Sunday, 7 January 2007

Cose avete fatto a Solange / What Have You Done to Solange

Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) is the Italian and gymnastics teacher at the exclusive London Catholic girls school, St Hilda's. He is also secretly in a relationship with one of his pupils, Elizabeth Seccles (Christine Galbo).

The credits emphasise the Italian giallo aspect over the German krimi one

The couple are out boating on the Thames early in the evening when Elizabeth thinks she someone with a knife in the undergrowth. Enrico, however, is sceptical, and thinks that she is just finding excuses not to take their lovemaking any further. (“What next. It's all the fault of that damn uncle of yours. He insisted on sending you to that stupid Victorian school. There is always something to do or don't, to keep you from acting like a normal girl... What kind of knife was it? Was it a long one with a handle, a dagger, perhaps a sword? The archangel Gabriel come to punish you for your sins I suppose!”)

The next morning, Enrico hears on the radio that a body has been discovered on the riverbank. Worse, it transpires the victim, Hilda Erickson, was another pupil at St Hilda's.

The flash of the blade and the eyewitness

Unable to explain to the police, school governors or his wife Herta (Karin Baal) what he was doing on the evening in question, Enrico finds himself under suspicion when a photo of his visiting the murder scene is published.

Embarking on his own investigation, running parallel to the official one led by Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger) of Scotland Yard, he soon uncovers a sordid story of sex, drugs and a backstreet abortion gone horribly wrong...

What Have You Done to Solange's co-writer and director Massimo Dallamano started his career as a cinematographer – including credits on Leone's Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More – before turning to direction in the late 1960s.

Although his career was tragically curtailed by his death in an car accident in 1976, he nevertheless managed to turn out a number of decent genre films, including a quartet of gialli that seem, in retrospect, to chart many of the developments within the filone.

The first of these, La Morte non ha sesso / A Black Veil for Lisa was released in 1968. Thus pre-dating the giallo boom, it functioned as a more traditional thriller while also eschewing the whodunit element in favour of a close examination of its main characters and their motives.

Then came this film, released in 1972 at the peak of the cycle. Inaugurating what is often referred to as the “schoolgirls in peril” trilogy it presents an intriguing combination of Italian giallo and German krimi elements.

La Polizia chiede aiuto / What Have You Done to Your Daughters followed in 1974 and, paralleling the decline of the giallo and the rise of the poliziotto, placed the emphasis on the official investigation into a schoolgirl vice ring. (Dallamano's final film, 1976's Quelli della calibro 38 / Colt 38 Special Squad, continued this move, its title arguably suggesting that the police no longer needed outside help.)

Though directed by Alberto Negrin following Dallmano's death, Enigma Rosso / Rings of Fear, released in 1978, was indelibly marked with the latter's stamp, concluding the schoolgirl trilogy and giving Solange's Fabio Testi the role of the investigating officer.

With A Black Veil for Lisa and Rings of Fear lacking official releases, Dallamano's giallo reputation largely rests on this film and its immediate successor. Happily, What Have You Done to Solange lives up to its hype as one of the classics of the giallo.

The complicated plotting is characteristic of both giallo and krimi. Unlike many other examples of each, however, it holds up to closer scrutiny and provides substance as well as style.

Thus, for example, while we might question the realism of Enrico hearing about the murder on the radio and reaching the crime scene while the body is still there, the way in which he is subsequently questioned by Barth on the grounds of being a suspicious figure possibly returning to the scene of the proverbial crime alerts us the filmmakers being perfectly aware of the convention and thereby capable of playing with it.

While there are the usual (im)probable red herrings, such as a peeping tom teacher and a somewhat shifty priest, they are well integrated into the story. The killer's identity is also plausible rather than out of left field. Even if in consequence it is perhaps not too taxing for genre sleuths to figure out, it also grants the film a higher than usual degree of review potential, precisely because the second or third time round one can concentrate more on the mechanics of the plotting and the telling.

A parade of suspects and the first victim

The krimi fan will note that Fuchsberger is relegated to a supporting role and denied the kind of romantic interest he would have been given in a German-led production. The general ambience is also decidedly more realistic and sordid than would be permissible there: while an Edgar Wallace adaptation like The Sinister Monk invoked the nostalgic notion of “white slavery” it certainly not countenance a graphic backstreet abortion sequence.

The main concessions to the krimi audience, thus seem are the obligatory shots of the Houses of Parliament – albeit better integrated with the rest of the location shooting and in truth thereby more reminiscent of contemporaneous gialli such as Lizard in a Woman's Skin and All the Colours of the Dark – and a relatively poorly defined subplot involving the distinctive green pins worn by the victims.

Whether this last McGuffin actually comes from Wallace's The Case of the New Pin, as the film's German title implies is, however, debatable; personally I found it more reminiscent of the obscure 1963 British sexploitation drama The Yellow Teddybears, though surely more by coincidence than design.

Despite the sleaze – with one wondering in particular if a protagonist like Enrico Rosseni would be allowed to 'get away with it' today – there is also the impression that the film-makers tried to treat their subject matter with a degree of sensitivity and maturity.

Thus, for instance, while we get the obligatory exploitative scene of the schoolgirls showering, it is turned around on the viewer by revealing the aforementioned peeping tom teacher as his surrogate. The film may only go so far – significantly the camera set ups within the sequence seem designed to maximise rather the viewer's visual pleasure rather than frustrate it – but at least it makes the attempt.

Voyeurism turned back on itself?

Likewise, the characters and their relationships have a rare depth to them, with some interesting play upon national stereotypes in the case of Enrico and Herta as respective identification figures for the Italian and German audiences (“Even your much beloved [Rainer Maria] Rilke preferred Italian. For example, we say palm of the hand and you say flat of the hand. Italian is the language of angels” “And German is hard and graceless, like me. For all the sweetness of your angel's tongue, what were you doing with Hilda Ericson”). Barth, meanwhile, is the very English – read non-Catholic – detective, finding his investigation thwarted at one point when the priests react with predictable horror to his requests to know what the girls said in confession, while an eyewitness at a crucial point has a similarly 'English' reaction ("A priest is a priest, how am I supposed to know the difference?")

Production values are good. The cinematography is by Aristide Massaccessi, himself embarking on a directorial career as Joe D'Amato around the same time. Always at the service of the film as a whole, his work here reinforces the sense that he is one unsung figures of Italian cinematography, equally adapt at catching the glint of light on the killer's blade; shoot through keyholes or peepholes, and in constructing moodily lit night scenes. (One of the things that really detracts from Dallamano's work on A Fistful of Dollars for me is the poor quality of the day-for-night work in the cemetery shoot-out between the Baxters and Rojos.)

Antonio Siciliano's editing is crisp and concise, cutting in split-second inserts at times and contributing to whatever mood Dallamano wishes to create, be it tense, sleazy, romantic or sad. Here we might also consider the surprisingly complex associations made through Elizabeth's flashbacks to the riverside murder as she and Enrico subsequently try to pick up the romantic mood where they left off, as the knife / phallus connection again leading to a severe case of coitus interruptus; or the editing between Janet's demise and Elizabeth's waking from a nightmare, as if the two were psychically linked and providing that moment where the conscious and unconscious worlds merge; parallels with Fay Major's fugue state in The New York Ripper as she is attacked on the subway are also suggest themselves here.

A sombre "The murderer left the knife there" rather than The New York Ripper's "He stuck it up her joy trail"

A nod to Blood and Black Lace as one of the killer's victims is drowned in the bath?

The teachers are brought in for questioning, Blood and Black Lace style

Right, bring in the perverts... er priests; a line-up of (un)usual suspects

Effective is also a word that applies to Ennio Morricone's score, a classic blend of the romantic and atonal, with a couple of extremely nice moments when the scratch as the killer lifts the needle up from the record player rudely signals what is about to happen to his next victim and when church organ music bridges the transition from post-mortem and funeral sequences.

On the negative side, the film again suffers from the unconvincing variety pack of English accents common to many films of its type. In the Italian, however, it is emerges as one of those gialli that approaches the “cinema of poetry” ideal, as the objectivity and subjectivity of the filmmaker and his characters merge to powerful effect.

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