Marta/…dopo di che, uccide il maschio e lo divora (1971)

‘When you live alone in a house like this, even a visit from the police helps.’

A rich young man is haunted by nightmares of a night of sex and his mother’s fatal accident. Left alone on his estate over the weekend, he takes in a beautiful woman who is on the run from the police. She is unsure of his motives until she discovers her striking resemblance to his absent wife, who either left of her own free will or was murdered…

Understated Giallo mystery from co-writer and director José Antonio Nieves Conde, who focuses on suspense and intrigue rather than working his way through a long roster of murders. It was a Spanish-Italian co-production reuniting the co-stars of Conde’s previous film ‘The Great Swindle/Historia de una traición’ (1971), although this feature made it to the big screen first.

Wealthy landowner Don Miguel (Stephen Boyd) lives the quiet life on his rambling country estate with old married couple Arturo (George Rigaud) and Elena (Isa Miranda). Sure, he has his little eccentricities, such as having a telescope permanently set up so he can view the insane asylum down the road where his father died. There are also those strange, green-tinted dreams where the wife who suddenly left him and his stern, disapproving mother (Nélida Quiroga) seem oddly interchangeable. Perhaps it’s understandable when the one met her fatal interaction with the attic stairs so soon after the other departed.

When the faithful servants take a weekend break to visit their son, Marta (Marisa Mell) comes into his life, being chased halfway across his estate by his pack of guard dogs. He soon finds out that she’s fleeing a crime scene, leaving behind the seriously injured man who tried to assault her. Not only does Boyd put her up in one of the spare rooms for the night, but he also hides her when policemen Jesús Puente and Howard Ross come a-calling. The fugitive soon discovers that she bears a striking resemblance to Boyd’s wife, Pilar (Mell again, as a blonde), who left him two years before.

Boyd is initially reluctant to engage with his new guest, preferring instead to play the perfect host and watch her undress through a convenient peephole and then wander the dark passageways at night carrying a poker. However, Mell knows how to push his buttons, and the two soon tumble into bed. The following day marks Boyd’s annual pilgrimage to his mother’s grave, and Mell wants to go along for the ride. They dress her up as the missing Pilar to avoid official interest, using the missing woman’s old clothes and a blonde wig. Red flags all around, of course, but the fact that Mell cheerfully goes along with the masquerade only confirms something the audience has already begun to suspect; her arrival on the scene was much more than a lucky coincidence.

Conde’s drama poses two self-evident questions; what secret lurks in Boyd’s past, and what is Mell’s game? Given that this is basically a two-hander with no other characters being of much consequence, it’s pleasing to report that Mell and Boyd shoulder the responsibility well. Boyd is particularly eye-catching, alternating between a passive calm and occasional emotional outbursts which arrive unexpectedly. Mell also gets a role she can sink her teeth into, something she was rarely offered during her career. Yes, she has some of her usual ‘bad girl’ moments, but there’s more depth to Marta than that, and she presents a complete, rounded character with surprising vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, the performers are better than the script. It’s a slow burn for the most part but starts kicking into gear around the hour mark with some surprising revelations. These arrive a little earlier than might have been expected, but it’s excellent timing as it sets up some intriguing possibilities for the final act. Sadly, Conde fumbles the ball, discarding these opportunities in favour of a generic, all-too-predictable climax that lacks imagination and any true creative spark. On the plus side, however, the shifting dynamics of the Mell-Boyd relationship over the runtime are nicely handled. There are a couple of wonderful moments where an excited Mell confronts her new lover with a secret she has uncovered in the hope of provoking an unguarded response. Instead, he simply shrugs his shoulders, reveals he knew about it all the time and off-handedly throws her another crumb of new information.

Considering that the film has little action and what does happen is almost exclusively confined to the rambling house, Conde does an excellent job of maintaining a level of suspense and audience interest. The drama could easily come across as a small scale, made for television production, but it’s to his credit that it never does. The principal cast is an immense help in this regard, of course, and there is also solid, professional work from cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri. He was a camera assistant on Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ (1960) and received full credit on the director’s ‘Ginger and Fred’ (1986). By then, he’d worked many times for Franco Zeffirelli, including celebrated films such as ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’ (1972) and ‘La Traviata’ (1982). He finished his career with over 120 feature film credits, including Vittorio de Sica’s ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ (1972), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Having starred in two films together, Boyd and Mell began a real-life tumultuous love affair which culminated in an (unofficial) gipsy marriage shortly after filming wrapped, the union being sealed with blood! The couple even attended an exorcism ritual, and Mell reflected in later years that they had been lovers in several previous lives. However, the relationship didn’t last, with Boyd deciding to leave and never see the actress again. He’d made his mark on the big screen as Messala in William Wyler’s epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1959) and featured in other notable big-budget projects in the 1960s. There was the musical ‘Billy Rose’s Jumbo’ (1962) with Doris Day, a starring role alongside Sophia Loren, Alec Guinness and James Mason in ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’ (1964) and as the lead in science-fiction favourite ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966). He died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of just 45.

A promising Giallo, which unfortunately turns out to be much less than the sum of its parts. Worth watching for the leading performances, however.


6 thoughts on “Marta/…dopo di che, uccide il maschio e lo divora (1971)

  1. By coincidence I started watching The Great Swindle a few days ago. Hopefully I’ll get through it. Boyd was a compelling actor but his career took a u-turn in Europe. Even so, I’m impressed with the experimental Kill! By Romain Gary.

    • Reading between the lines about Boyd and Mell’s relationship, it sounds like he ran away because he got scared of her! I’m not that familiar with Boyd’s work in general, apart from ‘Ben Hur’ of course, but ‘The Devil Has Seven Faces’ is coming to the top of my Giallo list very soon..

  2. The Devil With Seven Faces/Il diavolo a sette facce (1971) – Mark David Welsh

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