A young writer returns to a country hotel, looking for the maid who he became obsessed with the year before. But when he arrives, he finds that she is dead, an apparent suicide. Not convinced that she would kill herself, he determines to find out exactly what happened…
Unusual early Giallo film from writer-directors Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini, with help on script duties from Giulio Questi (‘Death Laid An Egg’ (1968)). Although ostensively a fairly standard murder-mystery, the filmmakers deliver an intriguing puzzle piece, with an unconventional narrative that beguiles and wrong foots the audience on a regular basis.
Bernard (Peter Baldwin) returns to the coast where he spent some time the previous year at a quiet hotel run by middle-aged Enrico (Salvo Randone) and his daughter, Irma (Valentina Cortese). He’s supposed to be there to write, but he’s really looking to reacquaint himself with pretty blonde maid Tilde (Virna Lisi). Unfortunately, he discovers that she’s dead. According to Randone, she committed suicide but he hears elsewhere that she was found with her throat cut down on the beach and the police never found the culprit.
Baldwin determines to investigate and contacts old acquaintance and local photographer Pier Giovanni Anchisi. Despite ribbing Baldwin about his first novel (‘you’ve got too much imagination’), the two join forces, Anchisi suggesting that Lisi and Randone were lovers and that she was pregnant at the time that she died. Another suspect is Randone’s newlywed son, Marco (Philippe Leroy) who has returned from the city with sickly bride Adriana (Pia Lindstrom). She’s confined to her room during the day but wanders the beach at night and seems desperate to talk to Baldwin…
There is little remarkable about the story set up; the key here is how it’s delivered to the audience. The focal point is Baldwin, who gives a strange, detached performance. His character is very passive for a leading man, just an observer who watches events through rain-streaked windows and cracks in door panels. Although he never seems to become directly involved, the story is told from his point of view. However, it doesn’t take long to realise that we can’t really be sure what we’re seeing on the screen. Are these Baldwin’s memories (repressed or otherwise), his dreams, his conscious fantasies or actually the reality of what’s happening around him? Is it a mixture of some of these things, or maybe all of them? The ambiguity is only emphasised by a complete absence of transitions between scenes, the filmmakers seemingly determined to provide no clues.
Our main character’s behaviour is also slightly odd. Rather than ask after Lisi when he arrives at the hotel, he just waits ages for her to appear. He mentions that he glimpsed her naked with a lover the year before, but didn’t see her partner. Later on, however, he clearly ‘remembers’ that it was Randone. There’s also a striking sequence where he stares from his window at an outbuilding where Leroy is cutting up an animal carcass with a cleaver. Significant events always happen offscreen, heightening his isolation and ‘outsider’ status.
Although only appearing briefly, like Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ Lisi hangs over the story like an unquiet ghost, present in photographs, almost every conversation and forever in Baldwin’s thoughts. Their previous relationship is never clearly established and it remains just one of the lingering question marks after the credits have rolled. The climax seems somewhat weak at first glance with the killer revealed and all the loose ends perfunctorily tied, but is there more to it than that? The film’s final dialogue scene may just suggest otherwise. It certainly provides food for thought anyway.
Bazzoni and Rossellini conjure a fine, off-kilter atmosphere with excellent use of light and shadow and the stunning black and white photography of Leonida Barboni. Naked trees shiver in the whistling wind as the waves rush on to the desolate lake shore. Birds scream. A cemetery with strange wooden crosses lies drowned in snow. You can almost feel the cold sinking into your bones.
This was pretty much Rossellini’s only writing and directing gig with his other work in the industry almost exclusively as a producer. So it’s likely that most of the credit for this film belongs to Bazzoni, especially as he conjured a similarly weird yet beautiful atmosphere with ‘Footprints On The Moon’ (1975), a film that has cult classic stamped all over it until its dreadful ending. His only other major work were spaghetti westerns ‘Man, Pride and Vengeance’ (1967) and ‘Brothers Blue’ (1973) and well-regarded Giallo ‘The Fifth Cord’ (1971).
Certainly not for everyone, but I found this to be a smart, intriguing exercise in mystery and misdirection. Recommended.