‘It’s something disgusting, poking about in a person’s soul.’
An actress collapses when seeing a strange man on a visit to England. When she regains consciousness, all memory of the last five years of her life has gone. The trauma seems linked to the death of an old lover and suppressed recollections of his murder…
Journeyman director Alberto de Martino returns to the Giallo for the third and final time, delivering his most atypical example of the Italian mystery thriller. British actress Anne Haywood takes the lead, with the most recognisable cast member being American Telly Savalas.
Stage star Eleanor Loraine (Heywood) arrives at Dover on the ferry as part of a promotional trip to England. On assignment at the port is jobbing assassin Ranko Drasovic (Savalas), who is waiting to provide a warm welcome to a high-ranking European diplomat about to sign an oil treaty. When the two lock eyes, Heywood hits the ground in a dead faint, and Savalas makes himself scarce. When Heywood wakes, she seems fine, blowing off the attention of medical staff and heading to her London home. Only the house is gone, and the men working on the road tell her it was demolished ages ago. She calls her sister Dorothy (Willeke von Ammelrooy) back home, wanting to talk to her lover Peter Vervoort (Roger Van Hool), only to discover that he died in a car accident five years earlier.
Back in Belgium, she’s put under the care of Dr Chandler (Antonio Guidi) while colleagues and associates fret and worry. She was in rehearsals with self-centred leading man Thomas Brown (Osvaldo Ruggieri) in a high-profile stage production of ‘Lady Godiva’, but now the opening is in doubt. The theatre is bankrolled by prominent industrialist Margaret Vervoort (Rossella Falk), but she’s only involved because the stage was the passion of her late brother Van Hool. Initially, Heywood seems to be recovering, but memories of the afternoon that Van Hool died keep bubbling to the surface. Soon she’s convinced that Savalas murdered him. Since their accidental encounter, the assassin has stayed close at hand, determined to eradicate all evidence of his old crime.
Amnesia is a hackneyed old plot device in big-screen thrillers, so it’s pleasing to report that De Martino’s film handles it better than most. The condition is still presented in a fairly simplistic manner, but at least there are no convenient Hollywood ‘bump on the head’ moments. It is odd, however, that it takes the results of an injection of sodium pentothal to prompt an accurate diagnosis from Dr Guidi when it’s pretty obvious what’s happened. Later on, he also suggests that someone may be threatening her life, but god only knows how he comes to that conclusion so early in the film.
The good news is that Heywood does an excellent job of conveying the bewilderment and self-doubt that the condition creates. For once, our protagonist has good reason not to call in the police; she’s afraid of what she might have done in the past and can’t recall. This dilemma is highlighted by a clever double twist about halfway through the second act when it suddenly appears that Heywood might not be the innocent victim of events after all. It’s also a neat way to highlight the unreliability of memory, a theme which could have been developed more fully with a more consistent screenplay.
Unfortunately, much of the script, by de Martino and four other writers, is a little vague on plot details, particularly regarding the events succeeding Van Hook’s murder five years earlier. Everyone believes he died in a car accident, but Heywood’s fractious memories suggest he was stabbed and that she was right there when it happened. It’s also heavily inferred that the assassin raped her afterwards, which begs a very obvious question: why didn’t he kill her if she was in his power? Why leave an eyewitness alive? Did she somehow escape from him or the car accident he successfully staged somehow to cover his crime? The film provides zero information on any of it or Heywood’s behaviour and mental condition in the aftermath of these traumatic events. Perhaps this was an intentional choice to heighten the ambiguity of events, but it feels a little haphazard and lazy instead.
Savalas’ participation is also somewhat disappointing. It’s not that he fails to convince as a professional hitman, more that he gets so little to do. For the most part, he remains almost a one-dimensional background character, although, of course, he gets to face off against the leading lady at the climax. These scenes are by far the film’s best, with the desperate Heywood using her knowledge of the working mechanics of the darkened theatre to fight back against the ruthless killer. The struggle culminates in a wonderfully ironic finish which de Martino delivers expertly, drawing out the final moments to an excruciatingly effective length.
Giallo fans focused on high body counts, and creative kills will most likely find the film disappointing, although anyone familiar with the director’s other efforts in the area should know what to expect. Both ‘The Insatiables/Femmine insaziabili/Carnal Circuit’ (1969) and ‘The Man with Icy Eyes/L’uomo dagli occhi di ghiaccio’ (1972) leaned more toward crime than horror. Both were presented with an absence of stylistic extravagance, and his choice of soft focus and slow motion to convey Heywood’s flashbacks indicates that such flourishes were not one of his strengths. Instead, the emphasis is on suspense and mystery; although there are script issues, he delivers an efficient dose of both.
Heywood was a former beauty queen and stage actress who entered British films and television in the 1950s. She worked her way up to leading roles reasonably quickly, including the heroine of ‘Vengeance/The Brain’ (1962), the most satisfying film version of Curt Siodmak’s famous science fiction novel ‘Donovan’s Brain.’ Soon afterwards, she became known for projects tackling progressive themes, such as D H Lawrence’s ‘The Fox’ (1967), the transgender drama ‘I Want What I Want’ (1972), and the interracial love story ‘Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff’ (1979). The end of the decade also brought the starring role in Pier Carpi’s controversial and poorly received horror film ‘Ring of Darkness’ (1979). Beset by production and financial problems, the film boasted a cast including John Phillip Law, Irene Papas, Marisa Mell, Frank Finlay and Valentina Cortes, but is most likely remembered for the nude participation of Lara Wendell, who was significantly underage at the time.
Solid, professional Giallo with some good aspects, sold by a powerful central performance.