The body of a young woman is found in the trunk of a car belonging to the Swiss ambassador to Ireland, Sobieski (Anton Diffring). Her throat has been slit and her face melted by acid, making identification all but impossible until an anonymous parcel containing her passport is sent to the police and identifies her by name and as of Dutch origin.
The Iguana strikes with his fiery tongue...
... leaving a victim with a face burned beyond recognition
Close ups and zooms on glasses and cut throat razors are everywhere in the film
Do you think Freda is telling us that that ring means something?
With Sobieski recently having arrived from the Netherlands, suspicion falls upon him. Unfortunately he is also protected by diplomatic immunity and has influential connections, compelling Inspector Lawrence to use what he terms “unorthodox methods”.
These it transpires entail getting former colleague Norton (Luigi Pistilli) AKA “the beast”, who was thrown off the force following the death of a suspect whilst in his care, to see what he can find out through more covert means from the ambassador's wife (Valentina Cortese), daughter (Dagmar Lassander) and the embassy staff.
Sure enough, Norton soon uncovers a web of intrigues, including blackmail and drug smuggling. Meanwhile, the killer is steadily working his or her way through the blackmailers and, as Norton gets too closer to the truth, then targets the ex-cop's own daughter and mother – an eccentric old woman who refuses to wear her glasses and takes her own, Miss Marple-like interest in the case...
A blackmailing Tori Amos-alike gets hers
One suspects that responses to The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire will fall into two distinct camps: those who take it as just another giallo directed by a no-name filmmaker, and those who know that behind the multiple credits to “Willy Pareto” lurks one of the founding fathers of Italian horror and thriller cinema, Riccardo Freda.
Taken as just another giallo, the film delivers pretty much what we would expect – a black gloved killer, sleaze, sadism, stalking, sex and set pieces – and is not really any worse than innumerable others. Taken as a Freda film it is frankly a disappointment. Importantly, however, the use of Pareto rather than his more usual Robert Hampton pseudonym indicates that Freda himself was dissatisfied with the film and effectively disowned it.
Lassander doing what she did best
And as the woman in peril in one of the film's few truly effective and accomplished sequences
The questions that then emerge, seeing that Pareto is listed as co-writer, director and editor, are at what point Freda gave up on the film; itself one of the recurring features of his cinema. A man of independent means, Freda was in the apparently enviable position of not having to really worry about where his next paycheck was coming from. The downside, however, was that if he lost interest in a project there was little anyone could do to force him to redouble his efforts. On I Vampiri and Caltiki the Immortal Monster it had not mattered because of Mario Bava's involvement, precisely because his more precarious financial position meant that he could not afford to turn away work or risk getting a reputation for being difficult to work with.
Indeed, in this regard, a comparison of Iguana with Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon seems instructive: While Bava took over that project at the 11th hour and freely admitted to having no enthusiasm for the script he was given, one gets a sense of real enjoyment when watching it, of a filmmaker having fun playing with technique and the spectator's expectations. Here, however, it almost seems as if Freda had an equally muddled script that he thought could be brought to life in the course of filming, only to fail to find a spark at this point, and thus then endeavoured to save it at the editing stage, with little more success.
Taking the script to begin with, Sobieski is too obviously guilty for the attempted whodunnit aspect to really work. It would have been better, one feels, had be been explicitly identified as the killer at the outset, thus allowing the cat and mouse game to be foregrounded. Unfortunately what we get instead is the introduction of Pistilli and Lassander as suspects, with the former's crude proposition – “Well now me fleet footed filly, are we going to have it off in the bushes or on the bike?” – being greeted with the kind of enthusiasm from the latter that would only really make sense in a porn film.
While we do eventually learn Pistilli's true role and that Lassander is well aware of who he is, it does rob us of any strong points of identification until nearly midway through the film and places a sense of dubiety on both characters that fails to completely vanish. Likewise, the conflict between Norton as caring family man, traumatised by an incident in his past – itself shown in repeatedly flashbacks in that classic “primal scene” way – and as violent brute is never satisfactorily resolved.
In terms of the direction and editing, what we have are a few effective set pieces outweighed by a overall crudeness of approach in which far too many scenes degenerate into shock zooms in on and / or close ups of “significant” details, almost – but, crucially not – to the point of obvious parody.
The excessive violence that some have remarked on as further detracting from the film did not, however, seem that out of place as far as I was concerned. While this could be a reflection of desensitization or simply finding the effects work unconvincing, I would prefer to think it is down to the razor slashings and acid splashings being less a radical departure and more a logical continuation of the kind of thing already present in Barbara Steele's hand-held subjective camera razor attack om Peter Baldwin in The Ghost.
Dressed to kill?
Or, that rather than borrowing from Argento, Freda was merely reclaiming his own – albeit in the context of a black-gloved killer and a soundalike title shoehorned into the dialogue that, for better or worse, served to disguise this. (Reversing things, one further wonders if Argento, who has often proclaimed his admiration for Freda in interview, perhaps borrowed from the film's climax for the sequence in Opera where Betty, her vision similarly impaired, unwittingly invites the disguised killer into her apartment.)
One thing that remains is the performances. Though it could be argued that Pistilli and Diffring are really given little opportunity to do anything other than play to type, as man with issues and cold-eyed villain respectively, they perform these roles so well that it is hard to really be bothered. Valentina Cortese, meanwhile, seems to have been the one person to have genuinely enjoyed herself, playing the Ambassador's wife with a mixture of boredom, flirtatiousness, sardonic wit, hauteur and downright out there-ness. Lassander is eye candy, no more, no less.
Another is Stelvio Cipriani's score. Thought some of the cues are used as diegetic shock effects, lessening their value in their own right, the lush, romantic piano pieces with vocalism by Nora Orlandi – an equally talented composer in her own right – that play in the nightclub scene / scene of the second murder are pleasant compensation.