After he receives the sensation that his sister Jessie, an up and coming Milan based model, is in some sort of danger, Yellowstone Park ranger Bob Crane catches the first flight to the city. Finding Jessie missing, he contacts the authorities, who are understandably nonplussed by his (non-)explanation of why he is there, but nevertheless soon come to agree that something must be up as two other models turn up dead in short order...
Nothing Underneath – the Italian title, translating as nothing underneath the clothes is at once simpler and more suggestive – is a classic example of the style-driven, post-Tenebre giallo that time has not yet been kind to.
More than being less distanced style wise than such 70s fashion world counterparts as The Crimes of the Black Cat and Strip Nude for Your Killer, it’s also the kind of film whose makers try oh so hard, but unfortunately fail to make style and substance cohere, with a relative surfeit of the former and paucity of the latter.
The area where this is most evident is in the inclusion of the telepathic connection device. It just about works as a means of introducing the characters and their situation, but thereafter is largely dropped with the result that it emerges overall as a crude contrivance which raises more questions than it answers.
Worse, it also encourages negative comparisons with both Argento’s Phenomena – as another grab bag of ideas, albeit more the director’s own rather than ones general to the giallo – and, De Martino’s Extrasensorial, where the theme is central throughout rather than throwaway; perhaps not coincidentally Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini worked on the scripts of both Phenomena and Nothing Underneath, the latter in conjunction with Marco Palma, whose novel it was derived from.
Another point of reference is Inferno, with its juxtaposition of magic – the acousmatic voices of the three mothers, heard and felt but rarely seen – and technology – the trans-Atlantic telephone call between Mark and Rose which is cut off by a (magical?) storm and Mark’s flight from Rome to New York in search of his sister.
At issue in each case is the reality we are dealing with. The other three films establish their distinctive worlds, like but not our own, and make us suspend our disbelief. Here, by contrast, we are presented with two different versions of the same world, rural America and urban Italy, the timeless and the a la mode, where the comparable admixture of the magical and technological – or specifically psychoanalytic – just does not quite work off. It’s less a case of broken mirrors or broken minds, as in Suspiria, Inferno and Don’t Look Now, but broken minds.
I throw Don’t Look Now into the mix here on account of an obvious bit of symbolism for the viewer, if not the protagonist, as the telephone operator responsible for making the connection between the Rockies and Milan in order to save Jessie tellingly spills her red nail polish over the international dialling code details for the city. (Another case of the “it’s not blood, it’s red” formula for distanced giallo violence?)
Other aspects of the film are more successful, making one imagine an alternate, more mundane, version where Bob doesn’t receive some calls from Jessie that he has been expecting, is dissatisfied with the answers he gets from her circle and arrives after a couple of weeks to begin his investigation, as working better throughout.
In particular, the high fashion world, with all its excesses of greed, drugs and opportunistic sex, and its glamour, of that familiar distinction between the glittering surface and the corruption beneath, is well captured, to form a further point of connection via the aforementioned 70s murder a la mode entries all the way back to that founding text of the form, Blood and Black Lace.
Likewise, if the killer’s metonymic black gloves are primarily a throwaway generic signifier, albeit one with some of the usual use-value in terms of denying us the sight of obviously male or female hands, the choice of scissors as a weapon fits better with the fashion context than the more usual knife and also prefigures the maniac’s suitably obsessive collection of cut out scrapbook type images.
The nature of the film’s setting makes it hard to gauge most of the performances. As fashion types, most of these people are here to look good rather than act, with a certain element of vacuity to be expected; indeed female lead Renee Simonsen was a top model of the time.
Much the same can be said of Tom Schanley’s Crane in a different way, insofar as he is playing the country mouse type out of his element in the big city.
Donald Pleasance is very much in collect the paycheck and run mode, though this sense of going through the motions, not quite 100 per cent aware of where he is and on which film he’s actually working is also strangely appropriate to his character, the cliche figure of the old detective whose last case this is.
Note must also made of the finale, which manages to combine the slow-motion crash through glass of Four Flies on Grey Velvet with the more conventionally seen plummet to the death of The Crimes of the Black Cat, Don’t Torture a Duckling, Who Saw Her Die and others.
In sum, decent entertainment for 90 or so minutes, but almost “nothing underneath” by way of substance or subtext to reward repeat viewings.