The Giallo Project #11: Death Walks at Midnight
Alternative titles: La Morte accarezza a mezzanotte; Director: Luciano Ercoli; Starring: Nieves Navarro, Simón Andreu, Peter Martell, Claudie Lange, Carlo Gentili, Luciano Rossi; Music: Gianni Ferrio; Italian theatrical release date: November 17th, 1972
Note: this review contains some spoilers.
Now comes the part where I get to revel in my own hypocrisy. Last time, I looked at Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and picked it apart for its narrative shortcomings and weak-willed heroine. This time, however, I’m going to talk about a film that I enjoy much better on the whole, although it’s not one I can really defend. Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight, the producer-turned-director’s third and final giallo, suffers from some pretty significant problems, not least the leaden pacing in its second act, but, if a giallo is going to be kitschy rather than serious, it’s a lot closer to the sort of kitsch I personally enjoy than that which is to be found in Mrs. Wardh.
The plot centres around Valentina (Nieves Navarro), a glamorous model who agrees to take an experimental new hallucinogenic called HDS for a story her journalist friend Gio (Simón Andreu) is writing. While under the influence, Valentina sees (or thinks she sees) a woman being bludgeoned to death by a man wielding a spiked glove in the apartment facing hers. With virtually everyone, including Gio, her boyfriend Stefano (Peter Martell) and the requisite cigar-chewing inspector (Carlo Gentili) passing her vision off as nothing more than the result of a drug-induced stupor, Valentina sets out to do her own detective work, particularly when the same killer she saw begins menacing her…
This is one of these films that you have to take at face value and accept for what it is. It is not, by any means, great art, and looks decidedly out of place when positioned alongside the better genre offerings by Argento, Fulci, Bava, Dallamano, Lado and the like. Essentially, it’s just a light, gory, kitschy romp in which a beautiful woman is menaced by various unsavoury types, and as such it has a lot more in common with the Sergio Martino films that tend to leave me cold. For some reason, though, I really do enjoy Ercoli’s gialli, and this is by far my favourite. A lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the way in which the heroine is portrayed. Ercoli, it would seem, attempted to establish his wife/leading lady Navarro (credited here, as in many of her films, as Susan Scott) as a rival to Edwige Fenech, without much success (she only played the lead in three gialli: this, the earlier Death Walks on High Heels and Maurizio Pradeaux’s snorefest Death Carries a Cane). Part of this might be due to her arriving on the scene late: she was much older than Fenech when she made her first giallo, and, by the time Death Walks at Midnight, arguably her strongest outing, came along, 1972 was nearing its end and the giallo craze had entered its twilight. However, I suspect that another reason is her on-screen persona.
To put it bluntly, “victim” is really not in Navarro’s repertoire. She literally exudes sexuality, her self-assured “I’m gorgeous and I know it” pout a far cry from the sort of innocent damsels who tended to be the leading ladies in most gialli. Passivity seems to be an alien concept to her, and she controls virtually every scene in which she appears (and I can think of only a handful in which she is absent), continually giving as good as she gets and, unusually for a giallo heroine, absolutely refusing to give up. (It’s also kind of interesting that, although she is a model by profession, unlike Fenech in Mrs. Wardh, she never takes her clothes off and is, on the whole, much more modestly dressed. That’s not a criticism or a compliment, just an observation.) True, she gets slapped around a bit, but those who decide to take her on tend to get far worse from her in return, and, while the various men in her life all seem to treat her as a bit of a joke, you get the impression that she has the last laugh.
Valentina is, ultimately, an example of an extremely rare breed in a giallo territory: a confident, self-sufficient woman who takes shit from no-one: Julie Wardh she is not. A complete and utter narcissist (a giant blow-up photograph of herself hangs over her bed), you get the impression that she is in love with no-one but herself, despite having a boyfriend who has his own key to her apartment, and something of a love-hate relationship with Gio, the specifics of which are never made clear (personally, I suspect they probably had a relationship in the past). There is also a strong dose of comedy both in Navarro’s performance and in her interactions with her co-stars, showing that she is not afraid to take the piss out of herself, flopping about on a bed with her arms flailing and wittering on about purple ice cream, red priests and murderers. While we might speculate that the injection of comedic elements implies that the filmmakers are uncomfortable with the notion of a tough, independent woman, we tend to laugh with Valentina rather than at her. All the men she meets either treat her as an attention-seeking child or like crap (or both), but, ultimately, she’s right and they’re wrong: she did see a murder, and there was a man after her, trying to kill her. Most of the laughs come from her eye-rolling as Gio attempts to worm his way into her favour, or from the number of people she slaps, punches or knees in the balls.
Perhaps the strongest possible indication of the difference between Valentina and Julie Wardh comes in a scene in which Valentina and Gio are sitting in an outdoor restaurant. Only half-listening to what Gio is saying, Valentina allows her mind to wander and suddenly spots the killer standing in a crowd nearby, watching her. Realising he has been spotted, he turns tail and runs, while Valentina immediately gives chase, berating a reluctant Gio into tagging along. Julie would probably either have fainted or collapsed into George Hilton’s arms, begging him to take her back to the safety of his bachelor pad (no doubt for a bout of reassuring sex on the sofa), but giving up is the last thing on Valentina’s mind. Throughout the film, she is the driving force in getting to the bottom of the mystery, and all the amateur sleuthing is carried out by her. I’m not trying to suggest that this is anything approaching a feminist tract, but in comparison with Mrs. Wardh, it seems positively radical.
I think Valentina’s relationship with the world of men is perfectly summed up in the scene where, attempting to exit the asylum she has been visiting, she has to fend off a room full of crazed inmates, who crowd around her, pawing at her or acting up to get her attention. She seems ultimately to be the lone woman and voice of reason in a world dominated by mad or immature men, some of whom with to do harm to her (e.g. Stefano and the assassins who come after her), while others simply don’t realise they’re getting in her way and are too preoccupied by their own concerns to see her point of view (e.g. Gio, Inspector Seripa). Even random individuals seem to want to do her harm: a driver whom she flags down for a lift back into town ends up trying to rape her (and finds her foot connecting with his groin for his troubles). When we finally meet another female character - the pale, frightened Verushka (Claudie Lange), obviously a “kept woman” - the difference between her and Valentina is striking.
As I said at the beginning, I can’t make too many excuses for Death Walks at Midnight or claim it to be a lost masterpiece. It is, in places, a whole lot of fun, and has some very nicely-directed scenes (in particular, the opening hallucination and the rooftop fight which rounds things off), not to mention a great, charismatic heroine, but it really falls off the rails in the middle, giving way to a seemingly pointless subplot involving Stefano and two Japanese children who he is looking after (I’m assuming the point of this is to reveal some sort of latent longing for a conventional domestic life in Valentina, but it is buried before it has a chance to be explored). Still, for all its faults, it’s an agreeable, breezy giallo with a nice sense of self-deprecation and a lead who doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang out with Valentina than with Julie Wardh. Provided she didn’t start thumping me.
I’m not sure which film I’ll be looking at next time, but hopefully you won’t have to wait too long for it.