The presence of Carroll Baker in this 1975 film from Luigi Scattini neatly makes its claims to be a giallo that bit clearer. For, if featuring no black gloved killers nor traumatic incidents in a characters past now erupting into the present, it does include a noir style conspiracy in which the participants are motivated by passion and / or prospective financial advantage.
But unlike the various films she made with Umberto Lenzi a few years earlier, Baker is here cast in a supporting role rather than as a conspirator or victim, with the majority of the drama instead revolving around the triangle of Enrico Maria Salerno, Zeudi Araya and Leonard Mann.
Salerno plays Antoine, a New York cabbie who won the lottery and left the rat race behind to go live in the tropical paradise of Trinidad.
That, at least, was the theory.
The practice has thus far proven somewhat different, entailing little more than a change of scenery, more mosquitoes, and a shift from driving a cab to piloting a boat.
Indeed, given that the story actually starts with two locals attacking Antoine because he apparently owes them money it's possible that his life could even be considered to have gotten worse, were it not for one major compensation.
Antoine and Alan
That is Araya. She plays Princess, a beautiful islander who serves as Antoine's lover and housekeeper.
Mann plays Alan, the drifter who rescues Antoine. With Alan soon proving as handy with boats as with his fists, Antoine offers him work and a place to stay.
Images of the characters behind symbolic bars recur throughout the film to convey their senses of entrapment
Though Princess initially gives Alan a frosty reception, this facade soon melts as they spend some time together away from Antoine's watchful eye.
Princess tries on the yellow rather than black dress as she prepares to make her move
Then, however, Princess turns cold again, although this only proves to be a test of Alan's commitment to their relationship and how far he is willing to go to be with her:
“Alan, do you really love me?”
“You know I love you.”
“Do you really love me very much? Do you love me enough to do anything at all for me?”
“Then, darling, I want you to kill him.”
But, as with Ossessione – a possible model given its own noir origins, comparable triangle of two men and one woman, and oppressive setting that the woman wants to get away from – the question is first whether words are one thing and deeds another and then, once the deed is done, whether the conspirators will get away with it...
Scattini's direction is simple but effective, juxtaposing a direct handheld camera style that gives a raw documentary feel with more carefully composed touristic imagery and some generally judicously used shock zooms.
The performances from Baker, Salerno and Mann are pleasing, benefitting from their willingness to engage with their characters, warts and all.
Unusually Antoine drinks rum rather than J&B whisky
One moment that particularly stands out in this regard is the first encounter between Baker and Salerno, in which we also learn of their past history together:
Madeleine's latest love has left her, as Antoine foretold he would. Having hit the bottle hard she is torn between being her desire not to be seen by her former husband in such a dissolute state and her momentary craving for his attention and affection, as those selfsame things that he is unable and unwilling to give.
The deglamourised Baker
If this scene would pose no threat to Baker in the context of a stage production of some respectable play about a middle-aged, alcoholic racist, commutated to the screen in the form of a popular film it carried more of a risk of typecasting for the 40-something star, as someone only suitable for portraying faded and tarnished glamour. (“You don't want that black bitch. Don't you understand – you don't own her, you're the slave, the slave of a black body!”)
As The Body of the title, Araya's role necessarily provides less to work with. Though perhaps not managing to transcend its limitations, her performance is nevertheless credible and belies her history as a beauty queen and model in a way that makes it clear Scattini was justified in casting her in a number of his films. (It also left me wondering what she might have brought to the Black Emanuelle franchise, in that disregarding Laura Gemser's beauty the Dutch-Indonesian actress does tend towards a certain inexpressiveness that sometimes detracts when her character presents the same blasé indifference to each and every encounter, no matter how outre.)
The body – Araya displaying her charms
Not Tinti and Gemser, but Mann and Araya
Scattini, Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru's writing is also better than average. Though they throw a number of twists into the tale, some of which are also pleasingly ironic, there is nothing that emerges as contrived either whilst watching the story unfold or reconstructing it retrospectively.
Instead, seemingly incidental aspects come to attain a greater significance. Note, for example, Antoine's drunken remarks to Alan that drifters and thieves are one and the same after they have failed to catch some apparent intruders one night, as an indication of suspicions of his new friend and that he's more on the ball than his habitually dishevelled, drunken state suggests. Or note Princess's request that Antoine get her a pair of shoes when he is in town, having hitherto declined to wear them.
Piero Umiliani contributes a beautifully evocative score that is by turns soothing, melancholy, romantic and impassioned, with Hammond organ grooves, lush vocalism and all the his trademark ingredients present; more generally, looking at the list of Umiliani and Scattini's collaborations, it's clear that they were very much in tune with one another, resulting in a series of scores that work beyond the images they support and which, like the film, can be enthusiastically recommended to those willing to go beyond the more familiar Argento / Martino / Morricone / Nicolai giallo idioms of the time.
[I watched the film through an English dubbed AVI from Cinemageddon]