The body of a young woman is found on the beach, her face burned beyond recognition. The post-mortem reveals that she had been shot and bludgeoned. In addition to the official investigation, retired old-timer Inspector Timpson (Ray Milland) takes an interest in the case, which soon becomes an obsession.
The true face of horror
Deciding that before they can find the killer they must first identify the victim, the police have the body embalmed and put on public display. This seems to give them the break they need, leading to the arrest of a low-life by the name of Quint.
Timpson, however, is not convinced and goes to a rendezvous with the man he believes to be the real killer. The correctness of his deduction is confirmed by his own murder, compelling his ex-colleagues to re-open the case...
The macabre, Damien Hirst-like exhibition of the pyjama girl to the Sydney public
Luis Barboo in a cameo appearance as one of the audience; note the yellow of the perspex of the girls's glass cage
Though La Ragazza dal pigiama giallo / The Pyjama Girl Case / The Girl in the Yellow Pyjamas is the film certainly belongs within the form, as signalled by its self-referential title, hardly your typical giallo.
Drawing its inspiration from a notorious real-life murder case that shocked 1930s Australia (and which is examined in detail on the featurette on Blue Underground's excellent DVD) the film avoids the conventional trappings of black gloved killers, subjective stalk and slash camera and so on, favouring a low-key approach that's almost documentary like at times, most notably in its warts-and-all exploration of the demi-monde of Sydney's immigrant communities. (“Don't tell me you're jealous – Oh yes, you're Italian...”)
Michele Placido plays to the Italian stereotype
Stylised, but not too stylised?
It also throws the viewer expecting a conventional giallo for a loop through the device – only understood retrospectively – of introducing the pyjama girl to us in a parallel narrative, without revealing that it takes place in the past.
Indeed, thanks to the inclusion of a conventionally connoted vaseline-on-the-lens type dreamy “I remember” flashback in which she and her friend go to bed together, we could easily think that the latter is the victim and that what's about to develop is your standard psychosexual killer seeking to punish deviant women type affair.
What emerges is far more disturbing precisely on account of its banality, as we see how the “pyjama girl” (Dalila Di Lazarro) is deserted by her lover (Mel Ferrer), marries another (Michele Placido) on the rebound, embarks on an affair with a third (Howard Ross / Renato Rossini) and falls pregnant, en route to a denouement that's less premeditated murder than the inevitable accidental outcome of circumstances.
It's the kind of everyday tragedy that we find in neo-realism – the peasant girl mistaken for the GI's killer in Paisa and then shot as a Nazi collaborator, say – or in Pabst's Pandora's Box – the pyjama girl as a 1970s Lulu – of all-too-human characters rather than would-be supermen.
Equally, however, these two unlikely seeming reference points also point to one of the film's few weaknesses, perhaps stemming from director and co-writer Flavio Mogherini's background as a production designer.
It's that tension between simply showing the world out there and making more obvious interventions, of whether its enough in itself to show a factory floor to make a socio-political point or make it a more overtly expressionistic / symbolic unnatural landscape, or what the use of slow-motion and yellow lighting say as the pyjama girl ascends the stairs with the men to whom she has agreed to prostitute herself.
The giallo as exploitation and commentary on exploitation
Sometimes, as in both these instances, the ostensible gulf between objective and subjective is intersubjectively resolved in that poetic manner Mikel Koven distinguishes, although I would contend that there is also a greater degree of conscious artistry here than his thesis would seem to admit of. Elsewhere, however, as with the red and green lights that Mogherini likes to have play across the pyjama girl's face, it feels too self-conscious and contrived.
A case of Bava or Argento-itis
In a similar vein, if it seems impossible for directors to film in Sydney without including a scene or two in front of the opera house there are again potential subtexts: what does it represent, but a vision of the Australian dream; a dream only available to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised as an exterior to be taken in but not actually entered into.
As Troy Howarth pointed out, there are certain parallels between the film and Dario Argento's Sleepless, where Ulysses Moretti is also a retired ex-detective whose unofficial investigation is regarded with suspicion and / or derision by his younger counterparts, but ultimately leads to the solving of the case – albeit at the cost of his life as he gets too close to the truth. (“Times have changed. The modern delinquent's a different breed... don't take this to heart but age isn't on your side and God knows what you might run into in a case of this kind.”)
Yet beyond this Sleepless is the more traditional and conventional giallo through its cunning psychopath playing games with the police and extensive use of the subjective camera killers' eye-view set pieces, precisely because it represented an attempt by its director to “get back to basics” and give his core audience what they wanted / expected after the debacle of Phantom of the Opera.
Where Argento does seem to succeed, however, is in painting a more convincing picture of modern versus traditional police methods, insofar as here modern methods come down to old-fashioned brutality as a confession is forcibly extracted from Quint. Unless, of course, that's the point the film-makers were making here, of a sense of frustration creeping in as new technological and criminological approaches fail to deliver what they promise:
“I've got a theory. In my opinion the girl was raped before she was killed, obviously by some psychopath. Probably a man with a castration complex.”
Again, one comes down to that interpretive richness that makes the film so fascinating to review...
The alien geography of Sydney
Minor criticisms notwithstanding, The Pyjama Girl Case emerges as an impeccably mounted example of the filone as non-filone, the kind of giallo where the writing, direction, performances – Di Lazarro and Michele Placido are particularly outstanding as the ill-fated couple – and overall seriousness of tone, where the sleazy and salacious details always have that double edge to them, perhaps most eloquently expressed in the gallery sequence where the girl's body is exhibited like some perverse artwork before crowds of ambiguously motivated public spirited and / or ghoulish types, could appeal to wider audiences for whom the term “European cult cinema” is otherwise anathema.
A Bava-esque pieta?