We’ve already established that most giallos are murder mysteries – most commonly serial murder mysteries – but they’re also distinguished by their modern visual (and sonic) style and their dependence on modern ideas about sexual psychology. The late sixties was a treasure-trove of sexual thrillers that played fast and loose with Freudian, Jungian, Nietzschian, and Masters and Johnson-ish ideas about family dynamics, co-dependence, dominance and submission, and aberrant sexual inclinations (often following Alfred Hitchcock’s examples), as well as the positive aspects of sexual liberation, swinging and the re-calibration of traditional ideas about love, sex and intimacy. These films usually turned on man’s inhumanity to man, or woman, or combinations thereof; double-crosses, betrayals, tragic decisions and psychological plot twists. Don’t worry – the fedoras, black leather, butcher knives and spurts of blood will be plentiful later on, but, for now, let’s look at what Italian filmmakers luridly developed underneath all of that.
Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place In The Country (Un Tranquillo Posto Di Campagna) (Italy, 1968) initially presents itself as an angular, confrontational, pleasingly sexy avant-garde study of a tortured artist and his descent into a kind of madness, an extrapolation of some ideas from Fellini (8-1/2) (the artist as the indecisive Hamlet, frittering away his opportunities for expression and/or redemption) or Antonioni (Blow-Up) (our film here is chock-full of people with cameras – the artist as witness and the artist under constant surveillance). But much of what is found here could act as a template for many of the later overt giallo films of the early seventies: a passive protagonist thrust into a dangerous mystery from the past; an undercurrent of dread and/or potential violence (in the artist’s imagination, Leonardo and Flavia take turns killing each other); psychological abstractions, dual personalities and dream logic; the choppy, collage-like, abrupt, sometimes outrightly deceptive editing; entire scenes that only express emotional states rather than moving the plot along; the hair-parting musique concrète soundtrack from Ennio Morricone; it could very easily be mistaken for a Dario Argento film save for the fact that Dario hadn’t started making any of those yet.
Franco Nero plays Leonardo Ferri, a well-known modern painter working in Milan and living with his girlfriend/agent Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave). But, like Guido in 8-1/2, despite all of the indulgences he’s been afforded (or because of them), he’s reached a creative impasse, a block, and decides to repair to the eponymous villa to rekindle the embers in his brain. He’s trying to escape consumer commerce and social contrivance, but always-practical Flavia keeps nibbling away at his solitude with those very things. Leonardo learns the old villa is allegedly still inhabited by the spirit of Wanda, a promiscuous teenaged beauty who, years before, scandalized the small rural village (much like Virna Lisi in Bazzoni’s The Possessed / La Donna Del Lago) and was tragically cut down by a strafing RAF fighter plane – the villa wall is still pockmarked with the bullet fire, and anonymous bouquets of flowers regularly appear in homage to her. On one of his first nights there, his studio space is vandalized; furious at first, Leonardo subsequently manages to incorporate parts of the damage into the work, convinced that Wanda herself was the vandal. But the house’s very structure rebels against Flavia’s presence in House Of Usher fashion (Leonardo is seen reading Poe as well), and she makes herself scarce, increasing Leonardo’s isolation.
The supernatural elements are just distractions, a narrative device – what’s really important is Leonardo’s eroding state of mind, and the decisions he subsequently makes based on that. Addled by steady drinking and soft-core porn, and the lascivious tales told by the provincial townspeople and the estate’s caretaker, Attilio (Georges Géret), Leonardo’s ever-fracturing identity is mimicked by the narrative itself, until we can barely tell whether someone’s truly being murdered or not, whether Leonardo is himself losing his grip or whether the sometimes fearful / sometimes resourceful Flavia is gaslighting him to take control of his work. Petri’s narrative presages Dario Argento’s later pronouncements on ‘non-Cartesian’ storytelling, where what is evoked is as important, if not more, than what is explained or realistically portrayed. The insistently evocative and associative cinematography and visual effects are provided by veterans Luigi Kuveiller and camera operator Ubaldo Terzano. Morricone’s fearless wall-to-wall musical score will put a lot of people off, and the overall look is pretty textbook sixties-style experimental. It doesn’t age particularly well, but Elio Petri was a tremendous director at the time. This is very good, if challenging, but do yourself a favor and also check out his Investigation Of A Citizen Above Suspicion. This is a nice film to seek out – I recently saw it on AT&T On Demand, and it appears infrequently on TCM.
‘Male sterilization in India’ is a news story dying to be written, and the comely Maria Egstrom (Dagmar Lassander) seems to be just the responsible medical journalist to do it. All she needs is to retrieve the notes from the bureau’s handsome-but-stern director, Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy), at his home on a Friday night, and she’ll get right on it. Usually on Fridays, Dr. Sayer entertains submissive call-girls (“They help me to iron the quirks out of my nervous system.”), but tonight he’s decided to drug the unsuspecting Maria and kidnap her for the weekend – none of that pay-for-play stuff tonight, but the real thing, what he really wants to be doing.
Femina Ridens (alternately known as The Laughing Woman or The Frightened Woman, depending on which title whichever distributor would think would sell the most admissions in which market…) (Laughing is the actual translation) (Italy, 1969) is a likably crude-yet-effective softcore thriller. Dr. Sayer, CEO, übermensch and defiler of weak-willed women, has his fun in the beginning, threatening to run Maria down with his car on his private country road, stringing her up to run a knife teasingly across her body and denying her things like, y’know, food. And sleep. But Maria is surprisingly resilient – submissive at first, as he would have her, she’s nonetheless game to show him how mutually beneficial this sort-of-like-sex-thing can be if only he’d give up on the idea that Women Want To Crush Him, Render Him Obsolete And Rule The World. And she effortlessly, undeniably, takes over the film with an extended white-see-through-gauzy-costume dance scene set to excellent Stelvio Cipriani music that you’ve been hearing over and over again in hipster cocktail lounges ever since.
The tables-turning ‘Venus-In-Furs’ scenario then plays out, predictably but not unpleasantly, with Sayer now following Maria’s romantic lead. The two of them discuss Hindu (as opposed to Pythagorean) reincarnation, gambol frivolously in a forest, cruise around in a spiffy amphibious car, and tour an ancient castle, with Cipriani providing faux Burt Bacharach choral chirpiness before Maria delivers the final humbling, indeed lethal, coup-de-grace. The conclusion of the story features Maria’s personal serial-avenger manifesto – delivered to the call-girl who, of course, actually hired her – on alpha-male “tin gods… You should learn to hit back, and destroy them at their own game. In time you’ll find you enjoy it.” Sorry, Doctor Sayer, but women do want to crush you, render you obsolete and rule the world! Who knew? Dagmar Lassander was one of many prolific Italian B-movie actresses – she’s in Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1970), and we’ll encounter her again in many other 70s giallos. Always reliable, she’s especially good here, and she really carries the film. Piero Schivazappa primarily did work for Italian TV, and only made a few feature films, but this one clearly demonstrates his good eye, visual storytelling smarts and technical chops. I wish he had done our next one…
One of the more overtly salacious but covertly nasty softcore offerings of the time, Ottavio Alessi’s Top Sensation (aka The Seducers) (Italy, 1969) purports to be a sexy cautionary tale of greed and comeuppance. But the majority of the characters here are so loathsome and venal that many will soon lose interest in that payoff being delivered.
The imperious and filthy-rich Mudy (Maud De Belleroche, a well-known French novelist making her only film appearance) arranges a boat trip on her small yacht. She’s invited her reptilian friends Aldo and Paola (Maurizio Bonuglia and Rosalba Neri), who have in turn invited along Ulla (Edwige Fenech). Ulla is an entrepreneur and freelance consultant who normally charges evening rates, and she has been brought along on Mudy’s orders to introduce Mudy’s troubled teenaged son Tony (Ruggero Miti) to Manhood. It seems the taciturn Tony is more interested in brooding in his room and setting small fires. (Can bedwetting and animal torture be far behind? The Macdonald Triad of sociopathy was big news in the sixties, and found its way into many of these films.) Aldo and Paola have been, literally, thick as thieves with Mudy for some time, certainly long enough for Mudy and Paola to have developed some fairly elaborate fem-dom bedroom rituals with each other. While Paola is sharing her ministrations with Mudy, Aldo can’t resist sampling Ulla’s favors; while messing about with her on the bridge, he manages to ground Mudy’s boat next to a small island. Young Tony uses this distraction to hop into one of the lifeboats and, understandably, get the hell away from this Eurotrash. Mudy orders Aldo and Ulla to go after him on the island – they do, in their fashion, but get up to more weirdly amorous fun on the way.
With the yacht being immobile, Paola and Ulla had earlier caught a gruff peeper spying on them from the island, and they gave him the usual “take off your bra and oil me up” tease-a-rama. He later turns out to be Andro (Salvatore Puntillo), a goatkeeper, but, unbeknownst to Andro, the willful Paola is a practiced-but-trigger-happy riflewoman who has no compunction about using Andro’s animals as target practice. Andro’s furious, but easily bought off by Mudy, telling us all we need to know about the strength of Andro’s convictions. Meanwhile, Tony has providentially met Andro’s wife, the young and comely shepherdess Beba (Ewa Thulin), and taken a liking to her. Aldo and Ulla, after their own adventures with the goats, catch up to them and immediately work on persuading Beba to join Tony and them on the yacht (fervently hoping that Beba will succeed with Tony where Ulla has failed). Once aboard, Paola and Ulla ply Beba with cocktails, a cosmetic makeover and some bedroom hijinx before Mudy gets them back to business and sends Beba to Tony’s room. Andro boats over as well, delivering fresh fish for dinner and wondering when the remuneration for his goats will appear.
From this point we just sit back and wait for all of the worst things that can happen – and they predictably do. The film looks like it was directed by a writer, and, indeed, it was. Ottavio Alessi had directed one other film, a comedy starring the Italian comedia dell’arte actor Totò, in 1964, and I suspect in both cases he was recruited as a final resort. Alessi’s screenplay is a nice reversal on the Polanski / Skolimowski Knife In The Water template of alpha-males who can’t get out of their own way, but the film, sadly, is shot indifferently. No compositional visual ideas of any sort interfere with the narrative – the film is entirely script / character driven. Lucky for Alessi, his actors are all scenery-chewing troopers. Exploitation cultists worship this film as the only soft-core pairing of Italian B-goddesses Rosalba Neri and Edwige Fenech, but Bonuglia and De Belleroche more than hold their tawdry own while managing to stay clothed. (We encountered Bonuglia as the cuckolded boyfriend in Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord.)
Top Sensation isn’t a particularly good movie, but its juxtaposition of resentful class baiting -all rich people are evil, indulgent and corrupting – while still clearly celebrating their dark indulgences would be picked up by other giallo filmmakers and storytellers. We’d seen some of that with Mario Bava (Blood And Black Lace, Hatchet For The Honeymoon) and Sergio Martino (Mrs. Wardh, Scorpion’s Tale, Your Vice…), and we’ll find it underneath many more of these films.
Giuliano Biagetti’s Interrabang is another how-the-other-half-lives tale of yacht-going privilege, here involving a rich and snobby fashion photographer (Umberto Orsini), the favorite model he’s made famous (Shoshana Cohen), his business-manager wife Anna (Beba Loncar) and her sullen-yet-precocious younger sister Valeria (Haydée Politoff). They, too, discover themselves to be stranded near an isolated island, but they’re on an exotic location fashion shoot, and they manage to be slightly more agreeable, if still somewhat jaded, company.
The photographer, Fabrizio, hitches a ride with another boating party to repair their malfunctioning carburetor, leaving the three other lovelies to fend for themselves – despite news reports of an escaped homicidal convict at large. That old story? Oh, they’ll be fine, right..? The scruffy but handsome Marco does indeed show up (Corrado Pani), but he spouts poetry and philosophy and has a genuinely seductive way about him that each woman eventually gives way to. He’s most likely exactly who we think he is, but our three comely castaways simply don’t seem to care, even when the abandoned body of a police officer is discovered, but not spoken of, by Valeria. Biagetti seems to see self-serving moral ambiguity and apathy as far more disturbing than the actual threat of death, especially when the nicely-executed twists appear. Unfortunately, Biagetti and his writers don’t stop there, and tack on two or three more twists that get more ridiculous as they appear.
The title refers to Valeria’s necklace, a hybrid exclamation point and question mark – “The new symbol of doubt, the uncertainty in all of us, the uncertainty of these times, the uncertainty of the world.” We know one or two of these ladies will meet their demise, but when it does happen they practically surrender themselves to it, more darkly charmed than scared or suicidal. Biagetti’s filmed output rarely made it out of Italy, but for all of the attempts to evoke Antonioni on a low budget from other more well-known filmmakers, this may be one of the most successful. Despite the nonsensical ending, it’s well worth a look if you can find it. (…perhaps on YouTube…)
Self-serving amorality is also examined in A Rather Complicated Girl (Una Ragazza Piuttosto Complicata) (Italy, 1969). It’s directed by Damiano Damiani, a prolific Italian writer and director who worked his way through studio work in the forties and fifties, and made his directing debut with Lipstick (Il Rossetto) in 1960. This is his second adaptation of a favorite novelist, Alberto Moravia (The March Back / La Marcia Indietro) (His first was The Empty Canvas / La Noia). The “complicated girl” is Claudia (Catherine Spaak, very good here), who seems to already be juggling two precarious relationships when she meets Alberto (the always-working Jean Sorel). Alberto’s older brother is dying, and he knows he should stay by the family and help tend to him, but when he overhears a sexy and provocative conversation between Claudia and another woman on the village’s not-so-secure phone lines, he makes a point to track her down. Claudia is a painter and free-spirit (it’s 1969, after all…) who takes a liking to Alberto in spite of the pesky presence of another paramour, Pietro (Gigi Proietti). Moreover, the other woman on the phone was Greta (the terrific Florinda Bolkan), the young widowed wife of Claudia’s father; she has been blackmailing stepdaughter Claudia for sexual favors while withholding her rightful inheritance.
Alberto and Claudia are clearly attracted to each other, but their easy intimacy keeps being thwarted by other considerations: Alberto is understandably thinking about mortality, and discovers that Claudia owns a gun. He’s somewhat put off that she still sees Pietro, even though she professes her amorous interest in Alberto as well. Each feels conflicted, each feels put-upon, yet each uses each for their own indulgence. Claudia is acting on some real resentment, but Alberto seems to accompany her strictly for vicarious thrill. This starts getting uncomfortable when, together, they play a humiliating prank on one of the town’s schoolgirls. Each episode thereafter turns on levels of control and manipulation – there’s an extraordinary amount of dark psychology going on here, which ultimately leads to Claudia bringing Alberto along to meet the by-now-legendary Greta. We suspect that Claudia is setting up Alberto to use the gun to kill Greta. But Alberto has a few curve balls of his own to throw into the mix.
Most of these films tend to expose sexual liberation, and the loosening of conventional ideas about partnership, intimacy, commitment, fidelity and social propriety, as being far less liberating than our protagonists generally believe it’ll be. That’s not a failure of the idea, but rather the particular shortcomings of those particular characters. Quiet Place’s Flavia and Femina Ridens’ Maria turn out to be extraordinarily self-aware people, and, likeable or not, are nonetheless admirable in their way. Quiet Place’s Leonardo, and just about everyone in Top Sensation and Interrabang will be profoundly undone by their excesses. Alberto follows his instincts, and Claudia’s persuasion, to a weirdly awkward, almost Camus-like set of deliberately amoral actions. He’s committed a pretty horrible crime, yet he’s ardently proud of the doing of it. The film seems to be about Claudia’s manipulations, but the real subject becomes how much further Alberto is willing to abandon himself on what he thinks is her behalf. His reward is betrayal by Claudia, a nasty beatdown from Pietro, and the pitying gaze of his brother-in-law as he stumbles, cackling, away from any last vestiges of sanity.
I did my damndest to like our last film – Metti, Una Sera A Cena (Suppose, One Night At Dinner…, but more well-known here by its American release titles Love Circles or One Night At Dinner) – an examination of the permutations of love, sex, fidelity, loyalty and indulgence between five intertwined characters. It began its life as a stage production written by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, who had done a fair amount of screenwriting previously. But he decided to adapt this work to the screen, as its director, and hired Dario Argento to help him with the adaptation. They then managed to put together a very talented international cast – Jean-Louis Trintignant, Tony Musante (pre-Bird With The Crystal Plumage), an early-but-impressive turn from Florinda Bolkan, Annie Girardot, and the Italian actor Lino Capolicchio. Add artful cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli and a rich and sophisticated music score from Ennio Morricone and you can’t go wrong, right…?
Trintignant plays Michele, a successful writer and playwright starting his first film script. He runs an idea past his longtime best friend, the actor Max (Musante), an idea he finds both bourgeois-cliché and genuinely disturbing. What if a man’s wife had been having an affair with the man’s best friend for a very long time? How would that have begun? What would compel them? How much risk or abandon would be involved in something like that? Max, leaning towards the more comically cynical side of things, recommends that Michele start the play deep in the midst of the triangle, rather than approaching it so analytically, so chronologically. Of course, outside of Michele’s fictional theorizing, Max and Michele’s wife Nina (Bolkan) have indeed been having a longtime affair, for almost twenty years. Is he on to us? What triggered the idea? Does his knowing or not knowing really change anything? Complicating matters is another Nina dalliance – a bohemian hustler named Ric, whom Max had been indulging with before Max got the idea of he and Nina having a threesome with him. Max is infuriated, though, when Nina continues to see Ric without him. Michele maintains a fair amount of cloistered solitude, repairing to his rooftop writing table everyday with his typewriter and coffee cup of editing pencils. But he’s also befriended a neighbor, Giovanna (Girardot), an older single woman, and he invites her along to share the dinners he frequently hosts with Nina and Max.
Those dinners become a focal point – the place where ideas about love and loyalty and life are thrown around amongst themselves without judgement or self-consciousness. But there’s a fair amount of calculated subterfuge as well, until Michele invites a surprising new guest.
All of the ingredients for a genuinely involving adult melodrama are here – except a good script. Argento does what he can to cinematize the talkiness – I suspect some of the flashback-y chronological scrambling is his idea, as well as some of Max and Ric’s more eccentric flourishes. But ultimately it’s a narrative where, from beginning to end, no one changes. Some things happen – a few of them are even a little surprising – but ultimately there’s no there here. You like these people or you don’t, you can relate or not. But the film is just these people becoming more themselves over a period of time, and Griffi isn’t director enough to pull our empathy or interest into the characters as they are. We observe, we assess, but we’re never subjectively engaged. Florinda Bolkan comes the closest, but for all of its sixties counterculture trappings, the film is ultimately just a good looking earnestly-performed loaf of white bread.
Next time we’ll do an overview of the gialli of Luciano Ercoli, and then plunge into the 1970s.