Corbucci's THE SLAVE: Split Focus / Dual Identity
While watching Warner Archive's new release of Sergio Corbucci's THE SLAVE (Il figlio di Spartaco, 1962), I found myself quite impressed by the Cinemascope photography of Enzo Barboni, a longtime associate of Corbucci who later directed the "Trinity" films under the alias E. B. Clucher, and who also photographed Steve Reeves' final starring role in A LONG RIDE INTO HELL (1970). If you order this film -- and I think you should -- take my advice: once you've watched it through, watch it again at a moderate fast-forward speed, the better to appreciate how beautifully pre-planned Barboni's sweeping camera moves were. There is a grandeur in them that takes the production well beyond its budget, while also lending something of the film's themes of destiny to its overall mapping.
An aspect of Barboni's cinematography that I find particularly intriguing is its use of shots that contrast extreme close-ups and deep focus. So far as I can tell, the first of the shots I'm presenting here (above) was either achieved with a telephoto lens or by filming the foregrounded crucified figure against a blue-screen and matting in the location shot from the Egyptian desert later. But there are a handful of shots scattered throughout the picture, all at dramatically critical moments, when Barboni makes use of a split-diopter lens, a lens rarely used in films but which literally split the image, cleanly dividing it between extreme near and deep focus. I'll present these frames here for your study and pleasure, and I encourage you to click on them to make them full-sized:
The first of these shows Steve Reeves (such amazing blue eyes!) as Randus, an orphaned Roman centurion who discovers he is the son of the crucified rebel leader Spartacus, and who commences a dual life, fighting for Rome by day and against Rome by night as a helmeted, sword-wielding forerunner of vigilante heroes like Batman. The shot occurs when he is forced to stand impassive as Crassus (Claudio Gora) mortally wounds one of his most devoted followers and feeds him to his pet piranha. The second occurs moments before a rebel assault on the palace. The third shows Claudia (Gianna Maria Canale) eavesdropping on Caesar (BLACK SUNDAY's Ivo Garrani) as he announces his intention to have Randus crucified like his father. The final shot shows Randus conversing from his prison cell with one of his compatriots.
Toward the end of the film, Barboni startles the viewer by interrupting a sustained high angle shot with the woodwork of a crossbeams raised into view, again perfectly in focus against the crisply detailed background.
I'm not certain what inspired Barboni to play these eye-catching tricks with dimension, but the fact that Randus is leading a dual life, a divided existence, may have something to do with it. Watching THE SLAVE made me pine for the days when the art of cinematography was rooted in principals of storytelling rather than piling on lots of eye candy spectacle -- and the result of that enrichment, oddly enough, is spectacle.