Monday 30 July 2007

The Spiral Staircase

Lacuna coil?

A small New England town is being menaced by a maniac. He has struck three times in a short space of time, the victim in each case being a woman with a physical “affliction.” Our and his focus thus turns to Helen Capel, mute since an incident in her childhood.

But with just about all the males in the village acting suspiciously and wearing the same attire of black raincoat, hat and gloves, there is hardly a shortage of suspects – even if the the most likely one seems to be Steve Warren, recently returned from Paris...

Sotto gli occhi dell'assassino

This 1946 thriller, directed by Robert Siodmak from the novel by Ethel Lina White, has often been cited as an influence on Argento and the giallo, most obviously Lenzi's Knife of Ice.

It is not difficult to see why.

The mirror also plays an important role here we do not realise at first that our point of view is shared with the killer as we watch Helen

The killer is motivated by the desire to eliminate physical imperfection, a motif that gialli such as Crimes of the Black Cat and The New York Ripper would take up but also invert. Like Delirium Photos of Gioia, he literally views his victims through the lens of his psychosis, with Helen at one point appearing without a mouth:

Four Flies on Grey Velvet comes to mind in the aetiology of the killer's motivation, as we learn that the he could not live up to his dominating father's demands to be a “real” man. The difference is that whereas the maniac in Argento's film is getting revenge on their father for this, our killer here is seeking the dead man's approval.

Someone is dressed to kill, but who?

The elements – darkness, wind, water, fire – play a significant role. Most of the action takes place on the dark, stormy night complete with flashes of lightning, thundercrashes and gusts of wind at appropriate moments, while we learn the origins of Helen's muteness stem from the childhood fire in which her parents died.

The gothic space of the cellar as prototype for Inferno?

As with Cat o' Nine Tails and Tenebrae, the killer is reduced to a close-up of an eye, which even at one point stares out from the closet in which he is hiding in a manner recalling a similar moment in Deep Red.

While the giallo killer type attire seems primarily about function, the black gloves are somewhat fetishised being donned by the killer before his climactic attack on Helen and treated to close-ups:

There is the motif of the “screaming point,” although here it has a positive / cathartic function in enabling speech – the talking cure? – rather than signalling the collapse of language and meaning, as in Tenebrae.

Pronto? Pronto?

Saturday 28 July 2007

Sette scialli di seta gialla / The Crimes of the Black Cat

We open with a woman moving through the streets, making a telephone call that clearly suggests some surreptitious activity – think Case of the Bloody Iris – and delivering a letter for one Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen), whom she explains to the barman that she cannot meet that evening as planned.

While waiting for his date – Paola Whitney by name – Peter, a blind composer, overhears part of a conversation involving blackmail in the booth opposite but is distracted at the crucial moment by a record playing on the jukebox. He does, however, get the barman to describe the woman (Giovanna Lenzi) who left the place at that moment – not particularly young, unsteady on her feet as if she were a bit intoxicated (it is a bar, after all) and wearing a distinctive white cape.

On his way home Peter is met by his faithful manservant Barton (Umberto Raho), who reads him Paola's “dear john” letter, making him forget all about the conversation at the bar and the woman in white. She, meanwhile, creeps into a couturiers and leaves a basket in room number three – a strange type of thief, if indeed that is what she is.

The mystery deepens as, the next morning, one of the model – the selfsame Paola Whitney – goes into room three to change, notices a yellow shawl which she puts on, opens the basket, and falls back screaming, leaving a corpse and the ripped shawl for the others to find. At some point the basket has disappeared, however.

The police are called to the scene and, having begun their investigations, go to tell Peter the bad news. They are accompanied by Paola's friend Margot, who was the first to the scene and the one who noticed the basket.

The police having left – it being clear that Peter is not the man they are looking for, although the fact of Paola's leaving him the previous night is certainly of interest – Peter indicates to Margot that he intends to conduct his own investigation and wonders whether she knew anything about Paola's other lover.

She doesn't, but remembers Paola's photographer cousin Harry and wonders if he might be able to help. Accordingly, they head for his studio, only to find that the killer has got there first. They are not too late to find some incriminating evidence, however, in the form of photos of Paola in bed with Victor Ballais (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), common-law husband of the fashion house's owner Françoise Ballais (Sylva Koscina).

Armed with this evidence, the police confront Victor at the airport, where he has just seen Françoise onto the plane to Hamburg. But while Victor admits to having a motive insofar as Paola was seeking to blackmail him into leaving his wife, he says that he did not kill her. Then, conveniently, the coroner's report comes through, indicating that Paola died of natural causes; anyone concerned with logic will, of course, wonder exactly how and why she screamed so much if this was the case.

Reluctantly Inspector Jansen (Renato De Carmine) lets Ballais go, although he makes it clear that the matter is far from closed – especially seeing as Harry's death was most definitely by unnatural causes.

Indeed, things are only really starting as another one of the models, Helga, realises she knows who is behind the yellow shawls and decides to try for a spot of blackmail of her own, with predictably fatal consequences as the woman in white makes another delivery. While Ballais has an iron-clad alibi on this occasion, Peter and Margot begin to make connections thanks to a chance encounter in the street...

A long introductory synopsis like this is necessary to establishing the ground rules by which this 1972 giallo operates: It is not a particularly well made film, nor one that makes a whole lot of sense at the end of the day thanks to a hopelessly convoluted plot, some credibility straining McGuffins and an even more contrived murder method. But what it does do is wear its influences openly and by virtue of also throwing in just about every generic cliché the film-makers could think of, emerges as perhaps the most representative example of the filone one could hope to find, in themes, motifs and style.

From Bava's Blood and Black Lace we have the fashion house setting, with that familiar play on the double meaning of glamour; drug addiction and the cover-up murder committed when the chief suspect could not have committed it. From Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage we have the key aural clue recorded on tape and the double finale. From the same director's Cat o' Nine Tails – the most important single intertext, as suggested by the Crimes of the Black Cat alternative title – we have the blind protagonist whose other senses appear almost preternatural at times; the intertwining of what initially seem to be separate crimes / incidents; the killing of a photographer in his studio; another victim's fatal dive in front of a train, and the whole enigma of an inaugural crime that does not make sense. From sundry other examples of the filone we get the obligatory lesbian couple; the amateur / professional investigator combination; the abandoned factory showdown; the killer's literal and metaphorical fall, and so forth.

Stylistically The Crimes of the Black Cat is all over the place, going into overdrive during the murder set-pieces and any subjective sequence while shooting the more talky scenes in a bland, functional way.

It's the kind of approach that gets marks for trying but which isn't always that successful, as illustrated by the way in with Oliver's aural distraction at the 'noise' emanating from the jukebox is conveyed visually through whip pans, frenetic zooms in and out and canted angles. It also, I think, indicates something of the difference between the Argento originals, with their deeper exploration of the relationships between the senses, and Pastore's sottoprodutto surface level (non-)understanding.

This also perhaps comes through in the eye medallion the woman in white wears: it briefly seems like it will be part of her faceless representation, much like the way the killer in Cat o' Nine Tails is reduced to being an extreme close-up of an eye. But then, unexpectedly, the next scene shows us her face by way of signalling that she is not the killer but merely their cat's paw.

The now-you-see-it now-you-don't basket McGuffin is poorly handled, with the emphasis on rapid cuts, zooms and other shock devices and the corresponding haste with which everyone arrives at the scene making it impossible for the viewer to tell that the basket had in fact disappeared. The obvious point of comparison is the handbag containing the diary that everyone covets in Blood and Black Lace: while we don't see it vanish thanks to our vision being obscured at the vital moment, its centrality to the scene, for audience and character alike, is at least established ahead of time. It's not that a giallo can't work the other way by requiring the viewer to work at figuring out what is and is not important for themselves, as Argento's films again attest, more that Pastore's “obvious cinema” based approach is one in which such strategies are less relevant.

The notorious shower murder, which shows what Psycho only hinted at as the victim is slashed to death with the obligatory straight razor, is however less gratuitous than it might initially appear, on account of the sense it makes by way of the maniac's “beauty killer” motivation. (The phrase comes an early alternative title considered for Lucio Fulci's misunderstood The New York Ripper.) It's also something that makes for an odd juxtaposition with the curiously coy representation of the aforementioned lesbian couple, Pastore's camera panning “up” onto a poster as they get “down”.

Steffen delivers a surprisingly good performance, managing to convince as a blind man. Rossi-Stuart's role is inherently less interesting, seeing him play the same playboy type that he incarnated on many other occasions, whilst the female cast are by and large decorative. Giovanni Lenzi was the director's wife; she later made a giallo of her own, Delitti, in which seven people are killed by a maniac using the venom of a snake.

Trivia fans will note that the film which Oliver is scoring is in fact another giallo, with the clips that play on the Movieola being from Lizard in a Woman's Skin. But if the film-makers were attempting to draw a contrast between the real of Crimes of the Black Cat and the fiction of Fulci's film they fail, precisely because the clip is drawn from an already ambiguous sequence and, at the mundane level, has more convincing fake blood effects than the shower sequence here.

Friday 27 July 2007

Il Sorriso della iena / Smile Before Death

An open and shut case?

“Here we are sir. She cut her throat with a shard from this broken glass. The post mortem showed she'd been drinking pretty heavily. The door here was locked from the inside. It has to be suicide”

Or so conclude the authorities undertaking the official inquiry into the death of Dorothy Emerson, in a typical display of giallo ineffectiveness.

It's less the end of the affair, however, than the beginning of a whole series of new ones as the dead woman's daughter Nancy (Luciana Della Robbia / Jenny Tamburi) turns up unexpectedly on her mother's estate and quickly realises the truth – or at least enough of it – to be a danger to the conspirators behind the murder and thus in danger herself.

Marco (Silvano Tranquillli), you see, wanted a divorce from his wife and a financial settlement that would resolve his debts, which she saw no reason to give. He is in league with Dorothy's photographer friend Gianna, who has distinct lesbian tendencies and quickly develops an intense attraction to the young woman that threatens to compromise her own position or at least compel its re-evaluation...

To say anything more, however, would run the risk of ruining a taut, extremely well-crafted giallo for the first time viewer.

Blocks of yellow are a important feature of Silvio Amadeo's mise-en-scene, although unfortunately the panning and scanning sometimes seems to conspire against his compositions.

What can be said, however, is that Smile Before Death / Il Sorriso della iena - literally The Smile of the Hyena, and thus the obviously more giallo-sounding title - is a film that not only repays but actually rewards repeat viewings, thanks to numerous subtleties to the dialogue, direction and performances, alternately combining and contradicting one another, along with a convoluted plot that manages to both avoid feeling contrived and to keep the viewer enthralled all the way to a surprise yet retrospectively inevitable finale followed by a sting in the coda that, if maybe a touch deus ex machina, can equally be forgiven for its delicious ironies.

The male gaze, trapped in a woman's body?

Female to-be-looked-at-ness?

Or something a whole lot more complex given all these mirrors, with their multiple images , representations and connotations?

To pick just one moment out of literally dozens: consider the way in which when Nancy falls in the lake – having earlier been informed by Gianna that “the lake is very dangerous at this time” by way of a possible warning – the detail of the accident is obscured from us in a long shot from the perspective of a (convenient) onlooker turned saviour, so that we do not know whether Nancy fell or was pushed, nor quite what to make of her – significantly – unseen but reported nightmare: “I had this awful dream. Marco didn't try to help me. He was going to let me down and he didn't care – he just laughed.”

Its also this kind of thing that gives the film an interpretive richness far beyond the kind of casual summations as exploitative and offensive trash that you could well imagine coming from the pen of more mainstream or politically correct commentators.

Gianna: “Tender like a quivering faun lost in the woods.”
Nancy: “And not finding its mother it takes flight”

For while it might seem doubly exploitative of the film-makers to include a character like Gianna, in that her positioning as bisexual and active bearer of the gaze neatly allows the male spectator to enjoy the spectacle of female flesh without directly being implicated in the scene as voyeur, to me the way it all plays out seems rather to express an honest if seemingly misanthropic statement of the truth as it applies to both real life and giallo film representation: Things are never quite that simple and the equations of male power / guilt and female lack of power / innocence never absolute.

Do I look like a (wo)man who exploits women? Just who is taking advantage of who here?

Indeed, one wonders what sort of readings can be made of the scene where, having finished an intensive photo-session with Nancy, Gianna sighs and languidly removes her camera before then going over to gently caress the young woman: are we here seeing Gianna enjoy masculinised phallicised sexuality through the medium of the penetrative camera to then revert back, post visual / aural suggestions of orgasm, to a more (stereotypically) touchy-feely, non-aggressive ideal(ised) feminine sexuality? Beyond this, what is Nancy's role as the necessary counterpart / complement / complicator in these configurations?

Will the real Nancy please step forward?

The point is whether such questions can be answered definitively – they can't – but that they have rarely been raised with regard to European popular cinema like Smile Before Death, too often dismissed as mere Eurotrash, or else enjoyed but in a not-to-be-taken seriously way that can just end up having the same effect as fan and academic types continue to speak past rather than to each other.

Something similar can be said with regard to the performances, where the intimate nature of the piece – three main characters, three supporting ones – adds to the demands upon Neri, Tranquilli and Tamburi: They have to act as must as be, to convey not just attractiveness, sophistication and guilelessness in the more usual typed way we find in most other gialli (i.e. Edwige Fenech = hysterical woman, George Hilton = suave, suspicious man), but also the performative aspects of such and the tensions that thereby emerge between the 'inner' and 'outer' realms.

Thus, rather than just being Rosalba Neri as the femme fatale, we have Rosalba Neri as the femme fatale whose cold calculations are prone to go awry through the influence of passions she cannot quite control, as with – to again pick out an exemplary moment – the way Gianna cannot quite face Nancy and the truth when the latter intimates that she believes her mother to have been murdered, a little gesture that says an awful lot.

Gianna's look away Neri's finest moment?

Silvano Tranquili is required not just to embody “The typical Latin lover, passion and jealousy,” as Nancy puts it – the kind of the character that giallo aficionados will have doubtless seen him play time and again – but also to maintaining sufficient distance from this role to convey that it is less of a made-to-measure, fits-like-a-black-glove suit than an off-the-peg one-size sort-of fits-all-but-not-really one, existentially and (in)authentically his own.

It is perhaps Tamburi who delivers the finest performance of all, however, with what could well be the pinnacle of her career. (Regrettably I haven't seen much of her work; what she does here makes me want to rectify that.) Again, it's difficult to really say anything without running the risk of spoiling your enjoyment, but on a repeat viewing you really appreciate what she is doing beyond simply exposing her flesh – even if this in itself may be enough for many.

Note the yellow car

Even more remarkably, all this comes across when watching a less than ideal panned and scanned, English dubbed version of the film – the kind of presentation that, unfortunately, is all we often have with too many films hitherto condemned to be forgotten as less interesting typical examples of a genre or filone.

But, as Smile Before Death (and hopefully this discussion) demonstrate, is there ever really such a thing? Isn't it always that when we consider the individual film and its aesthetics in their its own terms, there is invariably and inevitably more to be said?

Thursday 26 July 2007

Spaghetti westerns

I envy anyone attending the Venice film festival this year, with its retrospective of 32 spaghetti westerns, curated by Quentin Tarantino. The article on the BBC is unfortunately light on details, however; I'd be curious to know how obscure it gets.

Oedipus Rex

[Not a giallo, nor a particularly coherent review, but a film that could make for some interesting comparisons with Argento and that “it all depends on what you mean by reality” line]

Fearful that his newborn son Oedipus will usurp him, King Laius of Thebes leaves him in the wilderness to die. A shepherd find the baby and gives him to the childless King Polybus and Queen Merope, who adopt him as their own.

As a young man Oedipus leaves Corinth and goes out into the world. An oracle tells him that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Understandably horrified, he avoids Corinth, and eventually decides upon Thebes as a destination.

Along the way Oedipus encounters Laius, whom he kills to complete the first part of the prophesy. Arriving in Thebes, he then discovers the place beset by a monster, the sphinx, which he slays. His reward is the kingdom of Thebes and the now-widowed Queen Jocasta's hand in marriage...

When reviewing just about any other film such details would count as spoilers of the Verbal-Kint-is-Keyser-Soze variety. In the case of a classical text like Oedipus Rex, however, we're dealing with a text that the audience is surely already familiar with, even if this familiarity may extend little further than that of he's the guy who kills his father and fucks his mother type name recognition. We're also dealing with a work which, through its very status as tragedy, inherently offers no surprises, the end answering the beginning in that inevitable, predestined, fated-to-be kind of way.

As such, the key area of interest in lies in what the film-maker actually chooses to do with their source text, the degrees of reverence and violence they treat it with. And here, unsurprisingly, it is where Pasolini's genius emerges.

While the first (literal) sign we see in the film is one pointing the way to Thebes and, from the looks of it, of classical provenance, the subsequent (semiotic) signs attending the birth of Oedipus are anachronistic – a bicycle, a uniform, a farm building – and seem to establish the time and place of the action as pre-war fascist Italy.

It's a brilliant device by which Pasolini simultaneously universalises Oedipus's narrative by divorcing it from ancient Greece, yet also introduces specificities at the societal and personal levels.

In terms of the first, it establishes the possibility of a psychoanalytical reading of fascism, in line with the popularisation of Freudian ideas within Italy around this time and the emergence of countless films in which younger directors looked back at the fascist regime and the complicity – or otherwise – of their fathers within it.

In terms of the second, it inserts Pasolini himself into the story (the French histoire, with its multiple meaning, seems more apposite here, however) through obvious affinities between his own biography (he was born in 1922, his father an army officer) and that of his character and the way Oedipus's subsequent travails also become an account of his own Oedipal trajectory. Or, rather, don't:

“I have never dreamt of making love with my mother. Rather I have dreamt, if at all, of making love with my father (against the dresser in the miserable bedroom my brother and I shared as children)..." (Pasolini)

Things become even more complex as the action shifts from Thebes to Corinth. For while the North African landscapes and the figures that inhabit them may be closer to what we expect – although here we can also note the way Pasolini chooses to represent the sphinx as something more akin to an African witch-doctor than a mythological creature – this same self-consciously timeless quality again renders any attempt at an unequivocal this-is-what-it-means reading highly problematic.

This, in all its complexities and ambiguities, is in turn is where the film becomes arguably Pasolini's finest realisation of the (deceptively) naïve theories he was developing around the same time, as a “heretical empiricist” committed to “a certain kind” of “realism” whose function, in line with his preference for the “cinema of poetry” over the “cinema of prose,” was to raise questions as to how reality comes to be defined and, just as importantly, with what consequences for us all.

If Oedipus Rex is a challenging film for those used to more conventional aesthetic approaches this is thus with good reason and, in many respects, the entire point: Pasolini wants us to open our eyes to the world, even if the risk is, like Oedipus, that we may not like what we come to realise thereby..

Monday 23 July 2007

Crimes of the Black Cat

Someone has been kind enough to make a torrent of Sergio Pastore's Crimes of the Black Cat, which is well worth a download even if you have the Dagored DVD of the film because they've endeavoured to clean up the video quality a bit.

There's also a English subtitle file for the film, although I found that there were problems with words running together and capital I's instead of l's, so I edited it. If you have the same problem, here's a link to the renamed file:


L'uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio / The Man with the Icy Eyes

Arizona state senator Neil Robertson has been murdered by a man with distinctive “icy eyes.” The police soon arrest a Mexican immigrant, Valdez. Thanks in the main to the testimony of an eyewitness, a stripper by the name of Anne Saxe (Barbara Bouchet), Valdez is found tried, found guilty and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. Italian-American journalist Eddie Mills (Antonio Sabato) is not convinced by the neatness of the whole affair and embarks upon his own investigation, which soon uncovers evidence that Valdez is innocent and the real man with icy eyes still at large...

Though released near the peak of the giallo boom, this 1971 entry from Alberto De Martino has more in common with the American thriller – I Want to Live! seems an obvious point of reference, albeit with the focus here being less on the one condemned and more on their would-be saviour – thanks to its unusual setting and the downplaying or reconfiguration of some of the more usual generic motifs and thematics.

Thus, for instance, while testimone oculare obviously has an important role, it is here less about the protagonist being unwittingly misled by their hitherto taken for granted perceptual framework, as in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, than a duplicitous supporting character who may well have deliberately lied about what they saw. (There is still something of a pattern element, in that Valdez's conviction is aided by his having prior criminal form.)

What weakens L'uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio / The Man with the Icy Eyes – besides an admitted distaste for Antonio Sabato's somewhat smug, self-satisfied persona – is the failure to fully integrate their two main narrative threads, as the identity of the killer declines in importance as saving Valdez becomes more so, rather than their being intertwined, along with the sense that less is made of the socio-political aspects of the piece than might have been the case.

Although the film-makers do certainly try here, as further evinced the way references are frequently made to Mills's Italian origins – with one also wondering whether there's possible (over-)analytical mileage to be made in the casting of Uber-Aryan Bouchet as a character by the name of Saxe, as in Saxon / WASP – I can't help thinking that the relocation of the action to a northern Italian city and commutation of Valdez to a southern Italian or non-Italian immigrant wouldn't have given the film a sharper edge.

This said, as the example of the Australian-set Pyjama Girl Case demonstrates, it is undoubtedly possible for the giallo to have both a foreign setting and specifically Italian cultural resonances. The difference, perhaps, is that the stranger in a strange land aspect there is less tacked on than integral to the meaning of the film as a whole, with its inspiration in fact coming from a real-world murder case. Or perhaps the problem for the filmmakers here was that the kind of thing they might have drawn on for inspiration had already been used, Giuliano Montaldo's Sacco e Vanzetti having been released in Italy the previous month.

One point of note for the Argento fans is that the film also makes use of the precognition idea found in Deep Red, as a supposed psychic / astrologer type tells Mills that he predicts three deaths before the night of Valdez's execution is out – the last being that of the reporter himself...

Sunday 22 July 2007

Mother of Tears poster

From here:

Mala educación

“Taking their name from 1930s pulp novels that were published in yellow covers, giallo chillers like Riccardo Freda's I Vampiri (The Last of the Vampires) (1957) and Mario Bava's La Maschera del Demonio (Black Sunday) (1960) were notable for their brutality and lavish style. However, they were tame compared to such gore-spattered offerings as Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) and cannibal movies (spun-off from Gualtiero Jacopetti 'mondo' documentaries) such as Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 (Zombie Flesh Eaters) (1979), which had a major influence on the American nightmare movies of the 1980s.”

- from the BFI website,

I wouldn't mind, except that their remit is supposedly an educational one...

Italo disco / Goblin / Argento / Carpenter

A discussion of Italo-disco music:

What's interesting from the horror / giallo perspective is that John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 score and Goblin's work for Argento are mentioned as important precursors / influences on Italo-disco. It also makes one wonder if Goblin or Claudio Simonetti in particular ever saw an influence as coming the other way, from Carpenter to their work for Argento.

La Última señora Anderson / The Fourth Victim

“To lose one [...] may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

By way of Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, Arthur Anderson (Michael Craig) could well be either the luckiest or unluckiest man alive. He's the latter if the deaths of three successive wives in three years – the latest being plucked out of the swimming pool as the film opens – were accidental. He's the former if he has successfully managed to get away with murder on each occasion, whilst also pocketing ever-increasing sums from an equally ever-more reluctant and sceptical insurance company.

Not quite Death at the Deep End of the Swimming Pool as the US alternative title has it, but close enough given artistic license...

Inspector Dunphy (José Luis López Vázquez) of New Scotland Yard strongly suspects murder most foul, but thanks to the testimony given by Anderson's devoted housekeeper – testimony later revealed to the viewer to be false – is disappointed when the jury acquits. While the law states that Anderson cannot be tried for the same crime again even if he were to admit to it, Dunphy is confident that his nemesis will marry to kill again. This time, however, he will be ready and waiting...

No sooner has Anderson returned to his country house by a lake than he finds his new and attractive neighbour Julie Spencer taking a dip in his pool. A whirlwind romance follows and within a month they are married...

A skewed view of the jet-set giallo as Anderson and Dunphy meet in a travel agents after the trial.

Check out those place names, as a Spanish imaginary geography of Dover and its vicinity

Directed by reliable Euro-trash stalwart Eugenio Martin from a script co-authored by Santiago Moncada, La Última señora Anderson / The Fourth Victim / The Fourth Mrs Anderson is a film of two distinct halves – or better three distinct acts, only the first one and a half of which are detailed here.

The problem with the obscure Spanish-Italian thriller – one hesitates to use the giallo label on account of the balance between the co-production partners seemingly leaning towards the former – is thus it thus throws one too many curve-balls at its audience as it progresses, with questions emerging as to who the fourth Mrs Anderson actually is through the introduction of another woman (Marina Malfatti) also purporting to be Julie Spencer...

Note the clippings on the wall: we know there's more to Baker's character than meets the eye, but not enough.

Much the same applies to the likeness between the third Mrs Anderson and Marina Malfatti's mysterious character.

Whilst not necessarily absolute fatal – the performances and Martin's direction are good enough if never outstanding, the kitsch elements bolstered by the quaint evocation of an English rural setting by Spaniards seemingly doing so on the basis of old films and novels – it is a move that drastically weakens our ability to engage with the characters as they have been established to that point, for the simple reason that we no longer know where we stand or, to be more specific, where the film-makers wanting to position us – with Arthur, Baker's Julie or as a detached outsider looking in on an unfolding tragedy? (For a point of comparison, see Hitchcock's thematically similar Suspicion, told from the consistent perspective of the young wife who believes her new husband is a killer; Paul Verhoeven's later De Vierde man / The Fourth Man also offers an interesting, somewhat self-explanatory reversal of the initial scenario presented here.)

Bava fans will find the film of interest in relation to A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, as two Moncada-penned efforts combining murder, marriage and madness; Kill Baby Kill, for a sequence in which one of the protagonists follows themselves through Gothic spaces; and Five Dolls for an August Moon, for the way Piero Umiliani's pleasing easy listening score quotes one of its main motifs.

Omicidio per vocazione / Deadly Inheritance

When railway worker Oscar is killed in an accident his family – daughters Simone (Femi Benussi), Colette and Rosalie (Jeanette Len / Giovanna Lenzi) and simple-minded adoptive son Janot (Ernesto Colli) – are surprised to learn that the eccentric old man had a considerable fortune, which they are now heirs to.

There is, however, the inevitable catch, as all the money is to be held for the next three years, until Janot reaches 21. Shortly thereafter Janot is himself victim of a not dissimilar accident, parts of his body being scattered all the way down the track.

With suspicions of foul play now hanging over the case – and with good reason, as quickly transpires – Inspector Greville arrives to assist the local police get to the bottom of things...

More a traditional mystery-thriller than a giallo proper, this 1968 French provincial-set entry is an awkward little film that it is difficult to take seriously. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if, like Michele Lupo's thematically not too dissimilar but technically far more accomplished Weekend Murders, the comedic tone was clearly intentional, but as it is first-time director and co-writer Vittorio Sidoni delivers more bungled than effective scenes and a somewhat obvious shock resolution that leaves as many questions as it answers.

The opening / credits sequence seem to sum up his aspirations and failure to meet them: while we later learn that Oscar did not hear notice the oncoming train until it was way too late on account of his hearing aid being out of commission to explain away / motivate the way in which the sound of the train would drops out every time the camera cut back to him, its sheer duration, at around three minutes, takes what could have / should have been suspenseful and turns it into something more akin to a surrealistic parody. (I was reminded of the charging knight in Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail who suddenly appears right in front of the observer, having been hitherto in the extreme distance, crossed with the woman repeatedly climbing the same stairs in René Clair's Entr'acte and from there back to Abel Gance's La Roue; who says liking Eurocult means lacking a wider film culture :-))

On the plus side Omicidio per vocazione / L' Assassino ha le mani pulite / Deadly Inheritance film does feature an enjoyably trashy score from Stefano Torossi – the title music sounds like the Peter Gunn theme with kitchen sink percussion playing over it – whilst Benussi and Colli are always welcome to reacquaint oneself with, even if the latter's distinctive looks mean that he's about as convincing as an 18-year-old as Peter Bark was as a child in Zombie: Nights of Terror, unless by a stroke of inspiration this was the entire point...

Saturday 21 July 2007

Un Posto ideale per uccidere / Dirty Pictures

Two young hippie tourists, Dick (Ray Lovelock) and Ingrid (Ornella Muti), hit upon a clever way of financing their trip to Italy: stopping off in Copenhagen, they visit a sex shop to stock up on pornographic material, which they then sell on at a considerable mark-up to Italians deprived of such product and eager to taste the fruits of “Sexual Freedom in Denmark”

Having exhausted their supply and the money it has brought in almost as quickly, Dick then decides they can make their own pictures just as easily with Ingrid as their main subject.

Things continue to go swimmingly until they are apprehended by the police and given 24 hours to get out of Italy, followed by a run-in with some similarly anti-establishment bikers who then proceed to take off in the middle of the night with the last of their money in a no honour among thieves kind of way.

Their car having run out of petrol, Dick and Ingrid are forced to stop at a large, isolated villa. Believing no-one to be at home, they go to explore and discover the garage door to be unlocked and a car with petrol therein.

But before fortune can help those who help themselves, the lady of the house, Barbara (Irene Papas) unexpectedly shows up. Even more surprising is her reaction: rather than responding like the typical representative of middle-age, middle-class society that the couple have encountered until now, she invites them in.

Or, given some of the customers for their dirty pictures, perhaps she is more typical than they realise, this being a notion characteristic of this film's ambiguities and ambivalences.

For what Dick and Ingrid do not realise is that Barbara is less interested in hearing their counter-culture arguments or the chance to indulge in a ménage a trois than in their potential value in relation to her own criminal conspiracy – one that involves rather more than the victimless crimes the young couple have engaged in thus far...

One of the little games you can play for yourself when watching golden age gialli is that of trying to guess the generation and politics of the film-makers concerned – are they left or right, counter- or traditional culture, and post- or pre-1960s in their general intellectual and cultural formations?

Sometimes it's relatively easy, as is the case with Argento and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. (Hint: look out for the Black Power posters on the wall.) Sometimes it's a bit more difficult, as with the likes of Fulci and A Lizard in a Woman's Skin or Don't Torture a Duckling, although the complexities and contradictions that emerge thereby can also at least be argued to be in accord with the contradictions and complexities of the man himself. Sometimes, as in the case of Lenzi here, it is damned difficult to tell.

At issue is that key descriptor used by both Craig Ledbetter and Adrian Luther Smith in their write-ups: cynical. More specifically the question might be phrased thus: if the attitude of Lenzi's film is a cynical one, who is (t)his cynicism addressed to and what form does it take?

For while Ledbetter suggests that Un Posto ideale per uccidere / Dirty Pictures is characterised at its core by a cynicism towards the youth audience it was likely intended for, found myself wondering whether in their desire to merely live free Dick and Ingrid aren't in fact established as more tragic / romantic characters who, to quote the introduction to Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night, “were never properly introduced to the world we live in.”

Certainly they seem to approach the world with a (conventionally) childlike innocence, playfulness – note here, for instance, the way Dick treats the pistol he finds as if it were a toy – and general guilelessness, especially when compared with Barbara. (Or “Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence and a Bad Haircut,” as the title of a book by satirist P. J O'Rourke puts it.)

Part of the difficulty in knowing for sure is that Lenzi's direction throughout is characterised by the same directorial style, which we might term – in keeping with the theme of apparent contradiction – an energetic laziness. By this I mean that while his camera is constantly doing something, there rarely seemed much sense of any real logic underlying its peregrinations, with the potential shock effect of the zoom lens being particular diluted through overuse. Had Lenzi established greater contrast between acts, interior and exterior locations, subjective and objective perceptions, or simply dramatic scales – with these all being things he managed in his previous gialli, so they were certainly not beyond him – the effect would have been more telling, the indication of whose side he was on that little bit clearer.

Ignoring these questions – admittedly not necessarily of interest to everyone – the main pleasures be had thus come from the performances by the three leads, each ideally suited to their part and all the more convincing for it, with Papas in particular again delivering the kind of performance that is all too rare – and even less rarely critically recognised – within such cinema; and the incidentals, including cameo roles from such giallo regulars as Tom Felleghy and Umberto Raho; some pleasingly modish fashions – most notably Lovelock's Austin Powers style Union Flag jacket – and an inspired departure from convention by virtue of not having the radio broadcast a vital piece of information at exactly the right moment for it to be heard by the protagonists.

La morte non ha sesso / A Black Veil for Lisa

Inspector Franz Bulov (John Mills) of Interpol is a man beset by problems. Hamburg has become a centre for the narcotics trafficking and he is under pressure to crack the case. Bulov is one-hundred percent certain than Schurmann is at the centre of the operation – although less so whether Shurmann is acting alone or represents a larger syndicate – but has not managed to get any actual evidence to this effect. Whenever an would-be informant comes forth with the offer of such, they invariably meet a swift end at the hands of a hitman. To make matters worse, Bulov is increasingly suspicious that his considerably younger wife Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi) is having an affair, as she often fails to return his calls or is unexpectedly absent from their home, and this finding it harder to concentrate on official business.

Touches of giallo

It is not, however, that the assassin, Max Lindt (Robert Hoffmann) is having things any easier. Having successfully undertaken three jobs he feels he has already stretched his luck and just wants to take his money and get out of the city. But his contact indicates that it would be bad for his health not to postpone his flight and do a fourth:

“How often do you think a man can get away with murder? I've been lucky. I want to stay lucky”

“You don't understand Max – there isn't much choice.”

“What do you mean?”

“You want to go away? Not tomorrow. Go away the day after tomorrow. Take my advice – if you want to be around and catch that plane, well then do what I tell you.”

Yet more classic iconography

Sure enough, Max's luck runs out this time round. While the hit again goes off without any difficulties, he drops his distinctive lucky silver dollar (complete with mark caused by stopping a bullet) by the body. Bulov finds its and thus the clue he needs for a break in the case, as he recalls that not too long ago he had rounded up a with a compulsive habit of tossing a similar coin: Max Lindt.

But by the time Bulov had managed to track down and apprehend Max his balance of priorities has once more shifted towards Lisa. Unsatisfied by her explanation that the red Porsche she was in belonged to a purported friend he had never previously heard her mention – a small detail of the sort it it worth paying attention to in this carefully constructed film – he is now convinced she is unfaithful. In his quiet, calm, controlled rage he thus makes Max an offer / deal, the exact details of which are however left deliberately vague for us, the filmmakers glossing over the rest of the exchange: Max is to kill Lisa.

Bulov a divided self?

Posing as an insurance salesman – a nicely ironic occupation if one considers intertexts such as Double Indemnity and The Killers – Max pays Lisa a visit. Whether on account of his inherent reluctance to carry out such a bad luck job, immediate physical attraction or Lisa's handling of the situation, Max does not go through with the deed the first time round and begins to hatch a plan of his own...

Released in 1968, La morte no ha sesso / A Black Veil for Lisa presents an intriguing post-Bava, pre-Argento take on the giallo for those who are interested in charting the development of the filone and an engaging noir-styled crime story for those less concerned with such details.

One area where the former aspect is apparent is the way Max is presented. We are first introduced to him as the metonymic black-gloved hand, invariably tossing a coin George Raft style when it not wielding a knife. His attire – a black raincoat completes the ensemble – has some of the qualities of a disguise as per Blood and Black Lace (we're even told that the clothes and weapon are “mass produced [...] cheap stuff that anyone can pick up in a chain-store”) but Max's superstitious nature (“I've lost my lucky dollar!” “Is that the end of the world?” “Yes, for me it is!”) coupled with ritualistic way he leaves the weapon, gloves and coat by the body of each victim suggest a fetish element more akin to the post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage giallo.

Some of the many faces of Lisa

Another important element here is the fact that A Black Veil for Lisa is not particulary concerned with the conventional whodunnit aspect of most gialli, with Max's second appearance – i.e. qua Max, the professional assassin – momentarily throwing one's genre expectations for a loop given the his more generically conventional introduction.

Equally, however, the films position as one with more in common with the earlier noir than later poliziotto-giallo hybrids such as director Massimo Dallamano's own What Have You Done to Your Daughters? is signalled by the way in which Bulov is from the outset a decidedly compromised figure, frequently shot by the director in profile or with half his face in shadow to suggest a divided and / or duplicitous nature. While a poliziotto type cop would certainly bend the rules, filmmakers invariably made it clear that this was an ends justifying the means strategy and that the division between police protagonist and gangster antagonist was ultimately an absolute one. Here, by contrast, we have two compromised male figures with far more in common than they would perhaps care to admit. (Significantly Max also uses the alias Hans Schmidt, his forename sounding too like Franz for Lisa's liking.)

Both are, after all, defined in terms of their unhealthy obsessions, Bulov with Lisa, Max with his lucky coin, which then become symbols of exchange between them (i.e. Bulov takes possession of the coin, Max of Lisa). Both also seek to manipulate time to their advantage, Bulov extracting the information he needs from a young junkie / hooker type by lying to her about the time one of Max's victims died to make her think she is suspected of murder and Max winding the next victims' watch forward before smashing it to suggest a later time of death.

Examples of compositions that tell you almost all you need to know

Oddly, however, nothing further then comes of this detail. What makes it odd is that the filmmakers otherwise reward the attentive viewer by judiciously avoiding over-emphasising significant details. Thus, for example, while tulips are mentioned early on as being somehow mixed up in the whole affair, Bulov doesn't immediately pay the (yellow) flowers on the dining table of his house very much attention, being more interested in the note that Lisa has left besides them. Thus by the time he does notice them he's also too wrapped up in his personal business to consider whether there might be some wider connection. Yet the joke is also on us: while the flowers appear in the and closing sequences, the end doesn't quite answer the beginning in that we never learn exactly what their significance is, besides being the McGuffin.

Is this the real Lisa, or just her as she appears in Franz's insanely jealous mind?

A sense of mystery also applies as far as Franz and Lisa's relationship is concerned. We know that she was in trouble with the law and that whilst nothing was ever proven, a sense of no smoke without fire hangs over her and the relationship as far as her husband's superiors are concerned, but little else as to what brought them together:

“I'm not a criminal and I refuse to be treated like one – I've had enough”

“So what are you going to do? Leave?”

“What do you expect me to do? Keep paying all my life for one mistake?”

“What mistake was that? Making friends with Reinhardt?”

“I knew you'd drag that up again!”

This said, anyone familiar with noir is likely to quickly draw their own picture as to what is really going on, how far the marriage was one of love and of convience and for whom; while it is difficult to say much more without running the risk of spoiling the viewer's enjoyment, I did feel that the filmmakers' made a lapse in judgement here by ultimately lifting the veil a bit too much towards the end.

Make no mistake, however: A Black Veil for Lisa is the kind of giallo that can be enjoyed by fan and non-fan alike and on a number of levels, with filmmaking, writing and performances each of a higher than usual standard for the genre.

Dallamano strives to tell his story as visually as possible and to avoid doing the most obvious thing if he can. Thus, for example, when Bulov excuses himself to make a quick telephone call home whilst in conference with his colleagues, Dallamano does not simply cut in on a close up of Bulov's face, but rather dollies in, then reverse this movement when Lisa fails to answer and Bulov tries to returns to the business at hand, after imagining Lisa in the arms of another conveyed through a series of rapid-fire inserts: if his mind is understandably somewhat distracted thereby, there is no doubt that Dalllamano's is not.

The director's background as cinematographer also comes through, making good use of location – excepting some iffy back-projection – and screen space through compositions that reveal almost all we need to know – or as much as they are willing to let us know - about the shifting constellation of Franz, Max and Lisa through their respective position within the frame, screen depth and selectivity of focus and attention.

Finally a question: who does Jimmy il fenomeno play? Is he the newspaper vendor who gives Bulov tips?