The discovery of murdered businessman Marco Pierboni sends shock waves through the small Italian town of Lucca. At first journalist Nicole Venturi (Edwige Fenech) sees the crime and the mystery surrounding it as an opportunity to make her name But then, as her own daughter Sandra proves missing and is subequently found dead, her involvement takes a decidedly more personal turn....
Also investigating are Rome-based crime reporter Andrea Baresi; Sandra's former boyfriend Paolo and Inspector Avanza (Ray Lovelock) with a plethora of suspects for one or other murder and all manner of intrigues involving the town's prominent citizens (including Alida Valli, Paolo Malco and Gabrielle Ferzetti) in blackmail, loan-sharking, prostitution and so forth...
There's no getting away from it: Delitti privati often appears very much to be Twin Peaks all'italiana. But while it's certainly possible that it was put together in the style of Lynch's series, there are certain elements that thankfully show its creators were not just slavishly attempting to copy their US model and instead adapted it to their own context.
One obvious difference is what, for want of a better description, we might term the 'weirdness' of the two series. Whereas Twin Peaks increasingly moved into surrealistic terrain, Delitti privati remains firmly within the realm of the mundane. Crucially, it's not that director Sergio Martino couldn't have done a more supernaturally tinged mystery thriller, as illustrated by All the Colours of the Dark, more that he and his collaborators again seem reluctant to abandon 'narrative' logic (Colours' approach to the occult) in favour of 'cinematic' logic (Tragic Ceremony's approach to similar material), with this further demonstrated by the importance of various McGuffins here, most obviously the ten letters that will reveal the identity of Sandra's killer.
Indeed, it is also telling that the two apparent exceptions to the mundane within Delitti privati, a spirit medium who attempts to determine the location of the missing Sandra and a ghostly appearance at the window of a supposedly abandoned villa, are retrospectively explained away in non-supernatural terms. (A wider Martino thought / question: is one of the distinguishing characteristics of his cinema a basic refusal of non-rational / scientific explanations, of countenancing any world beyond what can be known empirically?)
Fragments of yellow
Another related difference is the relatively closed nature of Delitti privati as a text, running six hours, as a duration more comparable to the first series of Twin Peaks than the seemingly endless second, and containing a clear beginning, middle and end narrative trajectories in the discovery, the investigation and the resolution of the crime / mystery.
Little details and impossible points of view
Perhaps, however, the real point of comparison is less Twin Peaks than one of its sources, namely Peyton Place, insofar as it introduced the small-town with secrets setting common to both Lynch and Martino's series, along with the more soap-opera like intrigues of affairs, illegitimate children and suchlike.
Whie Martino's direction appears less stylish than his 1970s gialli, it is evident on closer examination that this can be attributed to a combination of the smaller dimensions of the screen; the limitations in presenting graphic content in a prime-time series for which international sales were sought; and the sheer imaginative challenge that presenting even the set pieces in a poetic manner would pose given the series’ length. If Lynch arguably achieved poeticism through the aforementioned atmosphere of weirdness, the increasing alienation of the mainstream audience from Twin Peaks’ second series seems indicative of a more fundamental problem of expectations and understandings here.
Not an image for ailurophobes...
What we do get within Delitti privati are, however, a number of more subtle touches that serve to indicate Martino’s ever-adaptable talents. There are some nicely executed suspense sequences, including one featuring a gliding Steadicam shot that would not have been out of place in Opera and is belatedly revealed / justified as being from a dog's point-of-view; some clever set-ups and lighting effects, involving the symbolic use of reflections and colour, as with the image of Fenech reflected, multiplied and fragmented in a crystal glass lamp shade, or a tellingly demonic-looking close-up of her normally peaceful white cat, Minou; and the recurring but crucially not over-emphatic use yellow objects to remind us of the giallo filone itself.
Not, in truth, that the viewer would really need reminding given the plethora of intrigues and mysteries, the important role played by the amateur detective relative to the professional; the director, star and cast's previous history; or the various possible allusions to other gialli.
Thus, for example, the murder in the rain, the conservatory students and the revenge-seeking boyfriend cum suspect – the last admittedly also a Twin Peaks-ism – all recall The Bloodstained Butterfly, the small university town setting and suspect professor Torso.
Similarly, whilst a necklace found in one character's possession again has its counterpart as a McGuffin in Lynch's series, it can also be read in relation to the likes of The Case of the Scorpion's Tail; that it is of St George might be understood as an obscure in-joke targeted at Dario Argento's penchant for wearing a similar piece of jewelery.
Another point of interest for the fan of the early 1970s giallo is in seeing how things have changed over the course of the intervening two decades.
Fenech's strong, independent, divorced protagonist with an actual career of her own as a journalist – an element which goes largely unremarked upon, unlike in Deep Red – is about as different as can be imagined from the fragile, neurotic, in need of male protection characters typical of her earlier films for Martino, suicide attempt notwithstanding, and thus might be read something a testament to feminist progress.
The use of technology is also worth noting. On the one hand, computers are omnipresent tools, a suspect worries about the DNA evidence that would surely incriminate him, and the pragmatism of the gun has triumphed over the fetishism of the straight razor. On the other, the mobile phone has not yet rendered impossible certain classic scenarios, whilst the old device of a typewriter's tell-tale signature is used rather than the more anonymous laser printer.
A statement of strength and independence
As with the performances, the production values are always at least competent, serving to indicate that the decline of the Italian popular cinema around this time – or its retreat onto the small screen – was less about a lack of talent as of opportunities for this talent to prove itself to a wider audience. (Who, watching Monica Belucci as one of Dracula's brides in Bram Stoker's Dracula, would have predicted a wider international career for her in 1992?)
As indicated, Fenech, who co-produced the series through her company Immagine e cinema, really demonstrates how far she had come as an actress over the previous quarter century. Though certainly still incredibly attractive in a MILF-y way, it's less about removing her clothes at almost any opportunity than showcasing her hard-won range and, in some sequences, an admirable willingness to appear distinctly un-glamorous. This in turn also helps explicate why she has endured in a way that otherwise comparable starlets such as Femi Benussi – equally lovely though she was stripping nude for her killers – have not.
Natale Massara's music is a bit of a mixed bag. His orchestral themes, which I felt betrayed the influence of frequent collaborator Pino Donaggio, were more effective than his action and suspense cues, which suffered from artificial, cheap and anonymous sounding synth and percussion work. While the two numbers sung by Milva are welcome, one appearing to be an attempt at producing something comparable to the Twin Peaks theme, the overall impression was of a relative lack of coherent identity of the sort that Bruno Nicolai – admittedly sadly deceased by this time – brought to Martino's 1970s gialli scores.
In sum, a series that requires a bit of effort to get into and appreciate and which, as such, is better recommended to the already committed giallo fan than the newcomer, but which nevertheless proves rewarding watching – especially if one is also a Fenech fan.