The Giallo Project #2: The Telephone (segment of Black Sabbath)
Alternative titles: Il Telefono; Director: Mario Bava; Starring: Michèle Mercier, Lidia Alfonsi, Milo Quesada (uncredited); Music: Roberto Nicolosi; Italian theatrical release date: August 17th, 1963
I hadn’t originally considered including The Telephone in this project, as I was originally planning on only covering feature-length gialli, but Marcus over at Dark Discussion suggested I give it a look. In the end, I’m still not completely sure that it should be included here, since I would only consider it to be a giallo in the broadest possible sense, but it has an important place in history nonetheless, since not only was it the first film of this sort to be shot in colour, not to mention having a profound influence on everything from Black Christmas to Scream in its use of the telephone as a device of dread, it also potentially marks the first instance of the iconic black gloves later to be donned by many a giallo killer!
The plot takes place entirely within a single location, focusing on the protracted terrorising of Rosy (Michèle Mercier) by phone by a voice claiming to be that of Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), a man who, having been put away as a result of Rosy’s testimony, has now escaped from prison… only there’s more to this than meets the eye, as it turns out that the calls in fact originate from Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), Rosy’s former friend and (as is strongly implied) lover, as part of a bid to rekindle their friendship (and relationship). There is, however, a twist in the affair. Can you guess what it is?
Black Sabbath is introduced by host Boris Karloff as “three brief tales of the supernatural”, but, at least in the Italian version (the US edition, like The Girl Who Knew Too Much, features a radically different edit), there is nothing supernatural whatsoever about The Telephone. Rather, it’s a very straightforward thriller mixing that perennial giallo cocktail of sex and violence: the voice on the phone discusses killing Rosy in decidedly erotic terms, while a strangling by stocking only serves to underscore the manner in which the two are conflated. As the protagonist, Michèle Mercier is certainly easy on the eyes, and Bava seems to delight in tantalising the audience with the briefest flashes of bare shoulders and legs (of which the voice on the phone approves so much). However, despite looking the part, she lacks the pluckiness and spontaneity that made Letícia Román so appealing in The Girl Who Knew Too Much; she seems more like a forerunner for what would eventually end up becoming the Edwige Fenech role in later gialli of the harangued, attractive victim. Lidia Alfonsi, meanwhile, is rather more effective as the ice-cold femme fatale.
More psychological than most gialli, the horror of the situation comes not from sadistic violence (there isn’t any till the final few minutes) but from the fact that the speaker on the phone knows Rosy so intimately, while the room in which the entire segment takes place, despite being quite spacious, takes on an incredibly claustrophobic quality. The transition from black and white to colour, meanwhile, has not harmed Bava’s ability to make the most of light and shadow to create tension, while the richly saturated hues, especially on the excellent transfer provided on Anchor Bay’s recent DVD, at the same time provides a drastically different aesthetic (one can only dream of Blood and Black Lace looking this good on DVD). Roberto Nicolosi’s score, meanwhile, starts out with some of the jazzy lounge aesthetic of Bruno Nicolai’s contributions to later gialli, but quickly gives way to a more menacing, sinister tone.
In many ways, this is a minor entry in both Bava’s filmography and the history of the giallo - a sub-heading rather than a full chapter, if you like - but it shows many of the tropes that would be established in Blood and Black Lace in a smaller-scale, more rudimentary, form, and works rather well as a short, sharp exploration of mounting dread.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Mario Bava’s second feature-length giallo, Blood and Black Lace.