Mario Bava had some modest success with his horror movies and giallos, and other directors in the sixties emulated his style almost immediately. But giallo as a genre, by itself, hadn’t distinguished itself yet. So directors chose to insinuate the giallo style in more mainstream policiers, psychological thrillers and murder mysteries, rather than employ it directly, picking their spots for semi-logical visual flourishes, modern-music atmospherics and darker moral tones. Italian directors and producers, liberated by the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. decision, were also striving for participation by more international artists – American, British and French actors and actresses – to make their films more appealing to American distributors; Clint Eastwood’s ‘spaghetti’ westerns were the obvious example, but many sixties giallos featured other expatriate and visiting actors, from Sir John Mills in our first film here, to Cameron Mitchell in a number of Mario Bava projects, to Ewa Aulin and Carroll Baker, and even young Jennifer Connolly in Once Upon A Time In America (for Sergio Leone) and Phenomena (for Dario Argento).
A Black Veil For Lisa (La Morte Non Ha Sesso, which roughly translates to “The Dead No Longer Have Sex”) (Italy, 1968) was directed by Massimo Dallamano, a prolific cinematographer (he shot the first two Sergio Leone – Clint Eastwood Fistful films) and genre director. Fluent in spaghetti westerns, violent police procedurals and sexploitation, Dallamano also made the excellent giallo What Have They Done To Solange?,which we’ll look at later in the project. As mentioned above, this film is a typical internationalist hybrid – an Italian / German co-production, directed by an Italian, starring British, American and Italian actors and shot in Hamburg, Germany. An interesting mix of soap-opera and police procedural, Sir John Mills plays Inspector Bulov, an all-business police inspector hot on the trail of the Schouermann syndicate, an elaborate drug-dealing operation that is rubbing out his witnesses faster than he can find them. But Bulov is also obsessed with his beautiful new wife Lisa (the always stunning Luciana Paluzzi, best known as the murderous redhead Fiona in Thunderball), constantly checking up on her whereabouts and fearing potential cuckoldry, to the point where his fellow agents and inspectors deride him behind his back. It seems that they met during another, earlier criminal investigation where she was a suspected accomplice – acquitted of the earlier involvement, the smitten Bulov married her soon after.
The two threads merge darkly when Bulov decides to blackmail one of Schouermann’s assassins, Max Lindt (Robert Hoffman), into killing Lisa for her imagined indiscretions. Lindt ingratiates himself with Lisa and prepares for the assignment, but will he kill her, or double-cross Bulov and steal her away? Or will the addled Bulov come to his senses and call it off? Dallamano mixes the genres well – the sterility of police headquarters, Bulov’s skill at manipulating suspects, Lindt’s nighttime assassinations, and the alluring Lisa floating just outside it all, driving Bulov to distraction, and, obviously, worse. Much of it is well-executed, but Dallamano just can’t find enough opportunities to jazz things up stylistically in the course of the melodramatic narrative – it’s an interesting film to happen across, but I wouldn’t put it anywhere near the top of my giallo list.
Italian director Tinto Brass is kind of an interesting guy. A film industry veteran with an early but avid leaning towards the avant-garde, he was offered the Nazi-themed sexploitation project Salon Kitty, which he rewrote and infused with a very conspiratorial political sensibility – it was surprisingly successful, and essentially changed his career. Because of that, he was chosen to direct the Bob Guccione-produced embarrassment Caligula, which Brass disowned in post after Guccione banned him from the editing room. Despite that fiasco (which is still believed to be the highest grossing Italian film ever released in America, though I would have guessed Il Postino…), he’s been a very successful sexploitation director throughout the last thirty years. His early Deadly Sweet (Col Cuore In Gola, which translates as “With Heart In Mouth” – imdb.com gives us another English title as well – I Am What I Am) (Italy, 1967) is an extraordinarily stylish exercise in sociopathy and seduction. Brass is forthright in employing what he’s learned from Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni, as well as the graphic-illustrative style of artists like Guido Crepax. Brass likes to shrink and fragment the photo frame, switch from color to black-and-white across the same sequence, visually illustrate and exaggerate sound effects, and generally choose visual and sonic narrative over the dictates of the script. Deadly Sweet is also another multi-national stew; it’s a French-Italian co-production, shot in London, directed by an Italian, starring Frenchman Jean-Louis Trintignant and Sweden’s 1966 Miss Teen International, Ewa Aulin of Candy fame (who’s a surprisingly effective actress, it turns out, as well as gorgeous).
Trintignant plays Bernard, a clever man-about-town who happens across the comely Jane Burroughs (Aulin) in a nightclub he frequents. Jane is from a wealthy-but-troubled family whom has just buried their father, killed accidentally, allegedly, in a car crash. Jane and her brother, Jerome (Charles Kohler), are seemingly inseparable, while the stepmother, Martha (Vira Silenti), has a lover on the side, Leris, an art dealer with some shady avocations. Bernard is told his credit at the club is no longer good, and when he goes upstairs to discuss it with Prescott, the club owner (who also dabbles in some criminal activity), he finds Prescott dead, murdered. Behind him in the room is Jane, who protests her innocence. They leave together quickly, and we learn that Prescott, who may have been a lover of both Jane’s and Martha’s, has been blackmailing the family. We also, later, learn that Prescott’s henchmen believe ‘the French guy,’ Bernard, is suspect number one in their boss’ death. Bernard decides that the only way to get Prescott’s people and the police off of his trail, and to clear himself, is to stay close to Jane and learn the truth of the family’s dark intrigues. And he, of course, is falling in love with her as well.
Again, here’s our giallo recipe; the Hitchcockian everyman, thrust into a dangerous situation he didn’t create, in cahoots with Tinto Brass’ version of Hitchcock’s Icy Blonde – here, a Carnaby-St.-style swinger of the Jean Shrimpton – Jane Asher variety. But we also have the Mario Bava-esque emphasis on visual style over plot mechanics (and the Hammer Studios template of the wide Technicolor frame), and a cast full of moral ambivalents making their way through a noir-inflected world of survivalist opportunism, practically tripping over corpses every twenty minutes. It’s a little slow in spots, but Brass’ visual invention, his idiosyncratic approach to the script and performances, and a swingin’ pop-jazz musical score from veteran composer Armando Trovajoli, make this a very enjoyable and unique thriller.
Trintignant and Aulin also figure in Giulio Questi’s Death Laid An Egg (La Morte Ha Fatto L’Uovo) (Italy, 1968), along with the always-smoldering Gina Lollobrigida. A favorite among giallo enthusiasts, I had some trouble with this one. Anna (Lollobrigida) and Marco (Trintignant) are the owners of a modern chicken farm, ably assisted by Gabrielle (Aulin), Anna’s niece (and Marco’s secret mistress). They’ve modernized the operation to the point where they no longer need to employ any other workers – machines grind the food and distribute it to the chickens regularly. (This being Italy, the unemployed laborers continually hang out on the other side of the farm’s fence, scowling, and it seems they’ve set booby traps for the ungrateful proprietors.) The only employee they’ve kept is a chemist who is working on improving the chickens genetically. The farm is part of a larger food industry conglomerate known as The Association, a high-powered corporate cartel who is anxious to make scientific breakthroughs in food production, and they’ve chosen the handsome and persuasive Mondaini (Jean Sobieski) to spearhead a huge marketing and publicity push for Anna and Marco’s farm.
OK, stay with me here; as well as running the farm, Marco also enjoys the fantasy of hiring prostitutes at an airport hotel, tying them up and knifing them to death. Mondaini, who is also Gabrielle’s secret lover, witnesses one of these violent hooker sessions and forms a plan to murder Anna and frame Marco for it, leaving the farm, and its immense profits, to them. Gabrielle convinces Anna, through an anonymous letter, that Marco’s a violent pervert, and is a sitting duck for discovery at that hotel he frequents. Anna decides (with Gabrielle’s urging) to disguise herself as a prostitute and humiliate Marco red-handed, as it were. Which, of course, is exactly the set-up that Mondaini and Gabrielle want – Mondaini will kill Anna, Marco will stumble upon it on schedule, followed quickly by the appearance of the police.
But, as well as the intrigues within his personal life, Marco is also contending with the draconian maneuvers of The Association. He despises dealing with Mondaini’s advertising projects, and discovers that his chemist is actually creating genetic mutant chickens, with no head, no wings and tiny bones . He’s horrified, but it’s obviously the kind of thing that The Association, and Anna, it turns out, wants.
Once you lay out the various threads of the film, it kinda works: modernization and mechanization eroding our empathy and humanity, the malevolent double-and-triple-crosses between the four scheming protagonists, the jumpy editing and graphic montages, Bruno Maderna’s goofy-ass jazz / musique concrète soundtrack. But I found it all too fragmented and gimmicky to really engage me. Surrendering linearity to style in your narrative can work, but Questi’s just not up to tying it all together into a cohesive whole. But, again, although I wasn’t big on it, I assure you, many people love this film. It’s certainly worth your checking it out. (The entire movie is on YouTube.)
Of all the mid-late sixties films I watched, the one that seemed to be the bridge to Dario Argento’s definitive work in the seventies (and one of the most enjoyable as well) was Lucio Fulci’s Perversion Story (aka One On Top Of The Other – Italian title Una Sull’altra) (Italy, 1969). Fulci brings Hitchcock and Antonioni in as influences (with nods to Vertigo and Blow-Up), incorporates some novel visual framing ideas and forthright sixties-style flourishes, but still manages to tell the intriguing story in a clear way. It doesn’t hurt that he infuses the story with some straightforward sexuality as well – at times it reminded me of Body Heat, other times I was taken back to sixties Russ Meyer films. Fulci had been a veteran filmmaker since the early fifties as a director, writer and unit director, and had directed almost twenty musicals, westerns and comedies by the time he took on Una Sull’altra. He is most famous, though, for his gory horror extravaganzas of the seventies, most notably Zombie (Zombi II in Italy) and The New York Ripper. The film overall has a crisp yet lush feel – Fulci and cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa do terrific work here with composition and lighting – but even when they throw in split-screen and gauzy visual abstractions and steamy sex scenes, the visuals always serve the story.
Dr. George Dumurrier (capable leading-man Jean Sorel) is a successful doctor sharing a burgeoning practice with his brother Henry (Alberto de Mendoza). He’s also in an unhappy marriage to the sickly, high-maintenance Susan (Marisa Mell), and keeps a longtime mistress, the photographer Jane (Elsa Martinelli). Susan passes away early in the film, seemingly due to a mix-up in her medication, and George is stunned to discover that, despite their marital discord, she’s left him a million dollars in life insurance. Soon afterwards, he’s out to dinner with Jane when he receives a mysterious call at their restaurant. He finds an excuse to leave Jane abruptly, and sets off to a Broadway strip joint. (The film takes place in San Francisco – trust me, everyone in the film speaking Italian in San Francisco is less incongruous than you might think.) The annoyed Jane, unbeknownst to him, has followed him, and, planting herself at the table (surrounded by naked women), she begins a calm but obviously terse *WTF?!* conversation. They are both distracted, however, by the headliner – a stunningly beautiful stripper who is a dead-ringer, a twin, an identical vision, of George’s dead wife Susan. After the dance, they invite her to the table, and discover that, besides the uncanny physical resemblance, Monica Weston (the dancer) has absolutely nothing in common with Susan Dumurrier (the dead wife). But neither George nor Jane can leave things alone; George goes to see her the next day and one thing leads to another (profitably, for Monica). But, before he leaves her place, her phone rings and he answers it for her – it’s Jane! As it turns out, Jane’s not especially surprised to find him there, but she can’t get the idea out of her head that That’s Susan – She’s Not Dead. And do y’know who else gets that idea? The insurance investigator who has been following him around for the last few days. He, too, suspects that, somehow, this is an unbelievably elaborate scam on the not-really-dead Susan’s part. But how could that be? Insurance brings in the police, bodies are exhumed, apartments are turned upside-down, etc., and Monica weathers it all. But it IS discovered that Susan’s medication mix-up was, in fact, a curare poisoning, leaving only one suspect – the guy who just inherited a million dollars. If that’s, indeed, Susan’s body. And it has to be…
Others wrote the screenplay, but it’s Fulci’s story, and it’s a damned good one. The flat-out gorgeous Marisa Mell has a field day with her dual role, and Elsa Martinelli lends some real chops and heat to her portrayal of Jane. Jean Sorel is a pretty interesting actor in that Alain Delon mold – he’s best known for Luis Buñuel’s Belle De Jour, and he did a few other giallos with Fulci in the early seventies – good ones we’ll visit later on. There’s another character who emerges later as one of the main catalysts of the mystery, in splendidly typical giallo fashion, and it, and the person, are a superb twist as well. I’m not saying this is a masterpiece – it’s sub-Hitchcock, and may even be sub-Bava, but it’s a splendidly good time at the movies, if perhaps ten or fifteen minutes too long.
Next time, we’ll veer a bit to do a little sidebar on the Italian films of Carroll Baker – you’ll understand why when we get there. Then the long-awaited look at one of the other giallo masters, Dario Argento. Happy hunting!