Monday, 30 April 2007

Il Coltello di ghiaccio / Knife of Ice

Drawing acknowledged inspiration from Robert Siodmak's classic proto-proto-slasher The Spiral Staircase, the last of Umberto Lenzi's gialli with Carroll Baker differs from its predecessors in replacing financially motivated conspiracies to murder with an insane killer.

Though a strong entry on the whole, the film is marred by an awkward opening sequence and not entirely convincing surprise ending – not in itself necessarily a bad thing nor particularly rare within the filone, but not well enough executed to really work except as a demonstration of Chion's cathartic “screaming point” notion. (Knife of Ice is also of interest in terms of Chion's positing of the mute – the voiceless presence – as antithesis of the acousmetre – the bodiless voice – and as a companion piece / counterpoint to the likes of Cat o' Nine Tails and Crimes of the Black Cat as yet another giallo exploration of disability and its effects upon our experience of the world.)

Nice sentiment, shame about the misspelling

A reminder that Lenzi was also the man who brought you Cannibal Ferox and a neat demonstration of the attraction / repulsion dynamics of horror?

It's all about reading the signs

We begin with a series of bullfights. They're not entirely gratuitous, insofar as the different reactions of cousins Jenny (Evelyn Stewart) and Martha (Baker) to the killing of the animals – or, more positively, the skill and bravery of the toreros – seems intended to provide us with insights into their respective personalities, but do add an unpleasant element that sits somewhat uncomfortably with the more restrained approach found elsewhere in the film; treat it as a historical artefact, a demonstration of what passed for representative displays of Spanishness to tourists in the dying days of the Franco regime, and it shouldn't impact too much on the film in toto.

Following the bullfight – an incident some months in the past, as it soon turns out – we learn that Martha is mute following a traumatic incident when she was 13 years old, in which her parents died in a train crash. She has never been able to near the railway since – until today, that is, as she goes to meet her cousin at the station, who is returning to the family villa following a successful singing tour – i.e. Jenny found her voice and Martha lost hers.

The rhetoric of the close up and rack focus

On the way back home, their chauffeur Marcos (Eduardo Fajardo) is forced to stop the car as its engine is overheating. While he goes to fetch help, a strange looking man suddenly appears out of the fog and stares at the women menacingly, but disappears before Marcos returns; he did not see the man, he tells them.

At the villa we are introduced to the rest of the family and their associates. There is uncle Ralph (George Rigaud), with a dodgy heart and an interest in the occult; housekeeper Mrs Britain; Father Martin and his young ward, Christina – whose birthday it is – and Martha's physician, Dr Laurent.

That night Jenny is disturbed by a noise, goes to investigate and its then dispatched by an unidentified black-gloved knife wielder.

Before and after

The body is soon discovered – but not before a well-executed suspense sequence that also builds suspicion as to who knows what – and the police called in. Their questions establish the chauffeur, housekeeper and doctor as suspects - or red herrings, of course – whilst the fact that this is the second body to have been found in dubious circumstances in the past 24 hours points to the presence of a maniac in the locality.

Lenzi's representation of the killer's depredations is uncharacteristically restrained.

Mark of the Devil I, II and III as an occult subplot develops

At Jenny's funeral Martha is disturbed by the sight of the mystery man in the bushes, but he disappears before she can alert any of the others to his presence. There is, however, a potential clue in the form of a satanic pendant, while the man's wild-eyed stare makes the inspector think that he may also be a drug addict.

More worryingly the inspector also conjectures that the killer, whoever he or she may be – perhaps satanist equals drug addict equals killer is too neat an equation for Lenzi – has a particular interest in blondes and that Martha may well be next on his agenda...

The screaming point #1 - Martha uses the car horn to alert the others to her grim discovery of Jenny's body

The screaming point #2 - what will Martha do this time? Note that unlike the knife-wielder who dispatched Jenny this figure is not wearing black gloves

Well written, directed and performed in the main – Baker is particularly impressive in her mute role – Knife of Ice is a thoroughly professional piece of work marred primarily by that ending. This said, the journey there, the process of figuring out whodunnit amidst all the potentially meaningful exchanges – “Yes, I have an idea who might have committed these crimes – but then who doesn't? Why don't you ask Father Martin's opinion?” – is an enjoyable one.

Though perhaps relying on the zoom-in and extreme close-up a touch too often and over-indulging in flashback montages for some viewers, Lenzi elsewhere demonstrates an admirable facility for prolonged suspense sequences where something may be lurking in the shadows or the fog or not.

Little dots of yellow that didn't have to be there

Indeed, its perhaps this general excessiveness that ultimately makes the film work: when everything is so hysterical and histrionic, everyone becomes a suspect and every look, gesture, word or element of mise-en-scene overdetermined with possible significance.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Testa t'ammazzo, croce... sei morto... Mi chiamano Alleluja / They Call Me Hallelujah

Yes, it's yet another spaghetti western, Guiliano Carnimeo / Anthony Ascott's Testa t'ammazzo, croce... sei morto... Mi chiamano Alleluja / They Call Me Hallelujah. Made in 1971, it stars giallo stalwart George Hilton and can be pretty much summed up as a combination of most of the post-Leone trends in the genre: knockabout comedy a la Trinity; James Bond style gadgets a la Sabata, and a Mexican revolution setting out of Run Man Run, Compañeros and so on.

As a result, it's enjoyable but lightweight; a description, oddly enough, that also seems fairly appropriate to Ascott's giallo venture of the following year, The Case of the Bloody Iris, for better or worse.

There's also a very giallo-esque moment in Hallelujah that sees our titular anti-hero sneak in on one of the bad guys as his wife is shaving his beard. He gives her a chloroform soaked cloth, takes the razor, and puts it to the malefic's throat.

Not a giallo, despite the black gloves and arm and straight razor; then again in a giallo would the killer give a warning?

Ascott uses the kaleidoscope lens in Case of the Bloody Iris's psychedelic cult / orgy sequences as well

Interview with Bill Lustig

An interesting interview with Bill Lustig of Anchor Bay and Blue Underground, shedding some light on the current realities of the cult DVD marketplace:

Cimitero senza croci / Cemetery without Crosses

I've been on a bit of a spaghetti western binge at the moment. The best new discovery has been Robert Hossein's Cemetery Without Crosses, co-written by a certain Dario Argento and dedicated by Hossein - who produced, directed, wrote and starred in the piece, remarkably without compromising it - to Sergio Leone.

From one auteur to another?

While it might be possible to seek common elements between the film and Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West - as the Leone film co-authored by Argento, along with Bertolucci - that are not in evidence in Leone or Hossein's other films as possible Argento-isms, in truth I think that would be a largely futile exercise.

One thing that did leap out, however, was the way in which Cemetery's Manuel takes his black gloves out of a musical box and invariably dons the right one before going into action; at one point he even gets an opponent to back down by simple virtue of putting it on. It's classic unimportant prop to signifying fetish material.

The glove box also plays a tinkly music box theme like Mortimer's and Indio's watches in For a Few Dollars More or the killer's tape in Deep Red

Let's go to work...

No, not the infamous panty-ripping murder in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage but some Italian western black glove action

There's also a well staged suspense sequence where Manuel, having schemed his way into the home of the family whose daughter he intends to kidnap, is seated at the dinner table with the rest of their hired hands. Nobody speaks, the only sounds those of cutlery and typically messy spaghetti western eating. Everyone turns to look at him - has he been rumbled? As it turns out, no, with the release of tension coming not through a moment of violence, Leone style, but a Hitchcock style gag, as the family and their hirelings play a practical joke on the new recruit.

More generally, the film made me think about what seem to be the fundamentally different ways in which spaghetti westerns and gialli deal with trauma. In gialli trauma is more likely to induce insanity than a desire for revenge, which often also takes a somewhat confused and generalised form in which the society as a whole or certain groups within it are to blame. In spaghettis trauma usually leads to straightforward vendetta, even if the path to its fulfilment may well be just as convoluted and strewn with flashbacks and mystery elements.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Wait Until Dark

This is yet another non-giallo, non-Argento film whose relevance to this blog has to be demonstrated. We could simply invoke the old chestnut of there only being two sorts of anything, the good and the bad, and that Wait Until Dark fits into the former category.

But we can do better, in terms of how different the history of the giallo could have been. For the film was a big success in Italy, where it went by the title Gli Occhi della notte - literally The Eyes of the Night - and put director Terence Young in the running to direct The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He didn't of course, and the rest is history, Argento taking the genre to new artistic and commercial heights and inspiring a raft of imitators.

More interesting than this oft-told story, however, is the way in which Wait Until Dark also reverberates into later giallo productions, notably Argento's subsequent essay in the thriller form, The Cat o' Nine Tails, which shares with it the notion of a blind protagonist, and Duccio Tessari's Puzzle, with the same MacGuffin of hidden drugs that the protagonists – one suffering from amnesia and other from a broken leg to give them not too similar states of disability – are initially unawares of.

The doll

The plane

Aparted from a play by Frederick Knott, almost all of the action within Wait Until Dark takes place in the one location, in near real time. The way the filmmakers initially open out the action is interesting from a giallo perspective though, insofar as it entails the familiar tropes of air travel and the doll. Drugs mule Lisa takes the doll, which is stuffed with heroin and also happens to play a distinctive music-box style tune, from Montreal to New York, passing it on to photographer Sam Hendrix on the pretext that it is for a little girl who is sick and that she does not want to be seen with it on her when she meets her own daughter as the child will not understand that the doll is not for her. (Try that nowadays and I wonder how far you would get.)

At the airport Lisa is intercepted by her old partner Harry Roat (Alan Arkin) who murders her offscreen - though there are moments of shock, this is more of a suspense film characterised by restraint and menace rather than gratuitous violence - and puts her body, contained within a transparent plastic clothes bag, in the cupboard of the Hendrix's apartment. (Not a million miles away from Five Dolls for an August Moon's meat locker, then.)

The psycho; one of the best incarnations of the type out there besides Luciano Rossi

The body, wrapped in plastic

Things get a little confusing here - another reminder that it's not just gialli that can be accused of suffering from less than water-tight naratives - as another couple of men, Mike Talman and an ex-cop by the name of Carlino, turn up at the apartment looking for Lisa. They also leave their prints all over the place, placing them right where Roat, who shows up shortly after, wants them. (In keeping with the theme of blindness, non-visual details attain a greater importance than usual here, though with an element of inconsistency at times, one feels.)

Around about this point Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) returns home. Recently blinded in an accident, she does not notice the men's presence, taking the little details that are out of place, like the chair she nearly trips over, as stemming from the child upstairs, Gloria, visiting when she was out. Roat and company sneak the body out, dumping it where it is later found. Believing that Susy knows the whereabouts of the doll, Roat and his reluctant co-conspirators concoct a story that implicates Sam in Lisa's murder and the doll as the thing that can prove his innocence.

Unfortunately there are also those little details, like the fact that two different men being played by Roat both seem to be wearing the exact same pair of creaky new leather shoes, that begin to arouse Susy's suspicions and place her in increasing danger...

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Il Miele del diavolo / The Devil's Honey

Watching this 1986 Lucio Fulci film through a beat up English dub, pan and scan VHS sourced print with burnt-in Norwegian subtitles is obviously hardly the best way to experience it, particularly the contribution made by Allejandro Ulloa's cinematography. Nevertheless, The Devil's Honey still has something about it even in this format, as a kind of “perversion story” for the '80s.

While more an erotic thriller than purist's giallo in terms of its dynamics, it makes for an interesting companion piece to Argento's Opera, released the following year, thanks to the sadomasochistic thematics and relationships running through both films and the casting of sisters Blanca and Cristina Marsillach in the key female roles.

With Cristina Marsillach proving one of the most difficult actors Argento ever worked with, it seems that Fulci got the better part of the deal here, Blanca happily submitting to every indignity The Devil's Honey's various writers could dream up.

She plays Jessica, a young woman very much in love with Johnny, a young musician - saxophonist, naturally - who treats her like dirt. When she falls pregnant, he forces her to have an abortion, telling her that the last thing their relationship – and his career – needs right now is a mewling infant. Then Johnny has an accident and needs an urgent operation.

The only man who can perform it is Dr Simpson, nicely essayed by Eurotrash stalwart Brett Halsey. He's got problems of his own, finding it easier to relate to prostitutes than his wife Carol, played by the top-billed but underused Corinne Clery, herself no stranger to this kind of material as her roles in the likes of Story of O and Hitch-Hike testify. With his wife's words ringing in his ears - basically it's me or your job - Dr Simpson fails to save Johnny's life.

Obsessed with her deceased love and the man she holds to be responsible for his death, Jessica then abducts him and takes him to an isolated beach-front house to extract her revenge...

Sunday, 22 April 2007


Taking a short cut through the woods that abut her school, Tessa Hurst (Lesley-Anne Down) is sexually assaulted. The trauma of the attack leaves her mute and oblivious to the world, despite the efforts of young doctor Greg Lomax, giving Detective Chief Superintendent Velyan (Frank Finlay) and his men little to go on in their investigation of the case.

A couple of months later another girl, Susan Miller, unwisely takes the same shortcut. When art teacher Julie West (Suzy Kendall) learns this from the other pupils she is ferrying home in her car - a precautionary measure lest the maniac, who clearly has local knowledge, strike again - they go into the woods to search. The car gets stuck in the mud and in the half-light Julie sees a diabolical figure standing over the girl, who proves to have been raped and murdered.

Through a Glass Darkly - Julie sees the killer standing over the body

Unsurprisingly Julie's testimony that she saw a figure who looks like the Devil does not go down well, although its sensationalist aspect – the place is known as Devil's End, though this remains a somewhat underdeveloped notion despite the film's AKA titles In the Devil's Garden and Satan's Playthings – appeals to sleazy newshound Denning (Freddie Jones), who then proceeds to harass her in a way that would not go down well with the press complaints commission.

The Art of Darkness - Julie painting the devil

This prompts Julie to come up with a scheme of the it's-so-crazy-it-might-just-work variety: get Denning's newspaper to run a story showing a couple of her paintings of a devilish figure with the announcement that the next issue will reveal the real killer's identity, thus forcing him to show his hand.

Black-gloved antics

Whoever it might be, there are no shortage of suspects, like the husband of schoolmistress Mrs Sanford, with his collection or pornography and dubious interest in the pupils, or Lomax himself, with his remarkable ability to always show up at the crime scene and “a pill for every occasion”; no talking cures for this man.

In an Italian film the recurring use of yellow might mean something; here it's harder to tell how conscious the filmmakers were of the colour's associations, not that their main audience would have been likely to have gotten them.

Featuring an unidentified often black-gloved stalker, a traumatic primal scene and an artistic amateur sleuth protagonist who cannot quite remember that vital detail, Assault makes for a fascinating if not entirely successful attempt at transposing the Italian giallo to a small-town British setting, where Fiats and Lancias may morph into Morris Minors and Jaguars but the often dubious sexual politics remain the same.

In common with many Hammer-style films – Edinburgh-born director Sidney Hayers was earlier responsible for Circus of Horrors and Night of the Eagle – the film is hampered by bad day-for-night work and continuity, with darkness quite literally falling in the pivotal what-did-she-really-see sequence. Likewise, while this sequence is effectively rendered, in contrast to the generally undistinguished and by-the-numbers mise-en-scene, it is telling that we do not get any flashbacks to it in the manner of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, perhaps indicative of a fundamental lack of imagination or aspiration on the filmmakers' part. The film also suffers from an overused and unattractive main theme that leaves one longing for the elegance and intricacies of a Morricone or Nicolai score.

Trivia fans may also note that the schoolgirl whom Mr Sanford paws is played by Janet Lynn from Pete Walker's sexploitation entry Cool It Carol!; Walker would later also direct the giallo-esque Schizo from a script by David McGillivray, whose critical beat for the Monthly Film Bulletin saw him cover a number of gialli around this time.

A neat equation, (no sex please we're) British style: nudie pictures equals pervert equals rapist and murderer?

On the plus side, the mystery remains engaging to the end whilst Kendall again makes for an attractive woman in peril. One is also struck, however, at just how wholesome she appears, more wide-eyed dolly bird than potential raptor, affording a more limited range of possibilities than contemporaries like Susan Scott, Edwige Fenech and Barbara Bouchet,but also confirming the appropriateness of her Spasmo casting as uncomfortably moral conspirator.

Some links:
Sidney Hayers appreciation
A review of the film that makes the giallo connection

Saturday, 21 April 2007

A slightly technical question on the meaning of 70mm

I'm involved in my local film society here in Edinburgh. We've been working on programming our next season and one of the themed ideas we came up with was a selection of 70mm films. The films we would be showing are probably the obvious choices, things like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia. But, in browsing giallo posters on Ebay over the years, I've often noticed that a fair number, especially on the Spanish ones, seem to suggest that they were 70mm presentations.

The Bloodstained Butterfly

My Dear Killer

All the Colours of the Dark

Is this the case and, if so, is it 'true' 70mm or just a process that allowed the description to be used but wasn't really the same thing at all as far as quality went, perhaps akin to the widescreen processes often used on Italian westerns a few years earlier.

Again, it would seem unlikely that these films were still available in 70mm and even less likely that they would be viable in terms of getting an audience – it's more that enquiring minds want to know...

Another stairwell

Thanks for the stairways folks; here's another

From The Cat o' Nine Tails

La Vittima designata / The Designated Victim

It took Dario Argento thirty-five years to formally acknowledge his indebtedness to Hitchcock in the form of Do You Like Hitchcock, in which a film student comes to suspect his neighbour has taken inspiration from the Anglo director's 1951 Patricia Highsmith adaptation Strangers on a Train when her mother is murdered. It was by no means the first giallo to do so, however, as this 1971 entry from the little-known Maurizio Lucidi demonstrates.

At first glance Milanese businessman Stefano Argenti seems to have it all: wealth, success, and a beautiful girlfriend, Fabienne. In reality, however, he is still dependent on his neurotic and shrewish wife, Luisa. She got him started in the advertising business and holds the shares in their agency in her name. Neither is she about to sell up at a bargain price just so that Stefano can go back to his homeland, Venezuela, with no particular stated aim in mind; Stefano can hardly explain that Fabienne rather than Luisa is the one who figures in his plans.

The first moment of contact between Stefano and the as yet unidentified Count, and also a concessions to black-gloved convention

Enjoying a few days away in Venice with Fabienne, a solution to Stefano's dilemma presents itself in the form of a seemingly chance encounter with Count Matteo Tiepolo. Coincidence soon transforms into conspiracy as the two men exchange stories and, releasing that they are in a identical positions in having unwanted relatives, make a tacit agreement to switch murders: Tiepolo will take care of Luisa, then Stefano will kill Matteo's brother...

Pierre Clementi as the vampire-like Count; coincidentally director Maurizio Lucidi later worked uncredited on Nosferatu in Venice

Although it is difficult to fully gauge La Vittima designata / The Designated Victim – the alternate Slam Out title seems meaningless and inappropriate – from the slightly cropped, English dub version I saw here, it nevertheless comes across as a quality piece of work; in this regard is worth also noting that this is one of those films where a credit for preparing the English-language version is given. (Unfortunately, while the film is now available on DVD, there does not seem to be the optimal English subs / Italian dub option.)

Clementi is perfectly cast as Tiepolo, while Milian once again impresses with his versatility as Argenti. Although the female leads are adequate in performance and eye candy respectively, I couldn't help mentally substituting Laura Betti for Marisa Bartoli as Luisa and Dagmar Lassander for Katia Christine as Fabienne respectively and finding my imaginary cast more enticing; I suspect others will find something similar.

The score, composed by Luis Enrique Bacalov and performed by The New Trolls has a symphonic / progressive rock vibe to it. Not only is it comparatively unusual compared to the more usual easy listening, musique concrete and party music idioms, it works. Milian also contributes here, providing the gently sung title theme, with lyrics derived from Hamlet of all things – “to die, to sleep, maybe to dream...” – that recurs throughout the action and, crucially, resonates beyond the final act.

The mise en scène is subtle by the standards of much filone film-making, making it clear that Tiepolo is Argenti's douple without resorting to more characteristic, heavy-handed devices. Shock zooms and extreme close-ups are conspicuous in their absence (Perhaps we have a nicely ironic doubling between Luisa's repeated insistence that her husband be quiet, as yet another little tic adding to his sense that she must die, and the filmmakers' preferred approach to their material?)

Milan and Venice are used effectively – if the latter's representation perhaps smacks of tourist cliché, the point is that such touristic imagery, as seen in the first exchange between Argenti and Tiepolo, is warranted precisely because Argenti and Fabienne are at that moment tourists sightseeing in the city.

We also have to remember that their respective roles, as ad-man and model, are in a sense all about the perpetual (re)definition of signifiers. A romantic weekend in Venice or a bouquet of flowers equals love (per “say it with flowers”) and Tiepolo is to all intents and purposes that image besides that dictionary definition of decadent, decaying aristo.

Thus, if the filmmakers do not manage to transcend their source material they do engage with and go some way towards subverting or Italianising it. While the basic themes are the same as those of Strangers on a Train – exchange / transference of guilt, the double etc.– there are sufficient variations on that film's patterns to establish The Designated Victim as something more than – to here throw in some cliché metaphors of one's own – spiced-up leftovers with added garlic sauce (i.e. post-studio code nudity etc.)

In this regard, Argenti is also quickly established as a more compromised character than Strangers on a Train's Guy Haines. Rather than being shocked by Tiepolo's making good on his proposal, Argenti takes it at face value and attempts to make the most of the situation. His problem is not murder per se, but queasiness over having to perform the act itself by way of reciprocation, with a further interesting variation insofar as the absence of either man's family also means that he never actually sees the monstrous brother whom he is to slay.

It is this same unease that also establishes something of a distinction between the two men; that they are not complete doubles. (Although of course we can always here bring in the mirror double as meconnaissance / misrecognition if we want to get all psychoanalytical; as per usual I don't.) for while Tiepolo may well be a psychopath in the mode of Bruno Anthony or the later Tom Ripley, Argenti needs another to spur him into action and fundamentally appears to lacks the requisite guile and cunning. Here we can note his feeble early attempts at convincing Luisa to sell her shares for their mutual benefit, with his use of “I” rather than “we” putting her on guard. Or consider the awkwardness with which he gives his alibi to the police, able to tell them he was “at the movies” but not what film he saw, other than it was “a western”.

Yet perhaps this is also an honest statement of fact about the filone cinema and the way many critics have consistently failed to engage with in by relegating films like this to the status of inferior-Italian-imitation-with-nothing-to-say almost as a matter of policy rather than approaching them without prejudice and with an openness to the possibility that they might actually be something more. This was, after all, the great achievement of the French critics of the 1950s in looking anew at American Hitchcock vis-a-vis British. The challenge now, I would contend, is to afford this same consideration to the 1970s Italian post-Hitchcock of the giallo, especially as it exists beyond Argento.