Dino De Laurentiis: 10 essential films

For his centenary, we pick out 10 key releases from across the Italian super-producer’s six decades in film.

Dino De Laurentiis on Oscar night

In a career that spanned over 60 years, Dino De Laurentiis proved himself to be a titan of the film industry – a larger than life figure who managed to recover from every costly box office bomb he produced. His love of pure cinematic spectacle, and his desire to make the Italian film industry as powerful as Hollywood, helped get his name on the international stage in the 1950s, but an eventual relocation across the Atlantic saw him earn the nickname “Dino De Horrendous” after less than glowing responses to many of his big budget efforts.

De Laurentiis’s career was originally supposed to blossom on the other side of the camera, studying as an actor at the Italian National Film School before the Second World War broke out. Many years later, inspired by the works of Rossellini, he produced a number of neorealist films – most notably Bitter Rice (1949), which brought his name to international attention. From there, his productions became gradually more epic in scope and his name synonymous with blockbusters that were the antithesis of these early films.

On the centenary of the producer’s birth, we’re taking a look at 10 essential films he produced.

La strada (1954)

Director: Federico Fellini

La strada (1954)

De Laurentiis had something of a complicated relationship with Fellini. The producer would often wax lyrical about cutting 10 minutes out of Nights of Cabiria against the director’s wishes, and at one Venice Film Festival Fellini heckled Jean-Luc Godard’s tribute to the producer by insisting La strada was made in spite of him, not because of him. Like many later De Laurentiis productions, La strada sharply divided critics on its original premiere. A few years later, it was re-evaluated as a masterpiece and awarded the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film after finally releasing in America.

Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Director: Mario Bava

Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Production on Mario Bava’s comic strip adaptation, routinely cited as a favourite by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, was tortured to say the least. When its original director Seth Holt was fired, De Laurentiis sharply reduced the budget, allocating those funds to his other comic strip adaptation of that year, Barbarella (1968). As a result, Bava had to prioritise style over substance, using kitschy production design to hide the limited sets, and created one of the most unusual comic book movies in cinema history. If post-9/11 superhero movies are defined by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, then the swinging 60s had their perfect superhero match with Diabolik.

Serpico (1973)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Serpico (1973)

It may have been released a year after The Godfather (1972) sprang him to fame, but that didn’t stop De Laurentiis claiming he discovered Al Pacino, seeing him in an off-broadway play and hiring him for the crime biopic being produced by Produzion De Laurentiis International. Sidney Lumet’s thriller, documenting Frank Serpico’s decade plus battle to bring the crooked cops in the New York Police Department to justice, remains one of the finest crime films of the 70s – and one of the essential Pacino performances. After this success, the actor and director worked again just two years later, on the equally heralded Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

Face to Face (1976)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Face to Face (1976)

One of De Laurentiis’s final European films, after a financial scandal surrounding his troubled studio, “Dinocittà” led him to leave Italy, Face to Face sounds like a parody of an existentially despairing Ingmar Bergman effort when summarised. Liv Ullmann stars as Dr Jenny Isaksson, a psychiatrist who, through stress with her work, begins to succumb to delusions that torture her and make her unable to deal with both her personal and professional obligations. One of the director’s most celebrated films upon release, earning him a second Best Director nomination, Face to Face is now an unfortunately overlooked Bergman work, mostly remembered as a gag in Annie Hall (1977). 

King Kong (1976)

Director: John Guillermin

King Kong (1976)

Somewhat less celebrated is De Laurentiis’s first big Hollywood production. Initially premiering to mixed critical responses, albeit leaving with an Oscar win for visual effects, John Guillermin’s remake of the monster movie classic holds up pretty well after a bloated Peter Jackson remake and 2017’s lacklustre “cinematic universe” starter Kong: Skull Island. Many years before Jackson transformed Andy Serkis via motion capture, makeup guru Rick Baker managed to inject pathos into the titular role. De Laurentiis saw this passion project as an antidote to the new breed of monster movie, claiming that “When Jaws dies, nobody cries. When Kong dies, they all cry.” 

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Director: Michael Cimino

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Both De Laurentiis and American filmmaker Michael Cimino were responsible for costly critical and commercial bombs that threatened to derail their entire careers, but only one managed to get back on their feet time and time again. So, it was only a matter of time before Cimino was rescued from director jail post-Heaven’s Gate (1980) by the producer, with a gritty noir tale that feels like an interrogation of his own attitudes towards race following the controversy of The Deer Hunter (1978). The film was a Razzie nominee upon release, but now feels ahead of its time in assessing the relationship between racism and cultural appropriation.

Blue Velvet (1986)

Director: David Lynch

Blue Velvet (1986)

The existence of Blue Velvet is entirely due to Lynch’s previous film, Dune (1984), a costly flop that the producer assumed would be a hit on the level of Star Wars (1977). Prior to production on that divisive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, De Laurentiis made Lynch sign a three picture contract, for one original movie and one Dune sequel – and the resulting film, the smallest production on the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group slate, became one of the defining films of the 80s. Regarded as a cult oddity on release, Lynch’s nightmarish descent into the dark heart of suburbia is now likely to be considered the greatest film bearing the De Laurentiis name.

Manhunter (1986)

Director: Michael Mann

Manhunter (1986)

After meeting author Thomas Harris, De Laurentiis did everything he could to snap up the rights to his book Red Dragon. But Michael Mann’s icily detached adaptation was given the cold shoulder by audiences and critics alike, only to be reassessed in the wake of later screen adaptations of Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels. Brian Cox’s performance is chilling due to how ordinary he makes the character appear – a different kind of nightmare to the theatrics Anthony Hopkins would later bring to the role. Famously, De Laurentiis passed on adapting the Silence of the Lambs after the failure of Manhunter, but a lengthy studio battle ensured his involvement in all future Lecter productions.

Army of Darkness (1992)

Director: Sam Raimi

Army of Darkness (1992)

After the surprise commercial success of Evil Dead II (1987), De Laurentiis agreed to finance a third outing for Bruce Campbell’s Ash, as Sam Raimi sent him back to the middle ages for the period horror romp the director and star had always dreamed of making. De Laurentiis, who had taken projects out of director’s hands in the past, gave Raimi full creative freedom, but the film’s eventual distributor, Universal, took over and called for reshoots, diluting the original ending and some of the bloodier violence. Fortunately, the tortured production is far from apparent in the final film, the most purely fun Raimi has made.

Breakdown (1997)

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Breakdown (1997)

The last truly great film bearing the producer’s name, Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown is a taut thriller that marries the road rage of Spielberg’s Duel (1971) with the same thirst for revenge as the Charles Bronson films De Laurentiis had produced decades earlier. Watched today, the film’s simple pleasures are all the more remarkable due to how they differ from contemporary action fare. There are no fast edits or shaky-cam anywhere in sight, and the film’s tension comes as much from watching a well-mannered man’s forced descent into vengeance as it does the bloody revenge he eventually embarks upon.

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