Friday, 2 February 2007

Sette note in nero / Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes

As a child Virginia she saw her mother commit suicide. It is the kind of traumatic incident that is not especially unusual in the world of the giallo, but for the fact that Virginia was in Florence, Italy at the time and her mother Dover, England.

Mummy!”; compare to the death of Jill's mother in The Beyond

Just like the killer's demise at the end of Don't Torture a Duckling

After almost 20 years Virginia (Jennifer O'Neill) has managed to just about put the memory behind her, and is newly married to Francesco (Gianni Garko). As he departs on a business trip, Virginia travels out to his villa in the country, which she plans to redecorate.

En route, she has a vision of a middle-aged woman being buried alive by a bearded man with a limp. Arriving, she is shocked to discover the place looks exactly like the one she has just seen in her mind's eye. Worse, there is a skeleton behind one of the walls.

Note how a couple of clergy dressed in red 'just happen' to walk past to provide another instance of colour association

From the skeleton, the police are able to determine that the victim was aged around 25 and was murdered around five years previously. It soon emerges that Francesco's lover Agnesi disappeared about this time. Unable to provide a satisfactory alibi – he left for the US shortly after, but still had a window of opportunity – and with Virginia's visions obviously inadmissible, he is arrested on suspicion of murder.

Virginia, aided by her parapsychologist friend Luca (Marc Porel) and sister-in-law Gloria (Ida Galli / Evelyn Stewart), thus sets out to locate the limping man in her vision and prove her husband's innocence.

While it is probable that the commercial success of Deep Red played some part in Lucio Fulci's decision to not only return to the giallo after a five year absence but also introduce a supernatural / fantastical element to the proceedings, it would be a mistake to label Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes / The Psychic as nothing more than a rip-off.

Rather, it seems to have been one of his more personal, committed projects whose failure to find an audience is perhaps less a reflection of weaknesses as confounding preconceptions as to what a Fulci film is.

The pre-credits suicide sequence is pivotal in this regard. The slow-motion shots of Virginia's mother smashing off the rocks are the kind of shock images that grab you and makes you wonder where the film-maker is going to take you next, especially if you know that his previous giallo, Don't Torture a Duckling, had ended with pretty much the same shots.

As it turns out, however, the remainder of the film performs something of an about face, presenting a paucity of violent set pieces likely to disappoint anyone coming to it with expectations raised (retroactively we must remember) by the likes of The Beyond or The New York Ripper.

Nevertheless, as the immediate referencing of Don't Torture a Duckling also indicates, the film is otherwise of a piece with Fulci's other horror and giallo work.

Stylistically Fulci uses the same panoply of devices – extreme close-ups and zooms, especially on and into the eyes; rack focus into or out of objects or characters such that figure becomes ground, the concrete abstract and vice-versa; down to the momentary bleaching out of the image by the police photographer's flashbulb as he photographs the crime scene as in A Lizard in a Woman's Skin. (If it isn't broken, don't fix it.)

Giallo brand cigarettes against a blue backdrop

Black and white as the crime scene is photographed

Thematically the film likewise turns on the same question of what the protagonist's dreams or visions mean and how they relate to past, present and future, reality and possibility, the main difference lying in the interpretive schema used, parapsychology rather than psychoanalysis; even if the hard-headed officers of the law in both films regard them as equally pseudo-sciences compared with the facts provided by their forensics.

The genre colour is also significant within the diegesis through the clues of the cigarette with a distinctive yellow paper and the livery of the cab seen by Virginia, as it turns out that Gloria smokes the former and that there were only 16 of the latter in the city at the time of Agnesi's disappearance.

The main question, one suspects, is whether this, combined with the assured performances – O'Neill a suitably fragile beauty, Garko disarmingly charming and Galli (in dubbing voice at least) bitchy yet protective – and restrained yet effective score from frequent Fulci collaborators Frizzi, Bixio and Tempera is sufficient.

Here one admits to not being so sure and to finding it more a film to be appreciated than enjoyed. Then again, this sense of hesitation and inability to decide – does the avoidance of gory set pieces make or break The Psychic? is a palette of seven black notes / tonalities sufficiently expressive? – is itself the hallmark of the fantastical.

It is perhaps this that ultimately marks the film out as a vital point in Fulci's filmography as the moment of transition from the rational world of the gialli that preceded it, where there has to be a reason / explanation for everything that happens, and the absurdist horrors that followed it, where the dead walk.

It is also worth noting in this context the way in which the pivotal moment in The New York Ripper, upon which the identification of the maniac hinges, again relies upon an ambiguous vision.


Jean-Yves said...

This is my favorite Fulci movie: captivating and extremely well architected, keeping the viewer guessing until the last minute. O'Neill is excellent and Garko is better than usual.
Fulci was a very talented film-maker, more so than his "Trilogy" indicates in my views, and it is too bad he did not churn out more movies like this (A Lizard... comes to mind as being broadly in the same vein). We will soon know if Una Sull'altra is as good!
By the way, Keith, I notice you seem to have seen the movie in a VHS version: there is an excellent French DVD available that has a very good transfer, maybe you should check it out/

K H Brown said...

Una Sull'altra is good - if Lizard in a Woman's skin is Fulci's take on Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it is his version of Vertigo. The only thing that lets it down, in my opinion, is the final resolution, which wasn't as uncompromising as I like.

I saw Una Sull'altra via video. Does your remark indicate that there is a DVD of it to add to the shopping list along with the French Sette note in nero disc - thanks for the heads up on this - to replace my Japanese sourced video with burned in subtitles.

Whiggles said...

The DVD of "One on Top of the Other" is coming out in the US later this month under the title of "Perversion Story". Severin Films is putting it out, and this will be its first (legitimate) DVD release.

The French DVD of "Seven Notes in Black" is very nice, but alas lacks English audio support - not even subtitles. This is a film that I definitely think benefits from being watched in English, given that it contrasts the native English speech of Jennifer O'Neill with the heavily Italian-accented speech of the locals very effectively.

stephen grimes said...

Neo Publishing who put out 7 Notes have also released a load of giallo titles lately including Spasmo,My Dear Killer,7 Bloodstained Orchids,Strip Nude for your Killer etc.Great to see all these on the shelves over here in France and there's obviously a market for them as new titles are appearing all the time.