For such a singular filmmaker, there isn’t a lot of homework to be done on Luigi Bazzoni. A film industry journeyman from the late 50s until his last screenplay in 2005, with various other directorial assistantships and writing credits, he directed five feature films between 1965 and ’75, bookended by two short films from 1963 and a five-part travelogue / documentary on Rome in the mid-90s, apparently for television. He made two spaghetti westerns, one of which, Pride And Vengeance (1967), was an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s novel Carmen (you may be more familiar with Bizet’s opera). But those other three films? Wow! Only one can really be called a straight-up giallo, but all three display real stylistic visual audacity, employ dark examinations of identity, guilt and memory, and pick up on many modern ideas about how films can artfully convey far more than just their narrative.
The first, La Donna Del Lago (The Lady Of The Lake, or, its American-release title, The Possessed) (Italy, 1965), is reasonably faithful to the spirit of Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, as well as the moody German krimi films of the time – all shot in black-and-white, all steeped in brooding atmosphere. It starts out as a moody gothic romance – a sullen writer, Bernard (Winnetka’s own Peter Baldwin – dubbed, of course), dumps his girlfriend in the city and takes an extended visit to a familiar provincial hotel run by Signore Enrico (Salvo Randone) and his daughter Irma (Valentina Cortese). It’s a favorite secluded hideaway for his writing work, and he confides to some of the locals that his latest project involves his boyhood reminiscences of visiting the seaside area with his family. But we soon learn an ulterior motive as well – he’s smitten with the hotel’s comely blonde maid he’d known from the year before, the fetching Tilde (Virna Lisi), and hopes to reunite with her now that he’s thrown the city girl over. He is then understandably floored to learn that Tilde has died – of apparent suicide, but under suspicious circumstances, of course.
There are some easy-to-spot film noir indicators here; Peter Baldwin’s resemblance to Tom Neal from Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour may just be an artful coincidence, but I think Bazzoni knew better. The visual parallels are obvious. And, like most noir mysteries, once we learn of the crime, everyone suddenly becomes a suspect. So why don’t we just think of The Possessed as another noir? Well, film noir presumes that people are people, life is life, and, in one way or another, we’re all doomed. There’s no law, no justice, and no big payoff for living a clean life or doing the right thing, nor for being a bully or a killer, regardless of how your childhood went. Giallos invariably lean more towards the Hitchcock side of things – extremely bad things tend to happen to people who don’t deserve it, or are unprepared for it, and the source of those bad things is usually far darker and violent than the life experiences of the other protagonists have prepared them for. Black-leather-clad slashers are the textbook giallo antagonists, but there are many variations on that theme.
For its clear low budget, The Possessed is extraordinarily stylish. In noir, the environment the characters inhabit is usually dark, shadowed and distorted, but we never really leave believably realistic surroundings, no matter how foreboding or claustrophobic or vertigo-inducing. Giallo changed that – directors cared less about expressing the milieu of the narrative and its characters and more exclusively about what the image in the frame looked like at that moment, what it communicated by itself, or how a sequence of images evoked emotionally stirring reactions like dread, fear or impending doom. Virna Lisi’s Tilde only sparingly appears in the film, but how we see her – in flashbacks, in gauzy montage and tableaux, and in the regard of the other characters – is what allows her character to dominate the film. Overexposures and underexposures figure prominently as well – figures plunge into silhouette, or are suddenly awash with light, in disorienting ways. And aside from provoking emotional response, sometimes Bazzoni’s images are just pretty all by themselves: overhead shots of staircases, actions seen through doorways, windows, in mirrors, across other rooms – but as subtle compositional elements, not metaphors to hit you over the head with. One recurring image is a close-up of an eye peering past the edge of a door, but the eye looks almost illustrated rather than photographed, stark and striking. It’s likely you won’t even associate it with the character you think you’re seeing, and, in a way, that’s fine.
Bazzoni shares directing credits here with Franco Rossellini; the nephew of Roberto and son of Renzo, this film’s musical score composer, Franco also recruited his cousin Pia Lindstrom (Ingrid Bergman’s daughter from her first marriage, who became a WNBC newscaster in New York for quite a few years) for a small but important role here. Franco was a writer, producer, notorious party animal and shameless self-promoter. He had tiny, uncredited roles in Truffaut’s 400 Blows (Les Quatre-Cent Coups) and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, and amiably skittered across the Italian film industry throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. Also credited as a co-screenwriter (of this adaptation of a novel by Giovanni Comisso) is our old friend Giulio Questi (Death Laid An Egg). Renzo composed a few short repetitive snippets of tense and atmospheric music, but they’ve been recorded well and are extraordinarily effective.
Bernard’s journey from wholesome childhood memories to idealized romance to lost innocence, grief and larger tragedy is powerful; at the end of the film, his ideals are gone, his perfect woman has been discredited, the hotel and town are ruined for him, and a family has been tragically extinguished. But, I guarantee, the one thing you’ll remember about the film is its foggy, intriguing, brooding, dreamlike atmosphere (the cinematographer is Leonida Barboni, but the mise is all Bazzoni’s). It’s quite a wonderful film, with a real sense of what Dario Argento would later describe as “non-Cartesian” filmmaking.
After subsequently filming his spaghetti western Pride And Vengeance (1967) – (y’know, apropos of nothing, Italians themselves call these films macaroni westerns) – Bazzoni adapted an under-the-radar policier novel called The Fifth Cord (Giornata Nera Per L’Ariete, or, in true translation, Black Days Of The Ram [Aries] – the meaning of the book’s title isn’t revealed here.) (Italy, 1971). Andrea Bild (Franco Nero, God bless ‘im!) is a blithering, bleary-eyed drunk who still, somehow, maintains a regular writing gig at the local newspaper and a fetching blonde girlfriend (American actress Pamela Tiffin). Nursing drinks at an upscale cocktail lounge on New Year’s Eve amongst a group of socialites and acquaintances, he notices a cuckolded boyfriend, John Lubbock (Maurizio Bonuglia) being shown up by his girl and one of Lubbock’s best friends. Lubbock leaves in a betrayed huff, and, while walking home, is mugged in a highway tunnel and suffers painful back and neck injuries.
Andrea drives himself back home while pounding a bottle of J&B (journalists…tsk, tsk…), but gets a rude awakening the next morning by his editor, who wants him to hustle over to the hospital and report on Lubbock’s attack. Lubbock is a teacher at the International School, and his attack is newsworthy. Andrea doubles back to the other party attendees – a married ex-lover, Helene (Silvia Monti), Dr. Richard Bini (Renato Romano), who was at the party and happens to be Lubbock’s attending physician, the doctor’s semi-disabled wife Sophia, the shamelessly flirting lovers Edouard Vermont (Edmund Purdom) and Isabel Lancia (Ira von Fürstenberg from Five Dolls For An August Moon) and two other young lovers who saw Lubbock leave, and who discovered him after the attack. It’s only a day or so later that Sophia is attacked and murdered in her home, and she’s regarded as the second of a series of victims-to-come, after Lubbock. Dr. Bini owns a share of the newspaper that Andrea works for, and has Andrea pulled off the case for asking him too many pesky questions. But then, oddly, one of Andrea’s other editors, Traversi (Guido Alberti) is stabbed and killed; victim #3. A few victims later, amidst a thickening plot involving Sophia’s life insurance, private live sex shows, blackmail and a potential child-murder, our killer is revealed; the solution follows a number of giallo conventions, but includes an Agatha Christie-like surprise nonetheless.
When not photographing Bernardo Bertolucci’s early masterworks (Before The Revolution, The Conformist, The Spider’s Strategem, Last Tango In Paris), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was happy to moonlight on other various Italian projects: he shot Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the Laura Antonelli vehicle Malizia, and, happily, this film and two others for Bazzoni: his other spaghetti western, The Short and Happy Life of the Brothers Blue (1973)and our third film here, Le Orme (Footprints On The Moon). The Fifth Cord, while ardently and energetically presented, has some narrative snarls (even outside of the usual red herrings) that are far more distracting than enlightening. It’s agreeably suspenseful from scene-to-scene, but practically gore-free – I’ll let you decide whether that’s a feature or a bug. But visually the film is a knockout. Storaro had his production team find some striking locations, and he’s used these to impressive advantage. But, honestly, there isn’t an interior or exterior shot or sequence that isn’t infused with artful and efficient compositional information as well. Andrea’s apartment interior, Helene’s house, particular city streets, the nightclub in the opening – it’s all textbook giallo, and uniquely Storaro’s, even if the narrative sometimes lets up on its part of the bargain.
Lucky for us, Storaro rejoined Bazzoni to create my favorite of our three films today, Footprints On The Moon (Le Orme) (Italy, 1975). The film commences with a scene straight out of science-fiction – a lunar landing pod (LEM, Lunar Excursion Module) lands on the moon. One astronaut drags another astronaut, apparently unconscious, out onto the lunar ground, returns to the LEM, and takes off, just as the stranded astronaut regains consciousness and realizes he’s been abandoned. But it’s all according to plan, as the piloting astronaut transmits a report of the successful drop-off to Professor Blackmann back on Earth (Klaus Kinski in a nice all-business cameo), who will then monitor the castaway astronaut’s behavior until….
We then meet Alice Cespi (always-reliable Florinda Bolkan), who is a translator at an Italian-government institution not unlike a small version of the U.N. Well-groomed, clipped, stylish and efficient, she finishes typing her latest transcript and meets an old friend on her way to work, to whom she explains her recurring dream – the science-fiction scene we witnessed at the start. She recalls it from a movie she saw as a child, and the scenario disturbed her so much that she couldn’t watch the rest of the film. Arriving at work, Alice gets an unexpected and unpleasant surprise – the transcript she turns in was due three days ago; she had mysteriously and abruptly left her post on that day, and it’s likely she’ll be fired. Alice, who has no memory of this, is stunned. Three days? I’ve lost three days?!
Her analyst Mary (Evelyn Stewart) thinks Alice is overworked in a job she doesn’t really like, and is relying on tranquilizers a little too much. But Alice has other clues to pursue – a missing earring, a yellow dress she’s never seen before, a memory of a peacock in stained glass, and a blank postcard from a hotel she’s never heard of.
The postcard leads her to the Hotel Garma, in Garma. (The location is actually a seaside resort on the Black Sea in Turkey.) She checks in to the hotel, and vaguely remembers a room “with a balcony overlooking the sea.” Like Bernard in La Donna Del Lago, Alice arrives out-of-season, and the hotel serves as a homing point for her investigations, an intriguing array of familiar hints and unsettling surprises. A few people seem to recognize her from just a few days ago – others assure her they’ve never met. She makes the acquaintance of Henry (Peter McEnery), who visited Garma as a child, and moved back and settled in after the death of his parents. He’s a biologist by career, but he’s also restoring an old house not far from the hotel. A teenaged girl, Paola (Nicoletta Elmi) recognizes Alice as Nicole, from a few days ago, but Nicole’s hair was different and Alice is much nicer than the furtive Nicole. A long-lost Twin? A doppelgänger? Split personality? The plot thickens – others who should also recognize ‘Nicole’ only know Alice, but shopkeepers recognize her as a previous customer, and are still holding items that ‘Nicole’ special-ordered.
I found the final scenes of the film to be very well done – lots of loose ends come together, yet the paranoia and dread that has been underlying everything comes to the surface as well. Storaro uses the Turkish locations artfully, using the mix of Mediterranean architecture with Middle Eastern ornamentation to create a seemingly welcoming place that, nonetheless, looms around Alice while pushing her away. His compositions are unerringly subtle – exterior locations are stretched and compressed to almost forced perspective, and who else could get away with so many reverse tracking shots? It’s bold, decisive textbook-effective visual narrative, from Storaro and Bazzoni. Florinda Bolkan’s work is genuinely superb here – she’s in practically every frame of the film. And Nicola Piovani’s musical score is simple but insistent, lending associative foundation to the proceedings.
Some would argue that Footprints On The Moon doesn’t qualify as a giallo, since there isn’t a murder in sight for the majority of the movie’s running time. But y’know what is there? Alice. There’s an enormous amount of dark psychological clockwork to follow here, with her. If there’s violent crime, it isn’t against other bodies; it’s Alice attacking her own will, Alice solving the mystery of her lost days, Alice uncovering who ‘Nicole’ really is, Alice fighting to avoid the fate of those astronauts…