The Giallo Project #12: The Fifth Cord
Alternative titles: Giorna nera per l’ariete; Evil Fingers; Director: Luigi Bazzoni; Starring: Franco Nero, Silvia Monti, Wolfang Preiss, Ira von Fürstenberg, Edmund Purdom, Rossella Falk, Renato Romano, Pamela Tiffin; Music: Ennio Morricone; Italian theatrical release date: August 28th, 1971
Note: this review contains significant spoilers.
In his excellent essay Playing with Genre, Gary Needham descibes Luigi Bazzoni’s giallo The Fifth Cord as an example of the more progressive side of the movement. The first time I watched the film, I really wasn’t sure what he meant, but, after mulling the issue over in my mind for a while, I’m beginning to see where he was coming from. I’m going to do something a little different with this instalment of the Giallo Project, in that, instead of doing a general overview of the film, I will focus in depth on a handful of scenes which specifically refer to the subject on which I am currently interested: namely, the character of Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) and his relationship with the two women in his life, his ex-girlfriend Helene (Silvia Monti) and his current catch, Lou (Pamela Tiffin). This is part of the work I am currently doing for my PhD, a piece which I am hoping to use to explore the wide variety of ways in which women are portrayed in gialli, and as such, a lot of the material below was written with an eye to being incorporated into an academic essay.
Above: Andrea Bild: the image of the stereotypical hard-drinking macho man turned on its head
Andrea embodies the hard-drinking, virile, macho male stripped of all the qualities normally found in giallo portrayals of such characters. Rather than the suave George Hilton type, he is an unkempt, pathetic drunk, engaged in an affair with Lou, a student several years younger than him, but clearly still dependent on his ex-girlfriend, Helene, a firm, sensible, working single mother fighting a divorce (at one point, she says that, until the proceedings go through, she will not be able to “live [her] own life”). In this film, it’s not so much the plot or the basic character archetypes that are unique (on the contrary, they are actually somewhat generic), but the manner in which what we are supposed to infer from them is reversed. In the average giallo, the J&B Whisky bottle is an ubiquitous simple of sophistication and finesse (Koven, 2006, pp. 49-50); here, the first time we see a J&B bottle is when Andrea, drunk and unshaven, swigs from it while driving home from a party after being snubbed by Helene, who has already commented with disdain on his drunkenness. What’s particularly interesting about this is that it is a clear reimagining of the persona Franco Nero portrayed in the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and would go on to play in the action and crime thrillers of the mid to late 1970s. In these, the gristled, tough-talking antihero who takes the law into his own hands was romanticised; here, he’s practically a joke. Just watch his first speaking role, where he drunkenly tries to woo Helene, gazing pleadingly at her, only for it to be made clear that she finds his state of intoxication pathetic. As someone who finds macho culture intensely irritating, this pleases me no end.
Above: J&B: the classy gentleman’s drink
In the scene above, Helene returns to her car to find him sitting in the passenger seat, dishevelled and slurring his speech. It is made clear from the start that he is encroaching on her territory (in this case, her car) and that she holds the power. Throughout their conversation, he gazes at her pleadingly, which she refuses to even dignify him with eye contact. When he begins to caress her hair, she firmly and calming removes her hand, responding to his statement that drinking “makes life much easier” with the statement that she, on the other hand, has not been drinking, the implication being that she would have to be drunk herself in order to entertain any prospect of anything happening between them. She controls the scene from its beginning to its end, when she orders him out of the car with the simple statement “Goodnight. Goodbye, Andrea”, and turning on the car’s ignition, all the while refusing to look at him. Bazzoni, meanwhile, underscores the lack of connection between the two of them by filming the entire scene as a single medium shot in which each character occupies either side of the frame, the camera adopting a detached distance rather than priveleging either character’s point of view with subjective shots.
The first scene to feature Andrea’s young girlfriend, Lou, taking place the morning after his encounter with Helene, shows him to be even more dishevelled and pathetic than the night before. He wakes up in bed, groggy and half-dressed, to the sound of the telephone ringing, and it is revealed, through dialogue, that he has slept through two previous calls after returning home in such a state that Lou had to undress him and put him to bed.
Andrea: You always liked undressing me.
Lou: Not when you’re drunk.
Above: The modern man: emblematic of suavity and dignity
Here, drinking is once again held in contempt, the impression being given that, far from making him the virile ‘ladies’ man’ that most male giallo protagonists seem to embody, drink is a turn-off (rather than a turn-on) for women and makes him unable to function sexually. Alcohol, therefore, is here used to diminish masculinity rather than embody it.
Lou, however, is a considerably different character from Helene. Content to allow Andrea to be unfaithful to her (a courtesy which he does not extend to her in return - see the scene in which he slaps her about after suspecting that she has been seeing another man) and to dote on him (Helene refused to give him the time of day; Lou, on the other hand, took care of him when he came home too drunk to even undress himself), she is instantly portrayed as a more submissive character. What is unusual, though, is that, while the Italian gothic horror films of the 1960s generally portrayed assertive women as dangerous and a threat to (patriarchal) society and weak, submissive women as embodying the ‘proper’ characteristics of femininity (see Günsberg, 2005, Chapter 4), this film does not appear to make any judgement calls about either of the two women in Andrea’s life. Indeed, if anything, she is the most positively portrayed character in the film. (Other examples of positive portrayals of independent professional women in gialli include Vittoria Stori in What Have They Done to Your Daughters? and Gianna Brezzi in Deep Red. These are, I must confess, about the only ones I can think of.) On the contrary, we see the level of respect Andrea has for Helene when he is sober, heading round to her house to apologise for his inappropriate behaviour the previous night when he discovers that Lou has gone away for the weekend. (In a note she has left for him, Lou tells him that, if he wants to “get laid”, he is free to go ahead, but this clearly is not his intention when he pays his visit to Helene.)
Above: Helene, a woman in control of her own life
Is with their previous encounter, Bazzoni once again emphasises Andrea’s futile attempts to make eye contact with Helene and her refusal to look at him. It is only when he makes a disparaging remark about her lack of a sex life, telling her that “it’s bad for [her] not to make love”, that she finally grants him more than a brief glance, and only then to once again refer to his drunkenness and to tell him to get to the point of his visit. His purpose, incidentally, is to ask her for information about a case he is investigating, in effect priveleging her with information which he does not possess and even going so far as to imply that he needs her to succeed at his job (whereas she is self-sufficient). Throughout the scene in which she provides him with the information that she needs, her authority is accentuated by low angle shots in which the camera looks up at her, while the scene’s first shot shows her standing on the balcony at the top of a flight of stairs, looking down at Andrea. Throughout the scene, she moves freely around the house, pouring herself a drink and monologuing without directly looking at Andrea, until towards the end, when she sits down and faces him, maintaining a clear distance from him.
Andrea: I didn’t notice anything.
Helene: I’m not surprised. You were drunk.
Above: Are you getting all this down, Laura Mulvey?
The difference between the portrayal of Helene and Lou is once again accentuated when Andrea, after believing Lou to be having an affair with another man, returns home to confront her. Whereas Helene, in the scene previously discussed, was dressed modestly in a black pullover and trousers, Lou is completely naked, lying on Andrea’s bed as she waits for him to return. Even more significantly, she is introduced via a subjective shot, the camera adopting Andrea’s point of view as he enters the bedroom. This time, it is Andrea who moves freely around, putting his groceries away while talking at Lou rather than to her. It is tempting to view Lou, who tells Andrea that she was “dying to see [him]”, as his attempt to make up for his failure with Helene. One gets the impression that Helene’s independence frustrates him, and that he entertains Lou simply for the convenience of someone who can alternately dote on and be dependent on him.
Andrea: What kind of dump do you come from? Your mother doesn’t take care of you, your father’s gathering mould in a state home for the aged, and you play tramp in one sports car after the other.”
Lou: Was it a red sports car?
Andrea: That’s right.
Lou: Well, that car just happens to belong to my brother Walter, you idiot! You know, ever since you’ve been playing detective, you just can’t get anything right. You really had me a laugh!
Andrea: You’re pathetic.
In a sense, Lou is pathetic. Immediately afterwards, she eagerly tries to please Andrea by providing him with further information for his investigation, before pleadingly asking where he is going when he head out without a word. (Later, she seems to forgive him completely, indulging in a giggling play-fight with him before having sex.) Andrea, however, the drunk who seems to take his frustration regarding his ex out on his current girlfriend, is nothing if not a hypocrite. This is not, of course, the only giallo in which a male protagonist treats his girlfriend badly, whether by treating her with contempt or physically assaulting her, but it is one of the few in which the filmmakers seem to condemn this behaviour. Often, George Hilton (or one of his counterparts) will slap a female character whom they believe to be in a state of ‘hysteria’ (the impression given that the filmmakers believe such violence to be justified in order to calm down an unhelpfully ‘hysterical’ woman); here, however, Andrea’s assault of Lou is that of a scruffy alcoholic hitting a woman in complete control of her senses on the basis of a false assumption. Andrea is not ‘punished’ as such for this; rather, it is simply yet another in a long line of cases of bad behaviour. (When she reappears once more, towards the end of the film, to tell him that she is leaving him and getting married, it’s tempting to view this as Andrea getting a taste of his own medicine.)
Above: And it looks really nice, too
Of course, the characterisations are far from inclusive. For all her strengths, Helene does, rather regrettably, submit to a brief passionate snog with Andrea after her turns up at her house, wanting her to comfort him after a particularly unpleasant encounter with his boss. (To her credit, however, she does call a halt to it, opting to head back indoors to take care of her son rather than allowing herself to be used by Andrea as a cheap lay to make himself feel better.) And let’s not forget that the killer’s motivation, seemingly plucked out of nowhere at the last minute, is that old reactionary staple, that of the homosexual turned down by a straight man going mad and deciding to kill a bunch of people. Still, I can see exactly what Gary Needham means when he calls this a progressive giallo which “play[s] with the conventions of detection and investigation procedures in order to explore issues of masculinity and identity”.