The Two Faces of Fear/Coartada en disco rojo (1972)

‘If he won’t talk, eat him.’

A prominent heart surgeon is murdered in an apparent robbery attempt. However, the investigating detective is unconvinced by that explanation and focuses instead on the senior staff at the highly exclusive heart clinic where he worked…

Dull and rather spiritless Giallo from director Tulio Demicheli that goes through some tired murder mystery motions to fairly minimal effect. This Italian-Spanish co-production managed to attract a notable cast, but why they would become involved is a bigger puzzle than anything the film has to offer.

Things are coming up roses for respected heart surgeon Dr Michele Azzini (Luis Dávila). Not only is he engaged to be married to beautiful colleague, Dr Paola Lombardi (Anita Strindberg), but now he’s been offered a prestigious job in Madrid. The only fly in the ointment is that his current employer, Elena Carli (Luciana Paluzzi), is spitting feathers. She sees him as an essential part of the team at the private heart clinic that she owns, along with her surgeon husband Roberto (George Hilton), Strindberg and head administrator Luisi (Eduardo Fajardo). She offers him an increased slice of the business, and he agrees to think it over, but it looks like he’s bound for Madrid. Then he is murdered.

On the case is tetchy veteran Inspector Nardi (Fernando Rey), more irritable than usual as he’s trying to quit smoking. At first, it seems like a straightforward robbery, but as he probes into the tangled lives of the medical staff at the clinic, he begins to suspect something more. Meanwhile, Paluzzi’s own serious heart condition is deteriorating, and her forthcoming operation may become an emergency.

This is an odd little scribble of a film, hamstrung by a weak plot so slight that it almost disappears. The cast struggles to inject much life into their underwritten roles, with Rey being the only participant who achieves any level of success. His irritable detective with a nicotine deficiency is the only bright spark in a turgid 90 minutes, with the actor able to bring some sly humour to his struggle with addiction. Caught between moments of humorous exasperation at his own weakness and genuine anger at the indulgence of others, particularly the clinic’s staff, he’s the equivalent of a ray of sunshine cutting through the grey dreariness of a rainy February afternoon.

The drama’s plot, such as it is, would struggle to fill a half an hour episode of a TV anthology show, which is what Demicheli’s film often resembles. The final revelations are simplistic and implausible simultaneously. They also lack any real element of surprise, although it’s debatable whether the audience will still be paying close attention by the time the final act rolls around. The jumble of the main protagonists’ love lives is straight out of a weary hospital soap opera (are there any other kind?), and viewers hoping for lashings of sex and gore will be sorely disappointed. Or maybe not. In a strange and rather unusual way.

The only real talking point of the film may go some way to explaining its very existence. The opening credits prominently thank a Madrid heart clinic and a Dr Martinez Bordiu, who carries out the operation seen in the film. Yes, the open heart surgery that takes up about ten minutes of the runtime towards the end of the picture is a genuine operation shot by the filmmakers. In terms of the film’s story, the sequence actually proves to be quite pointless, although I’m sure the real-life recipient of the surgery was grateful.

It’s interesting to speculate whether the ‘real-life heart operation’ was played up in the film’s publicity campaign and whether producer José Gutiérrez Maesso really felt that its presence was enough to build a movie around. Turnaround on Italian films made during this period was notoriously short, so it’s possible that Pedro Mario Herrero and Mario di Nardo were tasked with coming up with their script almost on the fly when the opportunity to film Dr Bordiu at work suddenly arose. It would explain why the story is so slight and poorly developed.

What hurts most here, of course, is the criminal waste of such a wealth of experienced acting talent. By this point, Hilton was almost a Giallo poster boy, and Strindberg had also chalked up some notable appearances in the sub-genre. Paluzzi had starred with John Mills in the outstanding ‘A Black Veil For Lisa/La Morte Non Ha Sesso (1968), although she’s always likely to be best remembered as ‘Bond Girl’ Fiona from ‘Thunderball’ (1965). Rey gets the best of things, although one veteran character digging a little something out of a script like this isn’t much of a reason to celebrate. His good work is even undermined by ‘comedy police sergeant’ Félix (Manuel Zarzo), who keeps trying to interrogate the late Dávila’s parrot (arguably the film’s most fully realised character).

Rey was an award-winning Spanish actor, probably most recognisable to the general public as drug lord Alain “Frog One” Charnier from smash hit ‘The French Connection’ (1971) and its sequel. He began as an extra in the 1930s, taking almost a decade to land his first speaking role in the costume picture ‘Eugenia de Montijo’ (1944). His big breakthrough came four years later in historical drama ‘Madness for Love/Locura de amor’ (1948), and steady work eventually led to the international arena. There, he starred for Orson Welles in the classic ‘Chimes at Midnight’ (1966) and for Spanish auteur Luis Buñuel in ‘Viridiana’ (1961) and ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ (1972), among others. He was equally at home in more commercial projects such as ‘Return of the Seven’ (1966) and ‘Guns of the Magnificent Seven’ (1969), as well as ‘The Light at the Edge of the World’ (1971) and the star-studded drama ‘Voyage of the Damned’ (1976). He won multiple acting honours over his entire career and was awarded the gold medal of the Spanish Movie Arts and Sciences Academy.

A desperately poor exercise and almost a complete waste of a fine cast.


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