Inspector Franz Bulov (John Mills) of Interpol is a man beset by problems. Hamburg has become a centre for the narcotics trafficking and he is under pressure to crack the case. Bulov is one-hundred percent certain than Schurmann is at the centre of the operation – although less so whether Shurmann is acting alone or represents a larger syndicate – but has not managed to get any actual evidence to this effect. Whenever an would-be informant comes forth with the offer of such, they invariably meet a swift end at the hands of a hitman. To make matters worse, Bulov is increasingly suspicious that his considerably younger wife Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi) is having an affair, as she often fails to return his calls or is unexpectedly absent from their home, and this finding it harder to concentrate on official business.
Touches of giallo
It is not, however, that the assassin, Max Lindt (Robert Hoffmann) is having things any easier. Having successfully undertaken three jobs he feels he has already stretched his luck and just wants to take his money and get out of the city. But his contact indicates that it would be bad for his health not to postpone his flight and do a fourth:
“How often do you think a man can get away with murder? I've been lucky. I want to stay lucky”
“You don't understand Max – there isn't much choice.”
“What do you mean?”
“You want to go away? Not tomorrow. Go away the day after tomorrow. Take my advice – if you want to be around and catch that plane, well then do what I tell you.”
Yet more classic iconography
Sure enough, Max's luck runs out this time round. While the hit again goes off without any difficulties, he drops his distinctive lucky silver dollar (complete with mark caused by stopping a bullet) by the body. Bulov finds its and thus the clue he needs for a break in the case, as he recalls that not too long ago he had rounded up a with a compulsive habit of tossing a similar coin: Max Lindt.
But by the time Bulov had managed to track down and apprehend Max his balance of priorities has once more shifted towards Lisa. Unsatisfied by her explanation that the red Porsche she was in belonged to a purported friend he had never previously heard her mention – a small detail of the sort it it worth paying attention to in this carefully constructed film – he is now convinced she is unfaithful. In his quiet, calm, controlled rage he thus makes Max an offer / deal, the exact details of which are however left deliberately vague for us, the filmmakers glossing over the rest of the exchange: Max is to kill Lisa.
Bulov – a divided self?
Posing as an insurance salesman – a nicely ironic occupation if one considers intertexts such as Double Indemnity and The Killers – Max pays Lisa a visit. Whether on account of his inherent reluctance to carry out such a bad luck job, immediate physical attraction or Lisa's handling of the situation, Max does not go through with the deed the first time round and begins to hatch a plan of his own...
Released in 1968, La morte no ha sesso / A Black Veil for Lisa presents an intriguing post-Bava, pre-Argento take on the giallo for those who are interested in charting the development of the filone and an engaging noir-styled crime story for those less concerned with such details.
One area where the former aspect is apparent is the way Max is presented. We are first introduced to him as the metonymic black-gloved hand, invariably tossing a coin George Raft style when it not wielding a knife. His attire – a black raincoat completes the ensemble – has some of the qualities of a disguise as per Blood and Black Lace (we're even told that the clothes and weapon are “mass produced [...] cheap stuff that anyone can pick up in a chain-store”) but Max's superstitious nature (“I've lost my lucky dollar!” “Is that the end of the world?” “Yes, for me it is!”) coupled with ritualistic way he leaves the weapon, gloves and coat by the body of each victim suggest a fetish element more akin to the post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage giallo.
Some of the many faces of Lisa
Another important element here is the fact that A Black Veil for Lisa is not particulary concerned with the conventional whodunnit aspect of most gialli, with Max's second appearance – i.e. qua Max, the professional assassin – momentarily throwing one's genre expectations for a loop given the his more generically conventional introduction.
Equally, however, the films position as one with more in common with the earlier noir than later poliziotto-giallo hybrids such as director Massimo Dallamano's own What Have You Done to Your Daughters? is signalled by the way in which Bulov is from the outset a decidedly compromised figure, frequently shot by the director in profile or with half his face in shadow to suggest a divided and / or duplicitous nature. While a poliziotto type cop would certainly bend the rules, filmmakers invariably made it clear that this was an ends justifying the means strategy and that the division between police protagonist and gangster antagonist was ultimately an absolute one. Here, by contrast, we have two compromised male figures with far more in common than they would perhaps care to admit. (Significantly Max also uses the alias Hans Schmidt, his forename sounding too like Franz for Lisa's liking.)
Both are, after all, defined in terms of their unhealthy obsessions, Bulov with Lisa, Max with his lucky coin, which then become symbols of exchange between them (i.e. Bulov takes possession of the coin, Max of Lisa). Both also seek to manipulate time to their advantage, Bulov extracting the information he needs from a young junkie / hooker type by lying to her about the time one of Max's victims died to make her think she is suspected of murder and Max winding the next victims' watch forward before smashing it to suggest a later time of death.
Examples of compositions that tell you almost all you need to know
Oddly, however, nothing further then comes of this detail. What makes it odd is that the filmmakers otherwise reward the attentive viewer by judiciously avoiding over-emphasising significant details. Thus, for example, while tulips are mentioned early on as being somehow mixed up in the whole affair, Bulov doesn't immediately pay the (yellow) flowers on the dining table of his house very much attention, being more interested in the note that Lisa has left besides them. Thus by the time he does notice them he's also too wrapped up in his personal business to consider whether there might be some wider connection. Yet the joke is also on us: while the flowers appear in the and closing sequences, the end doesn't quite answer the beginning in that we never learn exactly what their significance is, besides being the McGuffin.
Is this the real Lisa, or just her as she appears in Franz's insanely jealous mind?
A sense of mystery also applies as far as Franz and Lisa's relationship is concerned. We know that she was in trouble with the law and that whilst nothing was ever proven, a sense of no smoke without fire hangs over her and the relationship as far as her husband's superiors are concerned, but little else as to what brought them together:
“I'm not a criminal and I refuse to be treated like one – I've had enough”
“So what are you going to do? Leave?”
“What do you expect me to do? Keep paying all my life for one mistake?”
“What mistake was that? Making friends with Reinhardt?”
“I knew you'd drag that up again!”
This said, anyone familiar with noir is likely to quickly draw their own picture as to what is really going on, how far the marriage was one of love and of convience and for whom; while it is difficult to say much more without running the risk of spoiling the viewer's enjoyment, I did feel that the filmmakers' made a lapse in judgement here by ultimately lifting the veil a bit too much towards the end.
Make no mistake, however: A Black Veil for Lisa is the kind of giallo that can be enjoyed by fan and non-fan alike and on a number of levels, with filmmaking, writing and performances each of a higher than usual standard for the genre.
Dallamano strives to tell his story as visually as possible and to avoid doing the most obvious thing if he can. Thus, for example, when Bulov excuses himself to make a quick telephone call home whilst in conference with his colleagues, Dallamano does not simply cut in on a close up of Bulov's face, but rather dollies in, then reverse this movement when Lisa fails to answer and Bulov tries to returns to the business at hand, after imagining Lisa in the arms of another conveyed through a series of rapid-fire inserts: if his mind is understandably somewhat distracted thereby, there is no doubt that Dalllamano's is not.
The director's background as cinematographer also comes through, making good use of location – excepting some iffy back-projection – and screen space through compositions that reveal almost all we need to know – or as much as they are willing to let us know - about the shifting constellation of Franz, Max and Lisa through their respective position within the frame, screen depth and selectivity of focus and attention.
Finally a question: who does Jimmy il fenomeno play? Is he the newspaper vendor who gives Bulov tips?