The Giallo Project #8: One on Top of the Other
Alternative titles: Una sull’altra; Perversion Story; Director: Lucio Fulci; Starring: Marisa Mell, Jean Sorel, Elsa Martinelli; Music: Riz Ortolani; Italian theatrical release date: August 15th, 1969
Note: this review contains a number of major spoilers. Much of the body of this text is taken from my review of Severin’s DVD.
When Dr. George Dumurrier’s (Jean Sorel) wife Susan (Marisa Mell) dies suddenly during a vicious asthma attack, the young clinician stands to inherit $2 million. The convenience of this situation does not escape the attention of the authorities, and their suspicions are raised further by the news that George has started associating with a stripper named Monica Weston (Mell again), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his supposedly dead wife. As the net closes in, and George finds himself accused first of conspiring with his wife to commit fraud and then of murdering her, his lover Jane (Elsa Martinelli) is forced to take matters into her own hands to unravel the mystery and prove his innocence.
Lucio Fulci was the second of the “Big Three” (Bava, Fulci, Argento) to hop aboard the giallo train, and this, his first entry, clearly bears the influence of Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah, a fact never denied by Fulci himself. For this review, I watched the French cut of the film, entitled Perversion Story, released on DVD by Severin Films, but in actual fact I prefer both the English cut and its more ambiguous title, One on Top of the Other. The French cut loses a lot of character development in exchange for added sex scenes, and as a result feels considerably more disjointed than the English variant. There is some discrepancy as to the running time of the Italian cut, although I have seen a version, in Italian, which includes all the scenes from both the English and French edits.
I see this as Fulci’s Vertigo, a thriller focusing on a man’s obsession with the image of a dead woman (who is in fact not dead), set in and around the dizzy heights of modern (late 60s) San Francisco. Taking many of its cues from the domestic melodramas popularised by the likes of Umberto Lenzi in the mid to late 1960s, the focus is less on outlandish set-pieces (the events of the film hinge around a single death, which takes place off-screen) and more on conspiracy and psychological torture. This is a very cold film, and one tinged with sadness too, despite the colourful settings and Swinging Sixties vibe: all relationships seem to be distant, comprised of ritual and pretence. George’s marriage to Susan, it would seem, is merely for show, while even his relationship with his lover, Jane, is mechanical and devoid of any real passion. This is most apparent in an early sequence in which, having told him that their relationship can’t go on, Jane boards a train to return home to her family. George then sets off in his car, pursuing and overtaking the train, and meets her at the other end. Later, as they travel together in his car (in a scene removed from the French print), it is made clear that this ritual is carried out on a regular basis: “One day, I’ll take that train, and you won’t be there waiting for me,” she tells him, to which he responds “No, we’ll work it out. Even his relationship with the seductive Monica, a woman who finally seems to be accessible to him, turns out to be a sham, as she is revealed to be nothing more than a mocking construct created by Susan.
Sex is a game in the world in which this film is set, characterised by strip clubs that manage to be both shamelessly salacious and hopelessly naff at the same time, while George, in what is perhaps a manifestation of Fulci’s inherent misogyny, finds himself surrounded by a cavalcade of manipulative and hostile women. Indeed, even ‘plain’ Jane is not all that she seems, transforming into a calculating seductress in a scene in which she turns a photo-shoot with Monica/Susan into an impromptu interrogation. Looked at from a male perspective, it’s essentially a fantasy of submission - perhaps best exemplified by the character of Benjamin Wormser (Riccardo Cucciolla): a love-struck client of Monica, he dotes on a woman who doesn’t even really exist. Perhaps, in this world, people can only truly be in love with themselves: as Monica rebukes the jealous Benjamin, who believes that she has found someone else, “Yes, you’re right. I’ve got a lover who loves me more than you do. It’s a woman, too. It’s me!”
Perhaps the most misanthropic element of the film, however, is not the sex but the general impersonality of life itself. Fulci shows us a world in which everything is done by proxy: we, the audience, aren’t sure how Susan “died” until it is actually spelled out for us by Henry (Alberto de Mendoza), because we never actually see the event. Even the conspiracy to have George bumped off does not require that its participants lift so much as a finger against him since, as Henry so eloquently puts it, “the State” will kill him for them. This extends to the film’s conclusion, which actually turns out to be its weakest moment, despite being thematically appropriate: George’s last-minute rescue from the gas chamber takes place off-screen, with the events instead described to us by a news reporter. Given George’s complete lack of agency throughout the whole affair, his slinking into the shadows is rather fitting, but it is unsatisfying nonetheless, as it means that both he and the audience are denied a proper sense of closure.
It is, therefore, appropriate, that the biggest impression is made by Marisa Mell. Given top billing in English language prints but listed after Jean Sorel elsewhere, she pulls off a remarkable feat by playing two completely different characters who are, in fact, one in the same. So complete is her transformation from the cold, strait-laced brunette Susan Dumurrier to the blonde, energetic and highly sexual Monica Weston that it comes as a shock to learn that both are played by the same person. A Jungian reading reveals a world full of doppelgangers, none more so than Susan/Monica, who is introduced as a reflection in a window, fleetingly spotted gliding around the house. Effectively, the film is telling us, she’s a ghost even before she’s dead, and her spirit continues to haunt George long after her apparent demise. Even the title is a double entendre: “one on top of the other” may superficially be seen as a reference to sexual activity (of which there is plenty in this film), but it could just as well refer to the notion of layering one persona over another, as Susan does when she creates the character of Monica.
One on Top of the Other stands as the beginning of a high point in Fulci’s career, and a niche which, had he continued to explore rather than being drawn to the more visceral but less satisfying thrills of gory zombie horror flicks, would probably resulted in a better legacy than being known simply as the “godfather of gore”.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Piero Schivazappa’s 1969 thriller The Frightened Woman.