Things are not going well for Dr George Dumurrier (George Sorel). His clinic is in financial difficulties and he cannot spend as much time with his sick wife, Susan (Marisa Mell), as he would like. Susan's illness, an especially acute form of asthma, has also made her bitter, encouraging George to embark on an affair with Jane (Elsa Martinelli). She in turn is now wanting George to get more serious about their relationship.
Director Fulci in one of his customary cameo appearances, here directing attention to a vital detail
Suddenly everything changes for the better as Susan suffers a fatal asthma attack and George learns that he is the sole beneficiary of an insurance policy he did not know she had.
Then everything gets much, much worse. While out dining with Jane, George receives a mysterious phone call summoning him to a strip club, The Roaring Twenties, where one of the dancers, Monica Weston (Marisa Mell), bears a remarkable physical similarity to Susan. An insurance investigator is also on George's trail, puts two and two together and, investigating the woman, finds evidence that implicates George in his wife's murder and could lead him to the gas chamber...
Note the symbolic / expressive use of giallo
One on Top of the Other - a title I prefer to the alternative Perversion Story for both being a literal translation of the Italian Una sull'altra and avoiding any confusion when director Lucio Fulci's other 1969 film, Beatrice Cenci, has also gone under the Perversion Story label – provides a fascinating insight into how the giallo might have developed had it not been for Dario Argento. In taking up the themes and iconography of Bava's The Girl Who Knew too Much and Blood and Black Lace and infusing them with his own distinctive psychosexual unease, Argento undoubtedly gave the filone a massive boost but also arguably served to inhibit its development as the kind of erotic thriller that can be seen emerging here and in the likes of Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo and So Sweet, So Perverse or Riccardo Freda's Double Face, all dating from the end of the 1960s.
Equally, however, when one watches these films and their director's subsequent, post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage, contributions to the filone a key difference emerges: whereas Lenzi and Freda seem more comfortable in the pre-Argento world, Fulci exhibits a greater degree of adaptability and ability to successfully synthesise other filmmakers' concerns with his own.
For if Argento was the starting point for A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, sometimes remarked upon as being as a kind of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in negative or mirror image, the departure points here are Vertigo and Double Indemnity, the former foregrounded through the San Francisco locations and doubling of the (dark) Susan and (blonde) Monica; the latter through the importance of money over sex as motive.
The eyes as window to the soul; are Susan Dumurrier and Monica Weston one and the same?
The image and its double
And if Fulci's writing and directing are not on the same exalted plane as those of his models, with the final third of the film perhaps not quite matching the first two and his displays of technique sometimes coming across as too much for their own sake, One on Top of the Other is nevertheless an accomplished and entertaining piece of work in which a surprising degree of thought is apparent - surprising, that is, for the uninitiated, not for the typical reader of this piece.
Variations on the hand and the glove; touching and being touched
Thus, for example, while it is true that Hitchcock would never have used an impossible angle from inside / behind a cabinet, it is the precisely this emphatic technique that suggests Fulci was thinking about the needs of his audiences, in further spelling out to them that the difference between the two very similar looking bottles of medicine on the same shelf is important and, equally importantly, endeavouring to do so cinematically. (If anyone wants to do a deconstructionist reading of the film inspired by Derrida's notion of the pharmakon as poison / cure, here is a c(l)ue.)
Time-capsule eroticism, tease and sleaze from 1969
It can also be said that some of his signature tropes have more of a raison d'être than was often the case, the close-ups and zoom-ins on eyes in particular serving to foreground the question of whether Susan and Monica are in fact one and the same.
Poison was the cure
Likewise, those familiar with Fulci's oeuvre as a whole will notice the little touches – the nose plugs in Susan's body, recalling City of the Living Dead and Fulci's medical background – or the broader sense of a distinctive radical / conservative politics that critiques the death penalty while simultaneously expressing deep unease at the emerging hippie-style demi-monde of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Although it is difficult to fully appreciate the nuances of performance in the VHS-dub version of the film I watched – there is now thankfully a DVD from Severin Films, complete with the Italian audio – the cast of familiar genre stars and supporting players seem to do a good job; to put it another way, though Mell's dubbing voice as Monica Weston is a touch too trashy it does not induce laughter in the manner of the more pick and mix English voice assortments of Cold Eyes of Fear or All the Colours of the Dark. (One of Fulci's other strengths in his gialli was his ability to bring out the specifics of a location, be it London, San Francisco, New York, or rural southern Italy.)
Fulci was never afraid to experiment; the middle shot is from the love scene between George and Jane
Riz Ortolani's brash, big band styled score suits the ambience surprisingly well and once more demonstrates the sheer versatility and adaptability of the Italian composers of this period, while Alejandro Ulloa's crisp cinematography adds to the slickness of the overall experience.
As Adrian Luther-Smith said, “a giallo that rests atop many others”.