The Crimes of the Black Cat/Sette scialli di seta gialla (1972)

‘They found the head of a black cat on the tracks.’

A blind pianist overhears a blackmail plot on the night his girlfriend ends their relationship. The next day she is murdered under mysterious circumstances at the fashion house where she works. Then her cousin is killed, and he determines to investigate over the objections of the police…

Fair to middling Giallo thriller that takes some second-hand story elements from previous entries in the sub-genre and attempts to mix them into something new. Director Sergio Pastore also assembles a cast of familiar faces for this Italian-Danish co-production partially shot in Copenhagen.

Composer Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen) is unsurprised when he’s stood up by young lover Paola Whitney (Isabelle Marchall) on a restaurant date. What he doesn’t expect, however, is to overhear two voices in the next booth planning a blackmail scheme. They are vague on the details, and his blindness prevents him from carrying out an identification. The next day Marchall dies suddenly in her dressing room at work, the only clues to the cause being some scratches on her face and a strange wicker basket that disappears.

It doesn’t take long to uncover that Marchall was starting a blackmail scheme with her cousin, photographer Harry (Romano Malaspina). Their target was the manager of the fashion studio, Victor Ballais (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), who’d been unwise enough to bed Ms Marchall in the glare of Malaspina’s flashbulb. Unfortunately, his playboy lifestyle depends on his wife, Françoise (Sylva Koscina), who owns the business. Unsatisfied with the efforts of Inspector Jansen (Renato De Carmine), Steffen determines to look into the situation himself, with the aid of right-hand man Burton (Umberto Raho) and Marchall’s roommate, Margot Thornhill (Shirley Corrigan).

Giving some old ideas a fresh coat of paint is nothing new in cinematic terms, particularly in the Italian film industry, where a slavish following of popular box-office trends was a given. So, director Pastore, who co-writes with Sandro Continenza and Giovanni Simonelli, can be forgiven for wearing his influences prominently on his sleeve. The concept of a blind detective goes all the way back to Henry Hathaway’s ’23 Paces to Baker Street’ (1956) but, of course, had been more famously revived in the person of actor Karl Malden by Giallo master Dario Argento for ‘The Cat o’ Nine Tails/Il gatto a nove code’ (1971). Similarly, director Mario Bava utilised the fashion house setting with far more style and effect for seminal early Giallo ‘Blood and Black Lace/6 donne per l’assassino’ (1964). Even the past event providing the catalyst for the murderous rampage had previously served as a plot device.

Pastore, therefore, has little to offer in terms of originality beyond the rather novel method used in some of the earlier murders. This M.O. does strain credibility more than a little, but it is the one thing the film possesses that is slightly different. The lack of ideas in the well-thumbed plot throws the weight of expectation on the technical execution and the cast, and neither really rises to the occasion. Pastore relies on an over-use of whip-pans and crash zooms to try and infuse the drama with some energy but beyond a dash of suspense in a final act scene set in an abandoned glassworks, the film never really gets out of first gear. There is also a particularly nasty kill late on, which is queasily effective thanks to some rapid editing but feels strangely out of place with what has gone before.

The cast features a roster of reliable performers, many with previous Giallo credits. They do what they can with the material, but many of the roles are severely underwritten. Steffen is perfectly convincing as a blind man but never approaches the levels of personality that Malden displayed for Argento, so he fails to engage any significant audience sympathy or investment. Raho manages some subtle moments as Steffen’s almost ever-present factotum, but the acting plaudits mainly belong to Giovanna Lenzi, here credited, as per usual, as Jeanette Len. Her performance as a drug addict blackmailed into helping the killer feels more urgent and immediate than anything else on offer.

There are a couple of nice touches for genre and horror fans, though. Steffen isn’t just a run-of-the-mill working pianist and composer; he scores films. His latest project? Apparently, it’s Lucio Fulci’s classic Giallo ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin/Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971)! There’s also a throwback to classic horror when Lenzi enters a pet shop, and all the animals go wild, recalling Simone Simone’s efforts to exchange her feline friend for a bird in Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ (1942). It transpires that Lenzi owns the pet store in this film, but it’s still a pleasing moment.

Crucially with a Giallo thriller of this kind, the mystery manages to stay engaging, even if it’s not hard to guess the killer’s identity, and everything is wrapped up a little too rapidly in the final scene. However, despite all the obvious flaws and shortcomings, the general level of production value and all-around competence does see it through. Pastore is wise enough to keep things moving, so the pace never flags, and he delivers the requisite procession of corpses to keep the audience interested, if not precisely on the edges of their seats.

Giovanna Lenzi had a role in Pastore’s first-ever film ‘Crisantemi per un branco di carogne’ (1968). The two often worked together over the years before and after their encounter with the Black Cat. They married in 1972 and remained hitched until his death fifteen years later. Lenzi had begun her screen career with a small role in the underrated Barbara Steele vehicle ‘An Angel for Satan/Un angelo per Satana’ (1966), which also starred Steffan. Minor assignments followed in early Giallo ‘A…Come Assassino/A…For Assassin’ (1966), Eurospys ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse/Le tigre sort sans sa mère’ (1967) and ‘Agente Sigma 3: Missione Goldwather’ (1967) before she snagged a more significant role in Giallo thriller ‘Deadly Inheritance/Omicidio Per Vocazione’ (1968). In the 1980s, she moved behind the typewriter and collaborated with Pastore on two projects, which she also directed, including the poorly-reviewed Giallo ‘Delitti’ (1987).

If judged on its own merits rather than compared to its far superior sources, this one just about gets a pass.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave/La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba (1971)

‘I need a fistful of ash. That’s essential.’

A troubled aristocrat is obsessed with the memory of his dead wife, Evelyn. He picks up lookalike prostitutes and introduces them to his torture chamber. Then he meets a beautiful woman at a party and falls instantly in love. The couple marries, and he plans to renovate his crumbling ancestral home, but his obsession with Evelyn remains…

Good-looking Giallo directed by Emilio Miraglia and co-written by him, Massimo Felisatti and Fabio Pittorru. The title suggests a straight horror film, but, despite some early hints of the ghastly and supernatural, it’s not likely that anyone would consider it as such.

The death of his unfaithful wife Evelyn (Paola Natale) in childbirth has seriously screwed with the psyche of eligible bachelor Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen). Rather than hit the dating scene, he prefers to frequent sleazy clubs and pick up prostitutes such as redheaded exotic dancer Susie (Erika Blanc). After surreptitiously changing the number plates on his car mid-journey (nothing suspicious there!), he gets them back to his cool pad: a suite of chic rooms in his tumbledown castle. Like all good ancestral homes, this comes with its own torture chamber, and good host Steffen is happy to give his guests the grand tour.

Concerned about Steffen’s brooding isolation, his cousin George Harriman (Enzo Tarascio) and psychiatrist Dr Richard Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) encourage him to get out more. Tarascio takes him to an outdoor party where the moody noble meets the glamorous Gladys (Marina Malfatti). It’s love at first sight, and the two get hitched and move into the old homestead straight away. Steffen instructs estate manager Farley (Umberto Raho) to renovate the property and invites wheelchair-user Aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davis) to stay. Also resident on the estate is ex-brother-in-law Albert (Roberto Maldera), who acts as caretaker and keeps a cage filled with hungry foxes. He also prowls around at night and accepts regular ‘cash in hand’ payouts from Steffen.

This is an intriguing setup, and the film’s first half builds quite nicely. Miraglia makes excellent use of some wonderfully overgrown locations, the first-class work of cinematographer Gastone Di Giovanni ensuring the daylight scenes carry as much menace as those at night. Most significant story developments occur on the grounds rather than inside, and this unusual emphasis results in some striking images and compositions.

The notion of initially presenting the audience with the apparent fact that Steffen is an insane serial killer and then slowly undermining it is an elegant idea. Although Steffen killing the girls in the first act isn’t shown, it’s heavily implied as Miraglia invites the viewer to fill in the gaps. However, later story developments start to suggest that something else might be going on and, at first, this is well-handled. However, Miraglia soon overplays his hand with a seance scene where the spirit of the departed Natale appears in mid-air courtesy of some camera trickery. This event suddenly opens up the possibility of the paranormal, which comes right out of left field, but it’s so heavy-handed that it signposts what’s really going on. Unfortunately, this is the first of a series of ridiculous plot developments which make less and less sense under close examination.

The most obvious example of this chaotic patchwork of contrived plot points centres around Aunt Agatha. To begin with, Davis (probably a pseudonym as it’s the actor’s only screen credit) looks no older than any of her male relatives, begging the question of just whose aunt she is supposed to be. It transpires later on that she’s having an affair with handyman Maldera, and she’s also faking her disability. She’s murdered a few moments after she gets out of her wheelchair, so we never find out why she was pretending to be an invalid. I guess the murderer kills her a few moments later because she’s fulfilled her function of ‘looking a bit suspicious’. The disposal of her body is also quite silly. I’m guessing that ‘falling out of a wheelchair and getting eaten by foxes’ doesn’t appear on many death certificates. Props also to the local constable who turns up for a few moments, frowns, licks the end of his pencil and proclaims her death ‘an accident’! Promotion to detective must be just around the corner.

The script ties itself in knots trying to make sense, and the director and cast aren’t up to the task of papering over the gaping plot holes. Steffen fails to conjure up any sympathy for our miserable sod of a hero as he sulks around with a face like a wet weekend at the seaside. He shares zero chemistry with Malfatti, which doesn’t sell the idea of an instant love story and immediate marriage. The only cast member to emerge with any credit is Blanc, who makes a lot out of her far too limited screen time. Some credit should also be reserved for composer Bruno Nicolai who delivers a solid and quietly appealing score.

Miraglia began his career as an Assistant Director in the early 1950s and worked his way up to solo directing duties on above-average crime thriller ‘Assassination’ (1967) starring Henry Silva. After another teaming with his star, Miraglia then delivered caper movie ‘The Vatican Affair/A qualsiasi prezzo’ (1968) starring Klaus Kinski, Ira von Fürstenberg and veteran Hollywood star Walter Pidgeon. Obscure Spaghetti Western ‘Shoot Joe, and Shoot Again/Spara Joe… e così sia!’ (1971) came after a three-year break, and his last film was another Giallo, ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times/La dama rossa uccide sette volte’ (1972). He left the industry shortly afterwards and passed away in 1982 at the age of 58.

Some excellent visuals are dragged down by a screenplay written without due care and attention.