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Sunday, 6 August 2017

Federico Fellini - The Secret Meaning of his Short Masterpiece TOBY DAMMIT revealed by Theodore Price. Part Two.

FELLINI’S VERSION OF THE STORY: A DETAILED OUTLINE OF THE STORYLINE OF FELLINI’S FILM THAT CRITICS CANNOT FATHOM OR EXPLAIN BUT THAT BECOMES EMINENTLY CLEAR ONCE THE SECRET MEANING OF THE FILM IS REVEALED.
Italian Lobby Card for Spirits of the Dead
Fellini’s film is set in the present, with Toby Dammit, a famous British actor, often drunk, often angry, arriving by plane at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.  The film begins with a shot of the sky and clouds.  Then we’re suddenly inside the plane with Toby, in voice over, apprehensively waiting for the plane to land, wondering why he’s making the trip, wishing he hadn’t come.

The whole film, until the very end, is from Toby’s subjective viewpoint.  And, of course, what he sees, we see.

Main Title, Toby Dammit
At the terminal he sees what you can expect to see at a large modern airport, men and women of every race, creed, and color, hustling about, doing their particular thing: --- beautiful airline girls on television monitors, scampering nuns, in this case carrying musical instruments, salaaming Moslems, Hasidic Jews going up escalators, Idi-Amin-type Cuban militiamen fondling beautiful blonde white women.

But Toby’s a famous person, so people stare back at him in recognition and welcome him to Rome.  Throughout the film people are continually welcoming him to Rome. A squad of paparazzi photographers start snapping his picture and shooting off flashbulbs in his face.  He gets angry at this because he says that he’s just not used to all this light, and he hurls a suitcase at one older photographer.  A younger colleague strikes Toby in the face.

The little blonde girl and the bouncing ball, Toby Dammit
Suddenly he has an hallucination of a blonde little girl bouncing a ball at him.  He calls out to her in consternation that he hadn’t expected her to be following him. 

We get a glimpse of her.  We see that while she’s dressed like a 12-year-old-or-so little girl, her nails are painted red and she has a knowing, sensual look in her eyes.  One experienced Fellini editor, Christian Strich, has described her as a “little girl with knowing eyes and the smile of a witch.”

Toby is met by several priests, who introduce themselves as producers and directors of the film he’s come to Rome to make.  He’s to star in a Church-produced Western, with Christ as a cowboy, that retells the myth of redemption. 

Toby Dammit (Terence Stamp) and the producer/priest, Toby Dammit
It’s to be the first Catholic Western, and everyone’s pleased and proud.  Its title’s to be Thirty Dollars.  The producer-priest says to Toby, “Judas, the 30 pieces of silver, you know.”

Toby and the priests now get into a car for the drive to Rome proper.  They go via the Raccondo Anulare, the same highway we shall see four years later in Fellini’s Roma (1972). 

Here too Toby (and we) see strange 20th century sights --- gorgeously dressed models passing by for TV commercials; a glittering, tinseled Madonna in some sort of religious parade; and, as in Roma, a traffic accident (a motorcyclist has been killed) and the resulting traffic jam.

A gypsy fortune teller starts to look at Toby’s hand but quickly turns away.  She seems to see that he’ll shortly come to a bad end.  During the ride we learn that the special inducement for Tony’s coming to make the film is that the producers have promised him the very latest model Ferrari sports car.

IN ROME TOBY IS INTERVIEWED ON TELEVISION.
Toby Dammit and TV interview, Toby Dammit
It’s a sort of Meet the Press affair but more showbusiness-like by a sexy girl-interviewer and with an assistant director manipulating a canned applause machine to highlight some particular answer of Toby’s.

By the consensus of just about every critic of the film (even John Simon) this is the film’s best sequence.

Incidentally, Terence Stamp, who plays Toby in the film, has been made up, on Fellini’s special instruction, to resemble Poe, although, as at least one French critic has noticed, he looks a little like Baudelaire.

Among other things Toby tells the interviewer that he drinks and takes drugs, hates the public, thinks his critics are stupid, wishes he’d never been born, and most important of all, that he doesn’t believe in God, but that he does believe in the Devil and has seen him.

The sexy girl-interviewer (she’s gorgeous) claps her hands and says, “How exciting! She asks Toby to describe him to her.  Toby says that the Devil appears to him as a little girl, and she appears to him on the screen but not to us or the people in the studio.

THE ACADEMY AWARD DINNER-SEQUENCE IN FELLINI’S FILM
The Awards Dinner, Toby Dammit
That evening Toby goes to the Italian Academy Award dinner, at a sumptuous night club, where Toby’s the guest of honor.  He’s to get an award himself, and he’s to give a little speech and recite a few lines from Shakespeare, for he’s famous for his Shakespearean roles.

Throughout the film and especially throughout this sequence Toby takes long draughts from his whiskey flask and gets more intoxicated, stoned in fact.  Throughout the sequence too he’s constantly being importuned by men and women, but especially women, who want him in some way to further their careers.

All the women in the film are stunningly attired, still looking in very high fashion even though the film was made five decades ago.
One especially beautiful woman --- especially beautiful --- proffers herself to Toby, takes his hand, says she’ll be his woman alone, and says she’ll take care of him so that he’ll never have another worry.  (She makes just about the same promises to him that the Claudia figure in 8 1/2 makes to Guido in the hotel bedroom scene in that film.)

Her voice and words lull Toby to sleep.  On awakening he makes his acceptance speech at the dinner and recites the “Life’s but a walking shadow” speech from Macbeth, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

And in a scene reminiscent of a similar scene in George Cukor’s A Star is Born, Toby confesses that he’s really a failure at his profession and can’t hold a job.

As I watch this scene 50 years later, I can’t help thinking of the obituary of Pat O’Brien, that grand old star of all those movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, who in the last years of his career said he just couldn’t get a film job.

TOBY’S WILD NIGHT RIDE IN THE FERRARI DEATH CAR
The wild car ride, Toby Dammit
Then Toby rushes out.  “Wait, wait”, Toby, people call after him.  But he doesn’t wait but rushes to his promised Ferrari and drives off into the night on a wild ride. 

The shiny sports car, like the car of the confidence man in Il Bidone (The Swindle) and like Gatsby’s car in Fitzgerald’s novel, soon becomes dust-begrimed and will shortly become, also as in Bidone and Gatsby, a death car.

Toby loses his way, hits an obstruction, stops the car, and screams.  And screams again.  And starts the car again, wanting to find the way back to Rome. 
He comes to a shattered bridge, a gaping cavern before him.  Across the cavern he sees the “knowing” little girl playing with her ball, giving him what seems to be another come-hither look. He backs up the Ferrari and bets that he can zoom across the fearsome-looking cavern to the other side of the shattered bridge.  The car makes it; but a detour-guard-wire, invisible in the dark, has cut off Toby’s head. 

The little girl picks up her ball in one hand, Toby’s head in the other, and goes off into the darkness.

Theodore Price


Editor's Note: Theodore Price is an American academic and long-time cinephile. He wrote this 6000+ word essay at the age of 92. Part One can be found if you click here 


Next, Part Three: DOES THIS SHORT FILM OF FEDERICO FELLINI’S, TOBY DAMMIT, HAVE A “MEANING”?

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