Thursday, March 25, 2010

REVIEW: Toby Dammit

Toby Dammit
Director: Federico Fellini
Year 1968

Toby Dammit is a surreal dreamlike fantasy of a movie, directed by Federico Fellini. It is just one story of a three part anthology film entitled Spirits of the Dead. Toby Dammit is the name of the main character played by an almost inebriated Terence Stamp. He plays an English actor who has just landed in Rome to promote his current movie and basically spread his star status. There are so many things going on in this film that are compacted into its under an hour run time, but I'll try to simplify it if I can and break down the parts that I absolutely loved.

Damn man. Get this guy to rehab!

Fellini does a superb job of visualizing what a strung out actor goes through after the glitz and gleam of the flashing bulbs of the paparazzi start blurring your vision and adding to a constant state of paranoia that cripples your very body to function. The beginning scene is like something out of a nightmare. Toby arrives in Rome only to be visited by a three ring circus of press reporters and photographers. The absolute sea of noise and lights that greets him is as jarring as a freight train to your senses accompanied by the sun blasted choice of lathering the entire frame in an orange like glow, really makes you feel the constant annoyance that being in the lime light must feel like for an actor.

The colors just jump off the screen and immediately melt your vision's taste buds. Fellini must have spent a great deal working with his cinematographer to get the out of this world effect to look this perfect and original. I've been so captivated by this opening act in Toby Dammit, that I've tried to replicate that same impacting style into my own works. There is just something about that opening shot and inviting color that really appeals to my visionary tastes.

Can I take the other car? This guy in the hat is freaking me out.

After surviving the paparazzi blitz at the airport, Toby is whisked away into a caravan of cars that proceeds to take him to a television studio to give interviews to various TV hosts. During the drive, he is poked and prodded by his fellow passengers as they attempt to gauge his demeanor and uncover his personal life. Toby, like a zombie back from the dead, zones out staring at the passersby and paparazzi as they wave and snap pictures as the convoy drives by. The sense of overwhelming loss of personal privacy is abundant throughout the car ride and comes to a breakneck pitch as they reach the TV studio. 

Toby looks dismally at his passing fans through the looking glass.

Once at the television studio, Toby is plunged into a war of words by multiple television personalities that barrage him with question upon question as if he was being interrogated. You can feel the gauntlet like assault of words pushing and pushing until it seems like Toby might burst from the pressure. From the expressions that Terrance Stamp is able to project, you can see that he is at the end of his rope, yet still bounces from one thing to the other. He goes from happy to sad and from serious to joking in such quick succession that it really tires the audience out just watching him run the rigorous line of questions the TV personalities put him through. 

I give up! Shoot me now!

Throughout the film, we are given glimpses of a little white haired pale skinned girl with a white ball, that seem to have a sinister overtone each time her smiling devilish face comes onto the screen. Also each time they flash her into the frame, Toby winces from the memory of it. It becomes clear that this little girl represents some kind of evil entity possibly the devil even, suggesting that Toby might have sold his soul to this creature placing him in the very super star status that he is starting to lament.

This is not the first time that a film has portrayed a little girl with a ball as an evil entity. It was also done two years earlier in a 1966 Mario Bava film called Kill Baby Kill. In that film a vision of a young girl haunts a small village and begins killing people off. Bava's film is a great masterpiece, but I believe that the girl in this film has Bava's beat. There is just something unsettling about her smile that really makes you cringe.

That damned creepy kid. Go play somewhere else.

As the film reaches it's conclusion, it's painfully clear that stardom has taken its toll on Toby. The spotlight has drained him dry of all his life and he's just going through the motions by the bitter end. He finally losses it at an awards ceremony and flees the premises, stealing a sports car and begins flying wilding throughout the streets of Rome. He sees cardboard cut outs of people whooshing by reflecting the disconnection he has with the rest of society and the world. He's lost all sense of reality and is now hurtling out of control, ready to collapse from the stress of being in the public's ever watching eye. He reaches a bridge when his car spins wildly out of control and stops in the middle. He gets out to see that just beyond his car, the bridge is out and there is a seemingly bottomless pit right before him. He looks across the bridge's gap and sees the white haired girl smiling back at him. He has reached his breaking point and now has lost all abandoned for his life.

He jumps back into the car and backs up for a clean run. He hits the gas and is propelled headlong into the darkness of the abyss where the gap in the bridge lies. The camera closes into the blackness and all sound falls still. Then we are shown a single wire as it comes into view, spanning the entire width of the bridge. There is blood on the wire and we now know that our broken friend Toby, is now decapitated. 

The little girl bends down to collect her price in a bodiless head. The bargain that Toby had made with the devil was now up and the devil always collects his due. Whether this is a metaphor for one loosing their mind or a simple fact that he was decapitated is left up to the viewer. The entire film in my opinion is one big metaphor for selling your soul for your 5 minutes of fame. It's a cautionary tale about how easy it is to lose yourself in the bright lights of the spotlight called fame.

Poor Toby, pre-head decapitation.

All in all, this is a powerful journey into the surreal that I've never had the privilege to witness before in any other film. Fellini gives us a royal treat in the form of Toby Dammit's story. The emotions are prevalent throughout the piece and the sense of foreboding weight of being a star is thoroughly present, making a big impact on the final product. You really have to see this one for yourself though, because I believe each viewer will get something different from this film. It has so many things to say and so many different ways to interpret it, that it really is a beautifully abstract film. Recommended for the lovers of the surreal.

4 out of 5 stars                   A surreal treat that must be seen.


  1. I think it is safe to say that director William Malone has seen this film because he uses the image of a little girl with a ball in both The House on Haunted Hill and Feardotcom. This movie does sound very cool though.

  2. Yeah you'll have to check it out sometime or I'll just let you borrow my copy. Definitely has to be seen especially by you.

  3. Great review. I'm glad someone in the comments section over on IMDB's Spirits Of The Dead had enough passion and talent to do what you did over here. Bravo!