Friday, 17 November 2006

Bruno Nicolai in Giallo

Ask anyone moderately acquainted with Eurocult cinema to name a composer connected with the form and the chances are that they will respond with Ennio Morricone. While this is testament to both the quality and quantity of Morricone's output, the importance of his collaborators - such as multi-instrumentalist Allessandro Allessandroni, vocalist Edda Dell'Orso, conductor and arranger Bruno Nicolai and Allessandroni's group i cantori moderni - to the sound of 60s spaghetti westerns and 70s gialli has often gone largely unacknowledged.

Of these neglected names, that of Nicolai is perhaps the most inexplicable. Born in 1926, he attended the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, where he first met Morricone, two years his junior. Becoming firm friends, the pair collaborated through the 1960s and early 1970s, before eventually breaking their creative partnership in mysterious and seemingly acrimonious circumstances; the most popular version that Morricone felt Nicola was plagiarising him.

Whatever truly happened – Nicolai died in 1991 and Morricone remains silent on the issue – there is a clear similarity between their work over the two decades. Then again, this is arguably inevitable given Nicolai's roles; one hopes that someday someone with more musical ability and knowledge will perform a quasi-experiment, listening to different permutations of Morricone's and Nicolai's work double blind and seeing how easy it is to tell the difference (if anyone from The Wire is reading, this might make a good “Invisible Jukebox” test). Yet, the fact remains that, even if only sometimes producing pastiches of Morricone, many of Nicolai's 90-plus original scores are of a high standard in themselves and, moreover, make an important contribution to the European pop cinema of the 60s and 70s in scoring films for – among others – Jess Franco, Sergio Corbucci, Ruggero Deodato, Gianfranco Parolini and Umberto Lenzi.

Another reason for the lack of attention given Nicolai's work until recently was its unavailability to all but the most dedicated and well-financed collectors, many scores having only ever been released on limited edition private pressings via Nicolai's own label, Edipan. But now, with Italian label Digitmovies going back to the original master tapes and embarking upon an ambitious re-issue programme of Nicolai and other neglected composers, in most cases with alternate takes and versions hitherto unheard, there is really no excuse not to acquaint oneself.

To date Digitmovies have released six of Nicolai's giallo scores, under the descriptive series title of "Bruno Nicolai in Giallo" – La Coda dello scorpione, Il Tuo Vizio É Una Stanza Chiusa E Solo Io Ho La Chiave, La Dama rossa Uccide sette volte, La Notte che Evelyn usci' dalla tombe, Perche' quelle strane gocce di sangue sui corpo di Jennifer and Tutti i colori del buio – those for two Jess Franco films, 99 Donne and Eugenie De Sade '70.

Of the giallo scores, the one that feels closest to the Nicolai/Franco idiom is perhaps La Notte che Evelyn usci dalla tomba / The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave, directed by Emilio Miraglia and released in 1971. In part this is because the film's dreamlike what-the-hell-is-going-on sensibilities give it a feel not unlike many Franco films such as A Virgin Among the Living Dead – also scored coincidentally by Nicolai – as an uxoricidal nobleman, played by Anthony Steffen, finds himself surrounded by relatives and hangers-on desirous of his wealth and status. It's also, however, because the film's most memorable cue, in the form of the the swami number that plays over the justly famous scene of the intoxicating Erika Blanc performing a coffin striptease – the kind of thing that makes a CD or DVD worthwhile in its own right – is strongly reminiscent of similar psychedelic cues by Nicolai for the Spanish director's Eugénie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion and Eugénie a year or so earlier.

The other cuts are a palatable mix of romantic and suspenseful atmospheres, along with the odd party/vocal number in the shape of the diegetically located La Festa. Perhaps inevitably they don't all work outwith the context of the film, but most, including the gentle, haunting Il Fantasma di Evelyn and the main title theme (a longer version of which is also presented as one of the two bonus tracks) remain listenable and evocative enough in their own right.

Psychedelic cues are also to the fore in Tutti i colori del buio / All the Colours of the Dark, one of three titles here directed by the talented Sergio Martino and featuring ever-charming leading man George Hilton and no fewer than four starring genre queen Edwige Fenech. A giallo take on Rosemary's Baby, it's the tale of a young Londoner who, having tragically lost her baby in an automobile accident a few months earlier, gets drawn into a satanic cult by her new neighbour and increasingly comes to suspect and doubt all around – though with Hilton as her husband you can see why…

With many of the cues having magical titles – Magico Incontro, Medium, Suggestione, Esorcismo, Ipnosi etc. – the balance is more in favour of the experimental and uneasy listening side of things than on Evelyn, though the likes of the sitar solo Evocazione (performed by Allessandroni as another reminder of how close-knit the Italian soundtrack world was at this time) and the two versions of Sabba (with I Cantori Moderni providing the vocals to make the same point) come close to being classics of easy pop-psychedelic trash. With no fewer than 16 of the 29 tracks being previously unreleased versions, there more to make this disc worth buying for old-time collectors though also consequently less in the way of actual variation in the music.

The second Nicolai/Martino collaboration, Il Tuo vizio é una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave / Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key / Excite Me / Eye of the Black Cat / Gently Before She Dies (going for the record here with the alternative titles?) also dates from 1972 and again gives Fenech a prominent role. She plays the bisexual niece of Luigi Pistilli's alcoholic writer, who conspires with and against him and his wife, played by Anita Strindberg, in a giallo take on Edgar Allen Poe's perennial The Black Cat. In keeping with this, Nicolai's score – his work on Franco's Dracula might also be worth comparing here – is more classical sounding, with harpischord and strings predominating and the 20 tracks identified only by sequence numbers rather than the specific moments in the film they accompany; you can tell that track 12 goes with a high-tension moment while track 18 has a more driving chase music feel to it but that's about all.

The third Nicolai/Martin collaboration, La Coda dello Scorpione / The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, dates from a year earlier. A comparatively straightforward thriller, the film casts Hilton as an insurance agent, one of several people interested in the fortune inherited by adulteous wife Evelyn Stewart/Ida Galli after her husband dies in a plane crash; Fenech sits it out in favour of Galli, Strindberg and Janine Reynaud. With most of the action taking place in Greece, there's an awkward diegetic scene-setting cue as the sixth track on the CD, but on reflection it's no worse than, say, the music that accompanies the changing of the guards in Marcello Giombini's score for Joe D'Amato's similarly set Anthropophagous the Beast.

Otherwise it's a different story, the six variants on the Foglie Rosse and Vento D'Autumno themes providing lush, romantic music that constrast well with the 25 suspenseful and moody La Coda… sequences, where edgy percussion and strangulated trumpet generally predominate. The 32nd and final track, Shadows, is vocal piece that, like much Euro-crooning, doesn't quite pull it off.

Also of note is the title theme: while generally counting amongst the best cuts on each disc, The Case of the Scorpion's Tall's main sequence is truly a standout, its simple ostenato overlaid by menacing guitar wails and squawks getting you into that giallo mood right away.

Hilton and Fenech were together again for spaghetti western specialist Giuliano Carnimeo / Anthony Ascott's 1972 entry into the giallo filone, Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer? / What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing On Jennifer's Body? / The Case of the Bloody Iris / Erotic Blue (another contender for the too many AKAs crown), the former playing a model who moves into a murder-prone apartment block designed by the latter, a wealthy playboy; also on hand are Fenech's dumb friend and ex-husband – who has a penchant for bizarre sex games and wants her to rejoin his cult – and a predatory lesbian neighbour…

The trashiness of this scenario, by frequent giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi, is mirrored somewhat by Nicolai's music, although, as the liner notes indicate, only around half the numbered cues appearing on the CD actually found their way into the final cut of the film.

As it is, the title theme motifs, which recur throughout, give the music a bright and breezy musak-like quality as as much as a suspenseful one, with those tracks that eschew this approach, like the diegetic solo violin on track nine, failing to make immediate sense outwith the context of the film itself.

Miraglia's 1972 giallo La Dama rossa uccide sette volte / The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, features neither Fenech nor Hilton, instead giving the starring role to Barbara Bouchet. As the title suggests, there's a bit of a fairy-tale vibe to this one, with titular woman in red supposedly returning from the tomb – just like Evelyn the year before, perhaps – every century to kill seven people.

This fantastical air is mirrored in Nicolai's music, with the title theme, track one, beginning with lullably style voices – which might be compared with the children's chorus on Morricone's score for Aldo Lado's Chi l'ha vista morire? / Who Saw Her Die? of the same year – before going into a more baroque idiom on tracks two and three that thereafter predominates although some cuts, like track four have more of a bossa nova/easy listening vibe to them; all told it's a pleasing mix.

Overall, if there's sometimes a degree of sameness between many of these scores – listening to them back-to-back as I write this I think I would have difficulty placing a lot of the tracks – they are also effective within the context of the films and, for the most part, eminently listenable outwith. Clearly a labour of love on the part of Digitmovies, and well presented in terms of accompanying liner notes and illustrative material – poster and still reproductions etc – they're well worth supporting, even if you may not feel the need to buy each and every one. - Bruno Nicolai tribute page

1 comment:

colinr0380 said...

Thanks for this brief summary of Bruno Nicolai's work. I recently watched The Case Of The Bloody Iris, and really enjoyed the title tune!