A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia (1970)

A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia (1970)‘Shooting pigeons helps free us from our subconscious feelings of aggression.’

A racing car driver cracks up during a practice lap, and barely escapes death in the flaming wreckage of her car. She takes up a surprise offer to stay with her ex-husband after recovery, only to find that the invitation came from his new wife. Not long after she arrives at their villa, the conversation turns to murder…

Intricate Giallo thriller from director Umberto Lenzi and star Carroll Baker, who had previously teamed up a year earlier for similar mysteries ‘Orgasmo’ (1969) and ‘So Sweet…So Perverse’ (1969), the first of which, like this film, also bore the alternate title of ‘Paranoia’. All three featured the shifting dynamics of a small cast of main characters and their murderous interplay with each other.

Helen is a lady in trouble. Badly in debt after her racing circuit smash-up, she receives a telegram apparently sent me her ex-husband. On impulse, she decides to accept his offer of a place to take a breather, only to find when she arrives that the invite came from his wife, Constance (Anna Proclemer). Ex-hubby Maurice (Jean Sorel) hasn’t changed in the years since his divorce from Baker and Proclemer is expecting him to start straying soon, realising that he only married her for her money.

A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia (1970)

‘You’re supposed to stab him in the back.’

Together, the two women hatch a plot to get rid of him for good, Proclemer buying Baker’s help with a hefty cheque. However, their principal motivation is that Sorel is like a drug to both of them, and it’s the only way they can kick the habit and move on with their lives. If this reason for murder does need a little work with the suspension of disbelief, then we have already had to accept Baker as a hot-shot racing car driver, so it’s not that hard.

The plan is to off Sorel with a spear gun on a yachting trip, but Baker freezes at the moment of crisis, having already tumbled into bed with him earlier. Proclemer tries to grab the weapon, the trio struggled, and Sorel stabs his wife to death. Moments later, they realise that the yacht of local judge and family friend, Albert (Luis Dávila) is heading their way, so they weigh down the body and fake an accident, pitching her overboard during a sudden sailing manoeuvre. Dávila is convinced, and the authorities can’t find the body, so everything looks like it’s working out fine. Then Sorel’s step-daughter, Susan (Marina Coffa) arrives unexpectedly from school, an and begins poking around, disbelieving their version of events from the first.

A Quiet Place To Kill/Paranoia (1970)

‘Is that drink for me or your new friend?’

This is a good, solid crime thriller and probably the best of the loose trio of films Baker and Lenzi made in quick succession that began with ‘Orgasmo’ (1969). Yes, there is a sense of familiarity, and Baker and Sorel are certainly not required to do anything very challenging or depart from their screen personas of the time. Baker being the usual on edge, self-medicating nervous wreck who loses her clothes from time to time, and Sorel the smarmy, handsome playboy with a nasty edge. It’s little more than a slight variation of the roles they played together for director Romolo Guerrieri in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968), and both had repeated in other projects afterwards. Still, they are convincing and ably supported by Proclemer and Coffa.

The film scores most heavily with the screenplay, which was credited to four writers: Marcello Coscia, Bruno Di Geronimo, Rafael Romero Marchent and Marie Claire Solleville. Perhaps the number of authors goes some way to explain the multiple twists and turns the story contains before the fadeout. There is uncertainty about where events are heading throughout, and Lenzi’s fast pace ensures that the drama remains interesting. Of course, if you take the time to think about the plot afterwards, it’s highly implausible, to say the least.

It was time for some more subtle product placement.

Lenzi was a journeyman of Italian cinema, following trends even more slavishly than most directors of his era. He began his career with historical dramas and swashbucklers in the late 1950s before graduating to Peplum when that became popular with pictures such as ‘Zorro contro Maciste’ (1963) and ‘Messalina vs the Son of Hercules/L’ultimo gladiatore (1964). The inevitable Eurospys followed, such as ‘SuperSeven Calling Cairo’ (1965) and ‘Last Man To Kill’ (1966). His excursion into the Giallo included a fourth film with Baker (‘Knife of Ice’ (1972)) and was preceded by Spaghetti Western ‘Pistol for a Hundred Coffins/Una pistola per cento bare’ (1968). By the mid-point in the decade, he was making the inevitable ‘Godfather’ knock-offs and, in the 1980s, he followed splatter king Lucio Fulci into zombie horror with ‘Nightmare City’ (1980). Perhaps he is best remembered though for delivering the controversial ‘Cannibal ferox’ (1982) which the poster art would later proclaim was ‘banned in 31 countries.’

An enjoyable thriller; nothing special, but the performances are good, and the plot should keep you engaged until the final twist.

The White Reindeer/Valkoinen peura (1952)

The White Reindeer (1952)‘Some graveyard soil…the balls of ten bull moose…’

A free-spirited young woman marries a reindeer herder in their small, Lapland village. Frustrated and lonely due to his long absences from home, she goes to the local wise man, hoping that he can concoct a love potion that will make her irresistible to all men. However, the ceremony also awakens her own supernatural powers…

Unique and striking horror fable from Finland that combines elements of shape-shifting, vampirism and witchcraft into a highly unusual brew. Shot on location in Lapland, it was the first Finnish film to be shown at the Cannes film festival, winning a Special Jury Prize and belatedly picked up a Golden Globe award in 1956 for Best Foreign Film.

Wilful young orphan Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen) marries reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) after a short courtship and settles down to married life in their remote Lapland village. Unfortunately, his work with the animals means long episodes of separation, and it’s pretty clear she’s not satisfied with him anyway, exchanging flirtatious glances with another man while he’s still at home. When he leaves on another expedition, she’s straight off to the local wise man Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), asking for a love potion that will attract other men like bees to a honey pot. Lehman is happy to oblige but, during the spell-casting, he realises that Kuosmanen is a witch herself.

The White Reindeer (1952)


Undaunted by this revelation, Kuosmanen sets out to follow the wise man’s instructions; which involves killing the first living thing that she meets on the way home. This turns out to be the white fawn that Nissilä gave her as a present when they were newlyweds. But, no matter, she takes it with her to the ‘stone god’, a pillar of black rock crowned with a reindeer’s skull and makes the sacrifice. The spell is successful, but it turns her into a supernatural creature. Seemingly unchanged, she returns to the village to resume her everyday life but now she can shape-shift at will into a white reindeer. The fabulous animal lures men from their campsites into the snowy wastes, where she changes form again, this time into a vampire to finish off her prey.

This is probably the only film based around the beliefs of the Sámi people, often referred to as Laplanders in the English-speaking world, although some find this term offensive. They live in the Northern regions of the Scandinavian countries and the Kola Penisula, which is a part of Russia. The film opens with a prologue; a young mother (played by Kuosmanen, again) being found in the snow with a young baby. One old belief is that a vampire is a soul that reincarnates in a newborn when the original body dies young or violently. Spiritual significance is also given to unusual land formations, known as sieidis, which are often used as places of sacrifice. This finds realisation in the film as the ‘stone god’ which is surrounded by antlers, sticking out of the snow like small, broken trees.

The White Reindeer (1952)

 

 

 

Director Blomberg and star Kuosmanen were married at the time and wrote the film together. Aarne Tarkas was initially slated to direct, but cinematographer Blomberg replaced him. Whatever the reason for that, it proved to be a wise decision. Blomberg was primarily a documentary filmmaker and his approach to the everyday scenes of life in the village ground the film’s more fantastical elements in concrete reality. It’s even possible that some shots were taken from his previous short ‘With The Reindeer’ (1947). His matter of fact approach also scores with the settings, allowing the camera to linger on long takes of the bleak, snowy wastes, beautiful yet barren, almost like timeless postcards from another world.

Much of the film is dialogue-free, and there was probably no facility to record synchronised sound in certain locations as some of the action is accompanied only by the haunting score of Einar Englund. Rather than be a drawback, however, this emphasises a dream-like quality, which sits in stark contrast to the more realistic scenes of village life. Blomberg also tips his hat to FW Murnau with a shot of Kuosmanen’s shadow moving across her cabin floor. Framed by window bars in the shape of a cross, it brings back memories of Max Schreck’s dark form ascending the stairs in the final scenes of ‘Nosferatu’ (1922).

The White Reindeer (1952)

 


The film does have a few flaws, though, some probably caused by practical difficulties. The most notable is that Kuosmanen’s reindeer lures her victims repeatedly to the same location. Also, some moments of action are delivered via a quick cut to their consequences, so we don’t see what happened, just the aftermath. Kuosmanen’s transformations to the reindeer are also rendered similarly, although the absence of SFX is probably a good thing. Blomberg’s film is going for the subtle, rather than the explicit. Run time is only 68 minutes, which makes for a refreshingly lean presentation but a little effort to create significant supporting characters would have been nice.

But the success of an enterprise like this falls mainly on the shoulders of the leading actor. After all, she is rarely off-screen. This is Pirita’s story, from first to last. Thankfully, Kuosmanen is terrific, delivering a powerhouse performance as she deteriorates from a joyful, exuberant woman into a haunted, almost fragile, wraith, but one still driven by her overwhelming physical appetites. The correlation of sex and vampirism is an old as Bram Stoker’s original novel, and it had lost none of its potency in the half-century in between, Kuosmanen expertly suggesting the frustrations and needs that drive her character and decision making.

A very unusual setting, combined with some stunning visuals and an excellent central performance make this one well worth seeking out.

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)‘How easily one is deceived by appearances.’

A handsome young man who runs a bridal fashion house is secretly a serial killer, targeting young girls about to be married. Each killing brings him closer to unlocking a hidden memory from his childhood past, but the forces of law and order are closing in…

Somewhat hard to classify Giallo drama from legendary horror maestro Mario Bava that came out hard on the heels of Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969) in the early months of 1970. Argento’s film redefined the Giallo and established many of the conventions followed by the sub-genre, and provoked the craze which saw dozens of such pictures produced in the first half of the next decade. Bava’s picture helped reinforce some of these specific elements.

Good looking young man about town John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth) has all the trappings of an ideal life. He’s head of a successful fashion business lives in a palatial house and drives an expensive car. However, behind the scenes, things are not so perfect. His marriage to the rich Mildred (Laura Betti) is in trouble, and she refuses to give him a divorce, reminding him that, although he may have inherited the fashion house from his mother, she’s the one paying all the bills. Being surrounded by beautiful models may provide plenty of opportunity for a bit of extra-curricular activity, but, instead, his taste runs to carving up prospective young brides with a cleaver. As he explains rather smugly in his voiceover, he’s completely mad.

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)


Unsurprisingly, he’s a person of interest to Inspector Russell (Jesús Puente), especially after one of his models, Alice Norton (Femi Benussi) goes missing. She’s ended up in his greenhouse incinerator after a quick spin with him around the dancefloor of his private backroom. This is populated by mannequins in bridal gowns, which we quickly learn is the trigger that provokes Forsyth’s homicidal rages. Each murder provokes more memories of an event from his past, an event that he is desperate to recall, believing that this knowledge will free him of his madness.

This is a rather unusual entry in the ranks of Giallo, with some commentators considering that its inclusion in the sub-genre isn’t a valid one. After all, the only mystery in the film concerns the killer’s motivation, not his identity, and the climactic revelations when Forsyth regains his memories are hardly a surprise to experienced viewers. However, the notion of repressed childhood trauma as motivation for a killer did become a Giallo staple. Argento’s movie had touched on the idea, as had the Frederick Brown novel that was its initial inspiration, but it was Bava’s film that brought it front and centre. Of course, roots of this idea go back even further, to film noir such as Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ (1945) and psychodramas like ‘The Spiral Staircase’ (1946).

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)


The oddest inclusion in the film is the element of the supernatural. Not surprisingly, nagging wife Betti ends up on the wrong end of Forsyth’s macabre hobby, but it’s not the last he sees of her. Instead, she pops up frequently, at first seen only by other people, then only visible to him. This was apparently an addition to the script made by Bava after close friend Betti expressed an interest in appearing in the picture. Yes, her ghostly presence can be interpreted as a sign of Forsyth’s unravelling psyche as he nears total recall, but it sits uneasily in the narrative, especially at first viewing. It helps that Betti is terrific, and her scenes with Forsyth are some of the best in the picture, but it still takes some getting used to.

As a Spanish-Italian co-production, for once Bava was persuaded to work outside his beloved homeland, and the primary location used for Forsyth’s home was a mansion once owned by General Franco. Of course, Bava took full advantage of these high-ceilinged, rich interiors, and displays his superb technique with camera movement and shot framing. Despite the affluence on prominent display, it’s an unsettling, haunted place filled with threatening shadows.

Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)


If it had taken Argento’s debut film to popularise the Giallo, it was Bava who had birthed it, with earlier films ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (1963) and ‘Blood and Black Lace’ (1964). The latter film was also set in a fashion house and, as perhaps as an in-joke, actor Luciano Pigazzi turns up for a brief appearance in this film, playing much the same role as he did in the earlier one. The selection of such a business also plays into the director’s undoubted obsession with the unreliability of appearances. Here, he’s ably assisted by Forsyth’s performance, flipping from handsome and bland in everyday life to manic and violent after the sun goes down. Apart from Betti, none of the rest of the cast gets much of a look-in, unfortunately. However, the scene where she is bleeding out on the stairs above the heads of the oblivious Puente and his sergeant is superbly played by all.

As per usual, it’s Bava’s startling technique that engages, whether it’s the startling transition from a murder to a seance or the misdirection of following the initial murder on a train to Forsyth playing with a model locomotive, it’s a constant delight. Better still, these flourishes are included not for the sake of mere cleverness, but, because they inform the story and its characters. Forsyth’s perfectly preserved childhood room where his movements throw a shadowplay of light and darkness across the faces of his old toys is a perfect metaphor for his character’s inability to move on from the hidden trauma rooted deep in his childhood. Similarly, the scene where he caresses the mannequins in their wedding clothes is more than enough to inform us that, despite his playboy appearance and seeming lifestyle, there’s probably more than a little lacking in his bedroom activities.
Hatchet For The Honeymoon/Il rosso segno della follia/Blood Brides (1970)

This was Forsyth’s final film in a short film career based almost entirely in Italian and Spanish productions, including the lead in ‘Fury in Marrakesh’ (1966). He also worked as a photo-journalist during this period and found later success as a composer and choreographer. Some of his photographic work has a permanent place in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Harvard Film Archives as well as several other prestigious institutions.

Leading lady Dagmar Lassander is given far too little do in the film, but went onto to lead Gialli such as ‘The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion/Le foto proibite di una signora per bene (1970), ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ (1971) and ‘Reflections in Black/Il vizio ha le calze nere’ (1975). She had leading roles in many pictures during the following decade, including comedies and crime thrillers, as well as somewhat notorious horror ‘Werewolf Woman’ (1976). Later work included featured supporting roles in Lucio Fulci’s controversial horrors ‘The House By The Cemetery’ (1981) and ‘The Black Cat’ (1981).

Not one of Bava’s best, but still an absorbing psychodrama, touched by his usual genius.

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)‘Has anyone dared feed your monster a little steel?’

While travelling home to Thebes, Hercules and his crew encounter a ship filled with pirates and put them to the sword. Their cargo of slaves are refugees from Troy, fleeing the city because every month a virgin must be sacrificed to a sea monster to appease the Gods…

At the end of the Italian muscleman cycle, director Albert Band decided to take the Hercules character onto the small screen with the assistance of producer Joseph E Levine, who had brought Steve Reeves to America with the original ‘Hercules’ (1957) and kicked off the whole craze in the first place. Together, they created this 50-minute pilot starring ex-Tarzan Gordon Scott in the title role. Unfortunately, the show didn’t sell, and the result went to cinema screens instead. Although that doesn’t sound promising, the film provides a surprisingly decent level of entertainment.

Sailing home to Thebes after various adventures, Scott and his companions encounter a pirate sharp, captained by Gordon Mitchell. A fairly well-choreographed fight scene follows, ending with Scott dumping Mitchell into a basket and flinging him overboard. Scott’s brothers In arms are led by ‘philosopher, scientist and sceptic Diogenes (Paul Stevens) and Ulysses, the son of the King of Thebes, played by Mart Hulswit. The easy banter between the three is one of the drama’s significant strengths and would have provided a solid base for a series if one had subsequently followed.

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)

‘Pah! Why does Scott get all the close-ups?’

When they take the refugees back home, the gang are disappointed to find their charges imprisoned when they reach the city. As King Petra (Steve Garrett) explains, they broke the law by leaving. Every month, the young maidens of Troy have to make themselves available for possible selection as monster fodder. Even Garrett’s niece, Diana (Diana Hyland) has to take part until she takes the throne in a couple of months. Of course, Scott vows to challenge the beast and end the curse, but intrigues at court threaten the attempt. The main problem is that Garrett is planning to hold onto the throne by ensuring Hyland is chosen at the next ceremony. Her lover, Leander (George Ardisson) is also jealous of the big man.

There’s enough plot here for a full-length feature and, at times, it does feel like this has been cut down from something much longer. This impression is heightened by actor Everett Sloane, who is fulfilling the role of VoiceOver Man here. This wouldn’t usually be a problem, but the device is overused, and his commentary is often unnecessary. Still, there is a fair quantity of well-mounted action, and it’s evident that Band had a decent budget at his disposal. The monster FX are variable; in the water, the creature looks pretty ragged, but it fares far better on land. It may not stir from the one spot on the beach, but it’s an impressive size and has a good range of body movement otherwise. Scott’s interactions with it make for a decent climax, although you can’t help wondering why everyone else just stands by and watches the fight, rather than give the big man a helping hand.

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)

‘Keep your tentacles to yourself.’

The performances also help proceedings significantly, with Scott making for a fine Hercules. Physically, he looks the part, and he has a charm and screen presence that elevates him above most of the actors who have taken on the role. Stevens is the brains of the heroic trio and delivers his lines with a dry, cynical humour that provides a nice contrast to the youthful enthusiasm of the good-natured Hulswit. We also get Roger Browne as heroic soldier, Ortag, who unsuccessfully takes on the monster at the start of the story, and later helps to rescue Scott from the bottom of a metal pit. Ardisson also displays a lively presence in his underdeveloped role, although he can’t compete with pirate captain Mitchell who only gets about a minute of screen time.

Scott had first made his mark through military service before pursuing various careers after his honourable discharge: cowboy, fireman and salesman. He was spotted by Hollywood talent scouts while working as a lifeguard, and producer Sol Lesser cast him in the title role of ‘Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle’ (1955). Five films in the series followed before he moved to Italy where he was cast in Peplum films, taking on the roles of many of its’ significant strongmen including Maciste, Samson and Goliath, as well as Hercules. But, by the mid-1960s, the popularity of such characters was being eclipsed at the box office by more modern adventures, typically featuring guns, girls and gadgets. Scott briefly made the switch to the spy game, but, after a couple of outings as a ‘Bond On A Budget’, he retired in 1967.

Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)

‘A little help, please…’

Ardisson and Browne shared a very similar initial career trajectory, both getting their starts in Peplum before transferring to the Eurospy arena. But, while Scott retired, both Ardisson and Browne went onto long careers throughout the 1970s and beyond. Ardisson is probably best remembered for his work with director Mario Bava, appearing as sidekick Theseus in ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961) and the title role of ‘Erik The Conqueror’ (1961). Browne took the lead in cult favourite ‘Argoman The Fantastic Superman/The Fantastic Argoman’ (1967) and toplined half a dozen Eurospy pictures, most of which were better examples of the type, such as ‘SuperSeven Calling Cairo’ (1965) and ‘Operation Poker’ (1965).

A surprisingly good little episode in the chronicles of its muscle-bound hero. A series never resulted, of course, and, although that’s not a tragedy, on this evidence, it certainly had the potential to be an entertaining show.

Espionage In Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)

Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)‘Every time I drink Martinis, I want to be a mermaid.’

An elderly scientist has developed an effective countermeasure to a new deadly weapon possessed by both the United States and Russia. He agrees to pass to his secret to the Americans, but an enemy agent has infiltrated their organisation, and he is assassinated. However, this is a blunder by the Russians as the formula is in code. When a top American agent arrives, the race is on to find the key to the cypher…

This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is clean-cut American Brett Halsey, making a beeline for the usual mid-1960s mash-up of girls, guns and a couple of low-budget gadgets. This Spanish-French and Italian co-production was directed by Federico Aicardi and Tulio Demichili, with the latter on script duties with five other writers, including infamous Eurotrash filmmaker Jess Franco.

Isn’t it always the way? Secret agent 077 George Farrell (Halsey) is just about to grapple with latest flame Irán Eory when the powers that be call on the telephone, asking him to save the world. Again. He puts the meet off until the next day, but his masters know him only too well; almost immediately there’s a knock on the door and, just an hour or so later, he’s on his way to Lisbon. His mission is to contact renegade scientist, Professor Von Kelster (Rafael Bardem), but the old boy is hiding out at a top-secret location (his estranged wife’s art studio!)

And no wonder the boffin is worried. He possesses the only means to nullify this unnamed secret weapon which transmits ‘electronic waves at a velocity more than the speed of light.’ The vibrations it creates can blind people too! Sounds nasty. Oh, and don’t worry, about how the Professor calculated his formula or how he found out about the weapon in the first place or anything else really, because the movie never bothers us with such irrelevant information.

Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)

‘I’m sorry, ladies, but my dance card is already full.’

So Bardem has hidden his formula within the musical notations in two books with a 4-letter cypher key needed to decode them. It’s a wise move because the Ruskies have already infiltrated the US spy network, thanks to double-agent Robert Scott (Daniel Ceccaldi). Bardem’s contact has been killed and replaced by beautiful assassin, Olga (Jeanne Valérie). She finishes off the boffin with her purse gun when he realises that she’s an imposter because she can’t read music. Halsey arrives on the scene after the fact but picks up the cypher key, thanks to some invisible writing on a mirror.

A replacement for the American side arrives in the shape of dark beauty Marilù Tolo, but rather than reveal they are colleagues, Halsey proceeds to flirt with her in that charming 1960s way that borders on sexual harassment. She’s a rookie, chosen for this vital assignment because she can read music and go undercover as a singer in a local club. Didn’t the entire US spy network have someone with more experience who could read music as well? Given that the Russians had to use Valérie whose lack of ability in this area blew her cover and, ultimately, costs them the mission, it would seem that this skill is a rare commodity in the world of espionage. Perhaps most spies are just tone-deaf.

Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)

‘Have you got the latest Van der Graaf Generator LP recording?’

Of course, it’s up to Halsey to obtain the secret with Tolo’s assistance. They bond after disposing of the body of a dead foreign agent from her hotel room, and he does eventually reveal they are working together. I’m not sure when exactly, and why he didn’t tell her in the first place, but I guess those revelations may have been cut from the print that I viewed, which does seem to have lost approximately seven minutes from its original running time at some point over the years since. Even so, the first significant action arrives just over an hour into the film. That’s way too late for an audience to wait in an enterprise such as this. Although for cult movies fans, there’s always the early glimpse of Erika Blanc, appearing here as ‘Girl in Bikini’ under her initial screen name of Erica Bianchi.

In terms of gadgets, we are restricted to some non-standard surveillance equipment. Halsey has an electronic bug hidden in a remote-controlled bluebottle (geddit?), but it’s deployed only briefly. It may have been intended to use it far more, but it’s so poorly realised that probably the filmmakers didn’t care to linger on such a shoddy example of the FX technician’s art. Elsewhere, there’s a mysterious man in a suit, who identifies only as ‘Skylark’, who watches proceedings via a TV in a suitcase while sitting in hotel lobbies and cafés. It’s one of those magic ‘see all’ movie TVs that doesn’t need a camera at the other end to transmit pictures, although he spends just as much time perving on scantily-dressed women in their hotel rooms as he does following the main action. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the climactic gun battle in a deserted monastery. It’s an excellent location and the drama is well-staged, but it’s taken a very long time to get to that point, and a good percentage of the audience may not have stayed the course.

Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisbo (1965)

‘Are you looking at me, Daddio?’

Halsey had begun his screen career in small roles, sometimes uncredited, which included an appearance in Gill-Man sequel ‘Revenge of the Creature’ (1955). By the end of the decade, he’d worked his way up to be a featured supporting player in low-budget movies such as ‘The Cry-Baby Killer’ (1958) which marked the debut of a certain Jack Nicholson. Just a year later, the busy young actor took the lead in teen-drama ‘Speed Crazy’ (1959) and appeared with Vincent Price in the title role of ‘The Return of the Fly’ (1959). Bigger budgets meant smaller parts, so he turned his gaze to Europe and the lead in Italian-French swashbuckler ‘The Seventh Sword/Le sette spade del vendicator’ (1962). Many leading European roles followed, including appearing twice for horror maestro Mario Bava in two of the director’s lighter, more mainstream efforts: ‘Roy Colt and Winchester Jack’ (1970) and ‘Four Times That Night’ (1971). After that, he moved back to the United States where he became a regular face on network television right up to the mid-1990s, appearing on ‘The Bionic Woman’, ‘The Love Boat’, ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’, ‘Charlie’s Angels’, ‘Knight Rider’, and several times on ‘Fantasy Island’ among many others.

A rather slow-moving Eurospy without the dynamism or outlandish flourishes that mark out the best of the genre.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)‘With this suit, I could swim through the centre of the sun.’

A notorious criminal mastermind steals 10 million dollars from under the noses of the police. The authorities escalate their campaign to apprehend him, forcing an underworld kingpin and his mob into taking action against the thief. Can the villain stay one step ahead of both the combined might of the forces of law and order and the criminal underworld?

Stylish and extravagant big-screen adaptation of the popular Italian comic book series from director Mario Bava. Unlike the maestro’s previous offerings, this was a big studio production with backing from well-known producer Dino De Laurentiis, big-name stars and shot on various locations, but mostly at his studio in Rome.

The film opens with the latest diversionary tactic employed by Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) to snare super heist merchant, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his lover and partner in crime Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). Instead of ten million dollars in banknotes, the cargo protected by a convey of motorcycle policemen is just blank paper. The real deal is going with him in an unmarked car with a much smaller escort. Law isn’t fooled, of course, and uses a smoke machine on a road bridge and a dockside crane to grab the swag. Piccoli is called in to face Minister of Finance Terry-Thomas but, after a humiliating press conference which Law and Mell disrupt with laughing gas, Piccoli gets special powers to end the Diabolik menace.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


Squeezing local mobster, Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) by raiding on his clubs and businesses, the detective strikes a deal with the crimelord: hand over Diabolik and the pressure will be off. Meanwhile, Law pulls off another daring heist; snatching an emerald necklace and escaping via a rise with a catapult. But Celi kidnaps Mell and offers Law an ultimatum: the ten million dollars and the emerald necklace in exchange for her safe return. Law accepts the deal, but still has a few tricks up his sleeve when they meet for a showdown.

Diabolik was a character created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani whose instant popularity created a whole new sub-genre of Italian comics known as the ‘Fumetti neri’ (‘black comics’). In his original incarnation, Diabolik was a ruthless criminal genius, who let nothing stand in his way but, over time, and after legal actions by an outraged ‘moral majority’, the character softened into more of a hi-tech ‘Robin Hood’. Fumetti neri in general split into two distinct camps, those targeted more at a juvenile audience and those ‘prohibited to minors’ which emphasised more adult themes, including far higher levels of sex and violence.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


A project to adapt the character to film had begun several years earlier with Jean Sorel in the title role and Elsa Martinelli and his lover and partner in crime, Eva Kant. However, the project collapsed quickly, and it’s unclear if anything more was shot than publicity stills. De Laurentiis acquired the rights and brought Bava on board, intending the film would accompany his production of Roger Vadim’ ‘Barbarella’ (1968) into theatres. Law was under contract to appear in that film, but delays caused by working with the SFX allowed him to take on the role of Diabolik first.

Bava was happy with his casting but less so with Catherine Deneuve who De Laurentiis selected for the role of Eva. As it was, she only lasted a week into filming before Austrian actress Marisa Mell replaced her. By all accounts, this was because Deneuve refused to disrobe for the film’s most iconic scene, where Diabolik and Eva make love naked on a revolving bed covered in money. However, given her subsequent filmography and the fact that the final scene is not explicit, it may be that Bava was able to use the situation as a way to get her released.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 


The finished film is a kaleidoscope of 1960s pop culture, with bright, eye-popping colours and a wonderful mixture of striking production design and Bava’s genius for optical effects. Rather than presenting the action in a static way to reflect its comic strip origins, Bava keeps his camera moving, deliver a fast-paced narrative decorated with stylistic flourishes which give the film a feel of hyper-reality. Bava achieved the apparent scale and complexity of Diabolik’s underground headquarters by combining the actors with Bava’s matte paintings. Other visuals were created by cutting pictures of buildings, aircraft and other items from magazines, posting them on to a sheet of strategically placed glass and then shooting the action through it. Although it sounds like a terrible idea, Bava makes it work.

There are some other noteworthy touches too. Bava uses animation to draw lines on a map, and for a photo-fit device used by the police to try and identify Eva. He also employs his usual trick of foregrounding objects to give depth to scenes, sometimes shooting through some that break the image into squares approximating the comic book panels, such as empty bookshelves and a bedstead.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


There’s a flamboyance and a real sense of freedom to the picture, fueled by a playful, liberated sexuality, displayed not by promiscuity, but the unfettered passion between Diabolik and Eva. It helps that Law and Mell have such sizzling chemistry and give note-perfect performances, sensibly resisting the temptation to play to the gallery. Celi is his usual, reliable self as boss of the criminal underworld and Piccoli underplays beautifully as our larcenous duo’s official nemesis. Thomas also provides a beautiful cameo as the government minister, begging the populace to pay their taxes voluntarily after Law and Mell blow up the tax office and destroy all the official records!

The cool 1960s vibe also gets a major assist from composer Ennio Morricone, who delivers a jazzy, uptempo score that’s an integral part of the film’s ambience. Sadly, the original tapes are no longer available, having been destroyed in a fire, and the only way to enjoy his work is to watch the film, although a re-recording from 2014 is available. Also on hand to deliver his expertise is artist Carlo Rambaldi who designed Diabolik’s iconic mask before going on to significant work in Hollywood, rewarded eventually with 3 Oscars, including one for ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982).

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

The character of Diabolik has his roots in older fictional masterminds, such as Germany’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ and the French ‘Fantomas’. Like those characters, in the source material, he plays with notions of identity, using lifelike masks to take on the appearance of anyone he chooses. This idea was dropped from the film, leaving him more in common with later villains such as ‘Kriminal’. He was developed as a direct rival to Diabolik but arrived on the big screen first in the form of Glenn Saxson. In a sly tip of the hat, the bank manager who hands the ten million dollars over to Piccioli at the start of this film is played by Andrea Bosic, who served as Saxson’s official opponent in those earlier ‘Kriminal’ pictures.

There are some flaws in Bava’s film, though. The process shots and rear-projection are so hideous and poorly done that it’s tempting to believe that it was a deliberate choice, made by the director to contribute to the comic-book aesthetic. If so, then it’s one of the few visual missteps in his career. The script, credited to several writers, including Bava, is a little scrambled and untidy, but that may have been intentional too, as it does lift some sequences directly from the source material and contributes to the freewheeling atmosphere.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

 

Diabolik’s return to the big screen any time soon seems an unlikely proposition, even though the global audience today shares some of the feelings of the public who first elevated the character to its iconic status in Italy after the Second World War. Specifically, a distrust of authority figures who increasingly excuse graft and political corruption by using the loopholes in a legal system designed solely for their benefit. This growing cynicism would embrace a subversive character such as this, but any new iteration would need to walk a very fine line. After all, a lot of his actions would be interpreted by most as aspects of domestic terrorism, even though he has no political agenda or desire to enforce change on the system.

Bava’s cut-price optical effects helped bring the film in for a cost of approximately $400,000 when it had originally been allocated a budget of $3 million. De Laurentiis offered him the chance to direct a sequel with the unused money, but Bava turned it down, unhappy with what he felt was interference from the studio during the filmmaking process. Perhaps the money would have been better used smoothing off some of the rougher edges of this film anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable Sixties romp, tinged with psychedelia and filtered through the genius of Mario Bava.

Evil Spawn (1987)

Evil Spawn (1987)‘Remember that scientist who went crazy a few days ago and then was crushed by a jeep?’

A fading Hollywood star finds leading roles harder to come by, and, in her desperation, resorts to an experimental anti-ageing treatment. Unfortunately, this has been derived from Venusian spores, and she transforms into an alien creature with a lust to kill…

Welcome to the world of Grade-Z movie mogul Fred Olen Ray. This micro-budgeted, uncredited remake of Roger Corman’s ‘The Wasp Woman’ (1959) may be credited to writer-director Kenneth J Hall, but it’s Ray who seems to have been the moving force behind the production. His name might not appear on the screen, but he produced the film and even directed a little of the finished product.

The film opens with a caption informing the audience that a probe has returned from Venus bringing alien spores and that the following story we’re about to see involves the misuse of these extra-terrestrial germs. We’re even shown a less than wonderful spacecraft model approaching Earth (probably sourced from one of Ray’s other productions). After the drawn-out opening credits that follow (never a good sign), a bearded man in a laboratory (Gary J Levinson) is attacked by a nasty orange glove puppet. He gets sick and lurches out to an alleyway where he interrupts a couple of bickering lovers and ends up caught between a jeep and a hard place.

Evil Spawn (1987)

‘I’m not sure this mud pack is working…’

This incident’s been arranged by Evelyn Avery (Dawn Wildsmith, billed here as Donna Shock), who works as the assistant to mad skin specialist Dr Zeitman (John Carradine). He’s too busy dying to know what she’s up to and hands over his great work to her before he finally expires. Wildsmith, who seems to have the same hairdresser as Elsa Lanchester’s ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, then takes the serum from Carradine’s research and offers it to over-the-hill film star, Lynne Roman (Bobby Bresee). She’s desperate to regain her youth so she can be cast in the prestigious lead of a new production by director Mark Randall (Mark Anthony). Bresee takes the injections, of course, and the inevitable transformations follow.

If the finished film has more than a touch of the ‘home movie’ vibe around it, then that’s for a good reason. Most of it was shot in Bresee’s real-life Beverley Hills house. Her character only leaves it twice; to go to a party with Anthony and to visit the office of her slimy agent Harry (Fox Harris). Of course, we don’t see her and Anthony at the party, or her travelling to the agent’s office (basically a desk he sits behind with a few posters on the wall from other Ray productions, including ‘The Tomb’ (1986) also with Carradine). At least Bresee didn’t have far to go after filming finished every night.

‘Damn, these aren’t my reading glasses!’

Carradine’s one scene in the picture was his conversation with Wildsmith (Mrs Fred Olen Ray, at the time). Ray directed it and made the dialogue as non-specific as possible so that he could insert the footage into subsequent movies, as and when required. He also supervised a different version of this film, hiring director Ted Newsom to add extra footage with actor Richard Harrison so that he could reissue it as ‘The Alien Within.’ Sadly, it doesn’t look as if Carradine had to do much research to get into character as the dying scientist. He seems to be having difficulty breathing and delivering his dialogue. This could have been great acting, of course, but, if so, it’s remarkably convincing.

If this all sounds like it makes for a terrible movie, then, yes, the film isn’t very good. However, surprisingly, there are a few compensations. To begin with, Bresee is quite good as the fading actress. Perhaps too good, if the intention was to present this as a comedy, which is possible given some of the corny dialogue and Wildsmith’s campy performance. The commentary on the problems of an actress ageing in Tinseltown is not exactly subtle, but it’s still valid. Bresee is betrayed by her agent, gets the brush off from director Anthony and finds that boyfriend, Brent (John Terrence) has traded her in for younger model, Tracy (Leslie Eve). Her only real friends are biographer, Ross (Drew Godderis) who can’t help with her career, and secretary Elaine (Pamela Gilbert), who is far too young and beautiful to be allowed to live!

Evil Spawn (1987)

‘If I write myself a few more lines, no-one will notice.’

Another plus is the full-sized creature FX designed by Ralph Miller III and executed by Hal Miles, Michael Deak and their crew. The monster doesn’t look great, and we never see the suit in motion, but, given the minimal resources that were probably available, it’s actually pretty good. Also, some of the gore FX, such as an arm being torn off, are even better. They look like they belong in a production of a far higher quality. There just isn’t enough of them. This becomes less of a surprise when we look at Miles and Deak’s subsequent credits.

Deak worked on entries in both the ‘Halloween’ series and the ‘Friday the 13th’ franchise and many productions of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. He eventually graduated to the SFX crews of major studio tentpoles such as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003) and ‘Hulk’ (2003) before supervising the FX on Michael Bay’s ‘The Island’ (2005). He also worked on the ‘Tranformers’ series and ‘TRON: Legacy’ (2010) before taking a decade-long break to return for ‘Bill & Ted: Face The Music’ (2020). Miles specialised in animatronics, and his later credits include James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss’ (1989), ‘Gremlins 2: The New Batch’ (1990), ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’ (1991), ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie’ (1995), among many others.

‘This sounds like something out of a bad science-fiction film,’ Bresee mutters at one point. Quite.

She (1911)

She (1911)‘She-who-must-be-obeyed, by her mystic powers, knows of their approach, and summons them.’

After wandering for years, two lovers reach the kingdom of a deathless Queen, who offers the promise of Eternal Life. But the gift is only offered to the man…

This 25-minute film may not have been the first screen version of the famous H Rider Haggard novel about the immortal Queen Ayesha, but it is the first attempt at a full adaptation that has survived. French movie magician George Melles juggled with the concept of ‘an eternal flame’ in ‘La Colonne de feu/The Pillar of Fire’ (1899) and ‘The Mystical Flame’ (1903). However, these were ‘trick films’ showcasing his fantastic facility with production design and early SFX and contained nothing else from the original story. Sadly, Edwin S Porter’s 1908 version, which likely did, is lost to time.

The time: 350 BC, the place: Egypt. Kallikrates (James Cruze) and Amenartes (Viola Alberti) are in love, but the prospects of a long-term relationship aren’t good. She is the Pharoah’s daughter, after all, and he is just a priest of Isis. They flee together; him on a camel, her jogging to keep up! Twice twelve moons later, with a baby in tow, they reach the coast of Africa and the kingdom of She-who-must-be-obeyed (Marguerite Snow). Unfortunately, Snow takes a shine to Cruze and offers him the chance to bath in the flame of eternal life with her. He prefers to stay with his family, though, and the next thing we see is Alberti running back to their camp, grabbing the baby and getting the hell out of there. A helpful caption tells us that she knows ‘her son or his descendants shall return to avenge her husband’s death.’

She (1911)

The mobile phone bill was never welcome.

Fast forward to the second half of the film and 1885 in Cambridge, England. Academic Horace Holly (William C Cooper) takes charge of a pre-pubescent Leo Vincey (actually played by a girl, Marie Eline), the son of a close friend now deceased. Eline grows up into James Cruze, of course (neat trick, that!) and on his 25th birthday, he and Cooper open the old box that forms his inheritance. A letter from his offscreen dad informs him that he is descended from Kallikrates and that the old man’s murderer is most likely still alive 2000 years later and living in a lost city in Africa. So, nothing unexpected there, then. The papers also charge him to avenge his ancestor’s death because a couple of millennia is never too long to hold a grudge!

It probably seems ambitious to attempt to cover the events of an entire novel in just 25 minutes. However, the enterprise may not seem too foolhardy to those familiar with the source material. Haggard’s original is slow, more than a little stodgy, and not exactly packed with incident. Of course, some things have to be discarded; our heroes time with the rock people, the character of Ustane and the guided tours of Kôr, but the main events remain. Director George Nichols even gives us the original Egyptian scenes, which are only told in flashback in the novel. There is also an attempt to show the journey to the Hall of the Eternal Flame, which is one of the book’s best sequences, rather than the chamber being close at hand (in the 1965 Hammer version, it seems to be in Ursula Andress’ basement). It’s also good to see the People of the Rocks armed with what appear to Roman spears and shields.

She (1911)

‘…and the Extra Point is good!’

The Thanhouser Film Corporation who were behind this production tackled ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) next and brought several of these performers back for that venture, including Cruze in the title role. However, it’s best remembered now as the film where Jekyll and Hyde were played by different actors, Henry Benham donning the fright wig and fangs for at least some of Hyde’s scenes. Cruze and Snow were married in real life, but Cruze was physically abusive, sometimes in public, and she divorced him in 1923. Gifting some valuable real estate to their daughter Julie in 1933 to avoid giving up to creditors, he began legal action in an attempt to get it back from her five years later. He was unsuccessful.

Rider Haggard’s novel was vastly influential in the fantasy genre, both literary and cinematic. This filmed version is, of course, rather primitive when viewed today. Leaps in technique, performance, staging and SFX were occurring at an accelerated pace in the early days of the medium, and this effort probably looked hopelessly dated within a decade or so. However, you can’t fault the filmmakers’ ambition taking on such a project and, bearing in mind it’s vintage, it delivers the goods on its, admittedly limited, level.

Certainly of historical interest.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)‘You will be devoured last after I have eaten up all of your fellows.’

At the end of the Trojan War, the warrior Odysseus sets out on the journey back home to Ithaca. But he was angered certain of the Gods and the path is beset with mythological beasts, traps and sorceries. During the ten years that pass, his wife Penelope remains faithful, but she is surrounded by young princes who demand that she take one of them as her husband and new King…

Epic, almost seven-hour adaptation of Homer’s famous poem, made for Italian television by producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Franco Rossi. De Laurentiis had also been responsible for the feature version ‘Ulysses’ (1954) with Kirk Douglas but had always been unhappy with the compromises necessary to bring the story down to feature-length. This Italian-French-German co-production, however, delivers almost the entire tale intact.

It’s been a hard 20 years for Queen Penelope of Ithaca (Irene Papas). Not only did husband Odysseus (Bekim Fehmiu) fight in the decade-long siege of Troy, it’s now ten years later, and he still hasn’t returned. The royal court is filled with young nobles who are eating her out of house and home and demanding that she takes one of them to fill the vacant throne. Her son Telemachus (the excellent Renaud Verley) can do nothing but suffer the insults heaped on him by the prospective grooms, led by the insufferably arrogant Antinous (Constantin Nepo, aka Constantin Andrieu).

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Your dinner is in the bin.’

The frustrated Verley is persuaded by the goddess Athena to look for his father. So he hits the road to visit Troy veterans Nestor (Jaspar von Oertzen) and Menalus (Fausto Tozzi). Neither can give him any information, but Tozzi’s wife Helen (Scilla Gabel) tells of how Fehmiu scaled the walls of Troy alone to find her. Meanwhile, the man in question has washed up on the coast of Phaeacia. Thanks to the help of the young Princess Nausicaa (Barbara Gregorini) he’s been received at court by King Alcinioo (Roy Purcell) and Queen Arete (Marina Berti). After initially keeping his identity a secret, he reveals himself and begins relating the stories of his adventures.

It’s here that the most famous part of the poem begins, of course. Fehmiu has already told the smitten Gregorini about his seven years spent in the arms of goddess Calypso (Kyra Bester), so he begins with his crew’s temptation by the Lotus Eaters and goes on to their encounter with the Cyclops, Polyphemus (Samson Burke). This sequence was directed by horror maestro Mario Bava, and some sources claim that Bava also worked on the same scenes in ‘Ulysses’ (1954). However, others suggest there is no evidence for this assertion. Either way, it makes perfect sense for De Laurentiis to bring Bava on board, though, given his legendary ability with optical trickery and practical SFX.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

🎵So let them say your hair’s too long… 🎶

And Bava does not disappoint, delivering a substantial sequence that proves to be the highlight of the series. The scale of the giant’s cave is achieved with a combination of matte paintings and perfect camera positioning, aided by appropriately oversized props. Forced perspective and high angles emphasise the creature’s size and some quick cuts with a giant hand (very reminiscent of a couple of the same moments in ‘Ulysses’ (1954)) only serve to further the illusion, rather than dispel it. It’s a technical tour de force, assisted by the excellent performances of the cast and Carlo Rambaldi’s work on the monster’s face, although the latter has dated a little.

The rest of Fehmiu’s tale is more of a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality. The only major misstep is his visit to ‘keeper of the winds’ Aeolus (Vladimir Leib). Up until this point, the costume department has delivered flawless work, but here something went badly wrong. Leib and his entourage are saddled with silver Afro fright wigs and matching clothing. They look more like refugees from an Italian science-fiction picture of the period. It’s also worth noting that the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis are omitted entirely; probably due to the technical difficulties of bringing them to the screen in a convincing way. However, on the bright side, we get a very memorable Circe, courtesy of the strikingly beautiful Juliette Mayniel.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘But you know I’ve always looked up to you…’

What holds the project together though, is some fine performances from the leading players. Fehmiu is excellent as Odysseus; brash and arrogant in the flashbacks to the start of his journey, but older and wiser in the telling of it. He even has doubts during his revenge on his wife’s suitors in the final act, something that his younger self would not have entertained. The actor is also plainly doing most of the sword combat himself. It’s not spectacular work, but it does avoid the over-choreographed unreality of more modern films, genuinely seeming more authentic to the period. And authenticity is a touchstone throughout the production, Fehmiu eating a meal with his fingers at the Phaeacians’ court (no cutlery in Ancient Greece, folks, not even knives!)

Dark-eyed Papas also makes the best of her role as the archetypal ‘woman who waits’ bringing a much-needed emotional edge to proceedings without overplaying her hand. It’s interesting to speculate why Silvana Mangano didn’t get that part instead. After all, she’d played the same role in ‘Ulysses’ (1954) opposite Kirk Douglas, and she was married to producer De Laurentiis at the time! It’s also curious that only Gabel’s beautiful Helen has her face whitened with makeup, because this was the standard practice for all noblewomen in Ancient Greece where the suntan was not socially acceptable.

Odissea/L’Odissea/The Odyssey (1968)

‘Not so fast, Mr Odysseus.,.’

Conversations between the Gods are kept to a minimum and rendered by offscreen voiceover accompanied by shots of statues. It’s not particularly satisfying, but it’s preferable to well-known actors making cameos on smoke-filled sets dressed in togas. Peter Hinwood apparently played Hermes, a half-decade before he found everlasting cult fame in the title role of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975). You’ll also recognise the young Gregorini in her debut role. A swift name change later and she was ‘Bond Girl’ Anya Amasova opposite Roger Moore in ‘Ths Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) and another made her Mrs Ringo Starr. One of Gabel’s first screen credits was as Sophia Loren’s ‘swimming double’ in ‘Boy On A Dolphin’ (1957). Despite his memorable performance here, Nepo’s screen career was a short one. In real life, he was a celebrated Russian surrealistic artist whose best-known work is the wonderful painting ‘La Nuit de Walpurgis’. 

Other technical merits boost the production, including an elegant score by composer Bruno Nicolai and excellent location work. The exteriors were entirely filmed in the former Yugoslavia, and its empty, sun-baked coasts are the perfect setting for this sweeping tale of men and mythology. As well as its television broadcast, the series was condensed into a 105-minute feature called ‘The Adventures of Ulysses’, This went to theatres over the next couple of years and apparently contained nearly all of Bava’s contribution.

Minor quibbles aside, this is an impressively faithful attempt to recreate Homer’s original poem on the screen. Filmmaking is rarely this ambitious or so well accomplished.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)‘How many times do I have to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts?’

A struggling writer is about to leave Rome and fly back to the United States. On the way back to his apartment one night, he witnesses a woman being stabbed in an art gallery. She survives the ordeal, but the police inspector assigned to the case is convinced that it’s connected to the murders of three young women in the city over the past few weeks… 

Writer-director Dario Argento’s debut film redefined the Giallo picture and turned into a marketable international commodity, provoking a avalanche of similar Italian pictures over the next five years. These edgy, stylish and violent horror thrillers are considered the precursor to the American slasher craze, which began with John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978) and is still producing new movies almost half a century later.

Author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a cynical, defeated man. His sojourn in Italy has produced only a factual book about rare birds, rather than the Great American Novel that he had intended to write. Tickets are already booked for a flight home with girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) when he goes to pick up his final paycheck with friend, Carlo (Renato Romano). On his way home alone, he passes by an art gallery and witnesses two figures in the mezzanine of an art gallery struggling with a knife. The woman is stabbed, and her assailant escapes with Musante trapped between the automatic glass doors that open onto the street.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) survives the attack, to the relief of worried husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) who owns the gallery. Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) believes the violent assault is linked to the recent murders of three young women in the city. The victims were not connected, and Salerno is keen to keep eyewitness Musante close at hand, especially as the writer is convinced there was something odd about what he saw, although he can’t quite put it into words. Salerno encourages Musante to investigate the case himself, and the American needs little encouragement.

Groundbreaking films can be difficult to assess once a great deal of time has passed. Whatever innovations they brought to the table will often have become familiar with their use by other filmmakers in subsequent years, sometimes almost to the point of cliché. It’s refreshing, then, that the dynamic cutting, pace and abundance of exciting technique ensure that Argento’s film still holds up remarkably well today, even though its impact has inevitably lessened a little with the years. Rewatching does expose some weaknesses in the narrative and story structure, but these are not major enough to compromise the suspension of disbelief or affect the entertainment value.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Argento got the inspiration for his story from Frederic Brown’s noir novel ‘Screaming Mimi’. It had already been filmed by director Gerd Oswald under that title in 1958 but, despite being mostly faithful to the decent source material, the results were a disappointment. Argento elected to use the book only as a jumping-off point; specifically the notion of a psychotic triggered by an object of art. Like the novel, the film does open with an assault visible from the street through glass, but Brown’s original has it in a hotel lobby, and his protagonist only witnesses the aftermath. The only other similarity is a passing reference to Musante’s character having a drinking issue, the reporter in Brown’s story being a (barely) functioning alcoholic. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Argento chose not to credit Brown’s novel.

One of the film’s great virtues is its pacing. The script sets up Musante’s character very quickly. The quick, potted history of his unproductive time in Rome is covered in casual conversation with friend Romano, and he’s across the street from the art gallery less than five minutes into the movie. This scene is rightly celebrated as a masterful example of concept, production design, editing and execution. Musante getting trapped between the two sliding glass doors may be a somewhat unlikely development, but it’s an important touchstone for his character that helps to inform his later actions. All he can do is watch Renzi bleeding out on the carpet, reflecting his own artistic impotence and failure.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

These circumstances help explain why Musante stays to investigate the killings, rather than getting out of Rome on the first plane after Salerno returns his passport. Similarly, the script may give the talented Kendall little to do, but her presence is essential in how it softens Musante’s character. Without her, the writer would come across as almost entirely self-absorbed and more than a little arrogant. It helps enormously with audience investment and sympathy that the two actors have good chemistry together and present a convincing romantic couple. 

But what takes the picture to the next level are Argento’s attempts to do something interesting with every scene, either visually or by use of Ennio Morricone’s masterful score. The music is particularly effective in elevating potentially generic scenes such as the one where Musante questions antique dealer (Werner Peters); the wordless chorus of female singers performing almost in a half-whisper providing a unique ambience. Just as importantly, the young director never allows technique to overshadow the drama, avoiding the self-conscious showboating that many directors of the period favoured.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

There’s also outstanding use of locations. Instead of the Eternal City as seen through a tourist’s eyes, this is a Rome of crumbling plasterwork, broken light bulbs and run down, abandoned buildings. Again, it’s not overplayed, it just serves to give each scene a visual identity, and ground the more stylised aspects in a solid, tactile reality. This attention to detail is ever-present on many levels; for example, there’s an almost playful scene where Musante and Kendall discuss the previous murders. She is almost laughing as she reads out the details from newspaper clippings. Argento intercuts this banter with black and white photographs of the murdered victims at the crime scenes, a device which would raise few eyebrows now, but wasn’t something you expect to see in a film of this vintage.

Similar care is taken with most of the supporting characters, with some sly comedy courtesy of stuttering pimp Garrulo (Gildo Di Marco), the contradictory patter of snitch Faiena (Pino Patti) and the dietary habits of artists Consalvi (Mario Adorf). Again, these could have been very generic roles in very generic scenes, but they are made memorable, thanks to the quirky traits Argento bestows on these minor characters. There also an effort to show the police at work, both with new forensic methods (very dated now, of course) and with standard, routine procedure. Nothing unusual when viewed today, of course, but not a common aspect of the films of the time.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Those watching the film for the first time today, expecting buckets of gore are likely to be disappointed. Proceedings aren’t entirely bloodless, but the kills are not very explicit although Argento’s camera does linger and emphasise some of the more lurid aspects. We see the killer’s hands (Argento’s own) in black leather gloves, fondling the tools of their deadly trade. It’s almost fetishistic. The director breaks up the rhythm of the violence too, with the razor attack in the elevator swiftly delivered with multiple slashes of the weapon straight into camera. Familiar now, of course, but not the done thing at the time.

The film isn’t without some flaws, however, and these lie in the story development. For a start, we’re supposed to buy into the notion that seasoned copper Salerno not only grants Musante an inside view of the police investigation, he also encourages his only eyewitness to dig into the case himself. This is especially hard to swallow when the killer has already targeted Musante. Later on, an unknown assassin (US actor Reggie Nalder) is hired to deal with Musante and, although this leads to an excellent action scene and a fine gag, it doesn’t ring true in terms of the plot. This is explained when you learn that Argento ran into the holidaying Nalder on the street one day and wrote him a part in the film at the last minute.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Also, it’s more than a little puzzling why the killer intends to rub out Musante in the first place. Why is he a threat exactly? His investigation hardly seems to be getting closer to the truth (despite what he says!), and the fact that the author is still struggling to recall something that he witnessed at the gallery isn’t news that’s likely to have escaped police headquarters. Sure, he’s been going around asking a lot of questions, but if that’s a valid criterion for being on our murderer’s hit list then why isn’t he after the entire police investigative team as well?

But the main issue is that no-one thinks to check out the origin of the painting. After all, it was sold by the first victim to a mysterious customer on the night she was killed. Musante stares at it off and on for most of the movie (he has a copy of it on their apartment wall!), and it’s only on the same day that he and Kendall are finally due to fly back to the States that he thinks it might be a good idea to look up the artist! In Brown’s original novel, the reporter is always aware of the importance of the little black statuette in the case (the ‘Screaming Mimi’ of the title) but keeps his knowledge from the police. Here, however, Inspector Salerno knows all about the painting from day one, but somehow never considers it as an appropriate line of enquiry.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

These are minor quibbles, however. The virtuosity of Argento’s framing, the superb cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, the editing of Franco Fraticelli and the production design of Dario Micheli (check out those fantastic pieces in the gallery!) combine to create an unforgettable experience. Despite a slow start at the box office, the film became a massive hit, both critically and commercially, playing for three and a half years in one Milan cinema. By 1971, the Italian film industry had gone Giallo crazy, and more than 60 similar pictures were delivered in the next couple of years.

Musante was an American actor who’d made a significant impact with a showy supporting role in ‘The Detective’ (1968), an unusual vehicle for Frank Sinatra which had played more as much as a character study than a conventional thriller. He never went onto to become a star but played second leads in a few significant pictures such as Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Grissom Gang’ (1971)and excellent crime drama ‘The Last Run’ (1971) starring George C Scott. He transitioned quickly into television and split his time between Italy and the US. Kendall had an uncredited bit in ‘Thunderball’ (1965) before making a big impression in a supporting role in ‘To Sir, with Love’ (1967). The female lead in social drama ‘Up the Junction’ (1968)followed, and she enjoyed another big hit in the title role of ‘Fraulein Doktor’ (1969). After leading roles in Sergio Martino’s ‘Torso’ (1973) and Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Spasmo’ (1974), she retired from the screen in 1977. 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

The film launched Argento on a celebrated filmmaking career, of course, as he followed up with further Gialli The Cat o’Nine Tails’ (1971) and ‘Four Flies On Grey Velvet’ (1971). An unsuccessful side-step into historical drama with ‘The Five Days’ (1973) was followed by arguably his most significant works; ‘Deep Red’ (1975), and the astounding ‘Suspiria’ (1977). Further projects such as ‘Inferno’ (1980)‘Tenebrae’ (1982)‘Phenomona’ (1985) and ‘Opera’ (1987) kept the bar high for many years, but his subsequent output is generally regarded as disappointing.

A daring piece of work that helped to define an entire sub-genre of film and was the calling card of a major new filmmaking talent. However, you can push all that historical importance to one side if you want and just revel in a cracking horror thriller. An essential Giallo.