What Have You Done To Solange?/Cosa avete fatto a Solange? (1972)

‘After five years, do you have to be so piss-elegant?’

A married school teacher comes under suspicion when one of the girls from his school is murdered on the banks of the river Thames. The police discover he’s romantically involved with one of her classmates, and the couple was in the area when the crime occurred. Then another student from the school is kidnapped and killed…

Brutal, complex Italian-West German Giallo that pulls few punches as its narrative unfolds. Director Massimo Dallamano co-writes with Bruno Di Geronimo, and the two deliver a tight, intricate thriller that mixes serious themes with a compelling mystery.

Dashing young gym master Enrico Rossini (Fabio Testi) works at an all-girl Catholic school where he is popular with the students, if not the older faculty members. His wife Herta (Karin Baal) also teaches there and suspects him of playing around, as their marriage has disintegrated into recriminations and squabbling. Her instincts prove to be spot on as Testi has begun a secret relationship with 18-year-old student Elizabeth Seccles (Cristina Galbó). The lovebirds are busy canoodling in a boat on the river when the first killing happens nearby, and Galbó glimpses the flash of a knife and a dark figure, although she’s unsure exactly what she’s witnessed.

Hearing about the murder the following day, Testi rushes to the scene. His impulsive action puts him firmly in the crosshairs of lead investigator Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger), as the victim was a girl from his school. Testi denies being in the vicinity, of course, to avoid embarrassing explanations. Galbó also clams up, despite the victim being a friend, believing that her testimony is too vague to be of much help anyway. Then, a second girl from her class, Jane Bryant (Pilar Castel), is kidnapped outside her home one night and viciously slain.

Testi and Galbó come clean to the Inspector, the girl believing that the figure she glimpsed on the river bank was dressed in a long, black robe like a priest. The investigation focuses on the school, with Headmaster Mr Leach (Rainer Penkert) and his staff coming under official scrutiny. As well as Testi and Baal, there’s the nervous Professor Newton (Antonio Casale), clerics Father Webber (Marco Mariani) and Father Herbert (Antonio Anelli), Professor Bascombe (Günther Stoll) and history master Joesph Kane (John Gayford). Fuchsberger theorises that one of them used secrets revealed in the church confessional to target his victims. Meanwhile, Testi pursues an independent line of enquiry and comes to believe that the solution lies with a mysterious and elusive girl named Solange Beauregard (Camille Keaton).

First and foremost, this is a very serious-minded thriller with some uncomfortable moments and shocking elements, enhanced by director Dallamano’s grounded, matter-of-fact approach. There are no outlandish set pieces here or overt visual flamboyance, with the occasional flourish so well-integrated into the presentation that it passes almost unseen. The film also addresses some dark themes other than teenage homicide. Sexual repression and catholic guilt are the catalysts for the tragedy that unfolds as acts of adolescent rebellion lead to life-changing consequences and, eventually, murder.

There is plenty to unpack in Dallamano’s film, but it’s still principally a mystery. Who is the killer, and what can the motive be behind the slaughter? The director offers few clues as events unwind, but the mystery is constantly absorbing rather than frustrating, and very few viewers will likely have worked out anything of significance with barely a quarter of an hour of the runtime remaining. Everything ties up neatly in the end, although a few minor plot points don’t bear close scrutiny.

Dallamano’s handling of Galbó’s role in the story is the only weak point. It’s never really clear how she manages to see what she does that day by the river. Later on, the nightmare that triggers her memory of the long, dark robe worn by the killer coincides with the moments of Castel’s murder. It’s almost as if Galbó has a psychic link with the assassin. However, the idea is never developed any further or presented with any real credibility. The undercurrent of hostility toward the catholic church is handled far better, though, with the girls ultimately as much the victims of a lack of guidance and out-moded teaching as the killer’s blade.

The cast delivers good performances across the board, aided by the depth with which the characters are written. Testi is hardly the conventional hero, professing his love for Galbó while simultaneously attempting to lay her, scarcely appropriate behaviour for a teacher towards a schoolgirl, even if she is (just about) of age. Some justification is present initially in the conduct of his wife, Baal, who is cold, bitter and antagonistic. However, subsequent developments cause the audience to side with her rather than the feckless Testi, and these character shadings help to keep the audience invested and off-balance. There’s also an eye-catching turn from Keaton as the wordless Solange, her eyes, gestures, and body language conveying far more than reams of dialogue could.

Dallamano also infuses proceedings with a heavy sense of voyeurism, his camera work often inviting the audience to participate. Characters are seen through keyholes, undergrowth and, briefly, in the confessional. Shot composition is also meticulous and deliberate; the camera often focuses on the actor furthest away while the other is very close to the lens at the edge of the frame. This approach is never distracting and helps to heighten the feel of eavesdropping on private conversations. However, making one of the characters an actual peeping tom is a little on the nose and feels somewhat redundant. The general attention to realism means that there’s plenty of teenage flesh on display, but the director is careful never to sexualise his young cast and tip the film over into the exploitation arena.

Technical credits are also high with high-quality work, particularly the understated, masterful score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone. His incredible 60-year career brought dozens of awards, including a much-overdue Oscar for Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight (2015). The lighting and cinematography by Aristide Massaccesi are also top-notch, but his subsequent career was unlikely to merit the attention of academy voters. He directed almost 200 films under multiple names but is best known as Joe D’Amato, the alias he assumed here. Projects ranged from several entries in the adult ‘Emanuelle’ series, to post-apocalyptic shenanigans like ‘2020 Texas Gladiators’ (1983) and ‘Endgame’ (1983), to three entries in the abysmal sword and sorcery series featuring Ator, the Fighting Eagle, which culminated in the truly dreadful ‘Quest For The Mighty Sword’ (1990). Most of his later time was spent in the hardcore arena, delivering video gems such as ‘Some Like It Hard’ (1995) and ‘Anal Strippers X-Posed’ (1997). Occasionally, he ventured into horror with low-budget exploitation titles like ‘Zombie 5: Killing Birds’ (1985) (starring Robert Vaughn!) and ‘Frankenstein 2000’ (1992).

Sadly, Dallamano’s life was cut short by a car crash in November 1976. He’d begun his career as a cinematographer just after the Second World War, arguably reaching its peak with his work on the first two films in Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his first directorial assignment was the well-regarded Spaghetti Western ‘Bandidos’ (1967). It was the final film on which he worked as a cinematographer. He followed up with the excellent Giallo ‘A Black Veil For Lisa/La Morte Non Ha Sesso (1968) and his trashy but undeniably enjoyable take on Oscar Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray/Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray (1970). Subsequently, he tried his hand in several genres, including comedy, supernatural horror and the police procedural, the latter being a vital element in his other excursion into Giallo ‘What Have They Done to Your Daughters?/La polizia chiede aiuto’ (1974).

Testi worked his way into the film industry as a stuntman and with uncredited bits in well-known films such as ‘Barbarella’ (1967) and Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ (1968). He quickly graduated to second leads in smaller productions like obscure Giallo ‘Death Knocks Twice/Blonde Köder für den Mörder’ (1969). Leading roles in low-budget adventures followed, such as ‘The Avenger, Zorro/El Zorro justiciero’ (1969) (which seems to have remained unreleased for three years) and the Spaghetti Western ‘One Day at Dawn…Django Meets Sartana!/Quel maledetto giorno d’inverno… Django e Sartana all’ultimo sangue’ (1970). His big break came courtesy of Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis/Il giardino dei Finzi Contini’ (1970), which firmly established his status as a leading man in his homeland. He has worked steadily since and successfully transitioned to television in the 1980s.

American-born Keaton became somewhat famous as the lead in the controversial rape-revenge vehicle ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978), which bothered many a sweaty film censor in the early days of video home rental. Following on from her appearance as Solange, Keaton had taken the lead in Riccardo Freda’s horror ‘Tragic Ceremony/Estratto dagli archivi segreti della polizia di una capitale europea’ (1972). However, the film only received a limited release, even in Italy, although it has been restored for blu ray in recent years. A couple of other undistinguished horror projects followed, and she returned to America for the notorious ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978). A few scattered appearances over the next few years seemed to indicate the end of her career. However, working the convention circuit in the new century led to a return in low-budget horror ‘Sella Turcica’ (2010). Subsequent projects included Rob Zombie’s ‘The Lords of Salem’ (2012) and independent horror films where she rubbed shoulders with veteran genre stalwarts such as Barbara Steele, Gunnar Hansen, Tony Todd, Heather Langenkamp, Dee Wallace, P J Soles and Adrienne Barbeau. She reprised her role as Jennifer in the belated sequel ‘I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu’ (2019) and took the lead in the home invasion drama ‘Cry for the Bad Man’ (2019).

A Giallo for those seeking more than just extravagant kills and an escalating body count. Essential viewing for fans, and with some appeal to more mainstream audiences.

Cold Eyes of Fear/Gli occhi freddi della paura (1971)

‘I’m sorry, but they teach frightful manners in the Scrubs.’

The nephew of a judge picks up a young woman in a pub and takes her back to their house. He doesn’t know that their manservant has been murdered, and the killer is patiently waiting for their arrival. On the agenda is a plan of deadly vengeance…

A borderline Giallo from co-writer and director Enzo G Castellari that leans heavily into a more conventional crime genre. An Italian-Spanish co-production, the action is focused mainly on the interactions of a quartet of characters in one space rather than on the ‘whodunnit’ exploits of a free-ranging serial killer. As a result, it often has more of the feel of an unproduced play than a dramatic film.

Young lawyer Peter Bedell (Gianni Garko) likes what he sees when good-time girl Anna (Giovanna Ralli) starts making eyes at him across a crowded pub. Ditching her drunken date, the two embark on a quick tour of night-time London before retiring to the house owned by his uncle, Judge Bedell (Fernando Rey). Things start to get pretty cosy, but dead butler Hawkins (Leonardo Scavino) spoils the mood by falling out of a cupboard. Worse still, they run into his killer, Quill (Julián Mateos), on the stairs, who keeps the couple covered with a gun and tells them to settle in for a long night.

Meanwhile, Rey is busy working late at the office on an important case and needs Garko’s help. Aware of his nephew’s playboy lifestyle, he sends a note home with a Constable (Frank Wolff). The Judge doesn’t realise that Wolff is not a policeman but criminal Arthur Welt, who he sentenced from the bench 15 years before. Not only has the villain arranged for a thorough search of the Judge’s home, but he’s also wired a bomb to the office door on his way out!

Despite a potentially intriguing setup, this is a relentlessly padded home invasion, with the drama primarily confined to the Judge’s home. The situation could have made for a claustrophobic picture with plenty of suspense, but crafting a screenplay strong enough to support such a setup over 95 minutes is a challenge indeed. Unfortunately, the script by Leo Anchóriz, Tito Carpi and director Castellari doesn’t even come close. An effort is made to chart the shifting dynamics of the four protagonists via small plot developments and minor incidents, but few of these have any real consequences or lasting impact. It’s all just padding. In the later stages, events deteriorate into one long shouting match before a final ten minutes of fighting in semi-darkness.

Castellari also uses rapid cutting and a heavy reliance on the zoom lens in an effort to evoke some level of excitement from the dull proceedings, but it’s doomed to failure. The cast sometimes tries too hard, probably because they were only too aware of the story’s shortcomings. Only Garko’s character is provided with any development as he goes from polite and passive to more physically aggressive as the picture unfolds. The reliable Wolff does his best with the little he’s given, but both Ralli and Mateos struggle to give their characters any shading. There are also some dated optical effects towards the climax, which serve little purpose other than the most obvious: more padding.

The film does have a smattering of noteworthy elements, though. The opening scene is a clever double-bluff and could be viewed as a sly commentary on the Giallo itself, presenting its violent tropes as cheap entertainment for the masses. It is unlikely that something like it would transpire in an English pub or a nightclub, but it’s well shot and well-performed by actress Karin Schubert. There’s also a nice moment of suspense with the bomb, which is heightened by the activity of Rey’s pet cat.

Best of all, there’s a percussive, dreamy score by workhorse Ennio Morricone that nicely offsets the visuals of Swinging London. Although all the interiors were filmed at Cinecittà Studios outside Rome, the production brought Garko and Ralli to the capital for the opening scenes. Sadly, much of this authenticity is undone by the English dub track. There are other English accents apart from ‘Posh’ and ‘Cockney.’ The inverted commas are intentional.

Director Castellari has been championed in recent years, mainly because of the proliferation of his genre output during the early days of home video rental. After a handful of Spaghetti Westerns in the late 1960s, he spent the rest of the decade mostly jumping between pictures inspired by big hits of the day, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s global smash ‘The Godfather’ (1972) and Michael Winner’s ‘Death Wish (1974). He delivered perhaps his most celebrated film with war picture ‘The Inglorious Bastards/Quel maledetto treno blindato’ (1978) before departing for the post-apocalyptic world of ‘Mad Max.’ The gang violence of ‘1990: Bronx Warriors/1990: I guerrieri del Bronx’ (1980) and its sequel ‘Escape From The Bronx/Fuga dal Bronx’ (1983) were split by the hilarious ‘Warriors of the Wasteland/The New Barbarians/I nuovi barbari (1983) a film that will always remain a bad movie classic. Throw in ‘The Last Shark/L’ultimo squalo’ (1981) with James Franciscus, dumb science-fiction action flick ‘Light Blast’ (1985), and the unfinished adventures of ‘Incredible Hulk’ Lou Ferrigno as ‘Sinbad of the Seven Seas’ (1989) and you have a cult film career well worth celebrating.

Ralli began her career as a child actress in the 1940s and had graduated to leading roles by the late 1950s when she appeared in two films by famous neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. ‘General Della Rovere/Il generale della Rovere’ (1959) and ‘Escape By Night/Era notte a Roma’ (1960) were well-received, and Ralli won the Best Actress award for the latter at the San Francisco International Film Festival. She tried her luck in Hollywood in the mid-1960s, starring in ‘What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?’ (1966) for director Blake Edwards and opposite Michael Caine in thriller ‘Deadfall’ (1968). She also appeared as Deputy Attorney Vittoria Stori in Massimo Dallamano’s mash-up of the Giallo and the Poliziotteschi, ‘What Have They Done to Your Daughters?’ (1974), and enjoyed a highly successful film and stage career until she announced her retirement in 2015.

An underwhelming exercise in suspense that has little to engage the audience.

Short Night of Glass Dolls/La corta notte delle bambole di vetro (1971)

‘I’d better rescue Mira from the body snatchers.’

An old man finds the body of a journalist while sweeping up in the park early one morning. Pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital, the reporter is still alive but completely paralysed. As he lies on the slab awaiting autopsy, he pieces together the events that led him there…

Unusual, cold war Giallo with American journalist Jean Sorel running up against a dangerous conspiracy when on assignment in the Eastern Bloc. The film’s qualifications as a Giallo may be marginal, but co-writer and debut director Aldo Lado certainly delivers a memorable and classy thriller.

Waking up the worse for wear in an unfamiliar place probably isn’t an unknown experience for foreign correspondents on the job in Europe. However, American reporter Gregory Moore (Sorel) hasn’t been out on the lash, and he’s in for a little more than a blinding headache and mugs of black coffee. Everyone thinks he’s dead. Various interns and doctors pronounce him deceased, hang a tag on his toe and put him in cold storage. But his mind is still very much alive. Under the sheet, he tries to reassemble his memories into a coherent narrative to explain his predicament.

Working out of an office in Prague with fellow journalists Jessica (Ingrid Thulin) and Jacques (Mario Adorf), Sorel had been waiting for reassignment to Berlin. He’d also been pulling strings with local official and friend, Valinski (José Quaglio), to obtain permission to take his new girlfriend, Mira Svoboda (Barbara Bach), out of the country with him. After the couple attends a high-class house party, Sorel is called out in the middle of the night on a tip delivered to him by Adorf. It proves to be a false alarm, and when he returns to his flat, Bach has vanished without a trace, leaving all her clothes and personal possessions behind.

Sorel begins a desperate search for Bach, aided by Adorf and Thulin. She’s willing to help, even though she still holds a torch for the handsome young American after a prior relationship. Before too long, they find out that Bach’s disappearance fits a pattern of similar incidents, but unsympathetic Kommissar Kierkoff (Piero Vida) disagrees, leaving them without official assistance. After a midnight assignation with a possible informant goes south, Sorel finds himself pointed in the direction of the exclusive Club 99, where old politicians and city leaders meet to listen to classical music. 

A lot is going on beneath the surface of Lado’s quasi-horror and conspiracy thriller. At first glance, it’s a reasonably conventional piece with an investigative journalist looking into the case of a missing young woman. Placing the action in a country under Communist control opens up opportunities for a political drama, but, the presence of policeman Vida apart, Lado shuffles this aspect to one side. Instead, the story showcases Sorel as detective, questioning potential witnesses, digging in the local newspaper archives and bribing informants. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t put enough meat on this particular bone, with no sense of an evolving investigation and precious few details about the other missing women. 

There’s also little that’s special about the story’s characters. For the most part, these are pretty standard archetypes: the crusading hero, his crass but well-meaning best friend, the naive young flower that needs a man’s protection, etc. As a result, the cast hasn’t all that much to work on. Sorel could deliver morally complex figures on screen, as he’d proved in several earlier Gialli. The most noteworthy aspect of his performance in this film is his work as a corpse, which is totally convincing! Ironically, it’s Thulin who gets the most significant opportunity to shine, but her role as his jealous ex-lover often seems rather tangential.

The film’s other major weakness is in its framing device. It is a clever notion to have Sorel ‘narrate’ the action from his slab in the morgue, but Lado goes back to his supposed corpse far too often. These scenes focus on his old friend and top medical man, Ivan (Relja Basic), who repeatedly attempts to revive him, not convinced he is dead because of his steady body temperature. I suppose he has a point, but with the heart stopped, no blood is pumped to the brain, so no oxygen, resulting in irreversible brain damage in less than five minutes. Basic continues trying to revive Sorel hours after the reporter was pronounced dead with no vital signs. Sure, the audience knows that Sorel can still think (somehow!), but why would Basic believe it? It seems to be nothing more than a plot device to set up the somewhat contrived finale, which is undeniably suspenseful, if a little silly.

However, in mitigation of those flaws, Lado’s film has a lot going for it. Apparently, he had a complicated relationship with cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini on set, but they crafted a beautiful-looking movie together. Zagreb stands in brilliantly for Prague, and the filmmakers fully utilise the unique exterior locations. The shot composition is masterly at times, with some outstanding lighting effects. These are deployed with taste and restraint, which helps ground the increasingly fantastical story while still providing a memorable visual signature. There is also some predictably superior work from composer Ennio Morricone, whose music is just a little unsettling in all the right places.

It’s also clear that Lado has something to say, and it goes a little deeper than the oft-included critique of the smart young jet set and the idle rich. At first glance, it would be easy to label the film as anti-communist or anti-authority in general, but it seems that Lado had a more specific target in mind. One character explicitly states it in the film: ‘All youth must be sacrificed to preserve those in power.’ There was great political unrest in Italy in the late 1960s, with a highly active student movement inspired by colleagues in France. The so-called ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1968 saw a wave of political protest in Northern Italy where factory workers joined students to demand social reform and better working conditions. Strikes and marches continued over the next few years and were often the target of aggressive police actions. 

Lado’s intended title for his film was ‘Short Night of the Butterfly’, which references youth. Bach presents Sorel with a gift of some framed specimens and talks about their inability to fly. The lyrics of a busker’s song also plead for their freedom and find an echo in the dying words of a potential informant. By the end of the film, it’s possible that Sorel’s reporter has gone too far down the rabbit hole and is losing his mind. He does seem to be hallucinating when he finds Bach’s corpse in a refrigerator. However, the final events in the back room of Club 99 are certainly part of his reality, even if their actuality is open to debate. 

Lado was formerly an Assistant Director and writer, who had worked in the latter capacity on the Giallo take on Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Strangers On A Train’, ‘The Designated Victim/La vittima designata’ (1971). His sophomore directing gig was on well-regarded Giallo ‘Who Saw Her Die?/Chi l’ha vista morire?’ (1972), which he also co-wrote. Later on, he moved into more mainstream drama but did deliver the ‘Night Train Murders/Chi l’ha vista morire?’ (1975), which has been cited as the Italian equivalent of Wes Craven’s ‘The Last House On The Left’ (1972). After that, he wrote and directed the intermitently hilarious, cut-price space-opera ‘The Humanoid’ (1979) before moving into television. A few features followed in subsequent years before he came out of an almost two-decade-long retirement to deliver horror-thriller ‘l Notturno di Chopin’ (2013).

An intriguing and unusual piece that combines several genres to produce an effective and quality experience.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet/4 mosche di velluto grigio (1971)

‘My dear, I’d like you to meet Jerkoff.’

A young rock musician confronts a mysterious man who has been following him. During the confrontation, they struggle and the stalker is killed. The musician flees the scene and doesn’t tell the police, but a strange masked figure has witnessed the event…

The final part of young Italian director Dario Argento’s so-called ‘Animal’ trilogy that kickstarted the Giallo phenomenon of the early 1970s. ‘The Bird With the Crystal Plumage’ (1969) had received international acclaim, and follow up ‘The Cat O’Nine Tails (1972) also enjoyed a positive critical and commercial reception. He gets a sole screenplay credit this time around, although fellow directors Luigi Cozzi and Mario Foglietti share an original story nod.

After a studio session pounding the drum kit with his progressive-rock combo, Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) is followed on the way home by a man in black wearing sunglasses. It’s not the first time, either; Brandon has been noticing this shadow for about a week and decides to put an end to the not-so-covert surveillance. Chasing the figure into an abandoned theatre, the two struggle, a knife flashes, and the man falls dead into the orchestra pit. What’s worse is that when Brandon looks up, he sees a masked figure in the gallery taking photographs.

Convinced he will be jailed for the killing, Brandon keeps his mouth shut. However, it’s soon clear that the eyewitness intends blackmail when one of the incriminating photographs turns up in the drummer’s record collection during a house party. He employs failed private eye, Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), to help unravel the mystery on the advice of his friend God(frey), played by Bud Spencer. After a break-in at their home, Brandon sends his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) out of town for her protection, and it’s not long before her cousin Dalia (Francine Racette) is sharing his bed instead. Unknown to everyone, family maid Amelia (Marisa Fabbri) has discovered Brandon’s secret and plans to blackmail the blackmailer.

After Argento’s unhappy experience with producers on ‘The Cat O’Nine Tails’ (1972), this project found the young filmmaker firmly in the driving seat and able to indulge his flair for experimental editing and filmmaking. These choices result in some truly outstanding set pieces that build extraordinary levels of fear and suspense. The sequence where Fabbri waits for her blackmail payoff in the park is a particular tour-de-force. Argento uses skilful edits that both convey the slow crawl of the hours and express how the boredom of the long wait lulls the maid into completely losing track of time until it’s too late.

The other murder setups are striking and memorable, with some stunning shots from the killer’s POV and there’s also a superbly orchestrated dream sequence. Argento also exhibits his usual flair for identifying interesting locations and using exterior and interior space in fresh and original ways. He also employs the highest-speed camera then available to capture the outstanding slow-motion of the film’s final moments.

If this sounds like a recipe for a true Giallo classic, it would be, if not for some major flaws. The first problem is with the flat performances of Brandon and Farmer, who fail to invoke any emotional investment from the audience. This could have been Argento’s intention, however. Italian cinema of the period was highly critical of the young and idle rich, and our golden couple here are living off an inheritance Farmer has received from a relative. Their house parties tend to be typically indolent, lacklustre affairs. The uncomfortable Brandon thumbs through his record collection, dodging glances from the lovelorn Maria (Laura Troschel) and trying to ignore the crass and mean anecdotes of smug boor Andrea (Stefano Satta Flores).

In contrast, Brandon’s interactions with his friends and bandmates are far more animated and natural. He grooves with keyboard player Mirko (Fabrizio Moroni) in the studio and jokes with the demonstrative Spencer and the Professor (Oreste Lionello), who share a shack down by the river. Apparently, the duo exist off Spencer’s fishing and sometimes eat the results raw! The contrast between their earthy existence and that of his wife’s arrogant smart set is hardly subtle, but it gets the point across. However, it’s rather a high price to pay if Brandon’s rather dour performance was the result.

The only character engaging audience empathy is useless private detective Marielle who cheerfully admits that he’s never solved a case. The character is saddled with some tiresome gay stereotyping, however. On arriving at the investigator’s office, Brandon finds him painting the walls, which is apparently enough to type him as gay and probably useless as a detective. Those facts may be true, but it seems a baffling conclusion to draw from a bit of home decorating. Pleasingly, Marielle proves a good deal sharper than his professional record would suggest.

Some Argento humour arrives in the person of Gildo Di Marco, who was so memorable as the stuttering pimp in ‘The Bird With the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). However, his appearance this time is little more than a cameo as a harrassed mailman. There’s also a scene set at a trade show where coffin makers peddle their new models, which could have been very funny if developed further but would have been out of place in the overall story if allowed too much screen time.

Unfortunately, there are some fundamental issues with Argento’s screenplay. Although the resolution to the mystery doesn’t create any glaring plot holes, it’s still wildly implausible and takes a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. Additionally, there’s a significant problem with the way the killer is unmasked. This involves something called Optography, taking a photograph of a victim’s eye after death to capture the last image it saw from the retina. This outlandish idea originated with physiologist Wilhelm Kühne in the 1870s and was actually used to help convict a mass murderer in Germany as late as 1924, despite the lack of scientific evidence that the technique has any credibility whatsoever. The notion did become popular in fiction, if not in real life, and had been thoroughly debunked by the time of Argento’s film. The fact that a modern-day police force would employ it as an investigative tool in 1971 is plainly ridiculous, but what’s worse is that, in the film, it actually works!

One unfortunate outcome of the project was a falling out between Argento and famous composer Ennio Morricone. The great man’s music had graced both of the director’s previous films, but they violently disagreed over his contribution here. The argument led to Morricone walking out, and the two didn’t work together again until ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’ (1996), a quarter of a century later. The good news is that this led to Argento’s introduction to experimental rock group Goblin, who provided memorable scores for his films’ Deep Red’ (1975), ‘Phenomona’ (1985) and ‘Sleepless’ (2001). Sought out by other filmmakers, the band also provided the music for films such as George A Romero’s classic ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) and Lucio Fulci’s cult response ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979).

Brandon was overseas talent, an American actor a little short in screen experience, but one who had impressed in the Broadway show ‘Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? (1969), a production which is largely credited as launching the acting career of a certain Al Pacino. He is probably best remembered for the UK action series ‘Dempsey and Makepeace’ from the mid-1980s where he co-starred with wife-to-be Glynis Barber.

Farmer was also born in the United States and was of French extraction. Her career began in juvenile roles in the 1960s, including a featured supporting part in ‘Spencer’s Mountain’ (1963) with Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. Choosing to place school and travel before her screen career, her next significant role wasn’t until Barbet Schroeder’s ‘More’ (1969), which featured a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. She came to Argento’s attention when she relocated to Italy after becoming disillusioned with the political scene in America. Subsequent appearances included the lead in Francesco Barilli’s Giallo ‘The Perfume of the Lady in Black/Il Profumo della signora in nero’ (1974), Lucio Fulci’s ‘Black Cat/Gatto Nero (1981) and mercenary action flick ‘Code Name: Wild Geese’ (1984) with Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine and Klaus Kinski. She left acting behind in the early 1990s to pursue a career as a sculptor.

A flawed film in many ways, it’s still a must-see for fans of Argento and the Giallo. The shortfalls in acting and story are easily compensated by some notable examples of the director’s dazzling technique.

The Cat o’Nine Tails/Il gatto a nove code (1971)

‘Hey, we’re in luck! They haven’t walled her up yet.’

A break-in at a genetics laboratory seems unsuccessful, but one of its scientific staff dies unexpectedly a short time later. A blind man has reason to think that the man was murdered and enlists the help of a journalist to try and prove it…

After the surprise international success of ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969), young writer-director Dario Argento went straight back to the Giallo thriller with another twisted murder mystery. However, expectations were considerably higher the second time around, and producers recruited some better-known American talent to help sell the finished results to overseas markets.

Blind man Franco Arnò (Karl Malden) is out for his usual evening stroll with young neice Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) as his guide. Their route takes them past the neighbouring Terzi Institute, a top scientific facility researching hereditary and disease control. The sharp-eared Malden overhears a suspicious conversation as they pass a parked car and asks the child to look at the men inside, although she can only see one of them clearly. Later that night, someone slugs the laboratory’s watchman and breaks into the building. Due to the prestigious nature of the institute, the case lands on the desk of Inspector Spimi (Pier Paolo Capponi) and attracts the attention of hotshot reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus). But nothing seems to have been taken, so it doesn’t seem like much of a story.

Then things take a decidedly sinister turn with the sudden death of scientist Doctor Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), who worked at the laboratory. He falls from a railway station platform and under the wheels of an incoming train. It seems to be an accident, but De Carolis recognises him as the man she saw in the car, and Malden senses a story. Joining forces with Franciscus, the trio head off to see news photographer Righetto (Vittorio Congia), who happened to snap a shot of Alighiero’s accident. But when Francisus arrives, he finds Congia murdered, and the photo negatives are gone.

Digging deep into the Institute, Fransiscus finds they are carrying out crucial governmental research linking chromosome imbalance to criminal behaviour. He begins to suspect industrial espionage as Dr Braun (Horst Frank) lives the high life and meets surreptitiously with that late Alighiero’s girlfriend, Bianca (Rada Rassimov). Then there’s the autocratic Terzi (Tino Carraro) and his beautiful wild child daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak), who is stringing along Dr Esson (Tom Felleghy). Young genius Dr Casoni (Aldo Reggiani) proves none too friendly either, but Dr Momebli (Emilio Marchesini) seems harmless enough. Of course, Franciscus and Spaak fall into bed together, but events take a far darker turn when the killer targets both the journalist and the blind man.

Argento’s debut film was such an overwhelming success, both at home and abroad, that the young Italian filmmaker was under a lot of pressure to deliver a high quality follow up. Subsequently, the director has gone on record to that effect, mentioning production interference and disappointment with the final result. However, this is still a solid, entertaining Giallo with some outstanding aspects, even if it is burdened with a few noticeable flaws.

On the credit side of the scale is that Argento shows an increasing grasp of filmmaking techniques. The murder at the railway station and the high-speed car chase through the streets of Turin are cut to absolute perfection. The single-frame ‘flash forwards’ to upcoming scenes can be a little distracting, but, sensibly, Argento does not over-use the device, so it remains effective. The combination of slick visuals with another fantastic soundtrack by Ennio Morricone builds suspense, and, once again, Argento delivers some memorable kills. Malden is also superb as the retired journalist, both convincing as a blind man and presenting a fully-rounded character with the subtlest of gestures and expressions.

However, there are issues with the story. Argento’s screenplay (co-written with an uncredited Bryan Edgar Wallace) provides almost too many suspects, with the inevitable result that most are severely underdeveloped. The romance between Franciscus and Spaak is also a drag. Spaak seems strangely disconnected from the material, and Franciscus lacks the necessary charisma to paper over the cracks. It doesn’t help that the love scenes are so poorly written that their interactions are awkward and uncomfortable rather than emotionally engaging.

There’s also the business of our killer’s superpowers. Arriving at Congia’s studio to kill the photographer just as he’s developing the incriminating negative could be put down to coincidence, of course. Following Rassimov just when she discovers a vital clue to the mystery could be an example of superior foresight. But to be waiting in a cemetery at midnight just when Franciscus and Malden turn up to search for the same clue is pushing credibility just a little bit too far!

Argento injects a little humour into the proceedings with quirky minor characters, much in the manner of the pimp in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). Here we get a cop with a culinary fixation, a barber who is too keen to discuss slashing throats while on the job and housebreaker Gigi the Loser (Ugo Fangareggi), whose side-hustle is winning swearing contests in the back of a pool room.

Although an imbalance of chromosomes leading to criminal behaviour sounds like the worst kind of contrived pseudo-science dreamed up by the movies, it does have some basis in scientific fact. Although the earliest studies in Scotland in the mid-1960s suggested a direct cause and effect, that conclusion has been heavily disputed. It is generally accepted now that individuals with the extra chromosome can experience emotional difficulties. These issues can lead to aggressive behaviour, but anything more specific is thought to be an overly simplistic interpretation of the facts.

Malden was a Hollywood veteran who began his screen career after success on the Broadway stage as part of the Group Theater, which included director Elia Kazan. By the late 1940s, Kazan was a Hollywood A-Lister, winning the Best Director Oscar for ‘Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). When he came to film ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951), he cast many actors who had appeared in the hit Broadway production, Malden included. Despite only having around half a dozen film credits in small roles to that point, Malden waltzed away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Three years later, he reunited with Kazan and Marlon Brando for ‘On The Waterfront (1954) and was again nominated for the same award. A long string of prestigious projects followed, along with a succcessful transition to the small screen as Det. Lt. Mike Stone in over 100 episodes of ‘The Streets of San Franscisco’ where he was partnered with a young Michael Douglas. He died at the age of 97 in 2009.

Amongst cult movie fans, Franciscus is best remembered for following in Charlton Heston’s footsteps, as he went ‘Beneath The Planet of the Apes’ (1969) and for roping Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaurs in ‘The Valley of Gwangi’ (1968). In the mainstream, he had a successful television career that lasted over 20 years, from a regular supporting role on ‘The Naked City’ (1958-59), to leading ‘The Investigators’ (1961) and then in the title roles of no less than four network series: ‘Mr, Novak’ (1963-65), ‘Longstreet’ (1971-72), ‘Doc Elliott’ (1973-74) and ‘Hunter’ (1976-77).

Perhaps not the follow-up fans of Argento’s remarkable debut feature might have wanted, but still a high-quality Giallo with some genuinely memorable moments.

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l’ariete (1971)

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l'ariete (1971)‘Don’t bother to express your sympathy; poor Sofia was a living corpse.’

A handsome young teacher at a language school is brutally attacked and hospitalised on his way home from a New Year’s Eve celebration. The following month another party-goer is found strangled to death and thrown down the stairs in her home. A black leather glove is discovered next to both victims, leading the police to suspect the same culprit…

Smooth, professional Giallo from director Luigi Bazzoni with some fine technical credits and a standout performance from star Franco Nero. Under the influence of Dario Argento’s international smash ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), the sub-genre was beginning to conform more closely to the template it’s recognised for today. Specifically, a serial killer with black gloves, a twisted plot lining up a series of suspects and the big reveal of the killer’s identity and motivations at the climax.

It’s just another New Year’s Eve, and drunken journalist Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) is propping up the bar trying to catch the eye of ex-lover Helene Volta (Silvia Monti). Lovers Edouard Vermont (Edmund Purdom) and Isabel Lancia (Ira von Fürstenberg) wrestle each other across the dancefloor, and Doctor Riccardo Bini (Renato Romano) tries to ignore his invalid wife Sofia (Rossella Falk). Meanwhile, John Lubbock (Maurizio Bonuglia) is headed for the vomit comet in the Gentleman’s facilities. And it gets worst for Bonuglia from there as he’s beaten with a length of pipe in an underpass on the long walk home, an attack interrupted by track driver Walter (Luciano Bertoli) who’s been racing the engine of underage prostitute Giulia (Agostina Belli) nearby.

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l'ariete (1971)

‘Half a gallon of whiskey is not a working expense…’

The police are no closer to finding the culprit a month later when Falk is murdered in her home, but link the cases due to the single black glove left at each scene. Nero begins to investigate the situation, using it partly as an excuse to spend time with old flame Monti. His initial enquiries reveal that brand new widower Romano is paying off Bertoli for unknown reasons and that Bonuglia was upset by the announcement of von Fürstenberg’s engagement to Purdom. It also turns out that Bertoli’s sister is none other than Nero’s sometime live-in girlfriend Lu (Pamela Tiffin). Worse still, after another suspicious death, Police Inspector Haller (Wolfgang Preiss) has the journalist pegged as his prime suspect.

This is a complex scenario with events focused on this small, intertwined group of acquaintances, and moving quickly throughout the film’s tight 91-minute running time. However, after the final reveal, audiences could be forgiven for concluding that most of these complications and blind alleys are little more than meaningless diversions. The core mystery is pretty simplistic, to say the least, and not particularly creative. In short, the plot is a little messy, and the killer’s motivations, such as they are, are thin and barely explored. Elements in the final act such as astrology and a young child in danger seem to have been almost thrown in at random with no foreshadowing, adding to the vaguely shambolic feeling.

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l'ariete (1971)

‘This Blade Runner sequel is bound to be great…’

But while the story may not be the best, the film scores very highly in many other departments. Director Bazzoni and award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro combine to create a highly atmospheric visual package, highlighted particularly during the climactic confrontation on an abandoned factory site. There’s another classy score from Ennio Morricone, and a selection of striking locations, including the overgrown wasteground beneath the road bridge where the killer stalks Belli. This is one of the film’s outstanding suspense scenes, only surpassed by the early sequence where the invalid Falk is trapped in her house, which Bazzoni turns into a real tour de force.

However, it’s the outstanding Nero who catches the eye, giving a performance of rare intensity and conviction. His drunken journalist is a man on the edge of disintegration, battling the bottle with a weary fatality that’s ever-present in his eyes and drawn features. His chemistry with Tiffin is also terrific, playful and caring for the most part, but with the potential to explode into sudden violence without warning. Again, it’s played just right, providing insight into his fractured state of mind without compromising his role on the side of the angels or overshadowing the mystery. It’s a balancing act and one that Nero seems to accomplish without effort.

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l'ariete (1971)

‘I’m sorry, this is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship…’

Bazzoni had less than half a dozen feature credits in his short career. However, these included outstanding early Giallo ‘The Possessed’ (1965) (a co-directing credit with Franco Rossellini) and the potentially stunning ‘Footprints On The Moon’ (1975) a film fatally compromised by its dreadful twist ending. Storaro also worked on the latter before picking up Oscars for ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), ‘Reds’ (1981), ‘The Last Emperor’ (1987) and ‘Dick Tracy’ (1990) as well as many other international awards. He has created a new 35mm film format with the intention of its adoption for both television and film as a universal aspect ratio and developed a series of custom colours gels for cinematographers that bears his name.

Nero was no newcomer to the Giallo, having appeared in early example ‘The Third Eye’ (1966) but was launched to international stardom of the back of his title turn as ‘Django’ (1966). He played Lancelot du Lac in Joshua Logan’s all-star musical ‘Camelot’ (1967), where he met wife-to-be, Vanessa Redgrave. He’s appeared in such diverse projects over the years as Luis Buñuel’s ‘Tristana’ (1970), ‘Enter the Ninja’ (1981) and ‘Die Hard 2’ (1990) with Bruce Willis. When working on this film, he flew to England and back on weekends to shoot his scenes for Otto Preminger’s ‘Saint Joan’ (1972). He has recently won several prestigious ‘Best Actor’ awards for his role in ‘La Danza Nera’ (2020).

Technically, a Giallo out of the top drawer, but all those qualities are somewhat undermined by a weak mystery and untidy story development.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)‘With this suit, I could swim through the centre of the sun.’

A notorious criminal mastermind steals 10 million dollars from under the noses of the police. The authorities escalate their campaign to apprehend him, forcing an underworld kingpin and his mob into taking action against the thief. Can the villain stay one step ahead of both the combined might of the forces of law and order and the criminal underworld?

Stylish and extravagant big-screen adaptation of the popular Italian comic book series from director Mario Bava. Unlike the maestro’s previous offerings, this was a big studio production with backing from well-known producer Dino De Laurentiis, big-name stars and shot on various locations, but mostly at his studio in Rome.

The film opens with the latest diversionary tactic employed by Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) to snare super heist merchant, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his lover and partner in crime Eva Kant (Marisa Mell). Instead of ten million dollars in banknotes, the cargo protected by a convey of motorcycle policemen is just blank paper. The real deal is going with him in an unmarked car with a much smaller escort. Law isn’t fooled, of course, and uses a smoke machine on a road bridge and a dockside crane to grab the swag. Piccoli is called in to face Minister of Finance Terry-Thomas but, after a humiliating press conference which Law and Mell disrupt with laughing gas, Piccoli gets special powers to end the Diabolik menace.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

Squeezing local mobster, Ralph Valmont (Adolfo Celi) by raiding on his clubs and businesses, the detective strikes a deal with the crimelord: hand over Diabolik and the pressure will be off. Meanwhile, Law pulls off another daring heist; snatching an emerald necklace and escaping via a rise with a catapult. But Celi kidnaps Mell and offers Law an ultimatum: the ten million dollars and the emerald necklace in exchange for her safe return. Law accepts the deal, but still has a few tricks up his sleeve when they meet for a showdown.

Diabolik was a character created by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani whose instant popularity created a whole new sub-genre of Italian comics known as the ‘Fumetti neri’ (‘black comics’). In his original incarnation, Diabolik was a ruthless criminal genius, who let nothing stand in his way but, over time, and after legal actions by an outraged ‘moral majority’, the character softened into more of a hi-tech ‘Robin Hood’. Fumetti neri in general split into two distinct camps, those targeted more at a juvenile audience and those ‘prohibited to minors’ which emphasised more adult themes, including far higher levels of sex and violence.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

A project to adapt the character to film had begun several years earlier with Jean Sorel in the title role and Elsa Martinelli and his lover and partner in crime, Eva Kant. However, the project collapsed quickly, and it’s unclear if anything more was shot than publicity stills. De Laurentiis acquired the rights and brought Bava on board, intending the film would accompany his production of Roger Vadim’ ‘Barbarella’ (1968) into theatres. Law was under contract to appear in that film, but delays caused by working with the SFX allowed him to take on the role of Diabolik first.

Bava was happy with his casting but less so with Catherine Deneuve who De Laurentiis selected for the role of Eva. As it was, she only lasted a week into filming before Austrian actress Marisa Mell replaced her. By all accounts, this was because Deneuve refused to disrobe for the film’s most iconic scene, where Diabolik and Eva make love naked on a revolving bed covered in money. However, given her subsequent filmography and the fact that the final scene is not explicit, it may be that Bava was able to use the situation as a way to get her released.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


The finished film is a kaleidoscope of 1960s pop culture, with bright, eye-popping colours and a wonderful mixture of striking production design and Bava’s genius for optical effects. Rather than presenting the action in a static way to reflect its comic strip origins, Bava keeps his camera moving, deliver a fast-paced narrative decorated with stylistic flourishes which give the film a feel of hyper-reality. Bava achieved the apparent scale and complexity of Diabolik’s underground headquarters by combining the actors with Bava’s matte paintings. Other visuals were created by cutting pictures of buildings, aircraft and other items from magazines, posting them on to a sheet of strategically placed glass and then shooting the action through it. Although it sounds like a terrible idea, Bava makes it work.

There are some other noteworthy touches too. Bava uses animation to draw lines on a map, and for a photo-fit device used by the police to try and identify Eva. He also employs his usual trick of foregrounding objects to give depth to scenes, sometimes shooting through some that break the image into squares approximating the comic book panels, such as empty bookshelves and a bedstead.
Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)

There’s a flamboyance and a real sense of freedom to the picture, fueled by a playful, liberated sexuality, displayed not by promiscuity, but the unfettered passion between Diabolik and Eva. It helps that Law and Mell have such sizzling chemistry and give note-perfect performances, sensibly resisting the temptation to play to the gallery. Celi is his usual, reliable self as boss of the criminal underworld and Piccoli underplays beautifully as our larcenous duo’s official nemesis. Thomas also provides a beautiful cameo as the government minister, begging the populace to pay their taxes voluntarily after Law and Mell blow up the tax office and destroy all the official records!

The cool 1960s vibe also gets a major assist from composer Ennio Morricone, who delivers a jazzy, uptempo score that’s an integral part of the film’s ambience. Sadly, the original tapes are no longer available, having been destroyed in a fire, and the only way to enjoy his work is to watch the film, although a re-recording from 2014 is available. Also on hand to deliver his expertise is artist Carlo Rambaldi who designed Diabolik’s iconic mask before going on to significant work in Hollywood, rewarded eventually with 3 Oscars, including one for ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982).

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


The character of Diabolik has his roots in older fictional masterminds, such as Germany’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ and the French ‘Fantomas’. Like those characters, in the source material, he plays with notions of identity, using lifelike masks to take on the appearance of anyone he chooses. This idea was dropped from the film, leaving him more in common with later villains such as ‘Kriminal’. He was developed as a direct rival to Diabolik but arrived on the big screen first in the form of Glenn Saxson. In a sly tip of the hat, the bank manager who hands the ten million dollars over to Piccioli at the start of this film is played by Andrea Bosic, who served as Saxson’s official opponent in those earlier ‘Kriminal’ pictures.

There are some flaws in Bava’s film, though. The process shots and rear-projection are so hideous and poorly done that it’s tempting to believe that it was a deliberate choice, made by the director to contribute to the comic-book aesthetic. If so, then it’s one of the few visual missteps in his career. The script, credited to several writers, including Bava, is a little scrambled and untidy, but that may have been intentional too, as it does lift some sequences directly from the source material and contributes to the freewheeling atmosphere.

Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik (1968)


Diabolik’s return to the big screen any time soon seems an unlikely proposition, even though the global audience today shares some of the feelings of the public who first elevated the character to its iconic status in Italy after the Second World War. Specifically, a distrust of authority figures who increasingly excuse graft and political corruption by using the loopholes in a legal system designed solely for their benefit. This growing cynicism would embrace a subversive character such as this, but any new iteration would need to walk a very fine line. After all, a lot of his actions would be interpreted by most as aspects of domestic terrorism, even though he has no political agenda or desire to enforce change on the system.

Bava’s cut-price optical effects helped bring the film in for a cost of approximately $400,000 when it had originally been allocated a budget of $3 million. De Laurentiis offered him the chance to direct a sequel with the unused money, but Bava turned it down, unhappy with what he felt was interference from the studio during the filmmaking process. Perhaps the money would have been better used smoothing off some of the rougher edges of this film anyway.

A thoroughly enjoyable Sixties romp, tinged with psychedelia and filtered through the genius of Mario Bava.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)‘How many times do I have to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts?’

A struggling writer is about to leave Rome and fly back to the United States. On the way back to his apartment one night, he witnesses a woman being stabbed in an art gallery. She survives the ordeal, but the police inspector assigned to the case is convinced that it’s connected to the murders of three young women in the city over the past few weeks… 

Writer-director Dario Argento’s debut film redefined the Giallo picture and turned into a marketable international commodity, provoking a avalanche of similar Italian pictures over the next five years. These edgy, stylish and violent horror thrillers are considered the precursor to the American slasher craze, which began with John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978) and is still producing new movies almost half a century later.

Author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a cynical, defeated man. His sojourn in Italy has produced only a factual book about rare birds, rather than the Great American Novel that he had intended to write. Tickets are already booked for a flight home with girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) when he goes to pick up his final paycheck with friend, Carlo (Renato Romano). On his way home alone, he passes by an art gallery and witnesses two figures in the mezzanine of an art gallery struggling with a knife. The woman is stabbed, and her assailant escapes with Musante trapped between the automatic glass doors that open onto the street.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) survives the attack, to the relief of worried husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) who owns the gallery. Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) believes the violent assault is linked to the recent murders of three young women in the city. The victims were not connected, and Salerno is keen to keep eyewitness Musante close at hand, especially as the writer is convinced there was something odd about what he saw, although he can’t quite put it into words. Salerno encourages Musante to investigate the case himself, and the American needs little encouragement.

Groundbreaking films can be difficult to assess once a great deal of time has passed. Whatever innovations they brought to the table will often have become familiar with their use by other filmmakers in subsequent years, sometimes almost to the point of cliché. It’s refreshing, then, that the dynamic cutting, pace and abundance of exciting technique ensure that Argento’s film still holds up remarkably well today, even though its impact has inevitably lessened a little with the years. Rewatching does expose some weaknesses in the narrative and story structure, but these are not major enough to compromise the suspension of disbelief or affect the entertainment value.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Argento got the inspiration for his story from Frederic Brown’s noir novel ‘Screaming Mimi’. It had already been filmed by director Gerd Oswald under that title in 1958 but, despite being mostly faithful to the decent source material, the results were a disappointment. Argento elected to use the book only as a jumping-off point; specifically the notion of a psychotic triggered by an object of art. Like the novel, the film does open with an assault visible from the street through glass, but Brown’s original has it in a hotel lobby, and his protagonist only witnesses the aftermath. The only other similarity is a passing reference to Musante’s character having a drinking issue, the reporter in Brown’s story being a (barely) functioning alcoholic. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Argento chose not to credit Brown’s novel.

One of the film’s great virtues is its pacing. The script sets up Musante’s character very quickly. The quick, potted history of his unproductive time in Rome is covered in casual conversation with friend Romano, and he’s across the street from the art gallery less than five minutes into the movie. This scene is rightly celebrated as a masterful example of concept, production design, editing and execution. Musante getting trapped between the two sliding glass doors may be a somewhat unlikely development, but it’s an important touchstone for his character that helps to inform his later actions. All he can do is watch Renzi bleeding out on the carpet, reflecting his own artistic impotence and failure.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

These circumstances help explain why Musante stays to investigate the killings, rather than getting out of Rome on the first plane after Salerno returns his passport. Similarly, the script may give the talented Kendall little to do, but her presence is essential in how it softens Musante’s character. Without her, the writer would come across as almost entirely self-absorbed and more than a little arrogant. It helps enormously with audience investment and sympathy that the two actors have good chemistry together and present a convincing romantic couple. 

But what takes the picture to the next level are Argento’s attempts to do something interesting with every scene, either visually or by use of Ennio Morricone’s masterful score. The music is particularly effective in elevating potentially generic scenes such as the one where Musante questions antique dealer (Werner Peters); the wordless chorus of female singers performing almost in a half-whisper providing a unique ambience. Just as importantly, the young director never allows technique to overshadow the drama, avoiding the self-conscious showboating that many directors of the period favoured.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

There’s also outstanding use of locations. Instead of the Eternal City as seen through a tourist’s eyes, this is a Rome of crumbling plasterwork, broken light bulbs and run down, abandoned buildings. Again, it’s not overplayed, it just serves to give each scene a visual identity, and ground the more stylised aspects in a solid, tactile reality. This attention to detail is ever-present on many levels; for example, there’s an almost playful scene where Musante and Kendall discuss the previous murders. She is almost laughing as she reads out the details from newspaper clippings. Argento intercuts this banter with black and white photographs of the murdered victims at the crime scenes, a device which would raise few eyebrows now, but wasn’t something you expect to see in a film of this vintage.

Similar care is taken with most of the supporting characters, with some sly comedy courtesy of stuttering pimp Garrulo (Gildo Di Marco), the contradictory patter of snitch Faiena (Pino Patti) and the dietary habits of artists Consalvi (Mario Adorf). Again, these could have been very generic roles in very generic scenes, but they are made memorable, thanks to the quirky traits Argento bestows on these minor characters. There also an effort to show the police at work, both with new forensic methods (very dated now, of course) and with standard, routine procedure. Nothing unusual when viewed today, of course, but not a common aspect of the films of the time.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Those watching the film for the first time today, expecting buckets of gore are likely to be disappointed. Proceedings aren’t entirely bloodless, but the kills are not very explicit although Argento’s camera does linger and emphasise some of the more lurid aspects. We see the killer’s hands (Argento’s own) in black leather gloves, fondling the tools of their deadly trade. It’s almost fetishistic. The director breaks up the rhythm of the violence too, with the razor attack in the elevator swiftly delivered with multiple slashes of the weapon straight into camera. Familiar now, of course, but not the done thing at the time.

The film isn’t without some flaws, however, and these lie in the story development. For a start, we’re supposed to buy into the notion that seasoned copper Salerno not only grants Musante an inside view of the police investigation, he also encourages his only eyewitness to dig into the case himself. This is especially hard to swallow when the killer has already targeted Musante. Later on, an unknown assassin (US actor Reggie Nalder) is hired to deal with Musante and, although this leads to an excellent action scene and a fine gag, it doesn’t ring true in terms of the plot. This is explained when you learn that Argento ran into the holidaying Nalder on the street one day and wrote him a part in the film at the last minute.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

Also, it’s more than a little puzzling why the killer intends to rub out Musante in the first place. Why is he a threat exactly? His investigation hardly seems to be getting closer to the truth (despite what he says!), and the fact that the author is still struggling to recall something that he witnessed at the gallery isn’t news that’s likely to have escaped police headquarters. Sure, he’s been going around asking a lot of questions, but if that’s a valid criterion for being on our murderer’s hit list then why isn’t he after the entire police investigative team as well?

But the main issue is that no-one thinks to check out the origin of the painting. After all, it was sold by the first victim to a mysterious customer on the night she was killed. Musante stares at it off and on for most of the movie (he has a copy of it on their apartment wall!), and it’s only on the same day that he and Kendall are finally due to fly back to the States that he thinks it might be a good idea to look up the artist! In Brown’s original novel, the reporter is always aware of the importance of the little black statuette in the case (the ‘Screaming Mimi’ of the title) but keeps his knowledge from the police. Here, however, Inspector Salerno knows all about the painting from day one, but somehow never considers it as an appropriate line of enquiry.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

These are minor quibbles, however. The virtuosity of Argento’s framing, the superb cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, the editing of Franco Fraticelli and the production design of Dario Micheli (check out those fantastic pieces in the gallery!) combine to create an unforgettable experience. Despite a slow start at the box office, the film became a massive hit, both critically and commercially, playing for three and a half years in one Milan cinema. By 1971, the Italian film industry had gone Giallo crazy, and more than 60 similar pictures were delivered in the next couple of years.

Musante was an American actor who’d made a significant impact with a showy supporting role in ‘The Detective’ (1968), an unusual vehicle for Frank Sinatra which had played more as much as a character study than a conventional thriller. He never went onto to become a star but played second leads in a few significant pictures such as Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Grissom Gang’ (1971)and excellent crime drama ‘The Last Run’ (1971) starring George C Scott. He transitioned quickly into television and split his time between Italy and the US. Kendall had an uncredited bit in ‘Thunderball’ (1965) before making a big impression in a supporting role in ‘To Sir, with Love’ (1967). The female lead in social drama ‘Up the Junction’ (1968)followed, and she enjoyed another big hit in the title role of ‘Fraulein Doktor’ (1969). After leading roles in Sergio Martino’s ‘Torso’ (1973) and Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Spasmo’ (1974), she retired from the screen in 1977. 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

The film launched Argento on a celebrated filmmaking career, of course, as he followed up with further Gialli The Cat o’Nine Tails’ (1971) and ‘Four Flies On Grey Velvet’ (1971). An unsuccessful side-step into historical drama with ‘The Five Days’ (1973) was followed by arguably his most significant works; ‘Deep Red’ (1975), and the astounding ‘Suspiria’ (1977). Further projects such as ‘Inferno’ (1980)‘Tenebrae’ (1982)‘Phenomona’ (1985) and ‘Opera’ (1987) kept the bar high for many years, but his subsequent output is generally regarded as disappointing.

A daring piece of work that helped to define an entire sub-genre of film and was the calling card of a major new filmmaking talent. However, you can push all that historical importance to one side if you want and just revel in a cracking horror thriller. An essential Giallo.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)‘Attention, there’s a slippery area six square metres large on my right.’

Three young professionals get their kicks playing sex games with casual pickups from bars. However, when one of them dies in the throes of passion, they dump his body and cover up the death. Six years later, they receive an incriminating photograph of the night in question and a blackmail note…

Obscure Giallo thriller from co-writer and director Mauro Severino that seems just as concerned with social commentary as delivering any significant levels of mystery or suspense. Presenting critiques of the ‘smart set’ seems to have been ‘flavour of the month’ in Italian cinema at the tail end of the 1960s, and several examples of Gialli take this approach.

Another night means another menage a trois with a stranger for career girl, Lea (Marília Branco) and up and coming designer, Vanni (Daniël Sola). But, when their voyeur friend, Andrea (Roberto Bisacco) pops up to watch and take the usual dirty pictures, they discover their latest conquest has expired. Panicked, they cover up the mishap and go on with their lives. Six years go by and each his progressed well in their chosen career, and spend their leisure time hanging out with the local branch of the young and idle rich.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

‘Oh, that pose is so 1969…’

The blackmailing letter throws them into another state of panic, of course, as they see all their aspirations slipping through their fingers. They decide to pay up, but, after a midnight rendezvous to drop off the money, all they get is a note demanding more. At first, they suspect each other, but the aborted money drop confirms that another party is involved. They begin to suspect old friend Caletto (Lino Capolicchio). He’s an artist who flirts with radical political causes and has just returned to Madrid after some time away. They renew their friendship within him and invite him into their circle, all the while trying to satisfy themselves that he is the culprit they seek. When they become sure of his guilt, the question of murder raises its ugly head.

The Giallo was still an ill-defined beast at the end of the 1960s. Initially, a series of paperback books first issued in the 1930s that reached new heights of their popularity in the post-war period, these were generally mainstream murder-mysteries and thrillers. Later on, the movie iteration became far bloodier and more stylised, and a form that is now generally regarded as the forerunner of the American Slasher film. That distillation of these elements didn’t begin, however, until the release of Dario Argento’s international critical and commercial hit ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970) almost a full year later.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

‘Was your card the Ace of Spades?’

So here we have the Giallo format appropriated for social commentary, rather than horror or thrills. Our central trio is only concerned with retaining the status that their success and money has brought, even though Severino takes pain to show the emptiness and superficiality of this lifestyle. These beautiful people spend most of their time in a weary, listless stupor, their privilege having brought them little but an existence of endless boredom. So when Branco and Sola invite Capolicchio to one of their get-togethers, it’s the artist who shakes up the scene with some silly and nonsensical party games.

Unfortunately, the audience is unlikely to be engaged by any of these characters. On the one side, we have our humourless protagonists and their indolent gang, most of whom are just there to fill out the frame. We do get introduced to the bearded Filippo (Ivano Davoli) who is apparently Branco’s husband, but his presence is barely more delineated than any of the other members of the group. This may have been the intention, of course, to present its members as subservient to the collective and their standards of conformity, but it doesn’t make them attractive or interesting. The wild card is Capolicchio, but his quirkiness is so overdone that his antics and tiresome dissident posing pale very quickly. Is he assuming the role of the sacrificial lamb here in a kind of significant statement? If so, then the audience is far more likely to be eagerly anticipating the flash of the blade rather then concerning themselves with any message that the filmmakers are trying to convey. If any of the audience is still awake by the latter stages, that is.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

Luca’s new band needed some better instruments.

Severino had a career of about a quarter of a century in the Italian film industry but did not amass an exhaustive amount of credits. After a solitary acting gig on television, he moved behind the camera as an Assistant Director on just over half a dozen pictures, including historical drama ‘Queen of the Nile’ (1958) starring Vincent Price and horror-sci-fi mash-up ‘Hands of A Killer’ (1962). This picture was his debut as a feature director. Afterwards, he moved into television, mostly as a writer, taking on both roles for the 5-episode mini-series ‘Una città in fondo alla Strada’ (1975).

Of the cast members, the real success story is Capolicchio who went onto a long and award-winning career, although he had already nabbed an Italian Golden Globe as ‘Best Breakthrough Actor’ a year before this production hit theatres. Shortly afterwards, he toplined Vittorio De Sica’s acclaimed ‘Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini/The Garden of the Finzi-Contains’ (1970) and went on to star in Antonio Bido’s above-average Giallo ‘The Bloodstained Shadow’ (1978). He is still working in the industry as of 2019.

Dirty Angels/Vergogna schifosi (1969)

‘I couldn’t afford a bunch of roses.’

Perhaps the most surprising element though is the participation of world-famous composer Ennio Morricone on soundtrack duty. He delivers a decent score as you would expect, although the nursery rhyme chanting is a little overdone and does become a bit distracting. His presence is easily explained when you consider the man’s almost unbelievable productivity. In a 60-year career, he racked up over 500 soundtrack credits, everything from the iconic ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ (1968) to pulp science- fiction like ‘The Humanoid’ (1979), Arnold Schwarzenegger’s encounter with ‘Red Sonja’ (1985), and Dario Argento’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (1998). He finally won a belated Oscar for Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’ (2015) after previously being nominated five times. He passed in July 2020, and the world is a poorer place for his departure.

A slow-burning drama which is likely to frustrate fans of the Giallo as we understand it today. The social commentary may have been an accurate reflection of its time it’s likely to be lost on a modern audience.

Agent 505: Death Trap Beirut (1965)

Agent 505 - Death Trap Beirut (1965)‘Only someone who had experimented with refrigerants would have thought of it.’

Four-fingered master criminal The Sheik plans to kill everyone in Beirut by dosing the city with mercury, delivered via his own private rocket. Interpol send in top agent Richard Blake to assess the situation, infiltrate the villain’s lair and foil his deadly plan…

This week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’ is Czech-born actor Friedrich Strobel Von Stein, better known as Frederick Stafford, whose travel itinerary here is limited to Beirut rather than the main tourist spots of Europe. Helping him out on his mission is pretty young blonde reporter Genevieve Cluny and ‘comedy’ sidekick Chris Howland. All are gathered together under the eye of director Manfred R Köhler, whose other main assignment in the canvas chair was delivering ‘Target For Killing’ (1966), a far superior exercise in the spy game which starred one-time Hollywood heartthrob Stewart Granger.

Like the filmmakers, lnterpol are obviously working on a limited budget here as the only gadgets available to Stafford are a pen radio (think ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’) and a briefcase that drips a colourless, flammable liquid that can be ignited by a cigarette. If that last one seems rather random, it proves real handy when the luggage in question is stolen. Our mysterious villain (just who is he?) has a far better arsenal at hand; guns that fire needles of frozen oxygen (they disappear in the bloodstream!) and a deadly telephone handset that redefines the term ‘nuisance call.’

The plot revolves mostly around Stafford’s investigations; getting up close and personal with bad girl Gisella Arden, taking part in an interminable isotope heist from a ship in port and hanging out at ‘The Red Cockatoo’, a dodgy club owned by dragon lady Carla Calo. On a positive note, some of the outdoor locations are well-chosen and help give the action scenes a little extra flourish. There’s a good stunt with a helicopter (even if the rotors seem to stop dead immediately a few seconds after it lands), and the old ‘empty car going off the side of the mountain’ is far better realised than in most films. Stafford is also not bad as the lead, displaying the necessary suavity and a good moment of eyebrow action almost a decade before Roger Moore made the move his own. He also has no time for a Martini; his signature tipple instead being ‘Two raw eggs, banana, an orange, lemon juice, two teaspoons of sugar and three jiggers of rum’.

Agent 505 - Death Trap Beirut (1965)

‘I told you, you should have used protection.’

There’s the odd moment of wit, as he tells a bad guy ‘We could go on fighting like this for an hour, but l just don’t have the time’ before finishing him off. Although it’s probably best that girls don’t put him to the test when he says: ‘I’ll spank you and I’m very good at it.’ Another mission followed for Stafford in ‘Furia a Bastia Pour OSS117’ (1965) and he also went on to star in Hitchcock flop ‘Topaz’ (1969).

What lets Stafford and the rest of the cast down is the drab, uninspired script, which is a surprise as writer-director Köhler’s regular job was behind the typewriter. However, the quality of the projects with which he was involved is incredibly variable; everything from Harry Kümel’s haunting ‘Daughters of Darkness’ (1971) to the rags and tatters of Jess Franco’s dreary ‘The Blood of Fu Manchu’ (1968). Another disappointment here is the score from world-famous film composer, Ennio Morricone; significant moments signposted by a crash of orchestral instruments rather in the manner of a silent melodrama. It happens so often that it even starts to become annoying. Of course, it is possible that this was added in the English dub so l guess we have to give the great man the benefit of the doubt.

Stafford is fairly surrounded by international agents in this one, including his hotel chambermaid who is played by Renate Ewert. She was already battling drink and drug problems by the time of filming, brought on by disappointment with her acting career. Sadly, she died at her apartment later the same year that the film was released. The official cause of death was starvation, and it was three weeks before her body was found. Shortly afterwards, her parents committed suicide, unable to cope with their daughter’s death.

Professionally competent, but a dull, formulaic spy adventure of little interest.