Death Occurred Last Night/La morte risale a ieri sera (1970)

Death Occurred Last Night/La morte risale a ieri sera (1970)‘You smell fishy from a distance too.’

A young woman with learning difficulties goes missing. The police believe she has been kidnapped for sex trafficking purposes and focus their attention on the local brothels. When her burned body is found on a patch of waste ground, it becomes a murder enquiry. Then her father accidentally stumbles across a significant clue to her killer…

Character-driven police drama with a touch of Giallo from co-writer and director Duccio Tessari and based on a novel by Giorgio Scerbaneco. It’s a very serious piece spearheaded by two outstanding central performances and a script that escalates from an almost routine beginning to a climax of startling violence.

Pretty young twenty-something Donatella Bergzighi (Gillian Gray) has the mind of a child. Her father Amanzio (Raf Vallone) keeps her locked in their flat when he’s at work due to her nymphomaniac tendencies. When he returns one day to find her gone without a trace, he reports the matter to the police but the investigation stalls immediately. Frustrated and desperate when she’s been missing for a month, he makes a personal appeal to Captain of Police (Frank Wolff). The senior officer agrees to investigate, accompanied by his young partner Mascaranti (Gabriele Tinti). 

Death Occurred Last Night/La morte risale a ieri sera (1970)

‘What do you mean? This is the latest in facial recognition technology…’

Wolff is convinced that the girl has been sold into prostitution and targets reluctant local pimp Salvatore (Gigi Rizzi) for information. A tour of the local establishments follows, and Wolff gets a lead from working girl Herrero (Beryl Cunningham) after she initially refuses to help. Wolff takes the unusual step of taking her into protective custody in the home he shares with his wife (Eva Renzi). But events take a tragic turn when Gray’s lifeless body is discovered, and Vallone becomes involved in the hunt for the truth.

Tessari’s film begins as a standard police procedural with Wolff and Tinti’s investigations centring on legwork rather than inspiration. These early scenes are determinedly low-key and focus on routine and every day realism, with Wolff acting as mentor to his slightly brash, insensitive young partner. However, it’s in the domestic scenes where the film really scores, with Wolff and Renzi making for a completely convincing long-term couple. He’s a committed lawman who  ant help but get personally involved while still able to acknowledge the overall futility of his crusade. She’s the socially-conscious pragmatist who doesn’t bat an eye when he brings Cunningham home to stay for a while. Although these early scenes might not seem important, they lay an important groundwork which helps give later developments a more lasting impact.

Death Occurred Last Night/La morte risale a ieri sera (1970)

Starsky and Hutch: The Wilderness Years

Overall, the plot may not be anything too remarkable but the script by Tessari, Biagio Proietti and Artfur Brauner makes the most out of every scene and provides a fine platform for Wolff, Vallone and the rest of the cast. Even Tinti’s character, which may seem a little one-dimensional at first, takes on more depth as events unfold and he is forced to confront some unpleasant truths. No, it’s by no means a vital element of the film, but it’s this kind of attention to detail that gives the film a richer quality than most of a similar stamp. Perhaps the highlight is the gut-wrenching scene where Wolff watches Vallone as he packs up his dead little girl’s belongings and cuddly toys to throw out with the trash. It’s a master of understatement by both actors, absolutely heartbreaking and hard to watch. 

Sadly, there were to be no further adventures for the partnership of Wolff and Tinti. American-born actor Wolff began his career with small roles in Roger Corman films such as ‘The Wasp Woman’ (1959) and ‘Beast From Haunted Cave’ (1959) and had a few roles on Network TV before trying his luck in Italy. Success followed with his first role, co-starring with Salvo Randone in historical Mafia drama ‘Salvatore Giuliano’ (1962), but he found his greatest success with Spaghetti Westerns, including ‘Ringo, the Mark of Vengeance’ (1966), ‘Last of the Badmen’ (1967) and ‘God Forgives…I Don’t! (1967). There were also significant supporting roles in Sergio Corbicci’s ‘The Great silence’ (1968), ‘Villa Rides’ (1968) with Yul Brynner and Robert Mitchum and in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ (1969). However, the actor struggled with chronic depression and took his own life in Rome’s Hilton Hotel in December 1971.

Death Occurred Last Night/La morte risale a ieri sera (1970)

The extended spin-cycle still wasn’t enough to get all the blood out…

Vallone, on the other hand, had been a mainstay of Italian cinema since the early 1940s and within two decades had built his career to third-billing below an Oscar-winning Sophia Loren in Vittorio De Sica’s ‘Two Women’ (1960). He occupied the same place behind her and Charlton Heston in the epic ‘El Cid’ (1961), played with Stewart Granger and Mickey Rooney in ‘The Secret Invasion’ (1964), was the ‘Bond villain’ in ‘Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die’ (1966) and had a significant role in caper classic ‘The Italian Job’ (1969). He continued working in Italian pictures and TV throughout the 1970s, with the occasional American project such as ‘The Greek Tycoon’ (1978). One of us last big screen appearances was as the Cardinal in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather Part III’ (1990).

Like Wolff, Tessari also found his first big success in Spaghetti Westerns, cutting his teeth on the script for Sergio Leone’s classic ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964). He had already been working as a writer in the local industry for over a decade and a half by then, contributing to such Peplum outings as ‘Colossus and the Amazon Queen’ (1960), ‘Hercules Conquers Atlantis’ (1961) and ‘Hercules and the Haunted World’ (1961) for director Mario Bava. He first picked up the megaphone for the similarly themed ‘Sons of Thunder’ (1962) but became best known for some of the entries in the ‘Ringo’ series of Westerns. By 1970, however, he had already diversified with caper films, comedies and crime dramas, such as ‘I Bastardi/The Bastard’ (1968) which starred Rita Hayworth and Klaus Kinski. He followed this film with full-blown Giallo ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ (1971) but his most significant other work was action-comedy ‘Zorro’ (1975) with Alain Delon and Stanley Baker.

A quiet but surprisingly effective hybrid of crime drama and Giallo that sneaks up on the viewer unawares and leaves a lasting impression. Well worth the trouble of seeking out. 

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.