Who Saw Her Die?/Chi l’ha vista morire? (1972)

‘If you can’t play ping pong, don’t get mixed up in politics.’

France, 1968: a young girl is brutally murdered while playing in the woods, and the killer is never caught. Four years later, another girl goes missing in Venice, and her body is found floating in one of the canals. Unimpressed with the police investigation, the grieving father begins his own quest for justice…

Intriguing Giallo thriller co-written and directed by Aldo Lado that stars one-time James Bond, George Lazenby. This was an Italian-West German co-production with some interiors shot at a studio in Rome but with extensive location work in Venice.

Sculptor Franco Serpieri (Lazenby) has his troubles. Although his work is selling, thanks to powerful art dealer Serafian (Adolfo Celi), his marriage is another matter. When his young daughter Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi) visits him in Venice, his wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg) stays behind in London. The arrangement has its upside, as it allows him to carry on cheating with Celi’s beautiful assistant Ginevra Storelli (Dominique Boschero). However, he’s not too keen on getting a divorce so he can marry her.

The bright and friendly Elmi is soon having a wonderful time on her Venetian holiday, making friends with a group of local children. One evening, after finishing his work for the day, Lazenby realises that she’s not come home and he can’t find her anywhere. The next day the police are fishing her dead body out of the water. Strindberg flies in from London for the funeral, and the couple tries to reconnect as the official investigation flounders. When journalist friend Cuman (Piero Vida) recalls a previous case with similarities, Lazenby begins following up on the clues himself, ultimately placing everyone in danger.

There are some definite positives surrounding Lado’s serial killer Giallo. There’s the stunning Venetian locations, a simple and effective setup and a highly capable and committed cast to articulate the drama. Lazenby reportedly lost 35 pounds for his role and is almost unrecognisable from his 007 days behind a drooping moustache and long hair. There are also plenty of suspects in the frame as the possible killer. Celi, Vida and Boschero are joined on the list by arrogant dilettante Philip Vernon (Peter Chatel), unsavoury lawyer Bonaiuti (José Quaglio), local priest Father James (Alessandro Haber) and a strange young man who walks about on crutches.

Unfortunately, Lado’s film comes up a little short. Most of the problems come with a lack of story detail. Understandably, Lado wants to centre the drama on Lazenby, but the audience gets almost no information regarding the official investigation beng conducted by Police Commissioner De Donato (Sandro Grinfan), not even the official cause of Elmi’s death. For a long while, the many facets of the mystery are pleasingly baffling. Boschero is surprisingly wealthy for an art dealer’s assistant; Quaglio knew the family of the previous victim, and Celi’s business dealings are obscure and suspect. But most of these matters are wrapped up in the hurried, almost sloppy, last few minutes, and the killer’s motivations are left vague and unaddressed.

This lack of a fully-realised scenario really hurts the film. There are even some elements that seem poorly conceived. Why open with the murder in the snowy French woods? Yes, it’s an impressive scene and establishes that we have a killer who targets young girls, but it’s never mentioned again. The previous murder linked to Elmi’s case that Lazenby investigates was of a different child in Venice, and that killing isn’t shown. Lazenby and the audience don’t find out all that much more about it anyway.

These flaws are frustrating because Lado manages some highly effective sequences. There’s strangulation from behind in the front row of a darkened cinema, a killing where birds are let loose from their cage by accident, the local children forming a circle around Elmi and singing her a creepy nursery rhyme about death. There’s also an impressive score from maestro Ennio Morricone that combines music with the wordless vocalisations of regular collaborator Edda Dell’Orso to a very unsettling effect. Lado also makes excellent use of some of the derelict locations. However, it’s fair to say that he can’t conjure up the city’s timeless, nightmarish quality evoked by director Nicolas Roeg for his iconic horror mystery ‘Don’t Look Now (1973).

Performances are strong across the board, too. However, Strindberg is under-used, and there isn’t enough time to explore the dynamics between her character and Lazenby’s less than committed artist. The father-daughter relationship is far more substantial, thanks to the natural screen chemistry between Lazenby and Elmi, which helps the audience invest in his subsequent investigation into her murder. The supporting cast is also up to the task, with Quaglio particularly notable as the seedy attorney.

Australian Lazenby was plucked from obscurity by producers Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to replace Sean Connery as Agent 007 in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (1969). Despite failing to match the worldwide gross of some of the previous entries in the series, the film was a huge box-office hit, and it was intended for Lazenby to reprise the role. Unfortunately, his onset behaviour rankled Broccoli, and the actor was unhappy with his contract and unconvinced of the franchise’s long-term potential. A parting of the ways followed. Subsequently, Lazenby played the lead in Cy Endfield’s ‘Universal Solider’ (1971) before linking up with Lado in Venice. Afterwards, he mainly appeared on television, with the occasional big screen role such as Jim Kelly’s boss in Al Adamson’s low-budget martial-arts adventure ‘Death Dimension’ (1978). At the time of writing, he is filming zombie horror ‘Z Dead End’ (2023), playing the US President.

A solid Giallo with some highly admirable aspects, which unfortunately throw the story deficiencies into greater relief.

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