The question the student of Italian genre cinema may find themselves asking is whether The Killers are our Guests / Gli assassini sono nostro ospiti is a poliziotto posing as a giallo, a giallo posing as poliziotto, or just a crime thriller that happens to oscillate between filone in a way that made box-office sense in 1974 and complicates things for us today in trying to write about it.
Certainly the opening pre-credits sequence, in which a woman, Elisa (Margaret Lee), steals a car is more poliziotto in its dynamics: the street is too well lit and open for a giallo, the danger more that from bag snatcher than black gloved, blade-wielding assassin. Yet much will ultimately come to hang on this, via the victim's testimone oculare. (The poliziotto detective does not need the eye-witness; he knows who the bad guys are, his problem to prove it.)
This comes with hindsight, however, with the first act of the movie proper being very much poliziotto in its dynamics, as a group of three masked robbers – including, as we later learn, Elisa – hold up a jewellery store, the whole operation apparently masterminded by a fourth figure, Eddie, who is located in the cafe opposite where he acts as lookout and runs interference on the play by making a distracting telephone at the moment the others rush in.
Things do not go according to (Nice Guy?) Eddie's gameplan, however, and a shoot-out ensues, leaving the jewellery store owner's son and a customer dead and one of the robbers, Franco, with a life-threatening bullet wound.
Fleeing the scene in the getaway car, Franco, Mario and Elisa debate the situation:
Franco: “What went wrong?”
Mario: “I'll tell you what went wrong: having a woman with us. They warned me not to take you!”
Elisa: “I told you I didn't know how to shoot. Anyway Franco got in front of me!”
While Mario is in favour of getting out of the city as fast as possible and letting Franco take his chances, Elisa insists that they take him to the nearest doctor. The matter is settled when, swerving to avoid a truck that appears out of the mist, their driver crashes, fatally injuring himself – unhesitatingly Mario puts a bullet in his brain – and leaving the others trapped in the city and forced to go along with Elisa's proposal. Accordingly they head for the nearest doctor, one Dr Guido Malerva (Anthony Steffen), and burst in on him and his wife, Mara.
At this point the film becomes more the traditional The Desperate Hours style thriller – or, if one wants Italian reference points, Enzo Castellari's Cold Eyes of Fear and Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park – as the householders look for the opportunity to escape, alert the authorities or turn their situation to their respective benefit, as their already fraught relationship is pushed to breaking point.
“Get up Mara!”
“Why should I?!”
“Look, we'll just have to do what they tell us to do – we don't have any choice.”
This also leads to one of the odder seeming sequences in the film as Mara and Elisa find the time for a pseudo-lesbian encounter. Crucially, however, alhough its primary function is obviously that of providing an extra little frisson for the (assumed male) spectator, it is not completely gratuitous in terms of also showcasing Mara's desire to humiliate a husband she sees as weak and ineffectual and her relentless probing for weaknesses in the intruders' armour, with a degree of critical distance also being imparted by the way in which it the scene is consciously presented as a pseudo-lesbian act staged for the benefit of Guido and / or Mario.
It is also true to say, however, that writer-director and cinematographer Vincenzo Rigo never quite manages to really get to grips with the scene and communicate what it might mean beyond this. Indeed, this is something which the film as a whole suffers from, its dynamics being neither satifactorily those of giallo nor poliziotto, suspense nor shock. Again, however, the combination is a difficult one to pull off. And if The Killers are our Guests' denouement is hardly on a par with that of Rabid Dogs – Bava's film being a textbook example of how to do the suspense / shock thing in a way that just makes you appreciate every nuance of dialogue, performance and direction that second time round – it feels less contrived than House on the Edge of the Park and demonstrates more of a sense of aspiration. (Again, however, this is not to criticise Deodato per se. Rather, his film, like Castellari's, has its own strengths, delivering what is expected but not striving to go beyond this as a goal.)
A moment of giallo style abstract artistry
Pistilli with major sideburn action
One of those 70s faces as Mario
The mille miglia look, circa 1974
Whatever one ends up feeling about Rigo's film, Margaret Lee and Luigi Pistilli are good value, the latter's role as the cop assigned the case again enhancing the overarching sense of thriller-ness by being neither classic giallo amateur detective nor classic poliziotto man-on-a-mission. Roberto Rizzo's effective score also makes one wonder why his name is not more familiar.