I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that the name of Dino De Laurentiis, who died on Thursday at the ripe old age of 91, conjures up mixed emotions in me. On the one hand, he produced David Lynch’s Dune (1984), which—despite its many detractors and my own bitterness over Lynch’s inability (or unwillingness) to create a true director’s cut, after it was severely truncated for its original release—I have spent the last 26 years defending against all comers. On the other hand, he also made the 1976 version of King Kong, which not only was one of the most reviled genre films of its era, but also could serve as a poster child for today’s tsunami of ill-advised remakes.
I find it telling that we think of it as “the De Laurentiis Kong” rather than “the [John] Guillermin Kong,” because we usually refer to a film as either, say, “a Humphrey Bogart movie” or, if we’re the type who pays the slightest attention to credits, “an Alfred Hitchcock movie.” We’ll make an exception if it’s based on a book by a household name like Stephen King or, perchance, made by a rare craftsman such as Ray Harryhausen, who always outshone his directors. But how often do we identify a film first and foremost by its producer, unless it’s Val Lewton (and I don’t mean to take anything away from his fine directors, Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise)?
This is not to say that Dino didn’t work with distinctive directors, e.g., John Huston (The Bible, 1966), Mario Bava (Danger: Diabolik, 1968), Sidney Lumet (Serpico, 1973), Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor, 1975), Robert Altman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 1976), Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent’s Egg, 1977), David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone, 1983), Michael Mann (Manhunter, 1986). It is also not to say that we necessarily think of a De Laurentiis movie as “a De Laurentiis movie.” And yet, if Orca (1977) and Flash Gordon (1984) can be said to have a distinctive stamp, it is more likely his than those of directors Michael Anderson or Mike Hodges.
I know little of Dino’s early career in Italy, where he married Silvana Mangano, who starred in his first hit, Bitter Rice (1949); bore him producer Raffaella and three other children; played Rev. Mother Ramallo in Dune; and stayed married to him until she died in 1989. After a partnership with Carlo Ponti, including Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957), he established his own production facility, Dinocitta, in Rome. A string of flops forced him to sell it and, having relocated his base of operations to the U.S., he repeated the same scenario with the DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group) Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina in the 1980s.
Dino enjoyed one of his longest collaborations with Charles Bronson, ranging from the actor’s supporting role in Battle of the Bulge (1965) through Michael Winner’s mega-hit Death Wish (1974) to the bizarre The White Buffalo (1977), which I rather enjoyed despite its representing Bronson’s nine-film wallow with declining director J. Lee Thompson. It also included Terence Young’s The Valachi Papers (1972), Winner’s The Stone Killer, and John Sturges’s Chino (both 1973). Dino also followed The Dead Zone with four decidedly lesser King pictures: Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet (both 1985), Maximum Overdrive (1986), and Sometimes They Come Back (1991).
In the final analysis, I probably disliked—or was at best indifferent to—more of Dino’s movies than I liked; for example, as much as I admire Manhunter, my regard steadily lessened through Hannibal (2001) and Red Dragon (2002), and I skipped Hannibal Rising (2007) altogether. He also worked with some of my least favorite filmmakers, e.g., John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, 1982), Michael Cimino (Year of the Dragon, 1985; Desperate Hours, 1990). And yet he made a few films I truly love, including not only The Dead Zone and Dune, but also The Bounty (1984), so let us focus on the quantity if not always the quality of his oeuvre, and hits rather than misses.