‘I find your naïve exuberance positively nauseating.’
An art expert and his pretty young assistant accept a commission to appraise the collection of a wealthy Italian Count. When they arrive at his villa, they find he is struggling to cope with his daughter, who was traumatised after a skiing accident and is suffering from amnesia. However, their visit becomes the catalyst for revealing far darker family secrets…
Undercooked European thriller that boasts a stronger and better-known cast than its somewhat cliched premise deserves. Given the thin material, it’s quite a surprise to find Hollywood veteran George Marshall behind the camera here, and the likes of Oscar-winners Shirley Jones and George Sanders in the cast, accompanied by ‘South Pacific’ (1958) star Rossano Brazzi.
International art historian Raymond Fontaine (Sanders) travels to Italy to evaluate the collection of Count Paolo Barbarelli (Brazzi) at the behest of local gallery owner Monique (Micheline Presle). Along for the ride is his blonde protege Karen (Jones); the daughter of a late family friend he has taken under his wing. Apart from an early encounter vicious dog, life at the family villa seems healthy enough, until the introduction of Brazzi’s damaged daughter Cora (Giorgia Moll) who is suffering from total memory loss and other ill-defined mental health issues.
After the unfortunate introduction involving the irate canine, the impressionable Jones finds herself increasingly taken with the charming Brazzi, attentions he keenly reciprocates. Skillfully dodging the dry remarks of the more work-orientated Sanders, the two begin a hesitant romance, fuelled by blue skies, the wind off the ocean and young boys selling posies of flowers.
The new lovebirds don’t meet with the approval of Presle, who has been involved in a mostly one-sided relationship with the smooth-talking Brazzi. The sickly Moll is also not best pleased, popping up every now and then to cool their jets like the ghost at the feast. The kind-hearted Jones tries to help her get her memories back and has some success. Unfortunately, this brings with it a dark cloud of suspicion that descends over her seemingly idyllic future.
This is sluggish, anaemic stuff for the most part. On the plus side, it’s always a pleasure to see Sanders delivering his trademark sarcastic put-downs, even if none of his remarks approaches the quality of those he delivered in classics like ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1945) and ‘All About Eve’ (1950).
It’s also true that he and Jones make a surprisingly appealing team in the film’s early exchanges; her bright, fresh-faced enthusiasm an excellent foil to his weary worldview. Unfortunately, the film squanders its biggest strength when Sanders disappears about a third of the way through, and we are left with Jones and Brazzi’s less than riveting exchanges, and it’s here where proceedings begin to descend into soggy melodrama.
The script focuses too heavily on Brazzi’s vaguely suspicious behaviour and provides a few too many clues as to its killer twist. To the film’s credit, the big reveal isn’t held back so long to make it blindingly obvious, but, once it’s been revealed, there isn’t anything else on offer but a (far too) long haul to the end credits. When the climax finally does arrive, it’s desperately weak and so brief that it almost feels like it was made up on the spot. The fact that it turns out that there’s a secret room hidden behind yet another revolving bookcase really tells you all that you need to know.
The film has been categorised as an early Giallo picture, but links to the movies that inspired the American slasher trend are tenuous, to say the least. Beyond the presence of imported American stars and the slight mystery, there’s not a great deal to justify the label. It has more in common with old Hollywood ‘woman in peril’ dramas like ‘Gaslight’ (1944), ‘Love From A Stranger’ (1937) or even Hitchcock’s ‘Suspicion’ (1941).
The performances are decent enough, although Jones shines brighter in the earlier, lighter scenes. Brazzi is stolid and rather dreary as the Count, and Sanders is just Sanders, and that’s never a bad thing. Perhaps some of the blame should rest with director Marshall, who never invests proceedings with any real suspense, pace or urgency. His long directorial career, which had begun as early as 1916, was most notable for his work with Laurel & Hardy and as a director of comedies and Westerns like the classic ‘Destry Rides Again’ (1939). Excursion into more serious subjects were rare and not met with the same acclaim.
A somewhat turgid affair just about kept afloat by a willing and professional cast.