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Thursday, September 14, 2006

One on Top of the Other

Italy/Spain/France: Lucio Fulci, 1969

Of all Fulci's gialli, the one most crying out for a release is arguably One on Top of the Other. While his others have all been released somewhere in the world in editions of varying quality, this, his first, is the only one that has yet to see an official DVD. I had the good fortune of watching a VHS copy this morning, and, having now seen all of Fulci's gialli, I must now join the ranks of people clamouring for a legitimate digital release.
One on Top of the Other
Susan Dumurrier (Marisa Mell), the invalid wife of the eminent Dr. George Dumurrier (Jean Sorel), dies as a result of suffocation during a violent asthma attack, with her husband inheriting a sum of $2 million in insurance. An anonymous tip-off leads George to a nightclub, where he is entranced by a dancer, Monica Weston, who is a dead ringer for his wife. The two strike up an affair, but when the insurance company's investigations lead to the assumption that Susan and Monica are one in the same, the police begin a full-blown investigation into what seems to be a case of insurance fraud on a grand scale.

There is, of course, more to all this than meets the eye, although the actual explanation is fairly predictable. The allusions to Vertigo are umissable. the San Francisco setting, the blonde doppelganger of a dead woman, the truth about her identity - all of them recall Hitchcock's acclaimed thriller, but Fulci is more interested in sex and the sordid details of his characters' corrupt lives than on the psychological breakdown of his protagonist. Not that this is in itself a problem - the film is well-plotted and the revelations suitably engaging - but we never really get inside George's head, nor is he likeable enough for us to care about his fate. So much could be made of his state of mind - this is, after all, a man who instigates a relationship with a woman who looks just like his dead wife, a subject surely ripe for psychoanalysis - but in the end Fulci chooses to keep us in the dark. Likewise, those expecting a post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage style giallo will be disappointed, as this film, made a full year before Argento's daring debut, is, as Stephen Thrower says, "a melodrama first and a murder thriller [...] second". The closest points of comparison, therefore, would probably be the domestic paranoia gialli of the late 60s, such as Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo and Luciano Ercoli's The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion.
One on Top of the Other
Provided you can accept that not all gialli are about black-gloved serial killers, therefore, One on Top of the Other should be a rewarding experience. Jean Sorel, in the lead role, is a bit wooden, but the leggy Marisa Mell gives a stand-out performance as his dead wife's striptease doppelganger, and Fulci captures perfectly the air of middle class decadence he seems to have been going for. These characters seem to inhabit a world in which no-one cares very much about anyone else, and partnerships are entered into only to do harm to others. Likewise, the power games people play with each other as fascinating, especially Monica's relationship with George, who, when he enters her life, is demoted to the status of a "whore's manservant", mirroring the manner in which he previously dominated Susan (again, the credit for this observation goes to Stephen Thrower).

The film unfolds slowly, conducting itself at a leisurely pace even when, by conventional logic, the tension should be rising (especially in the case of the race to save George from the gas chamber in the final act). Still, Fulci knows exactly what he's doing, and his directing is assured. We get the impression that these characters are playing god with each others' lives, and even when George is being led to his death, no-one, not even him, seems to be in any great hurry to do anything about it.

8/10

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