Luciano Ercoli had been involved in the Italian film industry since the fifties, starting out as an assistant director, moving into the producing side of things through the sixties, and directing his own thrillers and giallos in the early seventies. One can’t help but point to his partnership, and subsequent marriage, with the prolific Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (whom, as her films gained more international distribution, then billed herself as Susan Scott) as the catalyst for the creation of his best-known work. Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion, Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight – the three gialli they made together – were Italian / Spanish co-productions; not only did they enjoy working together, but they both had built up film-business resources they could employ to assure themselves of worthwhile, and well-funded, projects. All three feature Ernesto Gastaldi scripts, and all three feature many of the same performers, a giallo repertory ensemble, as it were…
Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (Le Foto Proibite Di Una Signora Per Bene) (Italy / Spain, 1971) gets off to a sexy start with the recently-married Minou (Dagmar Lassander) swearing to lay off the booze and tranquilizers while tarting herself up to go out the night before her husband joins her at a small seaside resort. But once out of the hotel she’s waylaid by a mystery motorcyclist who threatens her sexually before letting her go unharmed, yet not without telling her that her husband is a fraud who may be a murderer. Arriving soon after Minou’s call relating the incident, her husband Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi) is genuinely concerned, but dismisses the confrontation as a malicious prank from a coward. The police, predictably, concur. But there has been an unresolved death at Peter’s company involving a huge make-or-break contract, and Minou’s blackmailer (Simon Andreu) is a malevolently persistent guy – now that Minou has slept with the blackmailer to protect her husband, the blackmailer has those photos now with which to extort her as well. As the nastiness escalates, Minou relies on her good friend (and an old flame of Peter’s), Dominique (Scott / Navarro), to help her cope with the twists and humiliations. Of course, when things get bad enough to finally bring the police into it (rarely a constructive move in giallos), the blackmailer, and any trace thereof, mysteriously vanishes. But we know better…
Ercoli’s early thriller relies more on non-violent crime and lurid psychology rather than psycho killers and body counts. The blackmail plot escalates in standard fashion, but what’s fairly novel here is the presence of Dominique, a willfully free-spirited character who brags about dabbling in porn (with photos of her own, incidentally), seduces Peter’s right-hand man at his company, and is entirely and gracefully in-charge in whichever circumstance she finds herself. She’s a good foil for Minou, who gamely contends with her blackmailer (without much help from Peter) but slowly falls victim to the sleaziness she can’t extract herself from. It’s nice to see a sexual thriller where at least one female character isn’t somehow punished for her sex-positive temperament (Gastaldi is good about this, generally, until we get to Sergio Martino’s Torso). Lassander does reliable and convincing work here, fresh from Piero Schivazappa’s Femina Ridens and Mario Bava’s Hatchet For The Honeymoon.
This film is written by Ernesto Gastaldi, an astonishingly prolific screenwriter whom we first encountered working with Carroll Baker on some of her post-Hollywood giallos. From The Vampire And The Ballerina, Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock in the early 60s, Gastaldi wrote westerns, peplums and erotic thrillers, and provided numerous giallo scripts to Umberto Lenzi, Luciano Ercoli and Sergio Martino. It’s pulp, and sometimes pulp on a short schedule, but Gastaldi cranked this stuff out pretty reliably, with admirable invention. His script here seems to be the template for the subsequent Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh for Sergio Martino, but there he introduces a psycho-killer into the narrative at the start, pumps up Julie Wardh’s (Edwige Fenech) kinkiness and has her Dominique-like friend Carroll (Cristina Airoldi) unceremoniously murdered. (Oh, well…) Gastaldi’s script here is a good one, making actual logical narrative sense throughout (it’s a low bar in giallos). And Ercoli shows a capable hand with a script, a camera and the actors. Just watch how each character is visually introduced, regardless of what they’re saying when we meet them.
Death Walks On High Heels (La Morte Cammina Con I Tacchi Alti) (Italy / Spain, 1971) steps things up right away – a man has his throat slashed in a train compartment, which is then searched to no avail. High-class stripper Nicole (Susan Scott) and her shady boyfriend Michel (Simon Andreu) are informed by the police that the train victim is Nicole’s father, a jewel thief who had reportedly gone straight. But he was murdered over stolen diamonds, and since they weren’t in his possession, they’ll be coming after Nicole, assuming he confided in her for their safekeeping.
Nicole, undaunted, goes back to work at her usual clubs, but now all of that male attention carries a darkly threatening undercurrent, reinforced by disguised-voice phone calls asking for the diamonds or else… She also makes a new friend, the adoring but well-mannered Dr. Robert Matthews (Frank Wolff) who regularly attends her shows and helps to spirit her off to London when she’s molested in her apartment by the diamond-seeking killer. Settling into Robert’s cottage in a tiny town on the British coast, Nicole sees a whole other life that she could be leading as the loving wife of a brilliant eye surgeon. But the gossipy small-town atmosphere quickly gets oppressive, and neither the jilted Michel, nor the killer, is far behind.
Ercoli cranks up the tension with the old trick of placing the camera where it isn’t possible for it to be. We see Nicole open the medicine cabinet from its other side, seeing her through the shelves; from outside 2nd and 3rd-story windows, and through mirrors she herself is looking into. It’s debatable whether this is fair to the character – it implicates Ercoli’s audience in surreptitiously observing her as well, implying that we’re no more ethical than the characters in the film doing the same thing. The violence is more prevalent, but awkwardly and abruptly placed – Dad’s murder-on-the-train at the beginning is a half-heartedly amateurish little episode, while the later murder of Dr. Matthews’ current wife Vanessa (Claudie Lange) is garishly, almost comically explicit. After a pretty big Hitchcock-inspired twist at the halfway mark, we eventually learn that there’s been a great deal more surveilling and recording than we might have originally imagined – the visual narrative is rife with oval windows, mirrors, cameras – and the characters we’re still following aren’t even remotely reliable narrators for their own stories. Gastaldi’s screenplays, with very few exceptions, always land on greed or revenge as the ultimate motive; they rarely rely on psychosis alone. This one honestly earns the twists at the end, though – it may be my favorite of the three.
In Death Walks At Midnight (La Morte Accarezza A Mezzanotte) (Italy / Spain, 1972), Susan Scott is Valentina, a model and actress struggling to make ends meet. She takes an assignment from her ambulance-chasing journalist boyfriend Gio (Simon Andreu) that pays her ₤300,000 to anonymously take a hallucinogenic drug (under a doctor’s supervision, ovviamente…) and let Gio document its effects and her reactions for a story he’s writing. She rides the high nicely at first, but then has visions of a grisly murder – a young woman who is beaten to death by a man wearing a spiked iron glove. The next day, fully recovered, she sees the newsstands plastered with her photo, and Gio’s less-than-clinical descriptions of her experience. Infuriated with Gio, and losing work due to her now-dubious notoriety, she also learns that the murder she ‘hallucinated’ actually happened… six months ago, and that the killer is caught and languishing in an insane asylum. But neither the ‘victim’ nor the ‘killer’ are the people Valentina saw in her hallucination. Luckily, there’s no shortage of people seeking out Valentina to set her straight, or seek her help, concerning the death of Hélène and/or Dolores, and her own personal investigation commences, with the additional assistance of another boyfriend, the artist Stefano (Pietro Martellanza, billed here as Peter Martell). But for every clue she confirms and dutifully reports to the police, Inspector Seripa’s (Carlo Gentili, reprising the same absent-minded-professor schtick from his Inspector Baxter in Death Walks On High Heels) skepticism increases. He thinks it’s all an elaborate stunt for Gio’s next article.
Here, Gastaldi’s script inserts outright knock-offs of sequences from other films – Stefano’s artist-as-suspect character comes from Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the apartment-across-the-courtyard scenario is from Rear Window, and the crimes-within-crimes multiple-suspects is one trick Gastaldi perhaps leans on too often. (There’s heroin too? Oy…) But Pietro Martellanza (credited as Peter Martell), joining the Scott / Andreu / Claudie Lange / Carlo Gentili troupe, is very good here, and, again, the concluding twist, though a bit overworked by now, is credible.
All three are eminently watchable – I’d rank them High Heels, Forbidden Photos, then Midnight, but each has its small pleasures.