Color, 1967, 111m.
Directed by Luchino Visconti, Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Franco Rossi, Vittorio De Sica
Starring Silvana Mangano, Clint Eastwood, Toto, Annie Girardot, Francisco Rabal, Massimo Girotti, Alberto Sordi, Ninetto Davoli
MGM Burn on Demand (DVD-R) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

The European rage for anthology films was one of the oddest trends of 1960s cinema, with high-profile directors rubbing shoulders with relative unknowns in story collections revolving around some sort of common theme. Whether it be the glamorous charms of Boccaccio '70 or the arty chills of Spirits of the Dead, audiences ate up the spectacle of filmmakers indulging in wild little short films with a host of recognizable guest actors. One of the oddest and latest arrivals to this trend is The Witches (or Le streghe), whose title has essentially no bearing at all on the movie itself. The whole thing is essentially a vanity project with a quintet of stories designed to show off the range of actress Silvana Mangano, the Miss Italia contest winner who went on to marry Dino De Laurentiis in 1949 and became something of a star in the acclaimed film Bitter Rice. Although The Witches received very little play as a pick-up from United Artists and was often dumped at the bottom of double and triple bills, it became an instant curiosity piece for the presence of Clint Eastwood at the tail end of his spaghetti western career with Sergio Leone and remains the strangest, least-seen item in his filmography. As for Mangano, the film didn't really do much for her career at first but did lead to substantial future collaborations with two of its directors, Pier Paolo Pasolini (whom she rejoined for Oedipus Rex, Teorema, and The Decameron) and Luchino Visconti (with whom she also worked on Death in Venice, Ludwig, and Conversation Piece). She semi-retired in the 1980s but did pop up in David Lynch's Dune and Nikita Mikhalov's Dark Eyes.

As for the film at hand, it's an oddly insubstantial but fascinating slice of pop art kitsch that begins in high style with the Visconti segment, "The Witch Burned Alive." A popular actress named Gloria (Mangano) arrives at a snowy chalet for the weekend where she's set upon by all sorts of hangers-on and partiers who take turns worshipping the increasingly exhausted performer and humiliating her behind her back. The first big turn comes when she's urged to perform a slinky dance at a dinner party only to collapse, at which point the other guests remove her glamorous trappings like her wig and make-up accoutrements to see what she's really like. By the time she flies away in her chartered helicopter, her outlook on life might be a bit different. Complete with some surprising bit roles for Francisco Rabal (Dagon), Clara Calamai (Deep Red), Marilu Tolo (Bluebeard), and even an early appearance by future Visconti muse and partner Helmut Berger, this story doesn't really go anywhere dramatically but is quite entertaining along the way. As usual with the director, it looks fantastic thanks to the sumptuous photography by Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard) and exerts an eerie, icy allure that's hard to shake if you're in the right frame of mind.

Things take a quick downturn for the second story, "Civic Pride," from workmanlike director Mauro Bolognini (who at least went on to direct the underrated The Inheritance in 1976). It's basically a noisy, two-character comedy piece for Mangano and Italian comedy favorite Alberto Sordi, who plays a man injured in a car accident she's trying not very effectively to transport to a hospital. At least it's really short. Then we're back to more interesting territory with "The Earth Seen from the Moon," a truly wacko "fairy tale" from Pasolini in which aging widower Mr. Miao (comedian Toto, sporting a bizarre hairdo) and his idiot son, Baciu (Pasolini regular Diavoli, sporting an even more bizarre orange pompadour), decide it's time for the patriarch to remarry -- but only to a woman they both agree is the right choice. Fortunately they run into Absurdity (Mangano), a green-haired deaf mute who becomes the ideal wife and mother in their very humble abode. However, a ridiculous twist and its freakish supernatural aftermath put their relationship to the ultimate test. Though it's rather nonsensical and kind of empty-headed, this is a quirky precursor to Pasolini's more accomplished Trilogy of Life anthology films in the '70s and features a terrific performance by Toto. Another quick, pointless sketch follows in the form of "The Sicilian Belle" from Franco Rossi, an inconsequential but incredibly violent little number about a jilted woman (Mangano) whose father goes overboard avenging her heartbreak.

Everyone waiting for Eastwood finally gets their reward with the last story, "A Night Like All the Others," one of the most stylistically extreme offerings from neorealist pioneer Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief). The focus here is a frustrated wife, Giovanna (Mangano), whose banker husband Carlo (Eastwood) is too tired and distracted by his work to pay attention to her at home. Soon her psyche is conjuring up wild scenarios in which her husband becomes a savior, cuckold, and villain as she cavorts on a public stage and gets attacked by various superheroes. It's all basically a fun little trifle but, like the better segments before, offers a nice sensory kick if you put your brain on hold while watching it.

Though it popped up on cable late at night every now and then, The Witches remained unavailable on home video for decades for reasons never quite made clear. The caliber of the cast should have been enough to earn it a quickie budget release at least, but for years it was known more as a footnote in movie reference books than something people actually watched. Despite Mangano's best efforts, the real star here is composer Piero Piccioni, who wrote music for four of the five stories (with Ennio Morricone providing some jaunty melodies for the Pasolini tale). This is easily one of the best soundtracks in Piccioni's impressive list of credits, with an insanely catchy main theme that carries through the animated opening credits and most of the Visconti story (with a particularly great "beat" version provided for Mangano's dance scene). He even provides a nutty Italian chorale version of the pop standard "I Will Follow Him," originally written in French in 1961.

As with a lot of Italian films, the language issue here is a bit tricky. The first four stories were clearly shot in Italian, while the last one has Mangano and Eastwood performing in English. Both the Italian and English-dubbed versions were unsatisfying for different reasons, so it's a pleasant shock that MGM's on-demand release manages to get it right on every count. The whole film can be watched in Italian with optional English subtitles (and finally widescreen, compared to the sorry pan and scan versions seen on TV), or through seamless branching, the De Sica segment can be played in English. The interlaced image quality is a little worn in spots, obviously, but it's still a hefty upgrade over any other version out there. Best of all, this is also the slightly longer Italian cut of the film, clocking in at 111 minutes; original U.S. prints were 105 minutes, while the cable version expanded to 109. There are several noticeable slivers of additional footage here and there even during the opening credits, and despite the lack of any extras, it's a surprisingly thorough and worthwhile restoration of a title no one thought would ever get a commercial release at all. Some sources list a running time of up to 121 minutes, though this seems to be taken from the Italian pressbooks which include a traditional intermission after the third story; even the long unavailable Italian VHS didn't run longer than this version, so unless an even longer version actually pops up sometime, this will definitely serve as the definitive edition.