José Isbert and Nino Manfredi in The Executioner (1963)

‘The Executioner’ Forges the Missing Link Between Preston Sturges and Robert Altman

This excellent satire is shot in long, elaborately staged takes where the camera alternately basks in claustrophobia or wanders all over the landscape.

In ’60s Spain, under the dictatorship of General Franco and amid an influx of international tourists, handsome young José Luis Rodríguez (Nino Manfredi) works as an undertaker. It doesn’t exactly make him a magnet for the ladies.

On assignment at a prison, he meets an old man with an even more undesirable job: Amadeo (José Isbert) the executioner. The dumpy old fussbudget uses a garrote, a metal device that strangles the victim when screws are tightened. Amedeo’s pretty daugher Carmen (Emma Penella) is in a situation similar to José Luis — she can’t get a date, thanks to the family business.

In a series of scenes that skip forward over several months, the two young people find themselves embroiled in marriage and pregnancy (not strictly in that order). In order to keep their new state-appointed apartment, José Luis reluctantly agrees to take over his father-in-law’s job. He fully intends to resign if called upon to perform his legal duty, which is why he anxiously scans headlines for any signs of murder and even attempts to pacify incipient fights in the street. Will he be able to follow his good intentions, or does society have its sinister grip on him?

It’s always important when Criterion issues a classic that’s never been on video before (at least in Region 1), and here’s a wonderful example. One of the glories of Spanish cinema, The Executioner is famous in that country, as is director Luis García Berlanga. As Pedro Almodóvar states in an introduction, Berlanga is as revered as Luis Buñuel but isn’t nearly as known outside Spain.

Indeed, this is the first opportunity your indefatigable reviewer has had to see any of Berlanga’s films in my lifetime, and yet I instantly felt a strange déjà vu, for this particular Spanish-Italian co-production strongly resembles an earlier one, Marco Ferreri’s El Cochecito (1960). Both films, shot in black and white clarity, unveil in scenes so crowded and detailed, and with such a busily mixed soundtrack, as to give the impression that Robert Altman was alive and well and making Spanish films in the ’60s. Both are shot in long, elaborately staged takes where the camera alternately basks in claustrophobia or wanders all over the landscape. Both are black comedies about murder and middle-class desperation. As icing on the flan, both star the wheezing José Isbert as a querulous old man.

The real lynchpin is that both films are scripted by Rafael Azcona, known for his mordant social satire. After working with Ferreri on two films based on Azcona’s own novels, Azcona proceeded on a series of films with Berlanga. In between, Azcona wrote Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962), also on Criterion, in which the hero visits his Sicilian hometown and, through a series of ill-timed events, is expected to do a favor for the local mafia by knocking someone off. Both Lattuada’s film and The Executioner explore cultures that draws “the little man” into murder. Although this would seem specific to life under fascism or in the mafia, the specifics resonate with life everywhere we can be called upon to kill for our countries, to declare our loyalties in order to survive.

Shot by the marvelous Tonino Delli Colli, every scene in The Executioner is a festival of details worth savoring, with many symbols as audacious as they are obvious. Consider the moment when a prison warden orders that a tie be placed around the neck of José Luis to look more professional before using his garrote, or the throwaway moment when his father-in-law measures his neck size at a glance. Many scenes feature ironic intrusions from the world of la dolce vita spreading to Spain from the rest of Europe, none more dynamic than in the masterly final shot of youth carrying on with the party.

A one-hour making-of interviews Berlanga’s son and various admirers who discuss the film, and there’s a half-hour analysis that aired on Spanish TV in 2009, testifying to the film’s classic status in Spain. Now that a sparkling 4K digital transfer is available to the rest of the world, we must hope for more of Berlanga’s tart social comedies. The clips from his films make him look something like a Spanish Preston Sturges, one who loads his screen with vivid characters all speaking at once as they skate over the thinnest of ice.

RATING 9 / 10