The key words that sum up this 1970 giallo from Duccio Tessari are downbeat, depressing and disturbing – and I mean those as compliments.
At the same time, one can easily appreciate how this would not help its recognition by closed-minded genre fans – good time, trashy entertainment it is not – while the same fact of being made by someone previously responsible for sundry pepla, spaghettis and superspies likely meant it tended to go under-appreciated by mainstream critics; as evinced by Tom Milne's Monthly Film Bulletin review of the time, wherein he argued that the film seemed “to be wrestling with ideas rather above its station”.
If only it were a case of 'their loss being our gain', but with only grey market sources available – and here I must thank Paul for giving me the opportunity to at least see the film – it is another instance where the limitations of the presentation mean that a certain degree of dedication to the cause, above and beyond what should really be required is necessary; this is a film which deserves a top-notch official release from the likes of Blue Underground, Noshame or Mondo Macabro.
Though the seriousness and character-driven nature of the film makes it of a piece with the director's other equally impressive gialli, I also wonder whether some of Death Occurred Last Night's particular qualities might also be attributed to co-writer and producer Artur Brauner.
While better known as a purveyor of lowest common denominator fare like his (Bryan) Edgar Wallace adaptations and for giving Fritz Lang the opportunity to make another Dr Mabuse film before then subjecting the character to the indignities of becoming little more than a franchise figure, Brauner was also someone who had also long striven to re-establish the artistic credibility of his adopted homeland's cinema. He had, for example, written and produced one of West Germany's first films about Nazi atrocities, Morituri and advocated a “risky wave” of more challenging cinema in advance of the Oberhausen Manifesto; if he was guilty of producing the kind of crass, conservative, commercial cinema the Oberhausen signatories criticised, he was also someone who saw that a healthy cinema could and should support a diversity of production – indeed, the same year as he produced this film he also had a credit on Vittorio De Sica's Garden of the Finzi-Continis.
In terms of Death Occurred Last Night specifically the Italian and German sides of the co-production seem to emerge in the contrast between the official / krimi police procedural investigation that dominates the first half of the film and the subsequent shift into more private / giallo / poliziotto quests as the inadequacies of the law in the face of widespread social weakness, corruption and indifference become all-too evident.
The film opens with distraught widower Berzaghi (Raf Vallone) paying a desperate visit to high-ranking policeman Dr Lamberti (Frank Wolff). Berzaghi explains that his daughter Donatella has been missing for the past month. Thinking he has heard it all before, Lamberti asks how old the missing girl. On hearing the answer 25, he thinks he knows it all too.
Then Berzaghi explains: Donatella has the mental age of a three-year old. She is also physically attractive, trusting and if not necessarily “nymphomaniac” - a term that I think would imply a more 'adult' awareness of things – certainly flirtatious.
Deciding that Donatella has most likely been abducted for use as a prostitute, Berzaghi and his colleague Mascaranti (Gabriel Tinti) call on an ex-pimp contact, Salvatore, now working in a car showroom – in keeping with the pervasive mood, perhaps not really that much of a change of occupational direction; a sense again conveyed by the preceding scene in which a woman poses as a customer, takes a sports car for a test drive and leaves Salvatore with the vehicle once she has reached her destination.
Reluctantly Salvatore takes Lamberti and Mascaranti around Milan's brothels as they search for a lead. The undercover investigation seems, however, to be going nowhere, especially after the hot-headed Mascaranti reacts instinctively to the appearance of a couple of heavies and thereby alerts the underworld. Lamberti, however, also makes contact with an independent prostitute, Terrell, who indicates that one of her clients might have seen the missing girl and thereby provides a new avenue for investigation. Concerned for her safety, Lamberti takes her home with him, much to the consternation of his long-suffering wife (Eva Renzi).
A few days later, Salvatore contacts Lamberti indicating that he has heard that Donatella's abductors want to be rid of her, and agrees to help arrange a meet / sting operation. Unfortunately Salvatore is not being entirely honest and in trying a scam only succeeds in bringing about Donatella's murder, her horribly burnt body being found in a field...
Wolff's Dr Lamberti is a policeman who wears the weight of the world on his shoulders, his conscience and commitment to his job such that he cannot permit himself two weeks leave to have his sinus problems treated - it is not as if the criminals would also take a fortnight's holiday, he explains - while the torment and anguish Vallone's father goes through and the way he expresses them are heart-wrenching.
Tessari's direction is fairly straightforward for the most part, putting the camera at the service of story and performers rather than engaging in self-conscious displays of technique. At the same time, however, one of the most memorable moments sees him shoot a stairway from below in almost abstracted fashion as oranges rain down in slow motion. But crucially it is not gratuitous. Rather it stands out precisely because in the context of the narrative it comes at the moment when one of the conspirators reveals herself and drops her shopping.
Indeed, to return to an argument I made in relation to Puzzle, where I suggested that Tessari might be considered a master of the traditional thriller, it is a moment that seems distinctively Hitchcockian, in terms of Gilles Deleuze's notions of the Hitchcock “demark”- i.e. the thing that should not be; that does not belong there, and which which thereby stains or reveals the guilty - with the teddy bear Berzaghi is carrying functioning in a similar way to, for instance, the distinctive necklace forgetfully donned by Judy in Vertigo.
Although there is a nice moment early on as a flashback sequence showing the Berzaghi family's daily routine sees Donatalla put on a record - with forceful vocals by the inimitable Mina - which then plays diegetically over the scene, I cannot help feel that it often detracts from the sombre tone of the film, being too bold, brash and upbeat and insufficiently melancholy. Some of the cues even sound almost interchangable with those composer Gianni Ferrio provided for the very different - i.e. trashy fun - Death Walks at Midnight; not a good thing however enjoyable listening they are in their own right. Still, this is but a minor issue in a film otherwise distinguished by sensitive, thoughful - and thought-provoking - writing, direction and performances.