We open with a woman moving through the streets, making a telephone call that clearly suggests some surreptitious activity – think Case of the Bloody Iris – and delivering a letter for one Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen), whom she explains to the barman that she cannot meet that evening as planned.
While waiting for his date – Paola Whitney by name – Peter, a blind composer, overhears part of a conversation involving blackmail in the booth opposite but is distracted at the crucial moment by a record playing on the jukebox. He does, however, get the barman to describe the woman (Giovanna Lenzi) who left the place at that moment – not particularly young, unsteady on her feet as if she were a bit intoxicated (it is a bar, after all) and wearing a distinctive white cape.
On his way home Peter is met by his faithful manservant Barton (Umberto Raho), who reads him Paola's “dear john” letter, making him forget all about the conversation at the bar and the woman in white. She, meanwhile, creeps into a couturiers and leaves a basket in room number three – a strange type of thief, if indeed that is what she is.
The mystery deepens as, the next morning, one of the model – the selfsame Paola Whitney – goes into room three to change, notices a yellow shawl which she puts on, opens the basket, and falls back screaming, leaving a corpse and the ripped shawl for the others to find. At some point the basket has disappeared, however.
The police are called to the scene and, having begun their investigations, go to tell Peter the bad news. They are accompanied by Paola's friend Margot, who was the first to the scene and the one who noticed the basket.
The police having left – it being clear that Peter is not the man they are looking for, although the fact of Paola's leaving him the previous night is certainly of interest – Peter indicates to Margot that he intends to conduct his own investigation and wonders whether she knew anything about Paola's other lover.
She doesn't, but remembers Paola's photographer cousin Harry and wonders if he might be able to help. Accordingly, they head for his studio, only to find that the killer has got there first. They are not too late to find some incriminating evidence, however, in the form of photos of Paola in bed with Victor Ballais (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), common-law husband of the fashion house's owner Françoise Ballais (Sylva Koscina).
Armed with this evidence, the police confront Victor at the airport, where he has just seen Françoise onto the plane to Hamburg. But while Victor admits to having a motive insofar as Paola was seeking to blackmail him into leaving his wife, he says that he did not kill her. Then, conveniently, the coroner's report comes through, indicating that Paola died of natural causes; anyone concerned with logic will, of course, wonder exactly how and why she screamed so much if this was the case.
Reluctantly Inspector Jansen (Renato De Carmine) lets Ballais go, although he makes it clear that the matter is far from closed – especially seeing as Harry's death was most definitely by unnatural causes.
Indeed, things are only really starting as another one of the models, Helga, realises she knows who is behind the yellow shawls and decides to try for a spot of blackmail of her own, with predictably fatal consequences as the woman in white makes another delivery. While Ballais has an iron-clad alibi on this occasion, Peter and Margot begin to make connections thanks to a chance encounter in the street...
A long introductory synopsis like this is necessary to establishing the ground rules by which this 1972 giallo operates: It is not a particularly well made film, nor one that makes a whole lot of sense at the end of the day thanks to a hopelessly convoluted plot, some credibility straining McGuffins and an even more contrived murder method. But what it does do is wear its influences openly and by virtue of also throwing in just about every generic cliché the film-makers could think of, emerges as perhaps the most representative example of the filone one could hope to find, in themes, motifs and style.
From Bava's Blood and Black Lace we have the fashion house setting, with that familiar play on the double meaning of glamour; drug addiction and the cover-up murder committed when the chief suspect could not have committed it. From Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage we have the key aural clue recorded on tape and the double finale. From the same director's Cat o' Nine Tails – the most important single intertext, as suggested by the Crimes of the Black Cat alternative title – we have the blind protagonist whose other senses appear almost preternatural at times; the intertwining of what initially seem to be separate crimes / incidents; the killing of a photographer in his studio; another victim's fatal dive in front of a train, and the whole enigma of an inaugural crime that does not make sense. From sundry other examples of the filone we get the obligatory lesbian couple; the amateur / professional investigator combination; the abandoned factory showdown; the killer's literal and metaphorical fall, and so forth.
Stylistically The Crimes of the Black Cat is all over the place, going into overdrive during the murder set-pieces and any subjective sequence while shooting the more talky scenes in a bland, functional way.
It's the kind of approach that gets marks for trying but which isn't always that successful, as illustrated by the way in with Oliver's aural distraction at the 'noise' emanating from the jukebox is conveyed visually through whip pans, frenetic zooms in and out and canted angles. It also, I think, indicates something of the difference between the Argento originals, with their deeper exploration of the relationships between the senses, and Pastore's sottoprodutto surface level (non-)understanding.
This also perhaps comes through in the eye medallion the woman in white wears: it briefly seems like it will be part of her faceless representation, much like the way the killer in Cat o' Nine Tails is reduced to being an extreme close-up of an eye. But then, unexpectedly, the next scene shows us her face by way of signalling that she is not the killer but merely their cat's paw.
The now-you-see-it now-you-don't basket McGuffin is poorly handled, with the emphasis on rapid cuts, zooms and other shock devices and the corresponding haste with which everyone arrives at the scene making it impossible for the viewer to tell that the basket had in fact disappeared. The obvious point of comparison is the handbag containing the diary that everyone covets in Blood and Black Lace: while we don't see it vanish thanks to our vision being obscured at the vital moment, its centrality to the scene, for audience and character alike, is at least established ahead of time. It's not that a giallo can't work the other way by requiring the viewer to work at figuring out what is and is not important for themselves, as Argento's films again attest, more that Pastore's “obvious cinema” based approach is one in which such strategies are less relevant.
The notorious shower murder, which shows what Psycho only hinted at as the victim is slashed to death with the obligatory straight razor, is however less gratuitous than it might initially appear, on account of the sense it makes by way of the maniac's “beauty killer” motivation. (The phrase comes an early alternative title considered for Lucio Fulci's misunderstood The New York Ripper.) It's also something that makes for an odd juxtaposition with the curiously coy representation of the aforementioned lesbian couple, Pastore's camera panning “up” onto a poster as they get “down”.
Steffen delivers a surprisingly good performance, managing to convince as a blind man. Rossi-Stuart's role is inherently less interesting, seeing him play the same playboy type that he incarnated on many other occasions, whilst the female cast are by and large decorative. Giovanni Lenzi was the director's wife; she later made a giallo of her own, Delitti, in which seven people are killed by a maniac using the venom of a snake.
Trivia fans will note that the film which Oliver is scoring is in fact another giallo, with the clips that play on the Movieola being from Lizard in a Woman's Skin. But if the film-makers were attempting to draw a contrast between the real of Crimes of the Black Cat and the fiction of Fulci's film they fail, precisely because the clip is drawn from an already ambiguous sequence and, at the mundane level, has more convincing fake blood effects than the shower sequence here.