A Quiet Place to Kill

2013 italian film culture blogathon

Yes, things look a little different here today. This review is part of The Nitrate Diva’s 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon, a celebration of all aspects of Italian film culture. And as such, we’re including a little background information for those readers not accustomed to giallo. Without further ado …

You know, there are directors who achieve fame or notoriety chiefly through a particular work (or even a couple), regardless of how representative it is of their oeuvre. To the general public, Umberto Lenzi likely means nothing, except perhaps, “What gibberish are you talking now?” but to horror fans, Lenzi means Cannibal FeroxNightmare City. Maybe even Eaten Alive! Which are all … decidedly not good. Some might go so far as to call them worthless trash. And that’s a damn shame, because Umberto Lenzi–and he will be the first to tell you this–has made a number of fine films, or at the least, far better ones over the course of his long career. I’d say the majority of his pre-1980 work is better by far, but it’s Lenzi’s curse to be known best as a purveyor of ultraviolent cannibal sleaze.

Lenzi’s strengths lie chiefly in action and exciting set pieces, and accordingly some of his finest work is in the poliziottesco filone–the “tough cop” crime and action flicks of the Seventies inspired by the likes of Dirty HarryLenzi’s poliziotteschi are easily comparable to the best of the filone by acknowledged masters like Di Leo, Dallamano, and Castellari. But before the rise of the poliziottesco, there was the giallo.

For those tyros tuning in Wikipedia can provide a quick background on the giallo; for our purposes, the essentials are that the giallo was a sort of crime thriller popular in the Sixties and Seventies; it was during the latter decade that the genre peaked (about 1972). In 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1966’s Blood and Black Lace Mario Bava laid out the general narrative structures and tropes of the filone (later playing with those same generic conventions in a string of ever more experimental gialli), while Dario Argento’s 1970 debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage upped the ante with yet more violence and psychosexual drama–and was an international breakthrough hit. (Note that this film and Bird were released simultaneously, AQP2K coming out one day after Bird.) It is Argento’s work (in the vein of Bava) that is synonymous with the current popular conception of the giallo–complete with elaborate violence, kitschy style, and often impenetrable plotting. Most of the gialli popular today are from the “classic” period of 1970-1975, and therefore are considered direct descendants of Bird, and so the relentless discussion among fans and purists of just what does or does not constitute a “proper” giallo works from Bird’s example. And the Sixties gialli (saving Bava’s work, of course–in MOST instances) often fall victim to the “but really, what IS a giallo!?” nitpickers, particularly the type we’re discussing here, the sexy-thriller lenziani.

(Wait, what? That dude we just mentioned, the one largely reviled by anyone other than ardent gorehounds or fans of Eurocrime ? That guy has like, a film genre filone named after him? Yeah, pretty much. And it’s awesome!)

Differing from the Argento-type gialli in that they’re less mystery thrillers than suspense thrillers, i.e., the killer’s identity isn’t usually a mystery,  but rather the mystery lies in whether the killer will get away with their crime–and sometimes (always?) whether there is yet ANOTHER layer of duplicity. Less Agatha Christie than Hitchcock, these Sixties sexy-thrillers lenziani are also more Clouzot’s Les diaboliques than anything elseThink of the sexy-thriller lenziani as a gorgeous detour on the way from Bava to Argento, one that winds its way through sunny Mediterranean locales populated by the rich and glamorous. Carroll Baker and Jean Sorel will be there, looking fine, and there will be more of the beautiful people–and many of them will be nude! There will be scads of booze and pills, women and song, lies and videotape. We’re going to hop into a sporty little roadster and speed down treacherous serpentine roads until we reach the shocking conclusion of the sexy-thriller lenziani.

sex, lies, & super8

sex, lies, & super8

Paranoia
aka A Quiet Place to Kill
aka Os Ambiciosos Insaciáveis
aka Una droga llamada Helen
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Released: 1970
Starring: Carroll Baker, Jean Sorel, Anna Proclemer, Luis Dávila
Running time: 94 min
Genre: giallo

Women are sometimes silent, but never when there’s nothing to say. Lilian Terry, however, has plenty to say. She begins crooning “You,” the title track to Paranoia, over some Umiliani loungey jazz stylings. As the credits roll, we see  … I don’t even know what, but it sure is exciting! It’s all in Glorious Negativecolor, for one. There are zooms on women walking and staring, and cameras rolling–on us! There are reflections and distortions, rack focusing and women appearing, always staring. There’s a gun! And a crash! And a struggle! There’s running, and slapping, and ominous men in suits! And yet more staring, staring, staring! That dratted camera again! And it’s all tremendously exciting with the crooning the reversed colors and the THINGS HAPPENING. Finally, we see–who? Oh, it’s La Baker, and she’s ready for some Formula 1 fun.

And there we are, transported to a racetrack where Helen is a racecar driver, a veritable Maria Andretti. Only she sees (hallucinates? recalls? envisions? prophesies?) a handsome man (Jean Sorel) standing on the track–all we need now is Mary Weiss shrieking “Look out, look out look out!”–a swerve and a crash! The ambulance rushes the driver away, she goes into surgery, and then it’s … some time later, and Helen’s apparently recovered. Oh, all but her nerves, which are shot per the doctor, she’ll never race again. He also warns her against excitement, sex, smoking and drinking. Allowed to choose one but vice, Helen goes with whiskey, jettisoning playboys and fun. It’s not all so bad, however, as she’s also given a lifetime membership to the Valley of the Dolls–as long as she never takes one on an empty stomach!

Leaving the hospital with her erstwhile flunky/manager/paramour/hair model, Helen gets the bad news that she’s on the hook for MILLIONS (of lira, so who cares, it’s not like it’s real money anyways) for her hospital treatment and stay. Also for even more MILLIONS (see above) for the racecar she wrecked. On the plus side, she’s got a telegram from some well wisher! There’s always a silver lining. Turns out that the telegram is from Helen’s ex-husband Maurice, who’s got a villa in Mallorca, and suggests she visit. Playboy von Glamourhair makes a whiskey stop, and while he’s in the shop, Helen absconds with his sporty little car, headed for Mallorca.

helen was a racecar driver

helen was a racecar driver

you give love a bad name

you give love a bad name

when passion's a prison you can't break free

when passion’s a prison you can’t break free

In sunny Mallorca, however, Helen will find that it was actually Maurice’s WIFE (!!!) Constance who sent the telegram. And though she’s hesitant about joining Maurice and Constance for a little menage, their frolicsome fun in the sun life is just irresistible. As is Maurice. He’s just as deliciously seductive as he was when Helen married him (seriously, have you SEEN Jean Sorel!?), and Helen’s just as much under his spell as she ever was. Also under the influence of a drug called Maurice is Constance–but she yearns to break free. She enlists Helen in the founding chapter of Maurice Anonymous, and under her program the first step is murdering Maurice.

Murder is plotted and a murder occurs, but whose? Will the perpetrators convince the authorities of their story? Was the crime caught on tape? And just what is that untrustworthy nymphette Susan up to? It’s all J&B and jetsetters, women and Wess & the Airedales, upskirts and Umiliani until someone gets hurt–or dead.

A typical European male: selfish amoral, and corrupt. Between Bava and Aregnto there was a school of gialli rather unlike those with which we are more familiar. They are the psycho-sexy thrillers lenziani, and, well, guess who was the master? These gialli by way of Hitchcock and Clouzot–often with a noirish touch–are a breed apart from the post-Argento giallo, although their influence shouldn’t be underestimated.

your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye

your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye

psycho sexy

psycho sexy, qu’est-ce que c’est?

who's the hypotenuse now!?

who’s the hypotenuse now!?

Fisty: Let’s talk negatives first, specifically, that credits sequence. Maybe I suffer from short-term memory loss, but that was one of THE most exciting credit sequences I have ever seen. The first time I watched Paranoia, I remember being so jazzed within thirty seconds that I was jumping up and down, jizzing, texting, and tweeting. Then I tore my hair out. And started scream-crying, like footage of girls seeing The Beatles or Danny Bonaduce in person for the first time. I’m kind of getting the urge to start doing that again right now, actually. The music! The action! The cutaways! The crazy colors! SO. MUCH. EXCITEMENT.

You know, normally we wouldn’t spend so much time, either in the synopsis or the actual review, discussing a credit sequence, but in this case it’s absolutely warranted. The brilliant (yes, I am applying that adjective to Umberto Lenzi, more on that momentarily) thing about the sequence is not only how (incredibly) exciting it is, but the way it–well, I’ll let you take this one, Billy.

Bill: First, let me explain to the readers (as if we have those–HA!) what the hell you’re talking about, in case we aren’t being clear enough.

For anyone that hasn’t seen Paranoia (which I will now begin calling A Quiet Place to Kill or AQP2K for short–I’ll come back to that in a second,) the entire opening credit sequence is a montage of scenes from the movie with the colors reversed or, say it with me, “in NEG-UH-TIVE.” Now go back and read Fisty’s first sentence and laugh at her, because she’s funny. You can always trust her to bring the wits and class. She really was as excited as she claims about that opening sequence, too. That is not hyperbole. Her excitement was warranted though. It really is a kick ass way to open the movie … and kind of brilliant. You see all this struggle and violence and trippy, fun-looking stuff that foreshadows everything you’re about to see, while still keeping you clueless as to which things will be happening to what characters, since it’s so hard to recognize people in negative. Once you have seen the flick and re-watch that part, knowing exactly what you’re seeing in the intro makes it even cooler. One negative about the negative (I stole that from you, Fisty,) it does also tend to make everyone look a bit like poorly done CGI characters when they move. But there’s no way Lenzi could’ve have known that in 1970.

a quiet place to--oh, whatever

a quiet place to–oh, whatever

i play my part and you play your game

i play my part and you play your game

an ideal place to--oh, goddamnit, lenzi!

an ideal place to–oh, goddamnit, lenzi!

Getting back to the title thing … Umberto Lenzi’s Paranoia came out in 1969, starring Carroll Baker only to be followed by Umberto Lenzi’s Paranoia, which came out in 1970 starring Carroll Baker. SAY WHAT?! The ’69 film, known as Orgasmo in Italy, was retitled to Paranoia for international release. The ’70 film, Paranoia–that’s the one we’re doing now–was given the same name as the U.S. re-title of Orgasmo. So, to avoid confusion, they retitled Paranoia as A Quiet Place to Kill internationally. This attempt to avoid confusion has failed. I got confused just writing this. Seriously, what the hell, man? Is the “ridiculous” in our “ridiculous re-titles” tag even a strong enough word for this tomfoolery, Fisty? Do we need a new tag? Maybe something with curse words in it?

Fisty: Dude, it gets better! The title of Lenzi’s 1971 giallo Un posto ideale per uccidere translates to An Ideal Place to Kill, though it was released in the US as both Oasis of Fear and Dirty Pictures. So after releasing Paranoia with the international title A Quiet Place to Kill he released another film with a similar title. AND, his original intent was for Orgasmo to be titled Paranoia. What with the reuse of Wess & the Airedales’ “Just Tell Me” in both Orgasmo and A Quiet Place to Kill, I think Umberto Lenzi gets a wee bit fixated on motifs now and again.

Bill: You don’t say? Could you call filming with a glass of red liquid ruining your shot twenty-eight different times in one movie a motif he was stuck on? If so, then I agree. He is a better filmmaker than most people that know him only for cheap exploitative thrills would probably realize, but in this instance, I have to wonder what he was thinking. I just don’t get it. I don’t understand why he would intentionally ruin his shot over and over with the glasses. There’s a few other scenes with, like, planters and vases in the foreground that throw you off, too. Is this some cultural thing that I’m not understanding? Just an eccentricity of Lenzi? Was this movie originally meant to be in 3D (with a funky disco cocaine theme song)?

you promise me heaven then put me through hell

you promise me heaven then put me through hell

quit being a bitch and fill one up

quit being a bitch and fill one up

bill is so pissed

bill is so pissed

Fisty: (Inasmuch as disco’s progenitors include funk, lounge, psychedelica, yes. Sort of.) But no. Those shots are hardly “ruin[ed],” Bill. Your use of “intentional” there should clue you in to what Lenzi was playing at with the different compositions –and AQP2K is indeed chockablock with funky yet elegant shots. Lenzi seems a bit experimental, like he’s playing more with different ways of telling the story visually rather than simply through the narrative, and that the tricks aren’t there just to to heighten dramatic impact. That showy rack focusing you find so distracting? Another way for Lenzi to show how the roles of victims and perpetrators become increasingly blurred and overlapping, the ways in which motives are obscured.

Lenzi also throws a lot of mirrored or double compositions and subjective camera shots into the mix, further playing with notions of just who’s doing what to whom here. Some of my favorites involve Helen and Constance, particularly their first scene (featuring a stunning gold crackle mirror tiled fireplace!), in which they’re both wearing green, establishing their jealous natures. Lenzi plays with color quite a bit, clothing Constance–and in one episode, Helen–literally in gold, symbolizing perhaps a deeper motive, and of course the film is practically awash in the red stuff. No, not blood (these Sixties gialli are rarely bloody), but myriad red libations–what are they, aperitifs? Campari or vermouth? I have no idea. Those little red glasses of SOMETHING potent–that’s important, Bill–are some of the worst offenders in those shots you hate. But Lenzi liberally splashes his film with red, the color of passion, anger, and blood.

Bill: I’m down with all the mirrors and the colors and characters dressing as one another and the flashes of memories and imaginings he uses to keep things twisty-turny and have the audience questioning everything. That’s all done very well. But whatever Lenzi was trying to get across by sticking a bunch of blurry crap in our faces, so we can’t even see the actors, he failed. Sure, you can say he hiding the actors behind a mask of colors that  represent their passions to show how those overpowering emotions are occluding their rational selves or whatever bunk you want throw out about it, but really, he could’ve done that in a much less annoying way. I think he did manage the same thing in other films without making me use my rage face. At least I don’t remember it being as jarring in Orgasmo or So Sweet…  So Perverse. I know Fulci has used similar ideas in, for instance, Perversion Story, but it wasn’t as frequent and it came off as cool, instead of … irritating. I don’t want to say this is because Lenzi is a bad filmmaker. Like I said earlier, he’s better than most give him credit for. I like him. But he is kind of eccentric and, I think, has a harder time pulling off ideas like that in a successful way. Or maybe he’s just a genius and he’s too smart for his own audiences. What do I know? I mostly watch these flicks for the sex and violence.

shot through the heart!

shot through the heart!

no one can save me; the damage is done

no one can save me

the damage is done

the damage is done

Mmmmm, violence. But only some! These lenziani tend to be fairly light on violence compared to other gialli, and that’s why they usually aren’t my favs. They do typically make up for it in other ways, however, like adding plenty of salacious kink,  bodacious style, beautiful locales, and vice vice vice! There’s booze and pills and T&A and sexual sadism, like Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion‘s Minou (who would totally be besties with Helen) in her sexy surrender scene in that movie, or the stylistic brilliance of Fulci filming a sex scene from the POV of a bed in Perversion Story. The pop culture hipness of The Sweet Body of Deborah is the big draw for me there, with a comic book themed nightclub and permanent Twister fixtures in the front yard. And Lenzi’s own Orgasmo keeps me rapt with the psycho-sexual torment a cute young couple put Carroll Baker through. AQP2K tries to make up for its lack of a body count by having Helen be naked pretty much every 10-15 minutes or so, which, believe me, I did appreciate. There’s also a fun club scene with a bitchin’ dancin’ girl upskirt (but, ugh, the song almost ruins it,) a fantastically bizarre cavern club, and some crazy, fun other stuff, like Hitchcock nods, Jean Sorel being ridiculously entertaining, and a scene with a stuffed fox monster … thing. And plenty of lovely decor, sets and artsy scenes, not counting those stupid drinking glass in the foreground ones. But, personally, I don’t think it was enough. I liked it and I certainly was never bored, but I don’t think it rises to the level of the other films I mentioned.

Fisty: I know some of his choices irritate you (though you’re TOTALLY wrong), but it’s important to note that Lenzi’s stylistic choices are used consistently and coherently; the style essentially delineates the text.

now part of this complete breakfast

now part of this complete breakfast

paint your smile on your lips

paint your smile on your lips

ohhhhhhh, you're a loaded gun!

ohhhhhhh, you’re a loaded gun!

For me, AQP2K has an elegance, a neatness, a … well, I’m just going to go ahead and quote Margaret Mitchell here: There was a glamor to it, a perfection and a completeness and a symmetry to it like Grecian art. Some–including Bill here–might argue my use of “perfection,” but when we take the concept of perfection back to it’s origins (sup, Aristotle!), we’re talking about something that is not only the best of its kind, but that is a whole, not missing any of its parts, and that it achieves its purpose. Though it might be argued (okay, is argued here) that AQP2K is not the best of its kind, it’s undoubtedly a consummate sexy thriller lenziano, made up of all the requisite parts. And most importantly for this argument, IT DOES WHAT IT SET OUT TO DO. Or rather, what Lenzi set out to do. To it. With it. Or something. Whatever. AQP2K is sexy, thrilling, and entertaining–and that’s exactly what we ask of gialli, be they in the style of Bava or Argento or Lenzi.

And lest we forget, AQP2K is technically excellent in every respect. The cast nails it; they don’t just hit their marks but inhabit their roles–Sorel and La Baker in particular playing signature character types. The psychology of the characters is credible, particularly Helen’s (and to a lesser degree, Constance’s) embodiment of Carlos Fuentes’ statement “Jealousy kills love, but leaves desire intact.” There’s a rococo look to it as well, from the sunny, golden exteriors in Mallorca to the literally glittering interiors–and costumes. And Piero Umiliani’s loungey score repeats the title theme when apropos, and otherwise provides a pleasantly snazzy background.

Bill: I also ask that they not obscure half of the screen with an out of focus drinking glass, but that’s just me.

Fisty: Boor. Swine. Uncultured lout.

ladies and gentlemen

ladies and gentlemen

home movies

home movies

there's something about maurice

there’s something about maurice

Bill: Snob. Are we finished here? Did we get back to how this is a giallo? Because there are a lot of arguments about that.

Fisty: Oh yeah. You’re right, I’ve seen these arguments come up for well, almost every non-classico giallo, it sometimes seems. We’ve touched on it previously with Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Luciano Ercoli’s 1970 giallo  la femme (that’s not really a thing), and again with Massimo Dallamano’s 1972 schoolgirl giallo What Have You Done to Solange? Along different lines, Luigi Cozzi’s 1973 genre-bender The Killer Must Kill Again labors under the same accusation for different reasons. Shoots, even a prime example of the classico giallo like Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark has had such aspersions cast at it–seriously!–which just goes to show, not only are some people plumb crazy, but the definition of giallo is as nebulous, and ambiguous as the films themselves.

A generic definition that can (debatably) encompass such outliers as Argento’s Suspiria and Phenomena or Fulci’s The New York Ripper can certainly include films of a less fantastical or gruesome nature. But it’s not even about what we can stretch the definition to include, but what films make up an integral core of the filone. In that the Sixties gialli–lenziani or no–tend to be along the lines of the sexy inheritance thriller, referencing noir and Hitchcock and Clouzot, Lenzi’s thrillers absolutely typify this approach. While he did not necessarily innovate–Bill’s BFF Romolo Guerreri busted The Sweet Body of Deborah out in 1968, not to mention Bava’s previous contributions–Lenzi absolutely refined and realized the generic potential of these thrillers when he dominated the filone.

This type would flourish mainly in the Sixties, and the beginning of the Seventies, but would continue to affect the filone even after Bird’s excesses. Later gialli that place the emphasis on suspense as opposed to mystery, the inheritance thriller-type giallo, the gaslight giallo, the intimate giallo based on internal concerns–adultery, incest, etc–instead of the eyewitness, these are all related to the sexy thriller lenziani and its success. I dare say that virtually all of Sergio Martino’s classic gialli bear the imprint of the sexy thriller lenziani, and traces are found throughout many post-Argento films such as Forque’s In the Eye of the Hurricane or Picciolo’s The Flower with Petals of Steel.

probably an entire reel of blurry glass footage

probably an entire reel of blurry glass footage

ring ring ring ring ring ring ring giallo phone!

ring ring ring ring ring ring ring giallo phone!

party time, excellent

party time, excellent

Bill: I really did love The Sweet Body of Deborah. And going back to the cast “inhabit[ing] their roles,” you didn’t mention her, but Marina Coffa as Susan is just perfect. She embodies Susan so well that the second she’s on screen, before she’s even had a chance to act, I knew she was trouble. I’ve never seen her in anything else and I kind of wish she’d done more. Now, about the debt Martino owes Lenzi… Yeah. I can’t deny that. And I love Martino. Everything you’ve said about Lenzi and about this movie is true. I’ve been kind of critical of it and it isn’t my favorite lenziani, or even my favorite of the So Sweet… So Perverse/Orgasmo/Paranoia trilogy–I liked Orgasmo better–but I want to reiterate: I LIKE THIS MOVIE. My criticisms are minor, mostly adding up to, “I think this other movie is better,” and, “Blurry cups!” But just because I don’t consider it perfect, doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. It would definitely surprise anyone that only knows Lenzi from his later films. But maybe it shouldn’t. He adapted to smaller budgets and changing audience desires and his later movies, while maybe not showing quite the technical proficiency he does here, are still precisely what he meant them to be and perfectly typify the times in which he made them. I can’t ever remember being bored while watching a Lenzi movie. Bottom line: He’s better than he gets credit for being.

Don’t worry about me, you’re the one sitting in the death seat. Ultimately, A Quiet Place to Kill is a fine film, a perfectly typical sexy thriller lenziani. With fine characterizations perfectly played by its cast, exotic and glamorous locales, a jazzy score, and a delightfully intricate yet tight storyline. While not as bloodily thrilling as later, post-Argento gialli, AQP2K–and others of its type–create a sensual atmosphere brimming with lasciviousness and intrigue. They are dependent upon not only the looks and attitudes of their characters, but also the psychology; instead of witnessing violent tableaux, we explore the ambiguous relations between the characters. The success of the sexy thrillers lenziani lies in the deliciously trashy spectacle of pretty people doing ugly things to one another in glamorous places.

 

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The Ghost

not to be confused with the royal trux song

not to be confused with the royal trux song

Lo spettro
aka The Ghost
aka Le spectre du Dr. Hichcock
aka The Spectre
Director: Riccardo Freda
Released: 1963
Starring: Barbara Steele, Peter Baldwin, Elio Jotta, Harriet Medin, Umberto Raho
Running time: 96 min
Genre: Gothic horror

Don’t move, darling, or I’ll cut you. Doctor John Hichcock is half the man he used to be. Struck down by a wasting disease and confined to a wheelchair, he has only death to look forward to. That and tormenting his beautiful young wife, Margaret. It’s whispered that Hichcock’s illness is just retribution for his weird and unnatural medical experiments, the devilish rites being held in the house of evil, crippled Doctor Hichcock. Regardless, he continues with those evil ways, subjecting both Margaret and his old friend Doctor Charles Livingstone to séances with his childhood nurse-cum-housekeeper Catherine, and also subjecting his body to daily injections of poison. Whether those injections are really meant to kill or cure, only Hichcock could say.

Margaret, however, has something to say, and it goes a little something like, “If you don’t kill him, I will!” After all, she’s the lovely young thing tethered to a hateful, too-slowly dying old man. Forced to play nurse as well as wife , Margaret has turned to the young and virile Charles for comfort. Animal comfort. Conservatory floor comfort. Driven to hate by Hichcock’s cruelty, Margaret insists they do away with their impediment to happiness–and wealth. And after all, wouldn’t it be better for Hichcock, too? To no longer suffering as a living corpse? It’s for the best, really.

But once the deed is done, things begin to go awry. Hichcock’s hound howls ceaselessly,  his wheelchair perambulates of its own accords, and Catherine channels Hichcock in her sleep, his spectral voice calling for Margaret. Then the will is read, and things go from bad to worse as Margaret and Charles discover that Hichcock’s cruelty extends beyond the grave, leaving Margaret the house and estate (on condition that she employ Catherine for the rest of her days) and one-third the contents of his safe. The other two-thirds go to the Home for Indigent Orphans run by Canon Owens. WHAT THE FUCK, thinks Margaret. The missing safe key seems to be yet more abuse from the malign Doctor Hichcock, but perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise. She and Charles immediately plan to find the key and get into that safe, robbing it just a little before it’s opened by officials, one-upping both the deceased Doctor Hichcock and the greasy Canon Owens in one fell swoop.

they both took the hypocritic oath

they both took the hypocritic oath

flowers make me feel like a cripple

flowers make me feel like a cripple

why does this gin taste like cripple?

why does this gin taste like cripple?

But first  they have got to find that damnable key. Increasingly frantic, Margaret and Charles search for the key beneath Catherine’s intrusive nose. On top of that, Margaret must countenance gossip in the village, for after all, it’s Scotland in 1910, and a handsome young man staying with the recently bereaved lady doesn’t look quite right. Nor does Margaret seem like a grief-stricken widow, even to staying away from the memorial service. But who cares when there’s a fortune to be found? Especially when they think they know where to find it: Catherine claims to have seen him put it in his vest pocket–of the suit he was buried in. Well, it’s off to the tomb to investigate, but not before the spectral visitations kick in, and the blood starts to flow, and suspicions grow like worms.

That wonderful inspiration that will save the lives of millions of poor cripples! While not quite as darkly thrilling or subtly perverse as The ‘orrible doctor ‘ichcock, Lo spettro is a fine example of the color Italian Gothic, featuring Barbara Steele at her most stunning and delightfully pernicuous.

Fisty: My two main issues with Lo spettro are a) I keep conflating the English and Italian titles of its predecessor L’orribile segreto del Doctor Hichcock, and calling it The ‘orrible Doctor ‘ichcock. Which is kind of weird. And also, I’ve been calling it Lo spettro because that has a much less generic and more suggestive sound to it than the US title of The Ghost. Even the more literal translation of The Spectre  would be an improvement. But really, those are my main complaints.

Bill: I have a complaint! There’s a small stretch of the film, from just before the murder to shortly after, before the weird things start happening, that is just a tad boring.  I don’t know what could’ve been done about that, really, since there are things happening, necessary things, they’re just not terribly exciting. This is maybe, at most, ten minutes of the movie and a pretty minor thing to bitch about, since the rest is pretty damn good.

watch it, sister

watch it, sister

oh, i will show you some cares

oh, i will show you some cares

just no

just no

Oh! One other issue I have is with the confusing fuckery that is the credit for the film’s score. The music is credited to Franck Wallace, a pseudonym, but it doesn’t seem quite clear who, in this case, was using the name. I think it was likely Franco Mannino, since Wallace was a name he used and that’s what got put in the credits. However, Francesco De Masi, who supposedly provided his own score at Freda’s request after Freda decided he didn’t like Mannino’s work, gets sole credit on some surviving tapes that were found. (You can find all this junk on IMDB.) This leaves me scratching my head and wondering who provided the haunting, creepy, yet so, so pretty music box waltz  that is used so effectively throughout the movie. I love it! So it kind of sucks that I don’t know who actually wrote it or even what the name of that piece is. I spent a good two hours trying to find a version of it online that didn’t have dialog from the movie over it, but I never was able to find it. In the film, in possibly the best, most intense scene, when Barbara Steele is shaving a nostalgic Hichcock, and considering murdering him, it plays on Hichcock’s music box and he refers to it only as a Viennese waltz. I can’t know if this was a pre-existing piece of music used in the movie, whether it was written for the movie or, if it was, who then actually wrote it. Gah!

Fisty: Okay. I’m with you on the shaving scene, though. It’s excellent foreshadowing, and builds to a wonderful intensity. It also hints at currents beneath the surface, like with the way Margaret pauses when Hichcock refers to her as a “beautiful penniless young thing, not a care in the world.” When he says that, she stops as if transfixed, razor to his throat, and her stillness stretches out till it calls Hichcock’s awareness to her. That pause is so evocative, hinting at a past that–for Margaret, at least–is not so lovely as Hichcock would remember it. It is significant in how it suggests some of the difficulties of Margaret’s position: Coming up from poverty, a poverty that was hardly so carefree as he would call it, to the heights of respectable marriage to a wealthy, respected doctor, and then descending into the misery of life as a nurse to a hateful, dying cripple. Because let’s face is, Hichcock is a dick. And a half. A life with Charles is for Margaret a fresh start: She’s thirtyish now, but with a virile young man she can begin again, have a family, possibly children, things that are beyond her reach as long as the horrible Hichcock is in the picture. So her desperation is palpable.

legitimate drape

legitimate drape

who died and made you widow?

who died and made you widow?

my hand smells like cripple!

my hand smells like cripple!

Not to downplay Margaret’s darkness; no, one of Lo spettro‘s strengths is Steele’s weird beauty and her capacity for bitchiness while still communicating vulnerability. Often this was simplified in the dual roles she was famed for (eg, Asa/Katia in Black Sunday, Muriel/Jenny in Nightmare Castle, even Harriet/Beatrice in An Angel for Satan), and those are a great use of her. But I do prefer Margaret for Steele, as she wonderfully creates a decidedly bad lady who is both cruel and conflicted. Not all witch  and while certainly not innocent in the least, still invested with a little pathos. Shades of Francesca Annis in Polanski’s MacBeth, but in gorgeous Edwardian gowns.

Bill: No downplaying for her darkness! She had Livingstone shoot a dog for making noise! Everyone in the movie (except for Canon Owens, who I think just wants the best for his orphans) is pretty dickish, but when Margaret and Charles start killing dogs, no matter how nuanced, layered or conflicted they are, I start thinking they deserve what’s coming. Cruel, horrible Hichcock, as really the only true sadist in the movie, is still King Dick and the absolute worst of the bunch. He’s exactly the kind of prick that you could believe would come back from the other side to troll you from beyond the grave, but at least he wasn’t killing doggies over a little bit of  howling.

Fisty: You know I don’t ever condone wanton killing of animals, but I think that was used to show a tinge of madness in Margaret, how unstable she is. There’s wonderful use of the dog’s incessant mournful howling, and I think that scene nicely underscores how inhumane Margaret and Charles are in their uncharity, especially when compared to a dumb animal. So though it makes me have a sad, it’s absolutely a useful scene. And a really good one, too.

But Canon Owens, you are totally insanely wrong about. The man is a cold, slimy fish. When the will is read, the camera lingers on his mug as he goes from smug, to greedy, and back to complacent once more. It’s nicely telling. Those orphans aren’t getting much from Doctor Hichcock, but Canon Owens will be lining his pocket with silk and velvet.

i'm not always crippled, but when i am, i torment my wife

i’m not always crippled, but when i am, i torment my wife

have a nice funeral, babs, dr hichcock will pay

have a nice funeral, babs, dr hichcock will pay

going bump in the night?

going bump in the night?

Bill: That wasn’t greed, it was joy for all the good things he’ll be able to do for his orphans.  (Fisty: Ha!) Or to them. I’ll admit, he was a little sketchy in that scene and he probably is just as slimy as everyone else in the movie. You have to wonder if Hichcock surrounds himself with shitters or if he finds good folk and shapes them into the nasty people he wants them to be. Charles seems like he may have been okay at one time. There are definitely some moments where some inner decency shines through in him. I could see Hichcock actually planning and secretly facilitating the affair between Charles and Margaret just to tarnish them both and allow him to punish them for the transgressions he orchestrated. I like that even a straightforward, evil character like Hichcock has some wiggle room in just how wicked he is because of the complexity of the characters. Maybe he was jealous of Charles’ youth and virility or maybe he was surprised and upset by the affair or maybe he just wanted to fuck with some people to get his rocks off and they were unlucky enough to be the people he had around. There’s room for interpretation. Though, if his portrait is an accurate depiction of his soul, I’d have to say it’s the last one and that Doctor Hichcock’s wickedness is absolute, because that was one freaky, ugly painting.

Watching Lo spettro, there were three authors that I was reminded of. One of them, Shakespeare, I can’t talk too much about for fear of spoilers, but there were some aspects of the dénouement that felt like a twisted, convoluted riff on Romeo and Juliet. Way more than Billy Shakes however, I was reminded of Poe and of Cornell Woolrich. There are some very “Tell-Tale Heart”-like moments in the film and one particular twist that is almost identical to the Woolrich story “Post Mortem.” I’m trying to talk Fisty into writing a piece about Woolrich, btw, so anyone reading this, let her know she needs to do that.

Fisty: When we’re on a regular schedule, then maybe I’ll have a minute to do it!

haaaaands holding haaaaaaands

haaaaands holding haaaaaaands

mecca lecca hi, mecca hichcock ho

mecca lecca hi, mecca hichcock ho

will all great neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my snuffbox?

will all great neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my snuffbox?

I got a lot of the same references, though maybe a little differently. “Post Mortem” is so obvious that there was never any question about it. With regards to Shakespeare, though, I think I mentioned MacBeth, by way of Margaret’s wickedness, and Charles’ suggestibility into knavery, as well as the imagery of blood on the hands. The lovers are certainly star-crossed in the traditional sense, though, much as Romeo and his fair Juliet are. I got Poe more by way of Roger Corman, specifically the dénouement of The Pit and the Pendulum. (These movies are over fifty years old; are we concerned about spoilering them? Shouldn’t it be “spoiling,” not “spoilering?” Why are we saying that?) And I see a lot of noir allusion, especially with the destructiveness of the star-crossed lovers once greed and guilt get out of control. The relationship between Charles and Margaret also references the way that the shared knowledge and responsibility for a crime spells an inevitable demise for their love.  There’s also Hichcock’s impotence as the husband, symbolized by the wheelchair, and the marriage’s subsequent childlessness. Also, the stifling entrapment Margaret feels, which Freda masterfully implies in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Hichcock domicile. Virtually every member of this ghastly household is perpetrating an assault upon the conventions of family, hearth, and home.

The way Freda has Hichcock’s scheme play out really poses the question of who the true villain is. Margaret is A villain, yes–and to a lesser degree, Charles–but is she THE villain? Or is it Hichcock, and does he go to a fitting doom? While Lo spettro is not as enigmatical as The Horrible Doctor Hichcock, there is still some ambiguity.

babs steele, tomb raider

babs steele, tomb raider

the 'orrible doctor 'ichcock

the ‘orrible doctor ‘ichcock

profondo rosso

profondo rosso

Bill: And the movie is just that much better for it.

Honestly, I agreed to review this one without checking it out first. I’d never seen this or The Horrible Doctor Hichcock. When I first looked at it, I was expecting it to be kind of boring. I figured we’d have a rehash of the 7DitCE review, with you (meaning Fisty, not you, good reader) raving and me snoring. Aside from a few slow minutes, however, I was totally wrong. I got sucked into the movie–so much so that I forgot to take any notes–then spent the two hours after I watched it still caught up in it and yapping to someone about it on Facebook. So … very much NOT boring. I liked it a lot. I loved some of it. In addition to the shaving scene we talked about before, there’s another really great scene (that also involves that same razor) later in the film. There’s a brutal slashing with this brilliant *svip svip svip* sound for each slash. One character is standing outside of the room where the murder takes place and you just hear that *svip svip svip* noise again and again. It cuts back to the murder itself, into what I suppose would be a victim’s POV shot, and as the razor flies, the blood literally runs down the lens of the camera. The murderer’s face is tinted red by the blood covered lens in what is a very, very Sam Raimi-ish scene in a year when Sam Raimi would’ve been about four years-old. Another really creepy scene features a supernaturally propelled wheelchair at the top of a set of  stairs that so perfectly prefigures some of the most memorable scenes from The Changeling that I have to wonder if Medak wasn’t influenced by Lo spettro. If he was, he has good taste.

Fisty: Let’s go ahead and just say that watching and enjoying this film is indicative of good taste.

Chockablock with neuroses, murder, drugs, and adultery, Freda’s Lo spettro is an elegant and colorful Gothic thriller rich with characterization and tension. High production values highlight Barbara Steele’s weird beauty just as a strong script by Ernesto Gastaldi and expert direction from Freda use her witchlike persona to great effect. It’s one of her strongest perfomances, and she’s ably supported by Peter Baldwin, Elio Jotta, Harriet Medin, and Umberto Raho, not to mention beautifully framed by the budget luxe sets and costuming. A lean, mean treat for fans of the Italian Gothic.

this one just makes us laugh

this one just makes us laugh

Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

in which nobody is above suspicion

Le foto proibite di una signora per bene
aka The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion
aka Frauen bis zum Wahnsinn gequält
aka Días de angustia
aka Photo interdite d’une bourgeoise
Director: Luciano Ercoli
Released: 1970
Starring: Dagmar Lassander, Nieves Navarro aka Susan Scott, Pier Paolo Capponi, and Simón Andreu
Running time: 93 min
Genre: giallo

You must surrender your mind–and your body. Confirming my own ideas about the inner monologues of women (this is Bill speaking) Minou (Dagmar Lassander) bathes, dresses, paints her toenails, lounges, naps, drinks, pops pills, and obsessively stares at portraits while spending the whole time thinking about how to please, anger, manipulate and make love to Peter. That’s a capital P, sickos. Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi) is her new entrepreneur husband. He’s been away trying to do some hardcore, capitalistic entrepreneuring and she’s doing her best to pass the time until his return.

Taking a break from her internal Peter obsessing and kinda doped up and buzzing, she goes for a late evening walk on the beach. Alone, with no one to call to, she is first spied upon, then stalked by sinister thug on a motorbike (Simón Andreu). He terrorizes and bullies her, using a nightstick with a switchblade tip. He’s going to make her “beg for his kisses,” and then tells her, “No, I’m not going to use force with you.” Nevertheless, he pushes her to the ground and slowly cuts open her clothes. Rapey stuff and, perhaps, murder are imminent. Then he asks about Peter. Does she know what he’s been up to while he’s been away? He tells her that Peter is a fraud. That he’s a murderer. Then he tells her she’s free to go … for now, and leaves her lying there unharmed and mostly unmolested as he rides off. Shaken, she goes to a nearby bar, calls Peter to come for her, and sits and gets plastered with some bossy card players, but doesn’t call the cops because, “The police only make you fill out forms.” Uh …?

Peter is somewhat dismissive of the assault, since the sex killer didn’t really do anything to her, only held her down and threatened her with a knife and cut her clothes mostly off. Uh …? Besides, even if she had been raped, he informs her, he wouldn’t love her any less. Minou, not at all wondering how a sex maniac knew who she was and who her husband is, protects herself from further victimization by donning a curly blonde Femi Benussi wig and going disco dancing. At the club, she bumps into her good friend, the fabulously gorgeous and sexually adventurous Dominique (Nieves Navarro), a former lover of Peter’s (and current lover of peters–zing!), who tells her of the death–maybe suicide, maybe murder–of a man named Dubois. Dubois was a business associate of Peter’s to whom Peter owed quite a bit of money.

Minou reads about Dubois’ death in the paper–he mysteriously died of the bends, a condition that typically afflicts divers that surface too quickly–and she begins to think … something. She discusses her worries and the attack with Dominique, who would, “adore being violated.” Like Peter, Dominique is mostly dismissive of the assault. She’s way more interested in showing Minou her classy porn slideshows and photos and not-so-subtlety coming onto her. While sorting through the porno snaps, Minou finds a picture of the sex maniac from the beach. Having gotten over her fear of filling out forms, an inspector comes to Peter’s office to take a police report from him and Minou. After, Peter tells her about the new deep diving pressure gauge he’s trying to bring to market and she sees the pressure chamber where it’s tested, a room capable of simulating deep diving conditions.

she can’t help thinking about peter: where he is, who he is with, is he thinking of her, and will he ever return to her someday

like a mammal of some sort

my naked pictures, let me show you them

That night, while alone, she receives a phone call from her attacker. He wants to meet with her. He plays her a recording of Peter apparently discussing the murder of Dubois. She must meet him or he’ll turn the tape over to the police. He does not want money. He cannot be bought.  All he wants is Minou. Minou, Minou, Minou! Is Peter really a murderer? How is Dominique involved? Why is Minou a target? Will she willingly give herself to her blackmailer, mind, spirit, and body, to protect her husband? Is any of it even real or is it all in Minou’s tipsy, pill-munching head? Who cares? I just want to see more of her kick ass shoe-stealing, show-stealing, startle-inducing pet turtle. Man, he’s great!

Everyone has his price–even a maniac. Without many of the markers usually ascribed to the giallo, and with a dearth of blood and titties, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion has its share of detractors, those who might call it Giallo Lite–or even not a giallo at all. However Ercoli’s eye, Ernesto Gastaldi’s script, and a score by Ennio Morricone would suggest otherwise. Will they be enough? Does FPoaLAS have enough strengths to refute the deniers?

Fisty: Before I say anything, I have to get something off my chest. I FUCKING LOATHE DAGMAR LASSANDER’S CUNTING SPITCURLS. They really, really irritate me. When I see–or think about–them, my hands curl into fists and I have to resist the urge to reach into the screen and set them afire. Or yank them off. And I’ve only ever seen them on Dagmar, so I am now beginning to hate her for subjecting me to them. I also blame Ercoli and whomever was in charge of hair and make-up for giving them a pass. What fucking lunacy inspired those damn things?

Bill: Go easy on poor Dagmar. They aren’t that bad. Why do you hate the spitcurls? Why are you so passionate about hating them? Did spitcurls anally rape your mother while pouring sugar in your gas tank? Superman has one. He’s famous for it. Do you hate Superman, too? How can you hate  Superman? Do you also hate rock and roll and apple pie? Are you now or have you ever been a part of a communist organization? I actually think they’re kind of cute, especially when her hair is pulled back or when she’s wearing that purple hat while she and Navarro’s characters are at lunch. The only time I take issue with them is when her hair is down and she still has them. Then, they make her hair look kind of messy, but not good messy, just … busy.  Also, I hate Superman. I do not hate Dagmar (or her hair) or Navarro or FPoaLAS. (When I type that, it makes me think of Legolas fapping. I don’t hate that either. I’m not gay.)

Fisty: What the hell. I hate them because they’re hideous. And they’re ALWAYS THERE, regardless of hairstyle: up or down, formal or casual, whatever. Except for the disco scene when she dons her platinum blonde Femi Benussi wig–which I found ultra hot. Now I want a Seventies perm.

see the spitcurls. see fisty’s rage. rage, fisty, rage.

$2.99 for the first three minutes, $0.39 each additional minute

le freak, so chic

HOLY SHIT, that was just ridiculous, and I apologize; I came over all catty all of a sudden. Despite my spitcurl phobia, Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion is actually one of my favorite gialli. There is so much to love about Ercoli’s wildly entertaining first giallo (among them being: stunning fashion and interior design, hilarious red herrings, gorgeous and sassy actresses–particularly Nieves Navarro–hilarity inducing lines, and so on), but what I find most striking is how essentially feminine a film it is. And no, not simply because the protagonist is a woman–come on, how common is that in gialli?–but because of how Ercoli makes Minou’s feminine concerns central to the film. Basically, Minou is your textbook Lady with the Problem that Has No Name. Lest we forget, this is 1970, and Betty Friedan had been spraying The Feminine Mystiqueall over EVERYTHING for the past few years, and I’m pretty sure it’d hit Europe. In Italy, there were rumblings of their own nascent women’s movement, which would soon explode into battles over divorce, abortion, and other social and political issues.

Ercoli doesn’t sully his giallo with a whole lot of overt politics or preaching, and you won’t even find a plot device with a political subtext a la What Have You Done to Solange? Instead he neatly turns the conventions of the popular cinema inside out, playing with depictions of women in more customary genre films–or is he playing with the way women are treated in 1970 Italy? The hysterical victim or target common to gialli (*cough*EDWIGE*cough*) isn’t unique to the genre, but sadly not an uncommon trope. (Though often used extravagantly there.) When Minou confesses her troubles to Peter and the police, they suggest that the entire  things is simply a fabrication, a repressed fantasy or cry for attention. You women! Even Dominique’s first response on being told of the seaside assault is to quip, “I would have adored being violated!” Oh, misogyny, you so crazy!

Back to Minou, Ercoli’s Lady with the Problem that Has No Name: She’s a naif little homebody, educated simply to catch a husband and now all wrapped up in her devotion to her him and her role as wife. Yet the empty hours she must while away (though not in housework or childcare because after all, this IS a giallo) leave her wanting … more.  Despite her love for Peter, Minou is neurotic and unhappy, self-medicating with ‘ludes and booze–which she’s quitting, she swears, right after this drink/pill–internalizing her anxieties, and seeking fulfillment (which she sees as Peter’s attention) in insipid little sexual adventures that are simply fabrications meant to inspire jealousy in Peter. (Are the cops and Dominique on to something here?) Minou is simply slathered in feminine mystique; the only thing she’s missing is children or at least a meditation on motherhood.

forbidden foto of a very suspicious floozy

let’s make this dress a little less housewifely, shall we?

is that timothy dalton?

Bill: Why would she need children? She has a turtle! I love that turtle.

I totally get what you’re saying about FPoaLAS’s femininity. Maybe I’m reaching a bit, but I also see Navarro/Scott’s Dominique as a kind of embodiment of the porn fantasy woman. She is all about sex. She’s not just permissive, she’s practically predatory. This is a woman that will order a pizza just so she can jump on the delivery boy. She’s beautiful, freaky, likes taking and showing off naked pictures, down for some girl/girl, and she is up for some violation. She is supremely comfortable with her perviness and doesn’t have to sit around making up stories about non-existent love affairs. Dominique is so OTT sexual that, in one scene she uses the police as her personal escort service. And Minou, who is maybe not completely repressed, but is kind of naive and not as confident, knowing Peter was once a lover of Dominique’s and being just a normal woman (except, this being a movie normal is still sickeningly gorgeous), compares herself to the unreal ideal of Dominique. Trying to judge yourself against other normal standards of beauty and sexual adventurousness is hard enough on your ego, but when you’re judging yourself against a perpetually horned up Susan Scott with a massive collection of Copenhagen porno…? There is no way you’re not going to question your own looks and prowess. Or maybe it’s just standard inhibited versus uninhibited stuff and I’m looking at it from too modern a perspective?

Fisty: I don’t know that I get all that from Dominique. She’s definitely an active person as opposed to Minou’s more passive one, and thus walks around acting upon and externalizing everything Minou internalizes and suppresses. In Dominique, the seductive and worldly female type is amped up to eleven to a degree that would be laughable is Navarro’s insouciance didn’t carry it off delightfully. (Okay, it’s still often laughable, but knowingly so; we laugh along with Ercoli et alia instead of at them. This seems to be his MO.) And that’s essentially how Ercoli plays the entire film. The best red herring of all, the turtle jump scare, is one (glaring) example of how Ercoli toys with the audience’s expectations. The title is another, a joke based on the Academy Award-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion–a satiric crime drama that may have influenced Ercoli elsewhere, I do not know. Has anyone seen it?–and of course both titles recall poor Pompeia: Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. Much as Minou is, until she becomes embroiled in suspicious circumstances and realizes that all women are under suspicion to men at all times. And oh my god, how not lurid is the movie, with that title? Oh, Ercoli!

bathtub of the dolls

boy george versus guido the killer pimp

she really likes turtles

Bill: So not lurid! That title makes you expect something really saucy, but compared to a lot of other gialli, it’s pretty tame. The majority of the nudity in the movie is in the form of  photos of Dominique which, by the way, I would totally sell my soul to own. What a collectible those would make. And most of the “love-making” scenes are kind of boring and unsexy, restrained. The only scenes (that don’t involve a naked or flirtatious Dominique) that really get hott (with a double T) and give the movie some naughty appeal are (go ahead and call me a creep!) the scenes of The Blackmailer attacking Minou or coercing her into getting freaky with threats. Those are the scenes that are shot with a real lover’s eye. When he has Minou pinned down on the beach, slowing cutting the strings on her dress, it seemed more like foreplay than an assault. And when Minou decides she’s going to give in to his demands, man, she really goes all in. It’s some straight up 50 Shades of Grey shit, but actually good not lame, and Minou never once mentions her inner goddess or says, “Holy crap.”

It’s not very bloody either. The Blackmailer isn’t particularly violent until much later in the film and the body count in the movie is low, at only three. One of those deaths, the first, doesn’t occur onscreen. The character that dies never even appears onscreen. You’re not even certain it’s a murder at all.

Fisty: Yeah, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, which I really enjoy. You might think you’ve got the scenario figured out, but then along comes another red herring to throw a monkey wrench into the thick of it, mixing metaphors and motives like some kind of mixy-matchy thing. One of my favorite ambiguous scenes is one where at a dinner party, Minou flashes back to scenes of sex–or is it lovemaking?–for at first it is unclear with whom she is having the sex. Ercoli layers the scene in such a way as to suggest a great deal about Minou and her repression, as well as that around her.

The bit of sex that we see are mostly suggested–or even demonstrated secondhand (or is it third when a character watched slideshows of photographs of another’s character’s sex life, and then we watch that?). The violence is largely the same; there are no on-screen deaths until the climax. The exclusion of obvious scene of sex and violence has led to allegations that FPoaLAS is not really a giallo, but rather a murder mystery, which is just silly. Yes, there are certain tropes missing or toned down but if we’ve seen nothing else, it’s that few gialli (outside of perhaps some of the most derivative types), particularly the more noteworthy ones, hit every single marker. The best (I say) play with audience expectations and hallmarks of the genre–and again, we cannot underestimate the fluidity between genres. More importantly, FPoaLAS was released in November of 1970, a mere nine months after Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. (Nine months, hmmm?) Though Bird would become the principal map for gialli, these transitions do take a little time, even in the fast-moving world of Italian movie production circa 1970. Before Bird, it was hardly set in stone that a giallo must linger over elaborate, bloody kills, or be concerned with psychosexual problems, i.e. that the giallo in essence was that kind of violent erotic thriller.

giallo patch kid

dig those crazy digs

you should be paranoid–nothing good could come of this

FPoaLAS channels the claustrophobic paranoia of earlier efforts like Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Romolo Guerriri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah. Like the latter, and also like Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, Ercoli’s use of sex is less than overt, if not exactly subtle.  That it doesn’t use the iconography of Blood and Black Lace should not matter, since at this point all the threads that would make up a later understanding of giallo had not yet come together. More than anything else, it resemble’s Umberto Lenzi’s loose “trilogy” of sexy thrillers–Orgasmo, So Sweet … So Perverse, and Paranoia–both in style and substance: the kinky eroticism, the jet-set cocktail crowd, the motive, and the amorality of those in question. But seemingly any giallo that doesn’t closely follow the post-Argento style is considered unusual or questionable, though they might simply hearken back to the earlier style. So it really doesn’t matter whether there is a black-gloved killer and their POV shots, or J&B, or a priest to pin it on. FPoaLAS IS a giallo, and a damn fine one at that. It’s also damn fine looking, like a series of postcards from Jacqueline Susann’s world, right down to glugging liquor and dolls in the bath.

Bill: Mostly, I just like blood and titties–blood, blood, titties, titties, blood and titties–so I tend to prefer the post-Bird, Argento-influenced films. I need constant stimulation or I get bored. Lucky, despite the dearth of bbttb&t in FapKoalas, there’s still plenty for me to enjoy. For instance: The Turtle. This flick has the only jump scare turtle I think I have ever seen on film. No yowling cats jumping out of closets for Ercoli. He uses a turtle with a shoe fetish instead. It’s not even a one off thing, either. It’s established much earlier in the film that Minou has a turtle and we’re shown the kinds of things her turtle likes to do, so it makes sense when it’s used it to freak you out later. Yes, I’m rambling about how much I enjoyed a pet turtle with maybe three scenes in the movie, but I can’t help it. I like turtles. I also like the funky interior design all through the movie.

I love those fantastic 60’s/70’s apartments. The space age pad Minou is in at the beginning of the movie is amazing! It’s all smooth white curves and indirect lighting. Shelving, walls, furniture, all connected, flowing together, seemingly all one connected piece with slanting log rafters for a ceiling, shag carpet, and creepy mannequin heads mounted on the walls as art. It’s probably my favorite locale in the movie, though The Blackmailer’s apartment is easily the second. That place is insane, with creepy hands sticking out at odd angles, heavy red drapes, skylight, weird bamboo screens hanging everywhere, and masked pinned to the stairs with stakes through its eyes. It’s like a bizarre, neo-savage, surrealist, Night Gallery version of an African tribal theme. Dominique’s place is very similar to that first apartment where we see Minou. Minou and Peter’s house is gorgeous. I think Peter’s work office is the only setting that disappoints.

a crime waiting to happen

suggestive

we told you nothing good could come of it

Fisty: Well, his IS the dull masculine world of business. And it could be that his office is a (relatively) sterile environment because it’s outside Minou’s concerns. Now, their home is a cozily stylish pad, all light and bright and chock full o’ the most benignly outré bibelots. The juxtaposition of their effulgent and well-ordered nest with The Blackmailer’s dark and sinister den of debauchery is highly dramatic, but it works; the dramatic contrast is an effective way to telegraph the repression inherent mannered world Minou usually inhabits. Note how Ercoli uses light and shadow: Minou’s world is so artificially bright as to have none, while that of The Blackmailer is positively steeped in shadow. In his introductory scene, before he starts the seaside chase, he turns off the headlight shining on Minou, chasing her into the darkness he negotiates without hesitation. Symbolism! And of course, these exaggerated set designs lend that fantastic giallo style to which we are all accustomed.

The main players are equally decorative. Dagmar Lassender is lovely–spitcurls and all–and Nieves Navarro is stunning in the more playful role of Dominique. The two parade through the film in an ever increasing assortment of extravagant ensembles, from Minou’s housewifely minidress and disco pantsuit to Dominique’s sideless evening gown and Muppet-collared coat. (I used to have that coat, but lavender. I am not ashamed to admit it.) Plus, Minou is never once not wearing turquoise eyeshadow. It’s amazing.  The gentlemen are pretty groovy themselves; I was particularly taken with Peter’s velvet blazer. Pier Paolo Capponi himself is not too exciting, though his bland smarminess is perfect for his ambiguous role as a possibly villainous husband. However, Simon Andreu is saturninely handsome as The Blackmailer, and does a wonderful turn in making him both seductive and frightening.

Bill: I thought Andreu was kind of ugly. COULD WE BE ANY MORE DIFFERENT? (Fisty: Ugly hot!) But you’re right about him being frightening. The Blackmailer is sadistic and psychotic and a damn tricky bastard. That one move he pulls … I don’t want to say exactly what it is and spoil it, but I’ll say that it will give the wiggins to anyone like me that worries about having their feet grabbed as they come up the basement stairs or thinks about the hand coming from under the bed whenever their feet are uncovered. And how awesome is his weapon of choice? It’s not long enough to be a cane, definitely more baton-like, highly polished, a handsome orange wood color, with a small hidden switchblade in the tip. It’s definitely not your typical cinematic murder tool. I want one. The Blackmailer is totally a stalker with character. I keep thinking about how awesome a giallo crossover movie would’ve been, with Andreu’s Blackmailer and Antoine St. John’s Killer, from The Killer Must Kill Again, stalking the same victims. If we can get Django, Sartana, and Trinity crossover movies, then why not?

ugly hot on toast

wait, is that andy samberg?

sir knifes-a-lot

I got carried away on a weird tangent there for a moment. I’m sorry. But  I did bring up The Killer Must Kill Again and I guess I can use that to segue into another thing I liked about FPoaLAS. I’m sure you remember all of my bitching about the slow middle of TKMKA (also an unconventional giallo). I don’t have any of those same complaints about Fotos. It never has a chance to feel slow or get boring.  It’s paced well, regularly showing you a new twist or wrinkle to keep you guessing and questioning things. Whenever you think you have it figured, you get a school of red herrings nibbling at your face like mutated piranha. Actually sensible red herrings, too, not the out of nowhere Leader-of-a-Satanic-Sex-Cult, Murderous-Orangutan-That-Looks-Like-a-Burn-Victim-Gorilla, or Secret-Sex-Killer-That-Happens-to-Live-Next-Door varieties. It’s a well constructed mystery, tricky and unusual enough to avoid being too linear or predictable, but not totally bizarre or nonsensical like a French Sex Murders.

Fisty: Fotos works as a tidy little mystery–almost TOO tidy. Dun dun DUN! It does wrap up very quickly, but I found the plotholes pretty small. Nothing you could drive a truck through. The motive and method are pretty traditional for thrillers, hearkening back to some noir plotlines. There’s a definite Woolrichian feel to Ercoli’s work, perhaps more so in Death Walks at Midnight, but I wouldn’t say Fotos is very far from it–the dilemma of I Married a Dead Man’s finale and that of various short stories is very similar to Minou’s first problem with The Blackmailer. Minou, of course, is The Woman in Peril (Above Suspicion), and Dominique gets to play femme fatale, a role I’m sure she’d relish. It’s a fun connexion to ponder. Maybe another time, because we’ve got pills to pop and cocktails to swill.

Speaking of cocktails, these folks like to party! I think someone is drinking in virtually every scene. I’m particularly fond of the scene just following The Blackmailer’s initial appearance, where Minou goes to some seedy bar, quaffs two brandies, then hangs out with some blue-collar types, guzzling Carlsberg beer till Peter arrives. It’s so bizarre.

as long as we’re breathing, let’s have another drink

this will sober her right up

i like turtles

Bill: There is so much alcoholism in FPoaLAS! It starts with Minou saying she won’t drink, then drinking. Then she’s attacked and goes to the bar. Her husband takes her home where they drink. She goes dancing and everyone drinks. Later she meets with a friend and they drink and then look at porn. Every time any character meets up with another, including, at least once, the cops, they say, “Lets have a drink!” Bottles of booze are prominent in several scenes. At one point, Minou wakes up screaming, freaked out, makes Peter check around, and in the middle of the night, after just waking up, he says, “Well, since we’re up, we might as well have a drink,” and they start swilling booze. I picture them getting up to pee in the middle of the night and saying, “Well, since I’m on my feet, I might as well get plastered.” I think The Blackmailer is the only person that isn’t at least tipsy through the entire movie. Even the turtle seems a bit sluggish and unsteady at times.

Why on Earth should I love you less because of a sex fiend? Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion is essential for any fan of the genre, though it boasts little blood or sex. But Luciano Ercoli’s debut giallo is hardly lacking, as a strong cast, inimitable style, and all the bons mots (and eau de vie!) one could hope for, making for some highly diverting entertainment. Undoubtedly a giallo of the restrained variety, it is still strongly suggestive of the sexuality and cruelty that would later dominate the genre. Plus, a turtle. All in all, it’s a kitschy, kinky little thriller that understands a woman’s needs.