I suspect Carroll Baker’s experiences in the late fifties and sixties (as described in her book, Baby Doll – An Autobiography) were pretty typical for a lot of aspiring actors, having slaved away, in the Midwest and New York City, in roadshows, commercials and small gigs as a chorus girl, magicians assistant and Winston cigarette smoker. She eventually worked her way into the Actor’s Studio, making the acquaintance of Mike Nichols, Inger Stevens, Eva Marie Saint, Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters, Paul Newman, James Dean and her future husband, Jack Garfein, among others. By the time she screen-tested for Giant, for George Stevens, and was chosen by Elia Kazan for Baby Doll, she was a pretty obvious candidate for film roles – not just for her influential friends, but because she had paid some dues and done genuinely good work on the NY stage.
But filmmaking in Hollywood was a whole different league. The people in charge now weren’t necessarily the creators – actors, directors, writers, designers – as much as the producers, who were making their own money, stroking their own egos, and perpetuating the corporate structures of the studio system. She was lucky that her first ‘bosses’ were Stevens, Kazan and William Wyler, but it spoiled her, too – as much as she sublimated herself to the businesspeople who ran the projects she took, she wasn’t averse to pissing off others whom she thought weren’t serving her best interests, both in terms of her own career and her ability to raise her own family. She had admittedly burned a few bridges when Joseph E. Levine offered her Rina Marlow in The Carpetbaggers, and that role had been a big success. And she had also gotten the chance to work with John Ford on Cheyenne Autumn and Stevens, again, on The Greatest Story Ever Told, as well. But by the time she had navigated the clusterf*** that Harlow came out the other end of, in 1967, Levine had seen to it that no producer would ever be interested in hiring her for another Hollywood project.
Upon being invited as a guest at the Venice Film Festival that fall, she discovered that, unlike Hollywood, Europe was full of filmmakers and producers who were anxious to work with her, and she decided to remain in Italy to continue her career there. A number of American actors were doing work in Europe at the time in sword-and sandal epics, police thrillers, horror movies and spaghetti westerns: Joseph Cotton, Cameron Mitchell, Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood were only a few of many. Baker gravitated to directors and producers who were filming melodramatic murder mysteries and giallos, and, while none of them would turn out to be any kind of masterpiece of the genre, they were solidly entertaining amusements that, in the cases of Orgasmo, So Sweet…So Perverse and Baba Yaga, laid some serious standards for the deluge of giallos in the seventies that would follow.
Baker’s first few Italian projects were fairly negligible, in hindsight. Marco Ferreri’s Her Harem (L’Harem) (Italy, 1967) starts out with a risqué premise – why can’t a beautiful, intelligent, resourceful woman keep three men (whom she loves equally) on as simultaneous lovers? History is full of examples of men being permitted to do this – Margherita (Baker’s character) doesn’t understand why women shouldn’t be afforded the same indulgence. Most of the movie involves Margherita talking the three disparate men she’s involved with into the idea. Gianni (Gastone Moschin) is a pushy and glad-handing businessman who has proposed marriage, but Margherita doesn’t want to be tied to just one man. Gaetano (Renato Salvatori), a finicky lawyer devoted to his mother, knows about Gianni, the ‘fiancé,’ as well as Mike (Michel Le Royer), a globetrotting hunter and adventurer. Margherita also depends on her close friendship with René (William Berger, a spaghetti-western veteran who also worked with Mario Bava), a friend and confidante (who is obviously gay, despite the narrative’s coyness about that) – at one point she refers to him as ‘my eunuch,’ the ancient Asian role of harem manager.
Margherita rents a palatial estate in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), on the Adriatic coast, and invites the three of them (along with René, of course) – she makes her proposal and waits for them to befriend each other in common cause to her. That eventually occurs, but they also come to a mutual realization – this is a great set-up for her, but what does she bring to the table for us? Things devolve fairly quickly from there, and the film, while spouting a lot of high-minded nonsense about The Natural Order, becomes a pretty mean-spirited caveman exercise (all the more dispiriting due to René’s eventual participation in it), culminating in the men throwing Margherita off of a cliff into the sea! Ferreri and the actors never elevate the narrative past its shallowly subversive “Oh, My!” origins or its cardboard-cutout male stereotyping, and the whole thing becomes increasingly tedious as it progresses, despite a pleasantly languid, angular jazz score from the great Ennio Morricone.
Next was The Sweet Body Of Deborah (Il Dolce Corpo Di Deborah) (Italy, 1968), which, at least, featured a fairly interesting script from Italian B-movie veteran Ernesto Gastaldi. Deborah (Baker) is on her honeymoon with Marcel (reliable leading man Jean Sorel). As a young man in Geneva, Switzerland, Marcel was a small-time hustler who got into money troubles with the local crime syndicate. His then-girlfriend, Suzanne (Ida Galli, credited here as Evelyn Stewart), a wealthy socialite, gave him the money necessary to pay off the debt, but he was so humiliated by having to depend on her that he swore to make good for himself, legitimately, abroad, whereupon he would eventually return to her. Now back in Geneva with Deborah, who has become the true love of his life, an old acquaintance, Philip (Luigi Pistilli) informs Marcel that Suzanne died a year ago, and that he should feel responsible for her death. Suzanne died in a car crash, but Philip’s insinuation is that she committed suicide. Marcel wants to pursue what really happened to Suzanne, and Deborah is initially supportive. But when she is threatened with death as revenge for Suzanne, they’re understandably discouraged from pursuing it much further; Deborah and Marcel decide to leave Geneva for Nice (but not before Deborah has secretly met with Philip…).
They rent a house on the outskirts of Nice, a seemingly secluded getaway save for Robert (frequent giallo actor George Hilton), their eccentric artist neighbor, who insinuates himself into a friendship with Deborah despite Marcel’s disapproval. Marcel also discovers that Deborah has brought along a picture of Suzanne, and one day a Tchaikovsky record plays on their stereo, a record that Marcel and Suzanne loved when they were together. Why are all these remnants of Suzanne resurfacing in Marcel’s life? After yet another threatening phone call, it’s clear that Philip is still stalking them, but they have no real evidence with which to convince the police.
The last twenty minutes of the film really kick into another gear, as Philip makes good on his threats by attempting to murder Deborah and stage her death as a suicide. But a series of typically clever Gastaldi twists also upend our ideas of what things have really been about all along, and the unexpected ending is very satisfying. Unfortunately, the plodding rhythms of the first hour have done a fair amount of damage to our patience. The film was produced by Sergio and Luciano Martino, quite talented Italian filmmakers in their own right. But the film itself was directed by Romolo Guerrieri, rather than one of the Martinos, and Guerrieri seems, sadly, to be a journeyman hack. The film is surprisingly style-less, even though Guerrieri had a good script, crew and some terrific veteran performers at his disposal. Baker and Sorel are a credible couple, obviously comfortable working together, but Guerrieri can’t weave that intimate chemistry into the fabric of the narrative. Even with Gastaldi’s script, the film is never much more than a fair-to-middling melodrama. Baker was 0-for-2 so far with her European career. Thank goodness she happened across Umberto Lenzi.
Baker’s next film is generally titled Orgasmo (no, really… I know…), but is also known as Paranoia (Italy, 1969) – and those titles are all you need to know about film-biz marketing opportunism in the late sixties. Paranoia is actually a pretty confusing title, because, two films later, another Umberto Lenzi film, which was later renamed A Quiet Place To Kill, started out with the title Paranoia. For Lenzi and the Italians, the two films are Orgasmo, then Paranoia. For the other western film markets, the films are Paranoia, then A Quiet Place To Kill. But whether it’s called Orgasmo or Paranoia or Once Upon A Time In The Italian Countryside, Carroll Baker’s camera smarts and confidence are (finally) apparent in the first ten minutes of the film – she liked working for Umberto Lenzi, and he liked working with her.
Here, Baker plays Kathryn West, who has been the dutiful wife of a multi-millionaire industrialist and investor. When the film opens, Kathryn is settling into a large, secluded estate shortly after her husband Robert’s death and she’s committed to building a new, independent life for herself. She’s depending on their longtime friend and attorney, Brian Sanders (Tino Carraro) to parcel out, and, if necessary, liquidate, Robert’s holdings. He’s dealing with Kathryn, the probate courts in New York City, and Robert’s eccentric aunts from Michigan; there’s a lot on his plate, but Kathryn trusts him, and wants to stay as far removed from the business end of things as possible. She orders her new housemaid, Teresa (Lilla Brignone) to remove the television from the house, and ensconces herself to a life of cloistered leisure and Sunday-painting.
One day, a young man, Paul Raymond (veteran character actor Lou Castel), asks for assistance – his car has broken down; he could use a few tools and a telephone to arrange for a mechanic. Kathryn helps him out, serves him a cocktail, lets him leave the car with her, and of course, one thing leads to another. Kathryn now has a young lover, which is exciting for her, but she’s still anxious about all of the business that Brian needs her to handle with him, and she starts drinking more, and taking pills, to quell her anxieties. Some strange things start happening around the house as well; showers turning on by themselves, lights going on and off, pictures being rearranged. Not having heard from Paul lately, she checks in on him. Finding him broke in his small city apartment, she settles some of his debts and has him move into the house with her, much to Teresa’s chagrin. Soon after, they’re joined by Paul’s sister, Eva (Colette Descombes), who is attractive, playful, and effusive in her admiration of how well Kathryn has done for herself. And Kathryn sees her friendship with Paul and Eva as her opening to relive the youth she never got to experience as Robert’s wife.
By now, of course, we’re starting to piece together the real set-up here, and we don’t have to wait very long to learn that Paul and Eva are really in charge of the indulgences here, plying Kathryn with liquor, drugs and sex, and using her own longings to be young again against her, ultimately holding her captive in her own house. They’ve photographed many of their sexual liaisons, and will disgrace Kathryn if she makes too big a fuss. They dismiss Teresa and the gardener and take complete control of the house, and their treatment of Kathryn becomes increasingly sadistic and humiliating.
Despite the modest budget, and unfortunately obvious make-up effects, these are genuinely scary, harrowing sequences, and Baker is bravely game for it all. Lenzi, Ugo Moretti and Marie Claire Solleville’s script was a pretty good one, and Lenzi directs with a capable, craftsmanlike hand (with the help of a young A.D. named Bertrand Tavernier). There are bigger reasons why Kathryn is being sordidly gaslighted here, and the film’s concluding revelations are very good twists that leaven some of our discomfort about Kathryn’s fate. I’m not sure how ‘Orgasmo’ did at the European box office, but Baker had finally made what, in my estimation, is a very good thriller. She knew no one in Hollywood would go near films like this, and she was in practically every frame of these first three. After all of the old-boy Hollywood bullshit she’d endured a few years ago, she was a legitimate working actress again.
Next up was So Sweet…So Perverse (Così Dolce… Così Perversa) (Italy, 1969), again directed by Umberto Lenzi, but this time Lenzi had a good Ernesto Gastaldi script and the participation of the great French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant. The story is sixties-giallo red meat – Jean (Trintignant) and Danielle Reynaud (Erika Blanc, a fixture in sixties and seventies Italian B-films) are in a miserable, failing marriage. Jean is a very successful businessman who is already playing around on the side, and he adds another intriguing affair when he meets Nicole Perrier (Baker), a new upstairs neighbor who is conducting a relationship-under-duress with the thuglike Klaus (Horst Frank). Jean, of course, will save her from this lout, but Klaus is dogged in stalking the new couple and making things as unpleasant for them as possible. How the hell did he find us here? What hellishness can he be planning? The first twist reveals itself pretty early on – Nicole admits that she arranged to lure Jean into an affair with her because Klaus has been contracted to kill him! But now that they’re together, and she’s grown to love him, she doesn’t want to go through with it. With our having this piece of information, and knowing it’s a giallo, we, as viewers, immediately start speculating on the inevitable twists – is Nicole trustworthy? Has Danielle indeed hired Klaus to kill her husband? It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Klaus ultimately seems to succeed in carrying out his contract, because Jean’s death opens up another can-of-worms – is Jean dead, or was the death staged for the benefit of the contractee? Is Danielle truly remorseful that her hated husband is now dead, or is she now playing Nicole against Klaus? Or does she suspect he’s still alive? Is Nicole really a reliable agent for Klaus, or does she have her own revenge against him in store? Gastaldi piles on the possibilities, including the twist that, in one particular case, there is no twist. The script plays with our expectations in delightfully surprising ways, and Lenzi, who seems to be working with a more generous budget, adds to the fun with some nice visual flourishes – using mirrors and reflections compositionally, thematically, and experimenting with more Bava-like splashes of expressionistic lighting and color. It all works pretty well together. My only complaint is probably a minor one, but not trivial: Lenzi decided to have everyone speak English, rather than having the film overdubbed, and the accented English from Trintignant, Horst Frank, Erika Blanc and the others takes some getting used to. Blanc seems the most uncomfortable not speaking her native Italian; not only does her performance suffer, but she really can’t give Baker much to work with in their scenes together, either. Baker always brings her Actor’s Studio East Coast ease to every scene, but if her fellow participants don’t bring the goods, she won’t manufacture them on her own for both of them. L’Harem and Deborah certainly suffered from this (and, in Deborah, I blame director Guerrieri more than Jean Sorel), but it’s a shame that Lenzi made things harder on himself, and his film, with the language issues. Many find this film to be an inconsequential work, but I liked it very much, and I don’t rank it too far below Orgasmo.
So imagine my disappointment that the next Lenzi / Baker film, Paranoia, aka A Quiet Place To Kill (Italy, 1970) (and we’ve discussed that titling) is such a big step backwards. Lenzi hooked back up with writer Marie Claire Solleville, as well as Marcello Coscia and Rafael Romero Marchent, and the three of them just can’t pull off the Gastaldi magic – his sly character detailing and wily structuring are sorely missed.
Here Baker plays Helen, a female race car driver (!) who has a serious crash, and needs to get away to recuperate. Oddly, she receives an invitation from her ex-husband Maurice (Jean Sorel) to languish in Majorca for a few weeks. She takes him up on the offer, and discovers that he’s remarried – his new spouse is the indulgent and lavishly rich Constance (Anna Proclemer), and, indeed, it is she who invited Helen, not Maurice. He’s delighted nonetheless with her appearance, and the three of them get on well. But Helen soon learns of Constance’s real motives – Constance, like Helen before her, has discovered that Maurice is a shameless playboy, only out for her money; when he gets bored, he’ll dump her, but not without making a very costly fuss. Constance will pay Helen well for her partnership in killing Maurice. Helen recoils at the idea at first, but Maurice, being his usual pig-headed self, manages to change her mind, even as she starts to warm to him sexually again. (These are not nice people, to say the least.) While boating in the Mediterranean one morning, Constance and Helen get their chance to murder Maurice, but it’s botched horribly and Maurice ends up stabbing Constance in the melee. But their boat is being quickly overtaken by some friends of theirs, and they must clumsily dispose of Constance’s body before the other boat meets up with them. They capsize the boat by tacking abruptly, and then pretend that Constance hasn’t resurfaced. Oh no! Poor Constance! After a police interrogation, Helen is inclined to return home to Rome, but Maurice persuades her to stick around for a bit – after all, there’s all of Constance’s money now in their pockets. They seem to have gotten away with it, but little reminders and loose ends keep arising – the biggest loose end turns out to be Constance’ daughter from an earlier marriage, Susan (the sullen but fetching Marina Coffa, and what the hell ever happened to her?! A fairly well-known Italian soap-opera actress, her only other major feature film credit was The Last Rebel starring Joe Namath!)
The plot includes many of the usual twists, turns and conflicts, and I had no problem with the actors. But Lenzi, inexplicably, backed off stylistically from the much surer hand he displayed in his two previous efforts. Perhaps he knew that he was working with a muddier script, and his lazy re-use of a crucial musical motif from Orgasmo smells of indifference in post-production. Ultimately, Lenzi gave us a soap-opera enlivened with a murder plot, rather than the far more rewarding giallo stylings of Orgasmo and So Sweet… So Perverse. Baker does her usual good, unaffected work here – it may arguably be her own best performance of the three – but Lenzi seems to be running out of ideas at this point.
Carroll Baker was working pretty consistently at this point, though. She made The Fourth Victim (The Last Mrs. Anderson) in Spain, did a spaghetti western with Lee Van Cleef (Captain Apache) and got to play twins in the otherwise lackluster The Devil Has Seven Faces, all in 1971. Her final film for Umberto Lenzi was Knife Of Ice (Il Coltello Di Ghiaccio) (Italy / Spain, 1972). The film is artfully shot, although the visual atmospherics are pretty generic – fog, rustic locations, cemeteries, some red-herring references to black-mass Satanism and ‘Alice In Wonderland’ – the film is unencumbered by anything like an original cinematic idea. It’s also pretty apparent that the writers (Lenzi, Luis G. de Blain and Antonio Troiso) came up with the big twist ending first, and then constructed the story to arrive there. It’s a clumsy, disappointing patchwork. Baker does pretty good work here as Martha Caldwell, the traumatized survivor of a train crash that took the lives of her loving parents; she been incapable of speaking since, over fifteen years, and she’s silent for the length of the film. She resides in a secluded estate in rural Spain with her engaging but frail Uncle Ralph (George Rigaud), who is frequently tended to by hunky local physician Dr. Laurent (Alan Scott). When Martha’s beautiful cousin Jenny (Evelyn Stewart) comes to visit, it’s a happy reunion. But, very quickly, Jenny is murdered on the small estate, and the police inform Martha that it’s the second murder to occur that night – a young blond had been murdered hours before. A few days later, Martha’s longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Britton (Silvia Monelli) is also killed. But the last straw is the death of a cute teenaged pal of Martha’s, Christina (Rosa-Maria Rodrigues). The police are looking for a psychotic psycho-killer, but it becomes apparent to us pretty quickly that the perpetrator is someone we’ve already met (it is a giallo, after all…), and the police are curiously bad at keeping Martha safe. Many giallo depend on the big reveal of the killer at the end, and it’s, more often than not, pretty contrived. But the big reveal here makes little sense at all, and ruins an otherwise slow-paced but interesting film. Lenzi’s work had settled into workmanlike mediocrity by this time, and Baker, earnest and hard-working, wasn’t getting much help.
Most of what Baker did in Italy fits into the giallo mold; murder mysteries that explored more internal psychological avenues, and used sordid grand guignol thrills and sexual subtext to subvert the usual well-appointed soap-opera conflicts. But the film she did in Italy that most typified the giallo aesthetic wasn’t, strictly, a giallo film at all.
A few of the films we explored from the sixties – Perversion Story and Col Cuore In Gola – drew inspiration for some sequences from Italian comic art: mimicking comic frames in photographed tableaux, graphically depicting sound effects, vividly illustrated background environments, choppy, zoetrope-inspired editing, and using exaggerated colors for psychological effect. (We’ll see these devices employed liberally, almost overbearingly, once we get into the early seventies heyday of Giallo films – Dario Argento, for instance, doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’re aware of his penchant for emphasizing stylish visuals in place of narrative exposition.) The king of Italian comic work, a genre known as fumetti, was Guido Crepax, and our final film in this series is Baba Yaga (Italy, 1973), an adaptation of one of Crepax’s running series of Valentina graphic novels. Valentina (Isabelle Des Funès) is a politically active photographer and filmmaker with a Louise Brooks bob and a sexy sixties attitude. As the film opens, she’s shooting a film – a dark spoof of Americanism, featuring Confederate soldiers terrorizing a sexy Indian squaw until a group of Indians and hippies-on-motorcycles descend on them to violently put them in their place. Damned paternal imperialists! George Hanson from Easy Rider will show you what’s what! After the shoot, she chooses to walk home alone, and has a near-accident with a black Bentley. It’s driven by an apologetic but elegant older woman who insists on driving Valentina the rest of the way home. On arriving, she quickly snatches one of Valentina’s garter clips, promising to return it the next day, whereupon she introduces herself; “Don’t forget my name; my name is Baba Yaga.”
Baba Yaga is a figure out of Slavic folklore – the same name represents one of three sisters, who are alternately seen as spirits of nature and specific natural forces, and also as woodland witches who conspire to eat travelers who happen upon them. Crepax turned her into an ageless Dionysian maitresse, as likely to be found in art galleries, discos and sex dungeons as living in the woods in a hut suspended by chicken legs.
Carroll Baker actually wasn’t the first choice for the witch; director Corrado Farina had agreed to use the lanky brunette British actress Anne Heywood, who was much closer to Crepax’s depictions of Baba Yaga. But Heywood bailed at the last minute to do Trader Horn with Rod Taylor. Baker didn’t fit Crepax’s conception, but Baker was available, a name that would draw audiences and keep his producers happy, and Farina used her well nonetheless. Baker brought a Stevie Nicks-like gypsy earthiness to the role that belied her blond hair, blue eyes and flat American accent.
Baba Yaga returns to Valentina’s studio to return the garter clip, and fondles Valentina’s camera. “That’s the eye – the eye that freezes reality!” It’s another odd, seemingly silly episode until Valentina discovers that everything she points the camera at is badly altered. Photographing a fellow filmmaker in action – her friend Arno (seventies Italian film veteran George Eastman) – her camera mysteriously disables his film camera. And the start of a fashion shoot is marred when a prop gun backfires on the model at the first click of the camera.
Valentina suspects that Baba Yaga has somehow ‘hexed’ her camera, but that’s crazy, right? She decides to go to Baba Yaga’s house on the pretext of shooting some jewelry in the old apartment. Baba Yaga, reclining in an old rocking chair with her cat, blithely gives Valentina the run of the house to shoot anything she wants, and Valentina gets to work. The images captured by the camera there are like fetishized steampunk – shoes and jewelry matched with ancient small machines and antiques, scarves and oriental rugs, birdcages and bottles, the occasional restraining device, and an oddly realistic Victorian doll dressed in a little S&M outfit. Upon leaving, Baba Yaga gives Valentina the doll – “This is Annette. You must always have her with you. She will protect you from any harm.” Predictably, the doll figures in another disturbing occurrence in the studio the next day, and Valentina is seriously freaked. With her life completely bolloxed under Baba Yaga’s influence, she returns to the witch’s apartment for the film’s dark and sexy conclusion.
The film, admittedly, hasn’t aged well over forty years, but there’s enough intelligence and style to the overall effort that you can still ride along with the film’s conceits. And Farina draws effectively from all of the same things that his giallo contemporaries exploited – the well-contrived graphic visual flourishes (drawing on both comic art and the minimalist geometries of filmmakers like Antonioni), the post-Hays code escalation of sensual and overtly sexual scenarios, and the psycho-social moral ambiguities fostered by Hitchcock, Fellini, Antonioni and Tinto Brass. And, as a typical expatriate artist, Carroll Baker found herself in the center of a big transition; from the sexy, stylish but still reasonably straightforward sixties giallo murder mystery to the artier, freer, and sometimes outrightly baffling excesses of the seventies, the golden age of Italian giallo films.
Next up: the man himself. Dario Argento.