The Giallo Project – Sergio Martino Pt. 1

As we’ve discussed so far, Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the real trailblazers of the giallo film genre in 1960s and 70s Italian film. One might compare them to mystery writers rather than filmmakers. Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the best-known original progenitors of the mystery / detective novel? – they’re comparable to the German expressionists like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, and their youthful young British contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock, using stylization unique to their respective media to introduce a new psychological complexity in the service of narratives previously considered too common or unpleasant for general cultural consumption. In the west, the writers who galvanized this genre were Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. On a parallel, I would characterize Bava and Argento as I would these writers – filmmakers who took the best ideas of the earlier work – the expressionists, Hitchcock and the German krimi mysteries – and synthesized it into an individually unique, but eminently reproducible, style. (We generally use the term genre, but the Italians also describe this idea as filone, which pays homage to the previous ideas and concepts that the present form derives from.) Having done a little perusal of Argento, Bava, and the early sixties giallo experimenters, we now start to wade through the many filmmakers whom exploited their breakthroughs to produce a far more financially opportunistic body of product. Rest assured, though, that many of these filmmakers, drawing from templates that weren’t necessarily their own, still produced admirable and singularly creative work. These are the James M. Cains, the John D. McDonalds, the Mickey Spillanes, the Robert B. Parkers, the Elmore Leonards and the James Ellroys of the genre (add your own post-pioneer mystery / crime author here). And, through the luck of the draw, we’re going to start with Sergio Martino.

Edwige Fenech in 'The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.'  credit:

Edwige Fenech in ‘The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.’ credit:

Martino, like Argento and Bava, carried on a family tradition. His grandfather was Gennaro Righelli, an Italian director who made over a hundred films from 1910 to 1947, and Sergio began his career as an assistant to his film writer / producer older brother Luciano. He moved through the ranks, assisting Mario Bava on The Whip And The Body before his first true directing efforts, the mondo-style documentaries Wages Of Sin, Naked And Violent and One Day In America (America Un Giorno) and the spaghetti western Arizona Colt Returns. That The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh (Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh, also released in the west as Blade Of The Ripper) (Italy, 1971) was only his second fictional narrative film is pretty impressive – it’s excellent. He had the services of screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, a seasoned veteran who had written the previous year’s giallo Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion for Luciano Ercoli (and we’ll get to him later on…), as well as a couple of Carroll Baker’s more worthwhile Italian efforts (The Sweet Body Of Deborah, So Sweet… So Perverse), and stayed on to write all five of Martino’s gialli. He also had a pair of skilled cinematographers – the Spanish veteran Emilio Foriscot and his mondo documentary collaborator Floriano Trenker – and a terrific soundtrack composer in Nora Orlandi (bits of her music here were later used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill).

Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech) terrorized (or is she?) by Jean (Ivan Rassimov) in 'The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.'  credit:

Julie Wardh (Edwige Fenech) terrorized (or is she?) by Jean (Ivan Rassimov) in ‘The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.’ credit:

Martino wastes no time in making a nasty splash – a prostitute is killed by a mysterious unseen razor-wielding killer in the first two minutes of the film, immediately followed by a text legend quoting Sigmund Freud concerning violence and murder being part of human nature. We then meet Julie Wardh (the always reliably smart and sexy Edwige Fenech, an almond-eyed French-Algerian renowned in Europe for these gialli, as well as a subsequent series of 70s Italian sex comedies) and her husband, Neil (Alberto de Mendoza), returning to Italy fresh off of a plane from New York. Neil, an important international financier, is immediately met at the terminal by two associates, and is whisked away to another late-night meeting, leaving Julie to cab home on her own. The cab stops at a police checkpoint – they’re dealing with the murder we saw earlier, one of an apparent series of female slashings. This evokes a flashback memory for Julie of a steamy and submissive encounter she had with an ex-lover, Jean (Ivan Rassimov, another frequent Martino repertory actor). We later learn that Julie married Neil to help her break away from Jean, a sexual psychological sadist that tapped in to Julie’s own darker hungers, despite her better nature. Julie fears that Jean may be the slasher-killer, even as he continues to stalk her with flower deliveries bearing darkly suggestive mash notes.

Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) confronts Jean (Ivan Rassimov) in 'The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.'  credit:

Neil Wardh (Alberto de Mendoza) confronts Jean (Ivan Rassimov) in ‘The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.’ credit:

We’re not even ten minutes into the film, and we’ve already had a murder, a sexy rain-driven flashback, and a prime murder suspect, not to mention that the sporting Edwige has already been nude twice. You can’t say that Martino doesn’t know his audience, but, despite the evidence on display, neither Martino nor Gastaldi will allow things to become outrightly silly. Unlike Bava or Argento, consistent narrative sense is a hallmark of Martino’s gialli – he favors the well-executed mystery over the style he’s using to film it – even when the tied-up loose-ends at the end of the films sometimes strain credulity. All of this stuff lays valuable groundwork for the complexities of the film’s overall story.

Julie’s best friend is Carroll (Cristina Airoldi), an adventurous and bawdy socialite. At a party she’s throwing where models are having their paper clothes ripped off (very Blow-Up), Carroll introduces Julie to her cousin George (George Hilton – we’ll discuss him in a bit); he’s in town from Australia to celebrate an inheritance that he and Carroll are the beneficiaries of. Carroll, no fan of Neil’s serious-minded stuffed-shirt business distractions, encourages George to woo her “widowed” friend, and Julie, doth protesting too much, succumbs nonetheless. Julie’s fears, however, are only increased when one of the paper-clothes models from the party becomes the slasher’s next victim. Julie receives a phone call attempting to blackmail her – give me money or I’ll tell your husband about your new affair with George, and your previous kinky proclivities with Jean. Carroll, derisively, thinks it’s Jean, and offers to meet the “blackmailer” herself, expose him as a fraud, and finally convince him to leave Julie alone. Guess who the slasher’s next victim is…

With Julie haunted by her past, neglected as a wife, swept up in a risky affair, and blaming herself for Carroll’s death, she now seems to be the slasher’s next inevitable target. The film takes a number of elaborate and atmospheric twists and turns before things come to a pretty unpredictable Agatha Christie-like conclusion.

Edwige Fenech in 'The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.'  credit:

Edwige Fenech in ‘The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh.’ credit:

The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh is a well-oiled machine of contagious anxiety and mildly transgressive indulgence. Even without the ploppy Sweeney Todd sprays of squirting blood or the unmotivated displays of bare breasts, it would still hold up well as melodramatic thriller. Entire scenes exist only to ratchet up the suspense, but the narrative is structured well enough that those episodes don’t feel superfluous. Much of the credit for this goes to screenwriter Gastaldi, and Martino has enough solid professionalism to present the specifics as luridly as possible (for the early seventies, anyway…) without letting the excesses dilute the credibility of the story and performances around them. It’s one of my favorite gialli, but we’ve only just begun with Martino.

The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail (La Coda Dello Scorpione) (Italy, 1971) is a more straightforward procedural mystery than psychological thriller, but it’s still a very satisfying entertainment, crisply done and ingeniously structured.

The film follows Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart, aka Ida Galli, whom we’ve already met in The Sweet Body Of Deborah, and was another capable gialli trooper throughout the seventies); her older, but fabulously wealthy, industrialist husband has just left their home in London, bound for Tokyo, and Lisa will be hooking up with a young lover, as usual. But the phone rings late in the night, and Lisa is told that her husband’s plane has crashed, and there are no survivors. Our sudden widow then learns that the husband, Kurt, has left her a one-million dollar insurance benefit, redeemable in Athens, where her husband’s corporation is headquartered. Upon leaving her lawyer’s office, she makes a mysterious phone call, and is then accosted by another former lover, Philip, who claims to possess a letter, written by her, revealing her inclinations to be rid of her husband. Lisa is willing to pay the blackmail to the drug-addled Philip in return for securing the letter, but when she arrives at his apartment that night, he’s been murdered, and the letter has been absconded with. Undaunted, she continues on to Athens, where she meets two important people. Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) is Kurt’s Greek lover who believes that Kurt was leaving Lucy for her, and that Kurt intended to change the terms of his life insurance policy to make her the sole beneficiary. She accuses Lisa of conspiring in Kurt’s death to prevent this, and wants a sizable cut of her million – otherwise, she’ll raise a scandalous legal storm with the assistance of her thug-like, knife-wielding lawyer, Sharif (Luis Barboo), who seems far more interested in “settling” with Lisa out of court, if ya know what I mean… The other person is Peter Lynch (the ubiquitous but dubiously-talented spaghetti-everything actor George Hilton – westerns, policiers, gialli, he was everywhere in the 70s and 80s), the handsome and resourceful jet-set insurance investigator for Intercontinental Insurance Ltd., the holder of Kurt’s plot-thickening policy. Lisa is cashing out the policy, and has hurriedly booked her own transport to Tokyo upon getting her hands on the cash. But while waiting in her hotel room for the cab that will take her to the airport…

Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) early in 'The Case Of The Scorpion's Tale.'   credit:

Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) early in ‘The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale.’ credit:

This is the first half-hour of the film, but all of that praise with which I shower screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi is exemplified in these sequences. Enormous amounts of information are strung together across a daunting roster of characters and events (I didn’t even mention the police inspector [Luigi Pistilli], or the Interpol agent assisting him [Alberto de Mendoza]), but it’s all crystal clear and self-propelling, even in the face of a few red-herrings (at this point, you’d be disappointed if there weren’t at least a few of those). Ultimately, it’s Gastaldi’s homage to Hitchcock, and Psycho (and, by extension, to Joseph Stefano and Robert Bloch). We seem to be watching a film about Lisa Baumer, and the elaborate murder she’s committed, or the elaborate con she’s executing, or the irretrievably hopeless mess she’s found herself in. And suddenly, as with Janet Leigh’s murder, the entire bottom drops out of the story, and the narrative takes a screeching turn into an entirely different kind of mystery. Throughout the first part of the film, Martino shoots the story pretty conventionally – his only stylistic indulgence is afforded to his costumer, Luciana Marinucci, who starts Lisa off with elegant, modest dresses and pant suits that feature long vests and blazers, and progressively peels the proverbial onion with sleeker, shorter, squarer, more revealing, more vulnerable garments as Lisa’s predicaments unfold. In her final hotel room scene, she’s in a sleeveless, midriff-revealing lace silk blouse and simple slacks, her scrupulously coiffed hair down and loose. As the second “act” begins, now we suddenly get the cat-suited, black-gloved killer, now we get the visual indulgences of slow-motion, crazy hand-held camera angles and expressionistic lighting effects, now we get the escalating body count.

Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) later in 'The Case Of The Scorpion's Tail.'  credit:

Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) later in ‘The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail.’ credit:

Peter and his newfound friend, the journalist Cleo Dupont (the fetching Anita Strindberg) start to peel away from the main story – Peter’s still a routine suspect in the nastiness, but he’s happy to stay with Cleo and not go anywhere while investigations continue. But then Peter’s hotel room is ransacked by someone who thinks he might have the million dollars, and Cleo is viciously attacked while alone in her apartment, only saved by the timely return of Peter. The police inspector suggests they leave town on a cruise on the Mediterranean – meanwhile, the police will make it clear that they’re combing the city for Peter the Prime Suspect, in the hopes that the real killer will make an overconfident mistake and reveal himself. But as Peter and Cleo embark for parts unknown, and some peace and quiet, the murderer sails right along with them…

Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) meets a grisly fate in 'The Case Of The Scorpion's Tale.'  credit:

Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) meets a grisly fate in ‘The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tale.’ credit:

For all of Gastaldi’s narrative structural smarts, unfortunately, the entire plot seems oddly decentralized. The majority of the movie moves along with Peter’s insurance investigation, but George Hilton, while certainly up to the mechanics and genuine work of carrying the film, just doesn’t generate enough charisma. He’s like one of those guys you always saw at other people’s parties; his presence is familiar, and amiably reassuring, but you’re never sure of whom he knows, you’re never sure of how he got here. And I don’t think that’s just how his characters are written; he brings the same odd tone of pseudo-sincere schmoozer anonymity to everything he does.

Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) seems at a disadvantage in 'The Case OfThe Scorpion's Tail.'  credit:

Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) seems at a disadvantage in ‘The Case OfThe Scorpion’s Tail.’ credit:

The most appealing character here is Anita Strindberg’s Cleo Dupont – Strindberg is an attractive and forthright performer with perfect Scandinavian cheekbones and a boob job we all hoped would have settled in a little bit better. She fully owns her character here, though – I wish she’d entered the story earlier – and was prolific as a B-movie actress in 1970s Italy. IMDB notes that her film career ended when she “married an American millionaire and settled down in Los Angeles.” Nice work if you can get it, Anita…


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