Thursday, 18 January 2007

Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion / Foto proibite di una signora per bene

Minou is beautiful and devoted to her husband Peter. Yet her tendency to drink too much and a tranquilliser habit suggest some underlying malaise even before, walking along the seafront one night, she is confronted by a mysterious sword-cane wielding sadist.

All but threatening Minou with rape – the phallic symbolism of his weapon hardly needs discussing, with the film as a whole likewise offering (almost too) easy pickings for the psychoanalytically minded – the man calmly informs her that Peter is a fraud and a murderer, then inexplicably departs, allowing Minou to make her way to a nearby bar, call for help and have a few drinks to calm her nerves while awaiting her husband.

The mirror lets the man gaze at the woman gazing at herself

A few days later Minou gets talking with her friend Dominique at a nightclub. In the course of conversation Dominique comments on how one of Peter's creditors was recently found dead, with nitrogen in his bloodstream.

Meeting again the next day, Dominique shows Minou some of the candid photographs she brought back from her recent visit to Copenhagen. (“Are they pornographic photographs?” “Yes, but good ones. Quality is important in every profession.”) One features the man.

A further shock comes from Minou's visit to Peter's business, where one of his colleagues shows her the new decompression chamber, used to simulate different pressure conditions for testing deep-sea diving equipment.

Putting the details together, Minou realises that Peter had motive, method and opportunity to kill the man and make it look like an accident.

In the middle of the night the telephone rings. It is the stranger. He plays Minou a taped conversation implicating Peter in murder and demands a meeting with her the next day.

The Frightened Woman

Hoping to buy the man off, Minou offers him money. He laughs at this, telling Minou that it is her that he wants. Desperate to obtain the tape and save her husband, Minou accedes to his demands.

Unfortunately her situation then gets worse instead of better as the man then starts blackmailing Minou with the photographs he surreptitiously took of their encounter. Worse, he says that Peter did not murder anyone, with the whole story being fabricated as a means of ensnaring Minou herself.

Not sure what do to on her return home, Minou tells Peter that she has been out with Dominique all afternoon – a claim that backfires when Dominique turns out to be there as well...

Interior design by the House of Bava?

Although showcasing the talents of the same team who would later make
Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight – director Luciano Ercoli, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and actors Susan Scott / Nieves
Navarro and Simon Andreu – this 1970 giallo from Luciano Ercoli differs
from its successors in one key respect. With Dagmar Lassander taking
the female lead as the “Lady Above Suspicion” of the title, Minou, Scott is
relegated to a supporting role, that of her decidedly more suspect friend, Dominique.

The change has a vital effect on the dynamics of the piece as a whole,
as can be seen if we apply the semiotic “commutation test” and imagine what the film might have been like with Scott in the lead.

The picture that emerges is very different, the no-nonsense persona that Scott conveys in the two Death films (and their companion piece, Predeaux's Death Carries a Cane) being entirely at odds with the neurotic Minou, as someone who is about internalisation and introspection rather than externalisation and action.

Equally, however, it is important to recognise that Scott is in no way miscast. Rather, as with All the Colours of the Dark, she seems to enjoy the opportunity to play a more ambiguous character – a role not too distant, for that matter, those essayed by Simon Andreu opposite her in the other two films, albeit obviously with a more overt masculine danger.

Here Andreu is a more straightforward villain, leaving ambiguity up to Pier Paolo Capponi's Peter. While a relatively bland figure by comparison, one suspects this was something consciously sought by the film-makers, his sheer inoffensiveness providing additional reasons why Minou might have subconsciously sought to get into her predicament as a means of compelling Peter to do / say something. (Undoing the top of her dress at the start of the film - “ Dominique is right. I dress too much like a housewife” – Minou fantasises about telling Peter she has been having an affair to see what his reaction might be.)

Of the four leads, it is Lassander who has the most difficult role but who also, unfortunately, comes across as the least able to meet its demands, as perhaps signalled by the way in which Minou's inner state emerges as much through voice-over; a mise-en-scene that repeatedly emphasises mirrored and other doubled compositions; and thoughtful editing, most notably when a sequence of her making love to Peter is seamlessly intercut with her more S&M tinged encounter with the stranger, making it is difficult to tell who and what she is responding most passionately to.

Elsewhere the director throws in the odd nod to Cocteau and I Vampiri as the strangers' apartment, formerly festooned with plaster hands, is mysteriously devoid of signs of recent habitation when revisited by Minou with others in tow.

Morricone's score, with the exception of the odd party music cue that is just too far towards kitsch, is another asset, with its beautiful main theme and effective suspense cues.

The most unsatisfying aspect of the film for me was its last minute “surprise” ending. Though not completely deus ex machina, the very fact that it had to be summarised and explained within the diegesis seemed to indicate that the film-makers were really more interested with exploring Minou as a character than in crafting a more routine conspiracy thriller / mystery.

Indeed, in this regard while the film certainly recalls the kind of risqué gialli Lenzi and Baker were making around the same time, it also seems to suggest affinities with 1940s female noirs such as Mildred Pierce and, especially, The Reckless Moment at times.

While certainly willing to put herself in a compromising position to protect her husband (rather than daughter, as is the two 40s films) the thing Minou never contemplates is conspiring with or against her husband; in this respect those conspiring against her, whoever they may be, know her only too well that she is truly a signora per bene.

Yet – and this is perhaps the film's ultimate strength – while Minou may not be a murderous figure akin to Blood and Black Lace's Countess Cristina or A Bay of Blood's Renata, she is thereby also one that viewers can more readily identify and engage with, perversions and all.

The question the film then raises, consciously or otherwise, is what perverse actually means in a context where perversion – or at least specific manifestations of perversity, i.e. Minou's implicit masochism but not Dominique's confident bisexuality – is the social norm.

1 comment:

dave starry said...

An interesting essay. I finally took the opportunity to watch this film via the very nice Blue Underground DVD this past weekend. My initial reaction was that this was a rather average Italian thriller, but further reflection has elevated my opinion. As you mention, the ending really punctuates what otherwise might have been a fairly run-of-the-mill narrative (as Gastaldi says in the attached interview: "a reversal of a reversal of a reversal"). And, the fantastic Morricone score gives the movie that extra touch of class.