on his last ben­der, haunt­ed by a strange vision of the dev­il as a lit­tle girl (it would be inter­est­ing to uncov­er whether or not Spirits was wide­ly seen in Japan, because this char­ac­ter, played by Russian actress Marina Yaru could have come straight from any num­ber of Japanese ghost sto­ries, includ­ing The Ring). Hellbent on self destruc­tion, Toby must first drift like a rant­i­ng Orpheus through a pur­ga­to­r­i­al under­world of syco­phants and celebri­ty dri­ven triv­ia. When death comes for him, he seems to wel­come it with gid­dy joy.

Marina Yaru as the dev­il that haunts Toby

The con­cerns are clas­sic Fellini, from the dis­solute and self-​destructive pro­tag­o­nist to the vibrant but vapid and soul crush­ing milieu. And the cin­e­matog­ra­phy — by Fellini’s fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Guiseppi Rotunno — is as rav­ish­ing and sur­re­al as anything
ever com­mit­ted to film. The cam­era prowls and swoops in a night­mare world of reds and blacks and golds. The frame over­flows with grotesques engaged in half heard con­ver­sa­tions, sur­re­al images on TV screens, car­toon­ish back­grounds made of mod­els and projections.

No oth­er direc­tor has ever cre­at­ed such vivid depic­tions of entropy. Fellini remains the cinema’s great mas­ter of kinet­ic ennui.

Because it exists as one third of an oth­er­wise undis­tin­guished movie of for­eign ori­gins, Toby Dammit has gone vir­tu­al­ly unseen in America. But the forty minute run­ning time in fact makes Toby Dammit an ide­al point of entry for a view­er unfa­mil­iar with Fellini — it’s like a bril­liant short sto­ry by Conrad, con­tain­ing his high­est lev­el of tech­nique and his great­est the­mat­ic pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, all sharp­ened down to a fever­ish point where noth­ing extra­ne­ous is observable.

It’s also scary as hell, in a way that bypass­es the jump scare for some­thing approach­ing ter­mi­nal dread. Toby Dammit is a think­ing person’s Halloween treat. Just don’t be sur­prised if it haunts you long after the hol­i­day ends.

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