A suicidal prostitute, Carla (Marisa Mell), is saved from leaping off a cliff by an artist, Arthur (Stephen Boyd). Reluctantly going back to work for her madam/manager, Carla is introduced to a wealthy businessman, Luis (Fernando Rey), and soon becomes his regular companion, though she is more circumspect about formalizing their relationship into marriage.
Staying at a hotel, Carla meets another ex-prostitute, Nora (Sylva Koscina), now working as a chambermaid in a hotel; we soon learn that they had a more intimate history together, with it apparently being Nora’s departure which precipitated Carla’s suicide bid.
Note the yellow dress; the film makes good use of colour symbolism
Carla decides to help Nora out, giving her a place to stay and a new wardrobe – being Luis’s mistress clearly has its material advantages. Her actions are not entirely altruistic, however, insofar as she is still infatuated with Nora and has designs on rekindling their relationship.
One day Luis pays a visit when Carla is absent, and invites her to lunch in Carla’s stead. Before long Nora and Luis are an item and Carla is on the way out from their lives. The return of Arthur in Carla’s own life around the same time provides some distraction, although suspiciously he also has problems of his own with some low-lives if one wants to look for an ulterior motive.
The mirror shot, take two
Nora and Luis marry, only for Luis to die in a tragic airplane accident, leaving Nora his fortune and the way open for Carla to return…
The question, as ever, is whether everything is as it seems.
A happy ending, or new beginning?
The answer, as always, is not entirely; to say much more surely would ruin things for the first-time viewer, although even the most expert viewer will find it difficult to predict each and every turn of the screw.
This 1971 Spanish-Italian co-production – the former apparently the dominant partner in the relationship – deserves to be better known and to receive a better treatment than it gets here, the available torrent being sourced from a bleached out Greek VHS taken from a jumpy, scratchy print.
Insofar as it does deserve a look, however, this is less down to director José Antonio Nieves Conde than a well crafted screenplay which keeps one guessing and a welcome array of familiar genre names and faces - Mell, Koscina, Rey, Boyd, Massimo Serato, Howard Ross and Simon Andreu – providing the necessary glamour and/or sleaze.
The basic flaw in Nieves Conde’s direction is an overactive zoom lens, though the more charitable viewer might consider it a conscious, laying bare the device in the manner of Bava’s Five Dolls for an August Moon. While I don’t think the film quite does this, some more subtle shots, such as the occasional telling two shot where one character is tellingly reflected in the mirror and the other not, do indicate some film-making intelligence at work.
As much a character driven drama as anything else, the film qualifies as a giallo in terms of the late 60s sexy thriller style in which the beautiful people – or, in some cases, those who aspire to be such – do unpleasant things to one another against a backdrop of sun-drenched luxury villas and an aural wallpaper of breezy easy listening. There's little of the overt psychosexual angst of the Argento style giallo predominant at the time, but plenty of la dolce vita e morte.
It’s very much the usual story of simultaneously allowing the audience to enjoy is virtue in principle and its vice in practice, where the possibility of a conservative ending could always be dangled before the censors as proof that crime does not pay and the narrative as a whole cast as a representation of the dangers which the independent woman presented to the social order…
The difference were the film to be remade as an “erotic thriller” today would be that there would be no need for such pretenses-cum-justifications.
[The torrent for the film is available from Cinemageddon under the title Nel buio del terrore]