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”.
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.
The Giallo Project #10: The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
Alternative titles: Lo Strano vizio della Signora Wardh; Next!; Blade of the Ripper; Director: Sergio Martino; Starring: George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, Conchita Airoldi, Ivan Rassimov, Alberto de Mendoza; Music: Nora Orlandi; Italian theatrical release date: January 15th, 1971
Note: this review contains a number of major spoilers.
No, you haven’t gone crazy. I have indeed just skipped over several films, leaping from 1969’s The Frightened Woman all the way to 1971’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, leaving out a whole lot of interesting title along the way (not least The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, arguably the single most crucial film in the giallo movement after Blood and Black Lace). I fully intend to go back and cover these films at a later date, but since, at the moment, I’m writing (or trying to write) a piece comparing the portrayal and treatment of the heroines in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight, I thought it made sense to treat you to my thought process as I went through these two films. (Ergo, the next Giallo Project will cover Death Walks at Midnight.)
Mrs. Wardh is a film that I think people tend to overrate… although, of course, that’s just my opinion, and I suspect many people will feel that I underrate it. In historical terms, it’s noteworthy for being the first giallo to be directed by the prolific Sergio Martino (although he only actually directed four further gialli) and to star Edwige Fenech, considered by many to be to the giallo what Jamie Lee Curtis is to the American slasher. It’s very much a giallo in the “harangued woman” format that we might say got its kick-start with The Sweet Body of Deborah (covered here), on which many of Mrs. Wardh’s key players on both sides of the camera worked. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your taste in gialli), this means that the voluptuous Ms. Fenech spends the duration of the film running from one man to another, often fainting into their arms or begging them to protect her. For some viewers, this is part and parcel of what makes gialli so enjoyable; personally, I prefer my heroines to have a bit more pluck - think Nora in The Girl Who Knew Too Much or Valentina in Death Walks at Midnight. Barring the pansexual seductress she played in Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Fenech’s giallo roles tend to be comprised exclusively of complete drips who wouldn’t seem entirely out of place in a Victorian romance novel.
The amusing part is that this appears at least partly to be intentional. The rest of the women in the film are considerably less highly strung, and, while most of them meet a bloody end screaming their lungs out, they seem to have noticed that the year is 1971, not 1871, and that women are no longer the property of men. While Julie Wardh (Fenech) is married to her dry-faced dolt of a husband, Neil (Alberto de Mendoza), her best friend Carol (Conchita Airoldi) enjoys living it up, espousing a motto of “When it’s good, I enjoy it. When it’s bad, I don’t think about it.” A bit of an airhead, yes, but she’s considerably better company than the humourless Julie, even if her notion of being liberated doesn’t extend much beyond having lots of sex with lots of men, and seems to be in the fortunate position of having ample money at her disposal despite not appearing to have a job or anyone else to provide for her. La dolce vita indeed!
Julie, too, has far too much free time on her hands, but she spends it fretting and running into the arms of one man after another, hoping they’ll protect her. I said before that there’s a common theme in the “harangued woman” gialli, of the heroine (a term I’m using very loosely here) hoping the Good Man will protect her from the Bad Men, with the former invariably turning out to be the latter. Here, all three men in Julie’s life - Neil, the thuggish Jean (Ivan Rassimov), the roguish George (George Hilton) - are involved in a plot to do poor Julie in and collect the proceeds of her life insurance, so in a sense you can’t really blame her for running around like a headless chicken practicing her wide-eyed look of horror at every opportunity. The three conspirators’ scheme has to rank as one of the most nonsensical in any giallo (and that’s saying something), but I’ll get on to that later. In the meantime, it’s quite fascinating to see the three archetypes so clearly established: the boring, safe (who is of course anything but) older man who seems to be something of a surrogate father; the dangerous, sinister rascal who enjoys leering at the heroine and subjecting her to various forms of sexualised torture; the rakish playboy whose happy-go-lucky nature really can’t be anything but an act. That all three are planning to do Julie in is further evidence of how misanthropic these films tend to be: Julie may be a complete and utter nervous wreck, but if the entire world appears to be populated by bastards, can you really blame her? Actually, I think you probably can: in Death Walks at Midnight, Valentina’s response to an attempted sex attack is to knee the perpretrator in the balls; Julie tends to to swoon and let them get on with it. Okay, so I’m not expecting every giallo heroine to be a gung-ho action woman, but it’s kind of disheartening to watch one who is such a pushover.
As for the aforementioned plot devised by the three men, it’s one of those traditional giallo schemes that superficially seems to make sense - having three killers, after all, means that you avoid any unfortunate problems of having someone be in two places at once - but, once you start to pick it apart, promptly falls to pieces. Now, you might say, if I’m paying too much attention to the plot, I’m not really getting into the spirit of things, but I like my pizza to have some dough in it rather than just a mountain of toppings, and the same goes for my gialli: the photography, sex and violence is all very well, but if there isn’t a plot holding it together, I find it harder to care. Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Massimo Dallamano and Aldo Lado (probably my favourite four) all seemed to understand this, and were able to ground their stylistic set-pieces within interesting plots; here, the killers’ motives and their actions seem almost to have been an afterthought.
Essentially, the plan is that, if Julie dies, Neil will inherit a substantial amount of money. Now, he could bump her off himself, but he needs an alibi, so he enlists his associate, George, who would like Neil to do him a favour and do away with his cousin Carol, so he can come into some money of his own. All well and good, and the fact that a maniac is currently terrorising Neil and Julie’s native Vienna, slicing and dicing young women with a razor, gives the pair the perfect opportunity to make it look like the demises of Julie and Carol are the work of this individual. Killing Carol is straightforward enough - they lure her to a deserted park on the pretext of meeting someone who is blackmailing Julie (though how they could be sure Carol would go in Julie’s place is anyone’s guess). With Julie, however, they complicate things by, for seemingly no reason, involving her old flame Jean, and then going on a gratuitous trip to Spain, where they chloroform her, turn on the gas and attempt to pass her death off as suicide. All well and good, but why bother going to Spain to do it? Why not just do this in Vienna, or better let keep things simple and stick a knife in her in a dark alley? The most obvious answer is that this was a Spanish co-production, and the script needed to include an excuse to do some filming in that country. Another theory, of course, is that writer Ernesto Gastaldi was making it up as he went along, which is one of the reasons why I’ve always found his assertion that Dario Argento’s scripts are nonsensical quite bizarre.
Is this enough to make or break the film? Not really, but, for me, it does introduce one distraction too many in a film that was already struggling to hold my attention. While a couple of the set-pieces are quite effective (the best being the death of Carol, which anticipates a similar park murder in Argento’s later Four Flies on Grey Velvet), Emilio Foriscot’s photography is flatly lit and overly contrasty, while, as already mentioned, Julie is a completely insipid protagonist. As far as Martino’s work goes, I find myself drawn more to All the Colours of the Dark, which features nearly all the same flaws but makes up for them by being completely crazy and off the wall. Mrs. Wardh is… well, it’s not a dead loss by any means, and I do quite like the atmosphere of casual decadence that Martino creates, but it’s one of those films that I always have to force myself to go back to, and never enjoy as much as everyone else seems to.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight, one of my guilty pleasures.
The Giallo Project #9: The Frightened Woman
Alternative titles: Femina ridens; The Laughing Woman; Director: Piero Schivazappa; Starring: Philippe Leroy, Dagmar Lassander; Music: Stelvio Cipriani; Italian theatrical release date: August 24th, 1969
Note: this review contains a number of major spoilers.
“From an aesthetic point of view, your position is perfect. You form a long, supple, curving line against a series of upright lines. You’re feminine like that!” - Dr. Sayer
Well, nearly five months after my last entry, I finally decided to stop prolonging the inevitable and get this project started again. A can only apologise for the extended delay, and hopefully future updates will be a lot more frequent than they have been so far.
Initially, I wasn’t sure whether or not to include this film in the Giallo Project, given that its affiliation with the form can only really be described as loose. However, I think that it does share many elements with the “woman in peril” domestic thrillers that Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi were known for during the early days of the movement, so in a sense it would be wrong to ignore it just because it doesn’t fit the template of the typical giallo. The plot essentially concerns Maria (Dagmar Lassander), a reporter, who accepts an invitation from the enigmatic Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy) to visit his apartment on the pretext of giving her some files for a paper she is writing. Maria discovers too late that Sayer is in fact a lunatic who believes that women will take over the world and render men redundant unless something is done to curb their emancipation.
One of the elements that continues to fascinate me with films such as these, and indeed was one of the driving forces in my decision to undertake a PhD on the subject, its their strange air of ambivalence towards violence, modernity and sexuality, to name but a few. After 87 minutes of Dr. Sayer berating women for their desire to be “socially and sexually self-sufficient” and lamenting the possibility of a future in which such a state should come to pass, I’m still not sure where writer/director Piero Schivazappa stands on the issue. The film came along at the height of the women’s liberation movement, and as such it’s tempting to see this as the knee-jerk reaction of a filmmaker who, like many men in the 60s and 70s, was growing increasingly paranoid as a result of women’s burgeoning independence. Obviously, Dr. Sayer is completely insane and unstable, but it wouldn’t be the first time a director used a lunatic to convey his message. The matter is also muddied considerably by a plot twist in the final act which turns the tables, presenting Sayer as the victim of an entrapment scheme cooked up by Maria and another woman. Still, it does conclude with what seems to be a completely sincere call to arms for women not to take any crap from men, so frankly I have no idea!
Whatever Schivazappa intended, the film is clearly an exploration of control. The majority of gialli that feature a female protagonist can be broken down into simple stories of a helpless woman falling into the arms of her handsome rescuer: it’s the ultimate male fantasy of the Good Man saving the damsel in distress from the Bad Man. The difference, here, is that there is no Good Man, only one man and one woman, with the roles of victim and aggressor becoming increasingly blurred as the film progresses. At one point, Maria asks Sayer why he is holding her against her will when he could have all the women he wants. The answer is that he isn’t interested in a woman who is with him by her own choosing: he has to break her will, to give her no choice. This is why Sayer reacts with such horror to Maria’s suicide attempt: his desire for control over her is so strong that he can’t bear the thought of her dying on her terms rather than his. In the shifting power dynamic between the two characters, meanwhile, there seems to be an implication that man wants to enslave woman but is ultimately utterly dependent on her. Sayer is obsessed with his own virility, continually exercising, checking for grey hairs, and so on. Of course, the ageing process is something that can’t be stopped, so perhaps Schivazappa is saying that any attempt to resist the tide of change is ultimately futile. I don’t know, and that’s part of why I find this film so interesting.
Above: Woman’s path curves while man’s is straight and regimented?
Whether all this theorising and analysis interests you is beside the point, because there is plenty of visual aural and eye candy to satisfy even the most ardent theoryphobe (did I just coin a new term there?). It’s beautifully shot - that much is clear even on the horribly faded and blurred copy I watched, where every shade of colour seemed to be a muddy brown - and incredibly late 60s in its styling. The characters seem to live inside a surrealist painting, one populated with art deco architecture and furniture, and even a fascinating vagina dentata contraption, one large enough for a man to step inside and be swallowed by. There is a fascinating contrast between the classical paintings that adorn Sayer’s workplace and the anarchic, tripped-out world of his bachelor pad. Likewise, I’m intrigued by the manner in which Sayer is continually associated with rigid, straight lines while Maria is shown in the context of smooth, flowing curves. Intriguingly, this aesthetic is also used to highlight the shifting balance of power. At the start, while Maria is Sayer’s prisoner, she is frequently framed within or partially blocked by horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, whereas later, as the nature of the captor/captive relationship is altered, the framing and architecture become more freeform.
I’m ultimately not entirely sure how I feel about The Frightened Woman. It’s a visually arresting and often thematically interesting piece of work, but it does strike a few bum notes, among them Maria’s readiness to forgive Sayer for locking her up and abusing her mentally and physically when she discovers that this is the first time he has ever done this to a woman (although even this is muddied by the late revelation that she was actually the one who set out to ensnare him). Likewise, after the reconciliation between the two characters, there is a lengthy stretch in which the film more or less collapses until the final climactic twist is unveiled. Still, it’s an interesting, unique piece of work, and Lassander and Leroy do well to carry it across the finishing line between them. This is probably one for repeat viewings, and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it before.
Next time, I’ll be looking at another fringe case, Elio Petri’s Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
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.
The Giallo Project #7: The Sweet Body of Deborah
Alternative titles: Il Dolce corpo di Deborah; Director: Romolo Guerrieri; Starring: Carroll Baker, Jean Sorel, Evelyn Stewart, Luigi Pistilli, George Hilton; Music: Nora Orlandi; Italian theatrical release date: March 20th, 1968
The newly married Marcel (Jean Sorel) takes his American bride, Deborah (Carroll Baker), to his home town of Geneva to celebrate their honeymoon. However, he hasn’t been home long before he begins receiving all sorts of reminders of the untimely demise of his ex-girlfriend, Suzanne (Evelyn Stewart). The papers all say that she committed suicide, but an old friend, Philippe (Luigi Pistilli), menacingly accuses Marcel of murdering her. Soon, it becomes clear that someone is playing a very sick game with both Marcel and Deborah, who both begin to wonder how they can trust each other.
I like to class gialli such as this one as “Mills & Boon Gone Wrong”. All the familiar traits are here: handsome European stud romances glamorous American woman and they run away together to various exotic locales (here Geneva and, as this was a French co-production, Nice, both lushly photographed in the manner of a tourist video). Then, throw in a bit of blackmail, double- and triple-crosses and some murders, and you’ve got yourself a giallo in the same vein that was later exploited to great success by the likes of Sergio Martino. In fact, a glance at the list of players both in front of and behind the camera shows this to be very much an early forerunner to Martino’s ventures: Luigi Pistilli, Evelyn Stewart and a bearded George Hilton (as a charmingly unapologetic peeping tom) make up the roster of suspects, while Ernesto Gastaldi penned the screenplay, Nora Orlandi provided the score, Luciano Martino (brother of Sergio) served as producer, and Sergio Martino himself receives a credit as production manager. The jet set aesthetic that Martino would so often visit is also clearly established: this film is populated by wealthy decadents with too much time on their hands and a predilection for watching topless dancers gyrate to swanky lounge music with an air of bland indifference.
What’s missing is the urban slasher element popularised by Dario Argento: as a pre-Bird with the Crystal Plumage giallo, the emphasis is more on the melodrama and internalised anxiety than on black-gloved killers stalking and killing a roster of victims. There are no on-screen deaths at all until the final act, and the pace tends to become a bit stodgy at times, with Baker looking harangued and spending a lot of time in bed and in various stages of undress. Yet, it’s still considerably more engaging than the last giallo I watched, Naked You Die, and that has a lot to do with the plot, which Gastaldi skilfully drives from one twist to the next, even if the final major twist, which Gastaldi would go on to use again and again, is difficult to swallow, given that it directly contradicts what we have already seen. It also helps that there is distrust on both sides: the film alternates between Marcel and Deborah’s point of view, with both suspecting each other of foul play, and as a result we’re never quite sure how the land lies.
There are also some genuinely nice moments of style on display, with the occasional use of flashbacks to convey Marcel’s past with Suzanne, with a scene in which they canoodle against a backdrop of autumn leaves falling in slow motion seems to anticipate, albeit in a romantic rather than sinister context, the “rape in the rain” scene in Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. Likewise, a shot in which Marcel watches a striptease act through a brandy glass, the liquid distorting and colourising his (and our) viewpoint, is an interesting touch, the scene in question anticipating something similar that would show up in Giuliano Carnimeo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris (also written by Gastaldi and produced by Luciano Martino), albeit with considerably more visual panache and less relevance to the plot. There’s some deliciously outdated fashion and decor on display, all manner of crazy dancing, and even a bizarre musical game of Twister. Oh, and I’m not sure if it’s a major point, but this strikes me as being the only giallo I’ve seen to feature a scene with a woman coming during sex.
Next time, I’ll be returning to familiar territory with Lucios Fulci’s One on Top of the Other, a film with many of the same hallmarks as this one.
The Giallo Project #6: Naked You Die
Alternative titles: Nude… si muore; Sette vergini per il diavolo; Schoolgirl Killer; The Miniskirt Murders; The Young, the Evil and the Savage; Director: Antonio Margheriti (as Anthony Dawson); Starring: Mark Damon, Eleonora Brown, Michael Rennie, Sally Smith; Music: Carlo Savina; Italian theatrical release date: February 20th, 1968
So far, all of the gialli that I’ve watched for this project have demonstrated a wide variety of influences. Naked You Die is where this all changes, as its sole frame of reference seems to be Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, with an all-girl boarding school standing in for the earlier film’s fashion house and its various pupils replacing the models. Margheriti, however, doesn’t have half the visual flare of Bava, and the cinematography is overall flat and unattractive, particularly when it comes to the lighting which, day or night, has the same harsh brightness. Nor does he possess Bava’s imagination: almost everyone dies as a result of a straightforward strangling, which seems to take little more than a couple of seconds.
Margheriti does, however, make occasional use of the subjective camera to represent the killer’s point of view, beating Dario Argento to this technique by nearly two years. (One of the interesting things about tackling these films chronologically is that you begin to get a sense of at what points various trends began to become popular.) There is also a rather effective moment in which a girl strangled in a basement drops to the floor, her head angled directly at the camera - staring, as it were, at the audience. That’s about it for creative kills, though, and the film’s title turns out to be incredibly misleading as most of the victims are fully clothed when they are murdered.
Elsewhere, a bland cast and unbelievable, perfunctory dialogue kill pretty much any potential interest in the plot itself. Mark Damon is hopelessly ill-equipped as riding instructor Richard Barrett, while the fact that virtually every girl on campus seems to be on the verge of swooning at his feet just boggles the mind - “I think I’m in love; he’s the man I’ve always dreamed of!” is an actual line, spoken within minutes of his arrival. Naturally, he has his own ideas about the students, and ends up romancing one hapless girl who - coincidentally - is deathly afraid of horses.
Naked You Die can pretty much be summed up by the first couple of minutes, as a woman sheds her clothes, takes a bath and is promptly murdered: Margheriti teases but shows very little with regard to violence and nudity. This is effectively an exploitation film without any exploitation, and there certainly isn’t anything more intellectually stimulating to compensate. It just amazes me that a giallo about a killer stalking the pupils of an all-girl school can be so damn chaste! One for completists only.
Next time, it’s another new discovery for me, Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah.
The Giallo Project #5: Death Laid an Egg
Alternative titles: La Morte ha fatto l’uovo; Plucked; A Curious Way to Love; Director: Giulio Questi; Starring: Gina Lollobrigida, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Ewa Aulin, Jean Sobieski; Music: Bruno Maderna; Italian theatrical release date: January 9th, 1968
Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has married for money, which comes in the form of the chicken farm owned by his wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida). It’s a state of the art affair, employing all manner of high-tech machinery and avant garde music to get the chickens in the correct psychological frame of mind. Marco, however, has a few sordid secrets up his sleeve. Not only is he carrying on an affair with Anna’s cousin Gabriella (Ewa Aulin), he also takes regular trips to a hotel, where he indulges in the murder of prostitutes. Nothing is quite as it seems, however, with multiple conspiracies brewing beneath the surface, and everything eventually explodes in a cocktail of mind games, backstabbing and, yes, headless chickens. (From my review at DVD Times)
I defy anyone to claim that the giallo was a movement aimed exclusively at grindhouse audiences, as Mikel Koven’s book La Dolce Morte suggests, after watching this film. The clearest frame of reference seems to be Jean-Luc Godard, as evinced by the wildly experimental editing, while the sweltering heat that can be palpably felt throughout the entire film recalls the Western Django, Kill… If You Live, Shoot! for which Questi is best remembered. You won’t find much Bava here… then again, you won’t find much Antonioni either. Death Laid an Egg sports one of the most bizarre titles in the entire giallo catalogue, and is a baffling mindfuck of a movie. As an experiment, it’s an interesting one, but as a commercial film, the end result is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, for, while the various avant garde techniques of narrative and editing that co-writer and director Giulio Questi exploits are definitely interesting and give the film a tone unlike any other giallo, they ultimately serve to make the film more frustrating than engaging.
This is a film that seems to be off-kilter right from the start, as the opening titles play out over stock footage of microscopic close-ups of living organisms, set to the crashing and banging of Bruno Maderna’s weird, jaunty, atonal score, which manages to be both incredibly annoying and incredibly catchy at the same time. This segues into a truly baffling scene showing various hotel guests doing a mixture of mundane and bizarre things in their rooms - polishing knives, combing hair, preparing to commit suicide, and so on. Like much of the rest of the film, this first scene promises much but ultimately delivers little: a series of non-sequiturs with little pay-off. In a sense, it doesn’t work because, despite using experimental editing techniques and throwing in a whole bunch of inexplicable cutaways and seemingly irrelevant plot strands, Questi still insists on tying it all to a relatively straightforward narrative structure. The thriller element, which doesn’t really surface until well into the second half, and has more in common with a domestic melodrama than the urban slashers popularised by Dario Argento, doesn’t really fit, while what seem to be various criticisms of commercialism don’t really go anywhere meaningful.
What does work very well, however, is the claustrophobic atmosphere. The film seems to take place in the middle of the Italian summer, with the light so bright and the heat clearly so intense that at times it feels as if the characters are actually being suffocated. Even during the night scenes, the characters (or is that the actors?) look as if they are on the verge of collapse, while the fact that everyone looks (and sounds, at least in the English version) incredibly bored and tired seems somewhat appropriate given the film’s rather biting portrayal of this section of society. In true giallo fashion, everyone is deceiving everyone else (the constant allusions to masks are perhaps just a little too bludgeoning), and the glee with which certain characters approach the prospect of pretending to be someone else just serves to underscore how thoroughly tedious their everyday lives are.
Death Laid an Egg has built up quite a following in certain circles, most likely on account of its obscurity and weirdness - how could a film which features genetically mutated chickens that are basically falls of meat with pulsating veins and feet not be embraced by the cult circuit? A film doesn’t, after all, have to be brilliant in order to develop a cult following: often, simply being weird is enough. While Death Laid an Egg is not a bad film per se, it is an unsuccessful one - one that add two and two together and doesn’t quite make four.
Next time, I’ll be tackling a film I’ve never seen before, Antonio Margheriti’s 1968 offering Naked You Die.
The Giallo Project #4: Blowup
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni; Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles; Music: Herbie Hancock; US theatrical release date: December 18th, 1966
“Slowly, slowly… against the beat.” - The unnamed photographer of Blowup
“What’s the meaning of this?” you ask. “I thought this was the Giallo Project?” It’s a valid enough question, and I thought long and hard about whether or not to include Blowup in this rogue’s gallery, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t afford to ignore it. You see, while I don’t believe it possible to describe this as a giallo in the truest sense (although both Blood and Black Lace and The Giallo Scrapbook 2 do so), I suspect that it had a profound impact on virtually every giallo beyond a certain point in history. It undoubtedly had a huge influence on Dario Argento, who adapted several of its themes into The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and indeed all of his 1970s gialli, and, in turn, the various directors who set out to imitate Argento’s work ended up adopting these same themes and stylistic traits second-hand - imitations of an imitation, as it were. Besides, I thought it only right that I do something to acknowledge Antonioni’s recent death.
Beyond the plot, which, if you break it down, is basically the same as virtually every Argento giallo - an artist living as an outsider in a contemporary urban space, flitting around unable to settle, witnesses (or believes he has witnessed) a crime taking place, the solution to which lies in a single image or memory that he can’t quite understand - it’s the very atmosphere that so closely mirrors everything from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh: a sort of decadence, a society of bourgeois excess, where people are obsessed with useless commodities and avant-garde art, and seem to have to real purpose in life. I wasn’t around to experience the 60s first-hand (far from it!), but I can easily see this as a defining statement of the atmosphere and mood of the period. In some respects, it makes the same point as Blood and Black Lace, and yet the bleak urban landscapes are a world away from the gothic opulence of Bava’s film.
David Hemmings’ unnamed photographer is clearly the forerunner to Sam Dalmas and Marc Daly - and indeed, Argento even cast Hemmings as Marc in the seminal Deep Red, itself a clever inversion of Blowup which actually manages to outclass its predecessor. In many respects, though, he’s a far nastier piece of work than the two of them put together. Daly had some rather antiquated ideas about the place of women in society, while Dalmas seemed to treat his girlfriend as a commodity, but they pale in significance to the character in Blowup (referred to as “Thomas” in many sources but never actually named in the film itself - actually, names are almost completely absent, a reference, perhaps, to the characters’ lack of identity and failure to find a place for themselves in the world), who manhandles several models, forcibly “posing” them and berating them for being useless, not to mention toying with blackmailing a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who objects to having her picture taken on the sly. That’s effectively Antonioni’s (and Argento’s) point, though: he is a vain, self-absorbed prick, continually searching for a perfect image that doesn’t exist, and searching for meaning where there is none. Of course, it’s therefore entirely appropriate that the central mystery is a single image whose very meaning continues to elude him (and the more he focuses on the image, the more he loses perspective).
In many regards, Blowup is about as anti-giallo as you can get - there are no on-screen murders, and the film is famous for its deliberate refusal to provide a solution to its central mystery - and yet in orders, you can see the roots of so many 70s gialli in it that it’s impossible to ignore it completely. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the giallo of the golden age is effectively a marriage between Bava’s early efforts and Blowup, filtered through Argento’s sensibility and adopted by a slew of imitators - a reinterpretation of the form in the context of the post-1968 cultural revolution. It’s a brilliant, baffling, mesmerising film in its own right, but when you consider the knock-on effect that it had on the giallo movement, its importance becomes all the more clear.
Next time, I’ll be dipping into the bizarre world of Giulio Questi’s baffling Death Laid an Egg.
The Giallo Project #3: Blood and Black Lace
Alternative titles: Sei donne per l’assassino; Director: Mario Bava; Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner; Music: Carlo Rustichelli; Italian theatrical release date: March 14th, 1964
Whenever the topic of Blood and Black Lace comes up, I always seem to find myself apologising for not liking it more. I’ve seen it four or five times now, and on each occasion I find myself feeling strangely distanced from it and unable to see it in quite the same light as its many, many admirers. Maybe it’s the fact that it lacks a single clear-cut protagonist to whom I can relate, or perhaps it’s because, to date, there has not been a satisfactory presentation of the film on DVD (it’s fickle, I know, but there have been occasions when a better transfer has improved my appreciation of a film, particularly those that are visually-oriented). In any event, for whatever reason, Blood and Black Lace is an entry that I see as important on account of its influence, but considerably less interesting when taken on its own merits.
Dubbed “the first authentic body count movie” by VCI on the cover of their (frankly pretty poor) DVD release, Blood and Black Lace builds on the thematics that Bava developed in his previous two gialli, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and The Telephone segment of Black Sabbath, and injects a vital new component that would come to characterise so many other films in the genre: the protracted, deliriously violent murder sequence. While Girl’s death scenes, such as there were, were pretty perfunctory, they are Blood and Black Lace’s raison d’être, and are quite shocking in their intensity. The very first, occurring in a windswept park at night within the first five minutes, is brutal and frenzied, unveiling the fedora-clad, black-gloved killer (his face concealed with a mask), who, thanks to his sheer viciousness and lack of identifying features, feels more like a force of nature than an actual person.
Actually, it’s difficult to fault the murders at all - they are all incredibly well-executed and almost always incredibly sadistic. One unfortunate victim is slapped about before having her hand and then face scalded, while another receives a blow to the face with a spiked glove, prefiguring the killer’s modus operandi in Death Walks at Midnight by several years. A further death, occurring late in the film, also sets the template for many a giallo bathtub drowning. However, the scenes designed to connect them together (and I believe that this is all they really are) are considerably more mundane, with the plot never sustaining my interest in that way that Girl’s does. Thomas Reiner’s wooden Inspector Silvester plods from scene to scene without doing anything particularly interesting, and the various women of the fashion house around which the events revolved are given only enough characterisation for us to know what dirty deeds they have been getting up to in between shows.
Admittedly, some of this really is quite clever. In typical giallo form, everyone is hiding something, whether it’s drug addiction, thievery or blackmail, and to an extent you can almost imagine the killer representing a force of brutal retribution. Bava also indulges in one of his favourite pass-times in opening up an outwardly respectable society and revealing it to be corrupt to the core. Furthermore, I don’t need to tell you that it’s impeccably shot, with Bava’s trademark gel lighting giving the various locations an otherworldliness while still anchoring them firmly in reality. However, Blood and Black Lace remains, for me, a stepping stone in the giallo’s journey rather than the landmark that many consider it to be. I like it, but I would never afford it masterpiece status.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Michelangelo Antonioni’s seminal Blowup (don’t worry - all will be explained).
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.
The Giallo Project #1: The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Alternative titles: La ragazza che sapeva troppo; The Evil Eye (alternate US edit); Director: Mario Bava; Starring: Letícia Román, John Saxon, Valentina Cortese, Dante DiPaolo; Music: Roberto Nicolosi; Italian theatrical release date: February 10th, 1963
We all have to start somewhere, and I can think of no better film with which to begin this lengthy and probably foolhardy project than this 1963 offering from Mario Bava. While I doubt that you’d ever be able to find two people who completely agree on the definition of the word “giallo” and every single title that it encompasses, it’s more or less unanimously agreed that The Girl Who Knew Too Much was the film that launched its cinematic form (unless you count Luchino Visconti’s 1943 Obsession - Gary Needham, I’m looking at you!). It’s ironic, then, that the first true giallo film is one of the most tongue-in-cheek of the cycle. Almost a parody of thriller conventions, it sends up heroine Nora Davis’ (Letícia Román) obsession with paperback gialli and her less than accomplished attempts at amateur sleuthing.
Bava and his five co-writers use the “foreign tourist in Rome” framework that would become so popular with other filmmakers as the giallo gained popularity, placing the wide-eyed Nora against the backdrop of a series of killings known as the Alphabet Murders (actually the title of a Poirot novel and a very self-conscious reference to the giallo’s roots in Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and Mickey Spillane novels - all of whom are referred to by name in this film) and forcing her to team up with the charming Dr. Marcello Bassi (John Saxon) to solve the mystery herself when she is met with the same disdain and disbelief that The Establishment would dole out to so many other giallo leading ladies. A rather likeable heroine, Nora is a bit silly and possesses an over-active imagination, not to mention a tendency to faint when things get a bit too much, but a lot more independently-minded than many an Edwige Fenech or Suzy Kendall. It also helps that Román has a decent sense of comic timing, playing the slapstick romance scenes between her and Saxon well and not afraid to make a fool of herself when the script calls for it. Indeed, the banter of the pair in many ways prefigures that of David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red, while the running gag of one or the other continually causing injuries to Marcello is a good one and helps lighten the tension.
Indeed, this is a decidedly light-hearted giallo, with its tongue firmly in its cheek at all times. The Italian version (the American version, released under the title of The Evil Eye, is substantially different, featuring a number of alternative scenes and a different music score) features a male narrator continually commenting on Nora’s plight which, in addition to providing a lot of humorous moments also serves to highlight the genre’s literary origins. On the other hand, the manner in which it is shot is anything but frivolous: one of the few gialli to be shot in black and white, Bava, who was also the cinematographer, makes superb use of his monochromatic palette to create a world of great foreboding, foregrounding extremes in light and shadow and turning many of the familiar Roman tourist traps, including, most famously, the Spanish Steps (which provides the film with its key set-piece), into places of mystery and dread. Bava takes the Rome of picture postcards and rips open its seedy underbelly, and Marcello’s insistence that the Rome of bright sunshine and milling tourists is the “real” one never quite ring true.
This is clearly a very prototypical giallo, and while some elements are already in place, others are either not yet fully formed or else absent entirely. There is no hidden, black-gloved villain - all the potential suspects are unmasked - and the outlandish murder set-pieces that would later become the format’s hallmark are nowhere to be found. “One moment and it’s all over,” the killer promises Nora when finally unmasked, a far cry from the protracted stalk-and-slash scenes that would later delight audiences. There are only a handful of murders, and they are largely committed off-screen, with the body count aesthetic that would emerge in Bava’s next giallo, Blood and Black Lace, not yet established.
Of all the Bava films I’ve seen so far, this is actually the one that I enjoy the most, and in fact I would put it ahead of Blood and Black Lace, for reasons that I’ll explain when I get round to discussing that film. It lacks both the depth of a Deep Red and the camp sleaze of a Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, but it got the giallo movement off to an impressive start, and it holds up today as a thoroughly enjoyable stand-alone film.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Mario Bava’s second giallo, Blood and Black Lace.
Update, August 17th, 2007 03:35 PM: At the recommendation of Marcus, the next title to be covered will now be The Telephone segment of Black Sabbath rather than Blood and Black Lace.
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