Sunday, 3 February 2008

Femmine insaziabili / The Insatiables / Beverly Hills / Mord im schwarzen Cadillac / Excess

Italian journalist Paolo Vittori (Robert Hoffmann) arrives in Los Angeles at the behest of his old friend. Now known to millions as the public face of International Chemicals (clearly not Incorporated) after winning a competition which took him far away from his old life, Giulio Lamberti, who now goes by the anglicised name Julius Lambert, is in big trouble.

Paolo does what he can, beginning with taking a beating and having his face shoved in his own vomit by a couple of thugs by way of demonstrating that he doesn’t know where his friend is, but proves unable to prevent Giulio from being murdered shortly afterwards.

Paolo resolves to find out who was responsible and bring them to justice. The list of suspects is long, including an ex-wife, ex-mistresses and about half the board of International Chemical.

But as the investigation proceeds, with each new contact revealing further unpleasant aspects of Giulio’s personality and how it had changed with wealth and fame, we may begin to wonder if his murder wasn’t entirely justified…

Given the succession of flashbacks deployed here, it is tempting to read The Insatiables /Femmine insaziabili as a somewhat Wellesian film, Citizen Kane meets The Lady from Shanghai (with a key exchange in both films occurring in an aquarium) all’ italiana.

The subtle shift in meaning between the English and Italian titles is significant: the Italian suggests insatiable women threatening the male with their desires, the English probably more accurate in making it clear that near everyone, man and woman alike, wants more and according with the cynical resolution to the whole affair. (According to the IMDB, Le Insaziabili was also the working title for the film in Italian.)

One of the film’s flaws is the unconvincing way in which the Italian characters are inserted into the Los Angeles environment. It’s understandable in light of the film’s primary audiences, as a means of providing extra exoticism, glamour and distance, but never quite convinces, insofar as the same basic country mouse / town mouse type theme might have worked more naturally with two provincial Italians in Rome or two Americans from some Midwest Hicksville.

Another is perhaps the way the film doesn’t deal with all the suspects in Giulio’s murder. Though we’re informed that the probabilities of each of International Chemicals’ major shareholders being involved in the affair are directly proportional to their stakes in the company some of them, including John Karlsen’s 25 per cent man, hardly feature at all.

Then again, if the choice is between scenes foregrounding Karlsen’s grey eminence and Romina Power’s hippie chick looking for kicks wherever she can find them, the filmmakers’ choice again makes sense. (Having watched Power play almost the exact same role in Perversion Story, it's doubtful how far she could act, but she certainly had look and attitude down pat.)

Like Bruno Nicolai’s brash big band score, Alberto De Martino’s direction is rarely subtle but all the better for it in terms of conveying the alternately glamorous and sleazy world of the film’s characters.

De Martino handles the violence well, not least when Paolo avenges himself on the two men who beat him up and their paymaster, but is less convincing when it comes to the sex, with one of those lobster-like ‘one on top of the other’ orgy scenes where the women remove their clothes and the men keep theirs on where it matters throughout. Nevertheless, the very inclusion of some full frontal female nudity suggests that the director was keen to push the envelope here as well.

The performances are variable. Robert Hoffman is somewhat impassive as per usual, good for conveying a determination to get to the bottom of the whole affair but less adequate when required to suggest how this demi monde is actually getting to him.

The female leads – Luciana Paluzzi, Dorothy Malone and Nicoletta Machiavelli – are better, bringing glamour and complexity to their roles.

Best of all, however, is the always impressive Frank Wolff as Frank Donovan, here playing an effete gay sophisticate far removed from the likes of his bluff sheriff in Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Irish settler in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In sum, an enjoyable thriller that, if not doing anything particularly new or envelope stretching – 1967’s Omicidio per appuntamento has a somewhat similar set-up, albeit with the action occurring in Italy – is nevertheless a pleasing way to spend 100 or so minutes and another useful reminder of the diversity of the post-Bava, pre-Argento giallo.

[ An AVI of the film is available from Cinemageddon; there's a link to the OST here should you want to try before you buy ]

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