Bugie Rosse is a giallo which, in terms of writing, performances and direction, is probably superior to the majority of 1970s product, albeit with the rider that the last aspect depends in large part upon whether you like your gialli subtle instead of showy-for-showy-sake.
It has, of course, the misfortune to miss the filone boat by about 20 years, coming at a time when even the established masters of Italian genre cinema (e.g. Martino) were finding it harder and harder to get their films made and out there to any prospective cinema audience.
In this regard it also shows that Italian filmmakers of the 1990s could have adapted just as well as their 1960s and 1970s predecessors to the new order, insofar as it is an erotic thriller as much as a giallo – even if here we must also note the probable influence of such late 60s gialli as Double Face, Perversion Story and Umberto Lenzi and Carroll Baker’s collaborations, as sexed-up noir / Hitchcock hybrids, upon Basic Instinct, Body of Evidence and their lesser known straight-to-video counterparts.
While featuring many of the old tropes of the classic giallo, with plenty of black gloved subjective camera murder set pieces, voyeuristic scenarios, and suspects / red herrings to keep the amateur detective both within the diegesis and the audience involved, the main difference between the film and its 1970s counterparts, Argento somewhat excepted, is with regard to sexual ‘perversion’, in the form of (male) homosexuality. (As the title of Rosa von Praunheim’s 1971 film suggests “It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives.”)
Specifically, the main narrative focuses on a television journalist, Marco, who decides to go undercover in search of a scoop in the case of five gay men who have been murdered in as many months, posing as one “indiscipinato 90” on the hook-up boards. (As an early quasi-email system this is itself of interest in relation to the way in which the giallo has often foregrounded the role of modern technology, with the reel-to-reel tape elsewhere being replaced by its cassette counterpart, as part of a Hi-Fi system with a CD rather than a record player.)
Visiting the city’s main cottaging area– a small patch of land presented so often in the course of the narrative that you half wonder how the police haven’t been able to catch the killer themselves, unless pointing at official indifference is a narrative subtext, which it may well be – he soon finds himself thrown into the thick of things. His second pickup of the evening robs and knocks him unconscious, just as a mysterious assassin kills his first.
While Marco thus has an iron-clad alibi, and is ably protected by his best friend Roberto, a high-flying lawyer, he declines to identify his assailant from a series of mug shots and decides to continue his investigations.
His next visit to the city’s gay demi-monde almost brings about his demise as he agrees to go with a Polish immigrant who claims to know the identity of the killer but then turns out to be a gay basher. Left to burn to death – somewhat awkwardly Marco himself is not soaked in petrol and set ablaze, only the ground around him – a mysterious, unseen interloper pulls him to safety...
Despite Roberto’s counsel, Marco remains determined to solve the case and enters deeper and deeper into the city’s gay scene, putting increasing strains on his marriage as he becomes increasingly unsure of his own sexual identity, a la Cruising...
The first key difference between Bugie rosse and the typical classic giallo is that male homosexuality is not presented as being equivalent to paedophilia, as discussed by Koven, but is instead treated here as just another sexuality, albeit one whose practitioners – an awkward word, I admit, insofar as it implies choice, as in of a career, somewhat – are still subject to prejudice and discrimination.
Indeed, as with Argento’s more progressive early films, especially Deep Red, the gay characters are presented here as more sinned against than sinning, unable to be open about their orientation precisely because of the negative implications it still has societally. (The narrative, as it turns out, revolves around blackmail, thus implicating one of the other great giallo themes, that of the rational rather than irrational motive for murder.)
The first difference, compared to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, is that homosexuality it is not treated as a subject for comic relief.
This is an element that is markedly absent with the exception of an elderly swinger couple who sit to both sides of Marco in a porn theatre, clearly intent on a threesome. Yet even here there’s perhaps something of a shift from the 1970s, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s antique shop encounter aside, insofar as Marco responds by declining their invitation and moving away, rather than through a (stereotypically) aggressive male heterosexual defensiveness. (Marco, passive / non aggresive, is gay / receptive / open?)
The second, more at the level of the general writing, direction and acting, is that a sense of being thought through pervades the whole film, giving it that re-watchable aspect insofar as once you know who the killer is you can still watch it again to see the subtle cues and miscues along the way, in the same manner as with Deep Red or Tenebre.
In other words, it’s not a choice of the prosaic or the poetic, or of form or content, but rather a film where form is content, and vice versa in a commutative or syllogistic way.
To mention three things worth considering in this regard:
First we have Marco’s alter ego, “the undisciplined one” (directorial freedom, masochism) implicitly in search of the other, of discipline (directorial control, sadism).
Second, that the modus operandi of the murders preceding the narrative, and thus absent / not depicted, and within it, and thus present / depicted, are different.
Third, that both the heterosexual and gay encounters are scored with the same kind of arousing / engaging music and shot with the same approach to mise-en-scene as an expression of Marco’s growing confusion. Admittedly showing more in the former case, but how many US erotic thrillers of the time were as willing to show (pseudo) gay as (pseudo) lesbian activity?
Well worth the giallo enthusiast’s attention, even if the Berlusconi bankrolling perhaps implies an awkward subtext to the Bugie Rosse - i.e Red Lies - title...
Writer-director Pierfrancesco Campanella's later Bad Inclination is also highly recommended...