Like another giallo craftsman, Emilio Miraglia, our filmmaker today, Massimo Dallamano, was a seasoned veteran of Italian filmmaking technical departments before creating his own work. He started out as a cinematographer in the late forties, and had shot close to thirty features when Sergio Leone hired him as cinematographer for A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More (credited as Jack Dalmas). A few years later, he graduated to directing his own projects: the excellent spaghetti western Bandidos (1967) and his first tame-but-capable foray into giallo-style, A Black Veil For Lisa (1968). And, like many journeyman filmmakers, Dallamano treated giallo as just another genre among westerns, sex comedies and poliziotteschi. But his films, like Sergio Martino’s, are of such high consistency that even the non-giallos are worth examining here.
Venus In Furs (aka Devil In The Flesh) (Le Malizie Di Venere) (Italy, 1969) is writer Fabio Massimo’s genuinely sexy loose adaptation of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novella, and Dallamano delivers some genuinely classy work here. Severin (Régis Vallée, a very capable actor who only made a few films) is a writer and bon vivant staying at an Italian lake resort. When Wanda (Laura Antonelli), a stunning photographer’s model, arrives, Severin is smitten. He indulges himself voyeuristically at first – she’s in a room that Severin can peep into through holes behind a painting, and he relates a voice-over narrative to us about his youngest erotic experiences growing up. But once he finally introduces himself, her voice is added to the narrative as well, and we find her to be every bit his match in pragmatism and sexuality. And as they confide to each other more and more, Severin reveals that his fondest wish is to be her slave – to be dominated, and, on occasion, outrightly humiliated, by her. She has some misgivings about it at first, but slowly but surely warms to the sense of power she feels, the power he’s allowing her to have. They move to a small villa in the country and hire a couple of comely domestics, blond and brunette. Severin then becomes her chauffeur, joining the domestic servants, and she starts to more fervently indulge herself, and her own power, at his expense, with a local painter who does her portrait and a biker, Bruno (Loren Ewing), whom she has Severin pick up for her on the highway. Bruno moves in with them to service her, embarrass him, and even abuse the maids as well. By now she’s all about her own pleasure, and genuinely enthusiastic about belittling Severin any way she can, even as Bruno treats her just as cruelly. Severin, in shame and exasperation, seems to give up on the whole affair, packing his bags and leaving. But Wanda has one more trick up her sleeve…
A few things keep the film from being just another soft-core snoozefest; the first is Dallamano’s taste level, which is unerring. He’s acutely aware of, and makes real visual distinctions between, scenes about sex and sensuality and scenes about power and antagonism. (The cinematographer is Sergio D’Offizi, who later shot Don’t Torture A Duckling for Lucio Fulci.) The characters are established confidently, and there’s a well-structured narrative dynamic to their interactions. And while the film may not seem like much of a provocation these days, it was banned in Italy for six years, and then released in an egregiously-edited version. (It’s since been re-assembled, thank goodness.) The second asset the film has is Dallamano’s seemingly effortless rapport with his actors. Laura Antonelli soon became one of Italy’s most reliably appealing actresses throughout the seventies; 1973’s Malizia was her breakthrough role, and its success led to a deluge of sexy young man/ older woman comedies and dramas. But it can be argued that Italy’s censorship of this film postponed her inevitable stardom by four years. Vallée works with her well, generating real spark and intimacy. It feels a little dated, but not distractingly so. It’s well-crafted, and well worth checking out if you run across it.
Dallamano’s next project was Dorian Gray (Il Dio Chiamato Dorian – ‘The God Called Dorian’) (Italy, 1970), an update of the 1945 Albert Lewin adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novella “The Picture Of Dorian Gray,” produced by British hackmeister Harry Alan Towers (one of Jess Franco’s most ardent backers) and the American Samuel Z. Arkoff. This adaptation is far freer about indulgences that Wilde and Lewin could only hint at in 1890 and 1945, but, again, Dallamano brings a healthy sense of restraint to what could have been a profligately trashy movie. Helmut Berger sandwiched this role between appearing in two Italian masterworks, Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and DeSica’s The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis (1970), but he couldn’t pass up Dorian Gray, and he’s inarguably perfect for the role. The film hews pretty closely to Wilde’s narrative – Dorian is callow and self-centered, but has a sensitive side brought out by Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl, one of a few Jess Franco actors used here), a beautiful aspiring actress who captures his heart. The fateful portrait is painted by his friend Basil Hallward (Richard Todd), and immoderately admired by the reptilian artists’ agent and man-about-town Henry Wotton (Herbert Lom) and his willful sister Gwendolyn (Margaret Lee) – Henry befriends Dorian, and becomes an aesthetic and philosophical mentor to him. Wotton explains that the painting will be forever young while Dorian must inevitably age. “Why should I get old while this stays young?” Dorian famously exclaims. And, of course, Dorian’s evil switcheroo comes to pass (with a refreshing absence of any religious or magical context). Wotton’s in-crowd indulges Dorian, luring him towards riches, fame and wealthy patronage, while Sybil struggles in her small theater. After a bitter argument between them, Sybil departs and has a deadly accident. (This is straight-up suicide in the book, but Dallamano keeps things a little less hysteric throughout.) In total denial of his loss, Dorian spends the rest of the film on a sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll bender featuring lots of bedwork with whomever he wishes of any sex. With his decadence escalating, he eventually kills Basil is a fit of pique, and causes the deaths of Sybil’s snoopy brother and a doctor/friend, Alan Campbell, who helped him dispose of Basil’s body. The last straw of sanity is pulled when he meets a rich doctor’s wife who is a doppelganger for Sybil. Mad as a hatter, he gazes for a last time on the hideous image the canvas now holds, and kills himself, returning the natural order back to its proper subjects.
Narratively, the film is pretty racy. But after the visual candor of Venus In Furs, I was surprised that Dorian Gray was so… umm… reasonable. The seventies art-direction elements mix old-school old-money with pop art and pop furnishings admirably, and everything’s shot beautifully by Otello Spila, whom incidentally shot Pasolini’s Teorema as well – another tale of an amoral man tearing a swath through conventional ideas of wealth and family. But aside from some bashful nudity and strategic camera placement, the sex scenes suggest more than they show, a departure from a number of other Italian genre directors at the time. The deaths are also far more melodramatic than explicit – one can only imagine what grisly opportunities Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento would have made of Sybil’s, or the others’, deaths. Dallamano is really good at parsing and structuring his writers’ narratives to direct visual purposes, and eliciting the most from his actors throughout. It’s good, watchable fun, but no masterpiece. The masterpiece comes next.
What Have They Done To Solange? (Cosa Avete Fatto A Solange?) (Italy, 1971), in notable contrast to his previous work, perhaps goes a little too far. The murders are darkly sexual and disturbing, the romantic elements are always a little creepy, some of giallos’ more notorious clichés are seemingly reinforced, and the Catholic church, as usual, comes in for some derisive scrutiny. But we’ve discussed Dallamano’s touch for presenting lurid subject matter in appreciable doses, and he (and co-writer Bruno Di Geronimo) nails those boundaries here within the context of his always well-tailored narrative strategies.
The artful withholding of information is a time-honored exercise in crime mysteries; which secrets are kept, and which pieces of the puzzle are revealed in which particular order is always the trick of a good narrative. Most giallos make each murder a showpiece of sorts, and the murders are thematically intrinsic to the narrative. But here, as in Lucio Fulci’s year- later Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972), the specifics of the actual crimes, and the motivations thereof, aren’t as important as presenting the particular culture or environmental temperament that allows such subsequent nastiness to arise and flourish, and examining how our protagonists act and react under unnaturally stressful circumstances.
Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) is an Italian and gymnastics teacher at St. Mary’s Catholic College for Girls in London; his wife, Erta (Karin Baal) teaches mathematics there as well. But the marriage is in poor shape these days – they’re estranged, but still living together – and Enrico is having a passionate affair with one of his students, Elizabeth (Cristina Galbó). While spending a leisurely Sunday in a rowboat floating along a woody path, Elizabeth thinks she’s glimpsed a young girl running from a dark figure. Distracted by Enrico’s canoodling, she tries to dismiss it as nothing, but then sees the flash of a large knife and what she imagines must be a violent attack. She’s pretty upset, but Enrico takes it as a ruse to reject his advances, and they leave the park in annoyed disagreement. They regrettably learn the next day that those glimpses indeed were a nasty crime, and one of Elizabeth’s classmates, Hilda, was the victim. Feeling guilty about being dismissive with Elizabeth, Enrico starts to investigate on his own; he inevitably crosses paths with the police, but is reluctant to expose Elizabeth and his affair with her.
After a second victim is discovered – Elizabeth’s schoolmate Janet – Elizabeth recalls that the man she spied chasing Hilda may have been wearing black priest’s robes. The school’s staff and faculty start eyeing each other warily, the police investigation narrows- Janet’s death is identical to Hilda’s – and another crucially important murder follows depressingly quickly.
Part of Dallamano’s success here is the initial, and nicely sustained, empathy he fosters for his main characters. Having fragments of the first death filtered through Elizabeth’s perspective is quite effective – she helps us to take the attack seriously and empathize with the unknown victim even as we’re temporarily spared the nastier details. Enrico sleeping with one of his students is transgressive, but they’re both so likable otherwise – he deferential and discreet, she quite mature and prepossessing – that we’re inclined to accept their couplehood as credible, not simply an indulgence. Dallamano’s confidence in our goodwill towards them is then the basis of a few hard twists, but those choices are well-earned and effective. Enrico, in true giallo form, is a suspect in the murders; nonetheless, he gets unexpected support later on from the seemingly spiteful but resilient Erta, who knows in her heart that he’s not capable of any of it. (A featurette on the most recent DVD release reveals that Karin Baal, despite her convincing work, did not like the film.) The ubiquitous police inspector (German krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger), almost always superfluous or unhelpful in most giallos, is actually pretty capable here, though it’s Enrico, of course, who eventually cracks the case. Elizabeth’s friends, who form the list of victims, are tied together by indulgences that, in one fateful instance, turned tragic. There’s an easy, specious argument to be made here that the girls are being punished for their promiscuity, but the overall narrative goes deeper than that. Dallamano and Di Geronimo’s film is about the failures of contemporary institutions – educational, familial and religious, and the failures of the so-called adults thereof, to protect their children from, or prepare their children for, the moral vagaries of the real world.
The film is notably well-shot by Aristide Massaccesi, but B-movie aficionados will know him better by his directing nom du cinéma Joe D’Amato, one of the more prolific erotica and gorefest sleazemeisters of the late 20th century. The man knows his photography, though, make no mistake. And Ennio Morricone provides another astonishingly good, and characteristically unique, soundtrack. This film will easily make the upper half of any top ten list of giallos, and is a must-see exemplar of the genre.
Dallamano’s next films evinced more evidence of his technical skills in service to his storytelling, to varying degrees of success. Mafia Junction (Si Può Essere Più Bastardi Dell’ispettore Cliff?, or Can You Be More Of A Bastard Than Inspector Cliff?) also goes by The Blue Movie Murders and, my favorite, Super Bitch (Italy, 1973). An elaborate crime caper film with equally unscrupulous cops and criminals, it features a pretty elaborate, sometimes ridiculous plot and solid performances from Italian-film veteran Ivan Rassimov and the terrific British actress Stephanie Beacham, who managed to easily outclass most of the projects she found herself performing in. Next up was Innocence and Desire (Innocenza E Turbamento) (Italy, 1974), one of seemingly hundreds of Malizia knock-offs, with this version featuring impressive giallo and sex-comedy veteran Edwige Fenech rather than Venus In Furs’ Laura Antonelli. It’s pretty generic stuff for the genre, but was certainly acceptable light entertainment at the time. It features a few typically Italian digs at the church (our young protagonist is a seminarian sent home to reconsider his convictions who falls in love with Dad’s second wife) and also features the blacklisted American actor Lionel Stander, who worked in Europe extensively throughout the sixties and seventies before gaining notoriety as Max on the TV series Hart To Hart.
What Have They Done To Your Daughters? started out as La Polizia Chiede Aiuto (Italy, 1974), which translates to The Police Need Your Help. But western distributors were keen on associating it with What Have They Done To Solange?, even though I suspect Dallamano just saw it as another project he could bring a similar style to. It’s far more poliziotteschi than giallo, but the idea that schools, police, doctors and parents are actually pretty helpless to protect their children from malicious harm runs through this film as well. Told from the view of an ongoing police investigation, a teenaged girl’s suicide leads to the discovery of a high-school-girls’ prostitution ring, and the criminals that run it start getting sloppy and violent when the police start closing in.
Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf), a family man with a teen daughter of his own, draws the suicide case at first, but it’s handed off to the tenacious Inspector Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli) and Assistant D.A. Vittoria Stori (Giovanna Ralli). Their first lead is a snooping photographer who has images of the dead girl in flagrante delicto before her death. The girl’s maid and absentee parents then lead them to a private detective and the girl’s therapist. From there the plot thickens in pretty efficient and involving fashion. Most prominent is the ubiquitous black leather-clad motorcycle -riding killer wielding a butcher’s cleaver.
Dallamano collaborated with Ettore Sanzò on the screenplay, and, despite a few narrative slip-ups, has constructed a very good procedural thriller. Efficiently shot by Franco Delli Colli, there’s a nice car chase and a genuinely scary parking-garage stalking scene that rise well above their standard treatments elsewhere. With a very good musical score by the reliable Stelvio Cipriani, this isn’t a film I’d urge you to seek out, but it’s certainly worth your while if you run across it.
Dallamano followed with the well-regarded supernatural horror thriller The Night Child, aka The Cursed Medallion (Il Medaglione Insanguinato) (Italy, 1975) and 1976’s Annie, aka Blue Belle an Emmanuelle-like softcore sex saga starring Euro-siren Annie Belle. Dallamano was hired in for this one, as tawdry producer Harry Alan Towers had fallen out with Jess Franco, who would have usually handled this sort of project for him.
The third “chapter” of what others like to group as Dallamano’s “Schoolgirls-In-Peril” trilogy (…Solange, …Daughters) goes by another long list of titles – the Italian title is Enigma Rosso, and is most commonly called Rings Of Fear (Italy, 1978), but it’s also found as Red Rings Of Fear, Virgin Killer and Trauma, depending on the distributor. The film had a rocky road to production – another Dallamano directing project, he had completed his screenplay when he tragically lost his life in a car crash in Rome. The producers then hired Alberto Negrin, a TV veteran with no feature film experience, and four other writers to put the finishing touches on what they had. The results are pretty disappointing.
Another Catholic girl’s school, another secretive clique of promiscuous girls, another traumatic abortion, and another step-by-step police investigation feels like Dallamano territory, but it’s all so unoriginal and clumsily presented that I suspect there wasn’t a lot of this in the original script – those elements were grafted on in homage to Dallamano’s earlier work, and simplified to give fans more of what they expected in far less subtle doses. Fabio Testi is once again our protagonist, but this time he’s the police inspector, DiSalvo, with a sensitive streak at home with his kleptomaniac girlfriend (Christine Kaufmann, in a woefully underwritten role) and pet cats, and a hot temper when on the job, on the case. The discovery of a girl’s mutilated body wrapped in plastic in the lake starts the investigation, but DiSalvo gets unexpected help from the victim’s vengeful little sister Emily (Fausta Avelli).
The film, admittedly, looks great. Shot by Italian veteran Eduardo Noé, the film features an impressive central staircase in the girl’s school with a giant nun statue that’s put to excellent use, both atmospherically and practically. Credited composer Riz Ortolani is usually pretty reliable, but much of his soundtrack music here is recycled from 1973’s Super Bitch. Actor Jack Taylor, who figures as one of the villains here, later claimed the film was never finished, and that’s not hard to believe.