Following a racing car accident that leaves her out of cash and short on options, Helen (Caroll Baker) is surprised to receive an invitation from her ex-husband Maurice (Jean Sorel) to pay him a visit at his luxury villa on the Mallorca coast.
Caroll Baker, but not as we normally know her, in the negative image titles that warrant close scrutiny.
Arriving, she is even more surprised to learn that Maurice married again, shortly after divorcing her three years previous, and that is was in fact his wife, Constance (Anna Proclemer), who penned the invite.
Up-tight American women meet “typical European male, selfish, amoral and corrupt”
But finds him irresistible nonetheless; blocks of red recur throughout Lenzi's compositions, with colour being used in an expressive manner.
Offering Helen money to pay for her smashed car, hospital bills and to generally get back on her feet, Constance soon reveals her reasons for asking Helen here: she is concerned that Maurice is “only waiting for a richer woman,” and will surely abandon her, as he did Helen, once she has outlived her usefulness.
Helen is wary of both getting involved, however, on account of her own ambivalent feelings towards Maurice – it was his presence, real or imagined, at the racetrack that immediately precipitated her accident – in that can't live with him / can't live without him repulsion / attraction dynamic.
Indeed, that night Helen thinks back to happier times with Maurice, before being interrupted by Constance: Maurice suffers an attack of some kind – a suspicious coincidence given the emerging conspiracy, especially when Constance accidentally-on-purpose drops the only hypodermic of adrenalin before it can be administered to Maurice.
Unfortunately for her, he does not need it, recovering of his own accord or through Helen's ministrations; the filmmakers decision to elide exactly what happened a wise one.
Mirrors and double-images also recur throughout
The next day, Constance makes Helen a new offer: $100,000 to help her dispose of Maurice. She gives Helen a day to think about it while she is out of town sorting out the latest problems with her daughter Susan, the product of her previous marriage to the oil-tycoon from whom she inherited her fortune.
Helen does and decides to get away from the villa. Her car will not start, however, and thus she is forced to stay there, with Maurice. Though Helen soon discovers that Maurice removed a part from her car, she finds it impossible to be angry with him – the addiction Constance spoke of is growing; the drug not Helen as the Spanish title (Una Droga llamada Helen) has it, but Maurice – and avenges herself by indulging in some hair-raising driving stunts (something of an Umberto Lenzi signature if one thinks of his poliziotto work) en route to the disco.
The obligatory Psycho allusion
There the director goes into zoom, whip pan and dutch angle overload, while Maurice tells Helen that he still loves her: “I've done everything wrong, but I want to make it up to you.” They kiss and a red curtain wipes across the scene, before we cut to a new location, a coastal tower (again the Lenzi fan might note similarities with the lighthouse in Spasmo) and the bedrooom, where Helen and Maurice have just made love for the first time since their divorce. “I couldn't help myself. I had to make love with you one more time.”
Again, however, that the scene is established via a mirror shot and sees Maurice make his more controlled declaration of love whilst looking in it – vanity, thy name is also man – is suggestive that something is not quite right.
Sure enough, Maurice then makes Helen a proposal of his own, that they should get back together. The only fly in the ointment is that neither has any money. Maurice suggests, however, that Constance would quite possibly countenance a menage a trois, so confident is he of his effect on her.
But Helen is appalled at the suggestion and, with Constance returning, announces that she has now reached her decision: to get rid of Maurice. “The most important thing is that it must look like an accident.” “And that I be there to witness it.”
“Hey, will you stop it with that spying machine of yours”
Accordingly, the women convince Maurice to take them out on his boat on a fishing trip. As he is about to go SCUBA diving Helen points the spear gun at him, but finds she cannot shoot him. There is a struggle, in which Maurice fatally stabs Constance with his knife. Thinking fast – their friends Harry (Alberto Dalbés) and Hymie are approaching in their boat and want to pull up alongside – the conspirators tie Constance's body to the anchor and capsize the craft.
Harry is not entirely convinced that it was an accident, however – how did an experienced sailor sink his vessel doing a routine manouevre on a calm sea, and accordingly decide to investigate the accident. He thus resolves to find Constance's body.
Worse still, Susan (Marina Coffa) arrives unexpectedly and, on learning of her mother's death and noticing the hints of intimacy between her stepfather and Helen, begins to voice her suspicions. “I've thought of a plot for a murder story. A man and a woman meet again and fall in love. But he's married again and so they decide to murder the second wife and make it look like an accident...”
Like its predecessor Orgasmo – which confusingly also has Paranoia as one of its AKA's – this is one of those gialli that functions primarily as a sexed up variant on the classic thriller, part Hitchcock, part noir and part Les Diaboliques. As such, it serves to indicate the inadequacies of Linda Williams's summary dismissal of the form, read through the usual reductive lens of Argento and Bava, as fundamentally irrelevant to the emergence of the contemporary “erotic thriller”.
Classic giallo imagery - the bloody knife, the J&B bottle and a yellow telephone
Much more importantly as far as the casual viewer is concerned, it is also a damn good example of its type that pretty much pushes all the right buttons, showcasing yet another group of glamourous jet-setters doing unpleasant things to one another in pleasant, sun-drenched, not-a-care-in-the-world locations; very much A Beautiful Place to Kill.
Some may find Lenzi's direction, like that of many giallo directors, to be somewhat zoom happy but this is counterbalanced by the general quality of his compositions and the range of techniques he deploys to generally good effect. You get the sense that he was making an effort here, trying things out, looking for interesting ways of telling the story visually, instead of just seeking the fastest and most economical route to the finished product. While his strategies, such as a repeated emphasis on mirrored compositions, expressive use of colour (particularly red), shifts in focus and a general self-conscious aesthetic, are perhaps not the most innovative – we need some new clichés – they work well enough that in the end one does not really mind too much.
Despite four different writers being credited, the narrative is near water tight and keeps one engaged and guessing throughout, throwing in as many twists and turns as the coastal roads carved out of the cliffs of the landscape whilst avoiding anything too contrived. Again, you can tell that things are there for a reason.
The performances are likewise impressive, the various conspirators and co-conspirators playing their roles to a T, such that one understands why Helen continues to feel something for Maurice despite herself and what she knows about him, making her “addiction” and subsequent predicament credible.
The whole thing is rounded off to (near) perfection by attractive lensing – Aristide Massaccessi was camera operator, Gugliemo Mancori cinematographer – production design and scoring, with Gregorio Garcia Segura's lounge jazz score betraying the influence of credited group director Piero Umiliani in the best possible way; given that some of the compositions are reminiscent of those in Five Dolls for an August Moon and sound like they also have Umiliani at the Hammond, one also wonders how extensive the two men's contributions were and whether Segura's credit was more for co-production or other contractual reasons.