Respectable lawyer Peter Flower (Gianni Garko) picks up Italian prostitute Anna (Giovanna Ralli) at a London nightclub and takes her back to his uncle's town-house. They soon discover the body of butler Hawkings – who was supposed to have left, Peter having telephoned to inform him of wanting to be left alone – and worse. For a gunman, Quill (Julian Mateos), is waiting.
Peter's Uncle, Judge Baddell (Fernando Rey), telephones about a case they are working on, affording the younger man the opportunity to attempt to convey the danger of the situation in a coded form.
When a policeman turns up at the door shortly afterwards with a note, Peter thinks that he and Anna are saved. But the policeman, Welt (Frank Wolff) is in fact, bogus and in league with Quill, whom he has convinced the house contains a safe filled with valuables. Welt himself, meanwhile, is motivated by a desire for revenge on Baddell, whom he blames for his 15-year prison sentence...
Also known as Desperate Moments – a title that (over)emphasises the Desperate Hours like nature of the piece – this Italian-Spanish co-production is the kind of giallo that raises interesting questions of the generic label. While undoubtedly qualifying in the broader, literary sense of the term by virtue of being a thriller, it lacks many of the typical characteristics of the giallo film.
The on-screen title of Desperate Moments
The opening sequence, in which a scantily clad woman is menaced by a knife-wielding attacker, then seems to consent to his advances, then manages to get the knife at stab him, is instructive in this regard, as the camera pulls back to then reveal the presence of an audience and the status of the piece as a nightclub act.
Does the absence of black gloves and white sleeve already indicate that nothing is quite as it seems here?
Be on your guard; do not trust what you are seeing is thus the emphatic message even before characters like the fake cop are introduced as such; this message enhanced by Castellari's distinctively cinematic approach here and elsewhere, with a emphasis upon dramatic angles; jarring edits; zooms; tight close-ups; slow motion; rack focus; cross-cutting and other devices to counterbalance the element of theatricality otherwise inherent to any piece with limited locations and characters.
Is that a J&B I see before me? Early on, Peter comments that his uncle must be Scottish because he hides the whisky. But it soon appears...
Though the production design is generally quite subdued - and thereby perhaps better in conveying the conservative good taste of the judge and his nephew - there does seem a subtle element of yellow running through many of the sets and set-ups.
At the same time a slight over-abundance of fist-fights as the film progresses – most notably an otherwise unrelated gang brawl that prevents a patrol car from calling on the house two-thirds of the way through – also gives the sense that the director would have been more comfortable dealing with straightforward action fare of the western or cop types that make up the majority of his filmography. (Castellari was, after all, also the man first offered directorial duties on Zombie, which he declined in favour of Fulci, at that time just coming off the disappointment of the supernatual giallo Sette note in nero.)
One of Castellari's most striking shots in a film full of them
A reminder that this is the man who did The Big Racket and The Bronx Warriors
"He's just a poor boy, from a poor family" - Julian Mateos in Freddie Mercury mode
Another part of the same psychedelic nightmare sequence
There are also some basic continuity problems with the exteriors, which sometimes switch haphazardly between night and day, as if the filmmakers did not not manage to grab enough location footage on their London sojourn before returning to Cinecittà.
Wolff, Ralli and Garko deliver quality performances. It is harder to evaluate Mateos's contribution on account of the unconvincing Mockney accent his English dubber has saddled him with, while Rey seems a touch underused, being literally allowed to telephone in his lines for much of the film
The cast also benefit from a finely crafted screenplay, credited on screen to Castellari and Tito Carpi but to Leila Buongiorno and José María Nunes's on the IMDB entry. Whoever is responsible - the IMDB can be unreliable with films like this, whose credits in turn are not always to be trusted - they have given the characters more convincing motivations and complex personalities than those found in the typical Italian-Spanish co-production.
Thus, for example, Welt's desire for revenge is overlaid with a strong sense of being made the fall guy on account of his lowly class position, whilst Quill's relationship with his co-conspirator is complicated by his homosexual desires towards him. Consequently, even if the viewer is not necessarily invited to identify with them, he or she at least gets a sense of their reality and complexity. This is all the more so when it comes to Anna, presented as a refreshing antithesis to the conventional tart stereotypes and, arguably, the strongest character in the film.
Here it is also interesting to note some of the parallels between Cold Eyes of Fear and Ruggero Deodato's better-known, nastier - yet ultimately perhaps less effective, precisely because its excesses do not always convince - House on the Edge of the Park. Tracing things through, we find that Buongiorno later collaborated with Park co-writer Gianfranco Clerici on Marino Girolami's Italia a mano armata – Marino being Enzo's father – and was subsequently reunited with both Nunes and Castellari on Sensitività, suggestively retitled in English as The House by the Edge of the Lake and The Last House Near the Lake. (As ever, more information on when the film was released in English under each title and by whom etc. would be instructive.)
Ennio Morricone's partially improvised, free jazz style score is another of Cold Eyes of Fear's plusses. It is not the sort of thing you would necessarily want to listen to for pleasure – tellingly during some early scene setting as Peter and Anna take in the London nightlife the Belinda May theme is used, as the score lacks any lounge or bossa nova cues – but in this context serves to rack up the tension.