Thursday 31 May 2007

Giornata nera per l'ariete / The Fifth Cord

While wandering home in a drunken state from a New Year's party alcoholic journalist Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) is one of the witnesses to the assault and robbery – possibly attempted murder – of a fellow guest, Joe Lubbock, an Australian teacher of English at a language institute.

An example of J&B that proves they were not paying for product placement, as Bild indulges in some drinking and driving in a way you cannot image a film getting away with now

Assigned to the story by his editor, Troversi, for reasons that become clearer as the sordid tale unfolds, Andrea's unofficial investigations continue as killer strikes again, murdering wealthy invalid Sofia Bini (Rossella Falk) – who just happens to be the wife of doctor Richard Bini (Raf Vallone / Renato Romano) who had earlier treated Lubbock.

The maniac also leaves a calling card in the form of a guanti neri with one finger cut off. Since a glove was also left with Lubbock, Bild and the police conjecture, not unreasonably, that the killer is not finished and that the next victim will be found with a missing two fingers...

The hand of doom and its handiwork

Discretely following Bini, Andrea witnesses him talking to another, younger man (Luciano Bartoli), who then gets into a car with his on-off girlfriend Lu (Pamela Tiffin). Back home, they have an uncomfortable exchange:

Andrea: Where have you been all this while?

Lu: Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies. I was at home studying. I have this, eh, history exam on Thursday. Didn't I tell you? What's wrong?

I telephoned your house and your mother said she hasn't seen you for over a month. You're a lyiing little whore! What kind of home did you come from!? Your mother didn't take care of you, your father's gathering mould in a state home for the aged and you play tramp in one sports car after another!

Was it a red sports car?

That's right

Well that car happens to belong to my brother Walter, you idiot!. You know, ever since you've been playing detective you just can't get anything right!

Next Andrea goes to see Lubbock, who clams up as another teacher and party guest, Vermont, enters. Outside, however, he confesses that he has since received threatening telephone calls, following which Bild receives one of his own...

A classic piece of giallo jet set imagery as Bild's estranged wife, complete with fur coat, leaves the city

Bild then finds that his investigations have also attracted the attention of someone wealthy and powerful – also the killer? – who tries uses his or her influence to have Troversi tell him to drop the story. This only encourages the headstrong reporter to continue following up leads, as does the subsequent murder of Troversi himself – his body also being found with the requisite glove, this time missing two fingers – and the way it seems to implicate him as far as the Inspector (Wolfgang Preiss) is concerned:

“We have an attempted murder and two murders. In all three instances you are one of the few people who knew all three victims. Funny coincidence, isn't it? Especially seeing as you have no alibi in any of these three cases. Still, we haven't decided to formulate charges against you – for the moment.”

Watching this post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage giallo from Luigi Bazzoni makes for a fascinating insight into the evolution of the form, using as it does Argento's cinematographer and composer Vittorio Storaro and Ennio Morricone there – two names that virtually guaranteed the visual and aural qualities of a film at this time regardless of the merits or otherwise of the work – and bringing in more familiar themes and visual motifs – voyeurism; the amateur detective; the sexual revolution (“if you want to get laid go ahead; you know it doesn't bother me,” Lu remarks in a note at one point); the black gloved killer; subjective killer's eye view; the park as beautiful place to die; an exciting mano a mano showdown in an abandoned factory at the finale; the omnipresent J&B bottle etc. – absent from the director's previous, more sui generis entry made prior to the generic codification of what giallo-as-film meant, circa 1971. (It would be interesting to read David McDonald Devine's 1967 source novel and see what the film-makers had added or subtracted from it.)

Bazzoni's third filone excursion, Le Orme, released at the tail end of the giallo boom in 1974, meanwhile represents something of fusion of its predecessors, insofar as it again features a key contributions from Storaro (Nicola Piovani handles the musical duties) but is more akin to La Donna del lago in terms of its tone, borderline arthouse sensibilities, and plot as a woman discovers she cannot account for a period of a few days and receives a ticket to a mysterious island that may holds the clue to the mystery.

More or less random examples of The Fifth's Cord's stunning visuals - surfaces and depth, refraction and reflection

What all three films have in common is their sheer quality. Film for film, I would say Bazzoni is perhaps the finest director to specialise in the form, with the possible exceptions of Argento and Bava. While his genre filmography may be considerably more limited than theirs, he does not have any films – Five Dolls for an August Moon, Cat o' Nine Tails – that require a special case be made.

Structurally The Fifth Cord is less complex than its predecessor, simply because the mystery begins with the attack on Lubbock and then proceeds from there rather than entailing the investigation of an event discretely in the past (i.e. its is more hard-boiled thriller than classical detective, at least in this regard). Nonetheless the opening sequences, with an unidentified fish-eye lens, irised POV camera – Bild? the killer? a general subjective (altered) state along the lines of a Pasolinian “Cinema of Poetry”? – and unsituated voice-over slightly reminiscent of that which opens Tenebrae and unidentified woman's scream establish a number of enigmas and bear close scrutiny in relation to that which follows.

“I am going to commit murder. I am going to kill another human being. How easy it is to say. Already I feel like a criminal. I've been thinking it over for weeks. But now that I have given voice to my evil intention I feel comfortably relaxed. Perhaps the deed itself will be an anticlimax. But I think not. Already I can imagine the excitement and the thrill, the pleasure I will experience as I stalk my victim. How much effort is required to strangle? Perhaps a knife would be better. No – I want to feel the trembling flesh in my hands as I squeeze the life out of the body. What if there's a struggle and the victim escapes? I must think of a way to avoid that. There must be no mistakes.”

Visually it is equally complex, blending the notion of restricted vision – note how many compositions place us on the outside of a situation, seeing the characters through glass on which fall shadows and reflections, or an almost Von Sternberg-style use of screens and overlaid textures – with Storaro's “painting in light” techniques and a use of modernist architecture and designs strongly reminiscent of Antonioni (also a key influence on Argento, making the lines of descent and influence harder to chart).

The modernist cityscape...

... and the Marienbad Gardens?

What we also get, by way of some insertion of more generic element, such as momentary flashback inserts and zooms in on significant details, is an enigma that is not only soluble but which presents a clear path. Coupled with a greater emphasis on suspense and violence – still relatively restrained, with as much emphasis on the aftermath as the crime – it perhaps lessens the case for The Fifth Cord as art, but does give it an immediacy and accessibility its predecessor somewhat lacked.

Aurally The Fifth Cord marks an improvement on La Donna del lago, whose somewhat conventional romantic themes and Blood and Black Lace crime jazz stylings were perhaps its weakest point, with Morricone contributing his usual combination of gentle easy listening and suspense themes – albeit with the former frequently marked by undercurrents of the latter.

White telephone and giallo light

Franco Nero makes for one of the genre's most ambiguous protagonists, his consistent gulping down of J&B and violent outbursts subverting the more usual connotations attached to the brand within the filone cinema of the period, even as their deeper rooted cause – a dislike for a father we never see – is very post-1968/9 Italian cinema.

The supporting players are uniformly well cast, bringing the right degrees of glamour, sophistication and / or suspicion to their characters.

Note that the Italian title – literally Black Days for the Arian, as in the sign of the zodiac – has resonances that are lacking in its English counterpart but, as with most cryptic titles of the time, is essentially something of a red herring itself whose meaning only emerges at the end.

Wednesday 30 May 2007

Lo Squartatore di New York / The New York Ripper

A man out walking his dog finds a severed, rotting hand. It proves to belong to a model-actress-whatever who went missing a few weeks before, but with no real leads to go on the case is quickly all but forgotten by Lieutenant Williams - after all, "eleven people a day are murdered here in fun city, and over half of them are women."

A few weeks later another young woman is butchered on the Staten Island Ferry, her screams drowned out by its horn. The killer's modus operandi suggests it to be the work of the same maniac, "a lefty with a yen for slashing up young ladies."

With pressure from the higher-ups mounting, Williams enlists the help of psychology professor Paul Davis to profile his quarry - not necessarily a wise decision since the self-satisfied genius is himself set up as a suspect through his penchant for game-playing and dismissal of the predictable patterns by which Williams and policemen like him think...

Words guaranteed to put moral watchdogs on edge and delight the moral entrepreneurs among them #1

Words guaranteed to put moral watchdogs on edge and delight the moral entrepreneurs among them #2

Following yet another murder, that of a sex show performer at a 42nd street club - following which the duck-voiced killer taunts Williams, imparting an uncomfortably personal dimension to the case - there is an apparent break in the case as a known sexual sadist by the name of Mickey Scellenda, earlier seen attending the sex show and easily recognisable through a disfigured hand pursues student and prospective Olympian Fay Majors off the subway and into a deserted movie theatre.

Somehow, despite going into a fugue state - in which she images her attacker to be her boyfriend, Peter, a physicist - she manages to fend him off.

Unfortunately by the time the all-points-bulletin goes out on Scellenda he is already with another likely victim, Jane, the thrill-seeking wife of a crippled bourgeois whom he had earlier encountered at the sex show...

The Blade of the Ripper...

... and its handiwork #1

... and #2...

There are two problems any commentator faces with approaching this 1982 giallo from Lucio Fulci.

The first is the external baggage that accompanies it, especially in the UK context. Emerging at the height of the "video nasties" affair, the print of The New York Ripper was famously escorted out of the country by the authorities who flat out denied it the possibility of being released. While now available on DVD, that a scene of one of the ripper's victims being mutilated with a razor blade remains cut on account of running contrary to policy on images of sexualised violence and, possibly, the obscene publications act, seems telling - even if these cuts are minor compared to, say, those inflicted upon Deodato's rape-revenge entry House on the Edge of the Park.

In truth I don't think there's much that really needs to be said here. The film, like many others, had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I doubt has the film-makers had any misogynistic or puritanical agenda in mind as has been claimed. Rather, their goal was more likely to simply provide their target audience with new thrills; a task necessitating greater extremity than ever before in the wake of such mainstream slasher releases as Cruising and Dressed to Kill - which one suspects were more influential than contemporaneous Italian product - and in which, for better or worse, it has to be said that they succeeded admirably.

How to tell a story visually - Scellenda and Jane at the sex show, eyeing one another up and then both suspiciously vacating before the female performer is murdered backstage

The second is the gimmick of having the killer speak like a duck, which many commentators see as ruining the mood and inducing laughter. This is a more serious criticism to address, but again I think does not really detract from the film as much as some have claimed.

The specific logic behind the killer's speaking like a duck does make a kind of perverse sense in terms of their motives, whilst further connecting back into Fulci's giallo filmography in the form of Non si sevizia un paperino / Don't Torture a Duckling.

In terms of scoring, writing, performances and so forth the general impression one gets is, to paraphrase the police coroner, of "good efficient butchery," necessarily limited by constraints of time and money but horribly accomplished within these terms.

Likewise, while there's a sense of deja-vu to Fulci's techniques and tropes - rack focus, shock zooms, extreme close-ups of eyes are all present and correct, along with his that all but patented approach to graphic violence - these at least mark the film out as his.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is that the element of going through the motions that results from this is also in ironic accord with the pervasive worldview of The New York Ripper specifically and Fulci's oeuvre during this period generally, as one of disconnection, despair and all pervading hopelessness.

It could almost be from Suspiria until we get the broken bottle to crotch incident; one suspects that to render this sequence in a more naturalistic idiom would have been too much, even for most Fulci fans

"You're either the best or you're nothing" remarks one character; perhaps Fulci's problem was that he was the best at nothing - i.e. evoking absolute nihilism; perhaps part of the reaction to The New York Ripper stems from its uncomfortable realism.

At least when Liza and John faced the sea of darkness at the end of The Beyond they do so together, unlike those left alone as the credits roll here...

Tuesday 29 May 2007

La Donna del lago / The Lady in the Lake

Following a terse telephone call to his girlfriend in which he tells her they can no longer be together, writer Bernard retreats to an isolated, perpetually gray and windswept town dominated by the lake at its centre – hardly the kind of place to go get away from it all.

Requesting the same room as last year from the hotel manager, it soon becomes apparent that Bernard has unfinished business in the place in the form of hotel chambermaid Tilde. The sight of her coat triggers pleasant memories – think Proustian madeleine – but she herself proves to be curiously, conspicuously absent in the flesh.

Bernard's inquiries as to her whereabouts produce non-committal answers from the hotel manager that sustain his dreams, until the town chemist, a hunchback, reveals the truth – Tilde is dead, an apparent suicide drowned in the lake.

Haunted by this revelation of loss, Bernard has the sense that something about it does not ring true. The Tilde he remembers was vivacious, hardly inclined to suicide. Digging deeper against the marked hostility of most of the townsfolk, but aided by the hunchback – who may of course have an agenda all of his own – Bernard gradually unearths the truth about his lost love and what befell her...

The graveyard in the woods

During the interregnum between Bava's Blood and Black Lace and Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage a number of directors tried their hands at the giallo. Most approached it squarely as a popular genre, seeking to put a new yellow gloss on old noir and Hitchcock models. A few however veered into more modernist and arthouse territory, most notably Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini here and Giulio Questi – who actually also has a co-writing credit – with Death Laid an Egg.

The funeral procession

Unlike Antonioni's more determinedly anti-giallo Blow Up from the same period, 1966-1967, these are, however, films which have never received much attention from the critical establishment, with what recognition there exists coming from some of more adventurous and discerning cult scholars like Craig Ledbetter and Adrian Luther-Smith and his Italian collaborators.

Examples of the Bazzoni and Rossellini's absolute control over their medium - everything is in here, with a purpose

If then, to paraphrase Ledbetter, Death Laid an Egg is Godard had directed a giallo while on acid, La Donna del lago / Lady in the Lake might be similarly glossed as the filone's riposte to Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad with a soupçon of Dreyer's Vampyr thrown in. In other words, it's a challenge to the unprepared viewer in its refusal to provide any easy ontology of images / clues with past, present, real and imaginary states co-existing on the same plane and intermingling seamlessly.

A black glove moment in a non-black glove example of the form

Although the film-makers use the voice-over extensively in adapting what one assumes must have been a relatively interior source novel by Giovanni Comisso the device never feels heavy-handed. Rather, what Bernard does not say / think proves as important as what he does, with both also contributing to the totality of a mise-en-scene with which what we don't see at all or are given a partial view of are as important / significant as anything else.

Note, for instance, the parallel between the opening shots of Bernard, back to us and mirrored in the glass so as to be almost a ghostly superimposition, and of the figure he sees wearing Tilde's distinctive chequered coat through a shop window.

Through / in a glass, darkly

Or take the way in which the vital reason behind Tilde's disappearance and the silence surrounding it is revealed not by one of the photographs Bernard scrutinises endlessly but by the hunchback's suggestively negative image of her, against which the two men are then themselves almost silhouetted.

The rhetoric of the image

Or the distaste that Bernard develops for the fish he is served – fish from the lake that trigger too many uncomfortable thoughts, poisoned as they are by Tilde's death.

An astonishingly beautiful and rich film that rewards every viewing with new subtleties and nuances, La Donna del lago lives up to its billing in Luther-Smith's Blood and Black Lace book as “a masterpiece” and demonstrates once more just what could be done with the form if more serious critics and popular audiences were willing to truly attempt to engage without prejudice.

Thanks to Paul for enabling me to see this rare classic, and for doing such a good job on the subtitles as well.

Some cult soundtracks

Here -

Another Italian horror blog

A warm welcome to

Name to the face

Who is this actor? I think I've seen him in Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade, where he plays a mechanic who gives his female clients a full service ("no one works the way he does"); Zombie, where he's the assistant at the morgue with the less than sharp scalpel, and City of the Living Dead, where he is one of the participants in the seance.

Slash Hits Volume 2

This second volume in Midnight Media's ongoing Slash Hits series, subtitled Teens in Trouble, covers the peak years of the slasher film, 1980 to 1982, and is of interest to fans of Italian genre cinema fans for an all-encompassing approach that sees the likes of Joe D'Amato's Absurd, Romano Scavolini's Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Ovidio G Assonitis's Madhouse, Fulci's The New York Ripper and Argento's Tenebrae being included alongside the more mainstream North American fare.

Taking a viewer's guide approach that recognises the main reasons many will have besides curiosity, nostalgia or completism for sitting through many of the examples contained within, each film is given ratings for boobs and blood.

These prove criteria by which Euro product often scores highly, The New York Ripper getting a maximum five on both scales and Tenebrae a four and a five - Friday the 13th gets only two and four by way of comparison.