Quick personal side note; I lost my job this week amid recession fears. While that sucks, I have been pushing forward with finding a replacement (not the best time!). Still, it’s good to take a little time out, so today I set aside as… Giallo Day. Thanks to my own inability to resist a good sale (on numerous occasions), I’ve amassed a small media empire of cult releases. Today I’m focusing on Giallo; Italian murder mystery movies named after the lurid yellow paperbacks from which some of their stories originated.
Though it wasn’t the first example, the success of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970 sent Italian cinema into overdrive trying to replicate its box office boon. Cue hundreds of these often gaudy proto-slashers. Knife wielding masked maniacs are commonplace, as are horrendously convoluted plots, beautiful socialites, the appallingly wealthy, grubby priests, garish interior decorating choices, big hair, amazing fashions and, oddly, J&B whisky. The genre is rife with misogyny, classism, racism… It’s sort of terrible, were it not also campy, trashy, gorgeous and, occasionally, terrific.
As I’m a fan of melodramatic dubbing, I’ve chosen to spend the day watching my choices in the English language. So these are the handful of titles I’ve selected on impulse today, starting out with…
The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970, Luciano Ercoli)
Minou (Dagmar Lassander) is your typical Giallo housewife; pampered but bored, living in luxury but disenfranchised. Unusually for Giallo we get a bit of her interior monologue as she muses quitting tranquilisers, drinking and smoking. Ennio Morricone provides a sultry score (pilfered, in part, by Super Furry Animals for their Rings Around The World interlude “(A) Touch Sensitive”). Minou is sexually threatened by a mysterious stranger one night, who suggests her husband Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi) is a murderer. Peter makes light of her experience and they go clubbing.
Pretty soon the plot – by Giallo mainstay Ernesto Gastaldi – sets up a circle of glamorous friends, including Minou’s best friend Dominique (Giallo icon Susan Scott aka Nieves Navarro). Dominique invites Minou over to go show off pornographic photos of herself. There, Minou finds a snap of her sexually aggressive stalker (Simón Andreu).
Ercoli’s film eschews a lot of the more graphic material the genre is known for in favour of – as the interior monologue suggests – something more psychological. To a point. Minou gets gaslighted (gaslit?) by her phantom man and her mental health starts to spiral. And while there’s a quirky incident of murder by decompression, blackmail is the more prominent concern.
There’s a ’60s hangover vibe to Forbidden Photos which is rather pleasing. It can be giddy and gaudy. Lassander’s heavy eye-shadow is a dream. While it’s not one of the more famous examples (its a little outside of the genre’s conventions), there’s plenty here, not least in terms of style. The lighting and set decoration is particularly enjoyable, redolent of the mildly fetishistic aesthetic co-opted by the likes of Johnny Jewel and his band Chromatics. If you’re after a picture with the same qualities as slick magazine paper – glossy and splattered with images of bourgeoisie beauty – this lavish example might be a fine genre entry point.
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972, Emilio P. Miraglia)
Onto a firm favourite, one that cleaves closer to the expected ‘rules’ of Giallo. There’s a masked knife-wielding killer on the loose this time, and a bonkers plot tying knots in the viewer’s mind. Here we’re treated to a particularly loopy setup, involving a gothic curse. Castle dwelling childhood sisters Kitty and Everyn are told a tale of two queens, red and black. The black queen murdered the red queen out of jealousy, only for the red queen to rise again and commit seven murders; one for each time she was stabbed.
Flash-forward and genre mainstay Barbara Bouchet stars as grown-up Kitty. Evelyn is dead (flashbacks reveal an accidental blow to the head for which Kitty was responsible). Cloak and dagger theatrics are leaving a trail of dead bodies, including Kitty’s own storytelling grandfather. Fellow sister Franziska (Marina Malfati) suggests that the mythic red queen is out for blood.
The country estate suggests Red Queen might be a more rural Giallo (a sub-set I do enjoy), but Kitty’s job in the fashion industry (a popular line of work in the genre) allows Miraglia to flit to more contemporary settings, keeping the time-capsule modernity of the genre firmly in place. This is one of at least two movies that I own to use a very distinctly decorated apartment with horizontal blue and green stripes as a shooting location. There’s a particularly fabulous, supremely catchy score to this one, too, provided by Bruno Nicolai, and though it lacks the flashy theatrics of the famous Dario Argento pictures, I personally prefer the comparatively muted colour values of examples like Red Queen.
The finale includes a rather well-executed set-piece back at the castle, as the flood gates literally open. Plus, it occurred to me you could do a lookalike remake by casting, among others, funnyman Matt Berry and pornstar Jenna Haze (social distancing might have started affecting me…).
The Fifth Cord (1971, Luigi Bazzoni)
The Fifth Cord may not be the most riveting Giallo, but it perhaps takes the prize as the most compositionally impressive. With a fondness for silhouettes and careful spatial symmetry, director of photography Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) helps to make Bazzoni’s film a feast for the eyes.
On the special features for Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (1972), critic Michael Mackenzie differentiates the ‘M’ and ‘F’ Gialli – that is the films with male versus female protagonists. While the first two in today’s marathon are ‘F’s, The Fifth Cord is a decidedly masculine offering, typified by star Franco Nero’s full moustache. He plays a journalist investigating a series of attacks and murders who, inevitably, comes under suspicion himself.
The supporting cast is rich with Italian genre character actors (Silvia Monti, Edmund Purdom) but these and even Nero in the lead are all upstaged by Storato’s photography which is absolutely the biggest reason to seek out this otherwise unremarkable entry.
The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971, Sergio Martino)
Martino was a genre filmmaker extraordinaire, and his dabbles in Giallo always seemed to mix in a little bit of something else, be it the Rosemary’s Baby-isms of All The Colors of the Dark or the more sordid slasher thrills of Torso. Perennial damsel-in-distress and veritable Giallo queen Edwige Fenech stars in his most conventional take on the genre, but one not short of its own twists.
Fenech is the titular Mrs. Wardh; another bored but well-off housewife who becomes embroiled in murderous intrigue. It’s another razor-wielding sex fiend on the loose, and this time Wardh’s torrid and complex sexual history is key to the mystery’s solution. It turns out that her present life is an attempt to whitewash a complicated and abusive past with Jean (Ivan Rassimov).
Martino works here as pure sensualist. Memories are presented in slow-motion during torrential and erotic downpours, while dreams provide a soft-focus window into Mrs. Wardh’s sexual past. These sequences find Martino at his most stylistically playful and experimental. His is a more salacious brand of cinema compared to some of those featured above. This is the most graphic of the films to have featured in my mini-marathon today so far. It’s final twist is rather obvious, but it leads to a particularly satisfying conclusion.
Again we’re treated to a stellar score – this time courtesy of Nora Orlandi, whose music for the film was pilfered, in part, by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill – but the real star here is likely Fenech, whose vulnerability and screen magnetism make her a commanding, if sometimes frustrating, presence. And yes, that same horizontally striped apartment features again here!
Death Walks At Midnight (1972, Luciano Ercoli)
Closing out the day’s bite-size festival with a return to the work of Luciano Ercoli and after the docile, run-and-scream approach of Edwige Fenech, its refreshing to find Susan Scott’s quasi-feminist, take-no-prisoners performance dealing with similar material here. Scott (Ercoli’s wife at the time) plays Valentina, a fashion model who takes drugs during a photo shoot as part of a wild experiment. When she then witnesses a preposterous murder through the window of a nearby building, the veracity of her claim is called into question.
Scott’s feistiness, her gumption and sass in the role of Valentina make this the most fun choice of the day. Her forthright confidence is something that it would have been nice to see more of in the female protagonists of Giallo.
With its extension of the ‘gaslighting’ theme that ran strongly through The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Death Walks At Midnight is one of the most wonderfully delirious examples of Giallo that I’ve yet managed to see, with a plot that corkscrews into ever-more ridiculous new directions. Here the killer wears spiked metal gloves that he uses to puncture his victims’ skin; a novel if grizzly variation on the blade-wielding maniac.
The final stretch of the film – which includes a rooftop chase – is as bonkers as they come. And if Giallo fatigue has set in by now, late in the day (and it has), Ercoli’s film at least matched the pitch of my fevered state watching it.
What have we learned?
Don’t sleep around. Don’t be rich and cruel. Don’t trust your spouse, no matter what. Stay on good terms with your family or they will come for you. You’re a better detective than any actual detective. Stockpile J&B. Increase your lingerie collection. Avoid the fashion industry, seriously.
Stay safe, kids!