If The Girl Who Knew Too Much was the progenitor of giallo, then Mario Bava’s Blood And Black Lace (Sei Donne Per L’Assassino) (Italy, 1964) is the landmark prodigal giallo masterpiece that established the atmosphere, look and feel of hundreds of films that came after it. Its stunning sense of imagery, its relentless suspense and its complex interplay of lush beauty with sadistic opportunism sent movie thrillers into a whole new league of artistry and nastiness. Like most trailblazers, it didn’t do particularly well when it first opened, but the years, and the filmmakers who plunder its innovations, have been kind.
The plot: Christian Haute Couture is a thriving fashion house that’s part of the estate of the Contessa Cristina Como (Eva Bartok), who runs the firm with her business manager Max Morlachi (Cameron Mitchell), and a small army of designers, laborers and models on staff. When one of the models, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro) is beaten and strangled on the estate grounds by a masked killer, there’s no shortage of suspects. We learn that Cristina’s husband owned and ran the studio until he happened to have a fatal car accident; Marco (Massimo Righi), one of the design assistants, has a pills problem, and an unrequited crush on one of Cristina’s models; Cesare Lazzarini (Luciano Pigozzi) is a furtive and embittered designer who also serves as the studio’s resident moral scold; and the late Isabella had a surly antique-dealer boyfriend, Franco (Dante DiPaolo) who has been seeing, and getting drugs from, another model, Nicole (Ariana Gorini).
Nicole is who volunteers to double up and wear Isabella’s assigned dress as well in the runway show the following night, and when she and the others search for Isabella’s green broach to accessorize it, they find Isabella’s diary, a potentially seething resource of the dirtiest of dirty laundry. Cristina attempts to secure it, but Nicole convinces her that she herself is the best person to take it directly to the police. Nicole bolts the show early, in Peggy’s car, but instead of taking the diary to the police, she detours to Franco’s antiques warehouse so they can both have a look at it first. But the killer, not Franco, meets her there, and Nicole is dispatched with a fearsome-looking medieval clawed glove. The killer scours her purse for the diary, but It’s Not There! When Peggy (Mary Arden) returns home, we learn that she has nimbly nicked it, under everyone’s nose, in order to eradicate evidence that Isabella had lent her money to have an abortion. The police have found the abandoned car that Nicole was driving, and are coming over to ask Peggy for details. But the knock at the door is not the police – it’s the Killer! But this time the murder isn’t so quick – the Killer is after the diary as well, and tortures Peggy to reveal where it went, even though we know, and she insists, that she burned it up in the fireplace moments before the Killer arrived. Or maybe the Killer believes her after all, and has other reasons to torment her…
Franco arrives at the home of another one of the models, Greta (Lea Krugher), who lives with her lover, the Marquis Riccardo Morin (Franco Ressel). Franco has found Nicole’s body, and assumes that the police will suspect him of her grisly death. He’ll blackmail the Marquis with his knowledge that Isabella advanced the Marquis a gigantic loan (the Marquis, it turns out, is broke) unless he provides an alibi for Franco at the time of Nicole’s murder. Sure enough, all of the men are interrogated at the police station together, and Marco, Cesare, Max, Franco and the Marquis are all held overnight. This is reassuring to Tao-Li (Claude Dantes), another of Cristina’s models; with the men in custody, they’re all safe tonight, right?
Well, no, we rightly surmise; how does Peggy’s post-torture body end up in Greta’s car trunk? Why is Tao-Li content to go home by herself that night, and then announce the next day that she’s leaving for Paris? We get further clues that one of the men is involved, but who commits two more murders while they’re in custody? Tao-Li? Cristina? Why would Cristina risk her studio empire? And Tao-Li seems to have no role in the diary, which has been destroyed by now anyway. This mystery isn’t just a parade of red herrings, although there are plenty lying about; the identity of the killer, and the reasons the murders happened at all, are ingeniously logical, coldly practical, and indicative of all the indulgence that’s been on display throughout the entire film.
This was one of the first serial-killer films where all of the victims are female, and many hold it up as the first perpetrator of a new kind of misogyny that countless films afterwards emulated and elaborated upon. I can’t really explain why that’s not necessarily true here without revealing major spoilers, but Bava indicts the culture of wealth, elitist beauty and indulgence far more than he punishes particular women, or particular aspects of womanhood.
It was also a showcase for Bava’s visual genius. Until now, most thrillers of this kind were shot in black-and-white. But Bava’s own work as a cinematographer in other genres, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant examples of using color to illustrate and manipulate the psychological aspects and tone in his late-fifties films, and Hammer Studio’s use of color in their horror movies, led him to break the tradition (hell, even Hitchcock had shot Psycho in black-and-white four years earlier, in spite of his landmark color work – that’s just how it was done). The color work in Blood And Black Lace is genuinely jaw-dropping; the costume choices, the vivid surreality of the lighting, even who uses what color telephone at any particular time. The Killer’s pursuit of Nicole through the antiques warehouse is a riot of flashing colors, light and shadow, contrasting textures and camera movement. How he lit the fashion house at particular times of day, or varied key lighting depending on the person or object in the frame at any given moment, were revelatory – no one had done that before, so obviously, so expressionistically, in what most assumed was a mere popcorn genre thriller. His deep-focus interiors, his sense of scale and camera angle – here’s a director who saw The Magnificent Ambersons, and learned a thing or two from it. Even if you find the make-up unconvincing, even if you think the acting is a little stiff, even if you figure things out halfway through (though I doubt you will, really), you’ll love this movie because it’s so luridly, stylishly gorgeous. And you won’t be bored, I promise.
Bava continued working in other genres – period battle epics (Knives Of The Avenger), horror films (Baron Blood, Lisa And The Devil), science fiction films (Planet Of The Vampires), secret agent thrillers (Danger: Diabolik), sex comedies (Four Times That Night) even some spaghetti westerns. But his gialli – this film, Five Dolls For An August Moon, Hatchet For The Honeymoon, and the often imitated, never duplicated Bay Of Blood (Twitch Of The Death Nerve) to name a few (and his giallo / ghost story hybrid, Kill, Baby…Kill!) are what he’s best known for, and rightfully so. We’ll explore a few other sixties gialli from different directors before we encounter the other giallo giant, Dario Argento, in 1970. Après Argento, le déluge.