So Sweet So Dead/Rivelazioni di un maniaco sessuale al capo della squadra mobile (1972)

‘He has this morbid passion…for corpses.’

A killer targets the wives of some of the leading men of a small provincial city. Evidence of their adulterous affairs is left behind at each crime scene, but the men’s faces in the photographs have been mutilated beyond recognition…

Run-of-the-mill Giallo thriller, courtesy of director Roberto Bianchi Montero, working from a script he co-authored with Luigi Angelo and Italo Fasan. Ex-Hollywood leading man Farley Granger stars, along with Sylvia Koscina and Silvano Tranquili.

The pressure’s on at police headquarters after a General’s wife, Floriana (Ulla Johannsen), is found naked on a bed with her throat cut. The killer has scattered a collection of compromising photographs around the corpse, with the face of her lover erased from each one. The case lands on the desk of Inspector Capuana (Granger), whose wife Barbara (Koscina) moved in the same social circles as the victim. Medical examiner Professor Casali (Chris Avram) theorises that the killer is a sex maniac, and it’s not so long before he strikes again, butchering Serena (Femi Benussi), shortly after a late-night tryst with her illicit lover, Gianni (Andrea Scotti).

Prominent criminal lawyer Paolo Santangeli (Silvano Tranquilli) becomes connected to the case by representing Scotti. However, he would much rather be in conference with mistress Lilly (Nieves Navarro), who lives next door to his family home with her disabled husband. Tranquilli’s wife Franca (Annabella Incontrera) knows all about his cheating and has started her own out-of-town affair, while their teenage daughter Bettina (Angela Corvello) is seeing ‘unsuitable’ scooter boy Piero (Fabrizio Moresco). Koscina’s friend Renata (Krista Nell) is also on the killer’s wish list due to her ongoing liaisons with young stud Mauro (Paul Oxon).

At first glance, it might seem that the large number of extra-marital affairs and infidelities tag the film as more daytime soap opera than Giallo. However, this apparently tangled web of romantic intrigues serves only one purpose: to provide victims for the killer. Director Montero focuses firmly on the mystery and the ongoing investigations of Inspector Granger and his efforts to unmask the mysterious slasher. Unfortunately, the results are routine at best, with a mechanical plot, shallow characters and little creativity. There are few surprises, with the victims clearly signposted one at a time before the killer strikes and a staggering lack of detail regarding the investigation. Granger is told to tread carefully because the victims were from high society, advice he seems to take to heart as he prefers to haul in various pimps and streetwalkers rather than talk to some of the husbands involved. We never even see him interview Corvello after she witnesses one of the slayings!

However, spending more time on Granger’s efforts at detection would probably have meant less footage of the female cast with their clothes off. Yes, there’s plenty of casual nudity for our unfaithful wives, although only Navarro gets an actual sex scene. This naked romp proved far too hot for some, and the scene was heavily trimmed for release in certain territories. Ironically, the film was later re-edited with new scenes featuring adult stars Harry Reems and Tina Russell and released in America as ‘Penetration’. Not best pleased that he had been re-cast as a porn-watching detective, Granger threatened legal action and the film was withdrawn, although apparently, the re-cut version still played in parts of Europe.

Giallo is often attacked for its gender politics and attitudes toward women, and this is one such film that merits discussion in that regard. The victims here are explicitly targeted because of their infidelity and often meet their ends in various states of undress and just after sex. On the other hand, the men escape scott-free with no consequence for their actions other than the fear of being unjustly accused of the crime. In slight mitigation to the filmmakers, none of the women concerned has multiple lovers, and at least some justification is provided for their actions. Incontrera’s husband is already sleeping around, Navarro’s is virtually bedridden and probably impotent, and the initial victim, Johannsen, was married to a General, which suggests a considerable age gap. Even Granger is so obsessed with his job that it’s unlikely Koscina is having a great time between the sheets. However, given the slapdash nature of the production, it’s probably pushing it a bit to assign the filmmakers with conscious intent on any of these matters.

The film boasts little in the way of memorable visuals, although Montero does deliver one excellent sequence as Benussi flees the dark silhouette of the killer along a beach at night. It’s the one extended use of slow motion in the film, and it works very well, although the killer’s look is almost a direct steal from Mario Bava’s far superior ‘6 Donne Por L’assassino/Blood and Black Lace’ (1964). There’s also an entertaining supporting role for Luciano Rossi as Avram’s rather too enthusiastic right-hand man Gastone. Not only does he help the Professor with his autopsies, but he also ‘beautifies’ the dead bodies afterwards and takes photos of them! I’m pretty sure that’s the role of funeral parlour staff rather than the Police Medical Examiner’s Assistant, but maybe they do things differently in Italy.

Granger was a veteran of Giallo by this point in his fading career, and he anchors the drama with a solid performance, effectively selling his character’s emotional conflict at the climax. Sadly, there’s very little for the female cast to do except disrobe, die and fire the odd, half-hearted bitchy comment each other’s way. Navarro makes the best of it with her effortless sensual charisma, but all the women are drawn in broad, identikit strokes. The script has all the hallmarks of a project thrown together hastily, with the writers ticking a series of boxes to guarantee an easy hop onto the Giallo bandwagon. Unknown killer with a blade? Check. Beautiful women with their clothes off? Check. Intricate mystery laced with subtle clues, fascinating characters and gripping drama? Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Koscina’s four-decade-long screen career began with a featured role in the Second World War comedy ‘Siamo uomini o caporali’ (1955), which starred famous Italian funnyman Totò. Her big break arrived only three years later when she starred as Iole, Daughter of Pelias, opposite Steve Reeves in the international smash ‘Hercules/Le fatiche di Ercole’ (1958) and the sequel ‘Hercules Unchained/Ercole e la regina di Lidia’ (1959). She confirmed her comedic credentials in many other projects at this time, including several with old friend Totò. When tax breaks and low production costs brought Hollywood to Italian shores in the early 1960s, she picked up supporting roles in American features and soon graduated to starring with Dirk Bogarde in knowing British spy flick ‘Hot Enough for June’ (1964). Abel Gance’s ‘Cyrano et d’Artagnan’ (1964) followed, and she appeared in a minor role in Federico Fellini’s ‘Juliet of the Spirits/Giulietta degli spiriti’ (1967). She also had time to romance Bulldog Drummond in ‘Deadlier Than The Male’ (1967) and led cult item ‘He and She/L’assoluto naturale’ (1969). Notable leading men included Paul Newman in ‘The Secret War of Harry Frigg’ (1968), Kirk Douglas in ‘A Lovely Way To Die’ (1968) and Rock Hudson in ‘Hornet’s Nest’ (1970). The 1970s brought Giallo ‘The Crimes of the Black Cat/Sette scialli di seta gialla’ (1972) and work for Mario Bava in ‘Lisa and the Devil/Lisa e il diavolo’ (1973). She struggled with tax problems in the following years but was still working up to her death from heart trouble in 1994.

So sweet, so dead…and so anonymous too.

The Red Headed Corpse/La rossa dalla pelle che scotta/The Sensuous Doll (1972)

‘Is it that my skin is like silk?’

An artist living alone in a rundown cottage struggles to sell his work. Some hippies leave a store mannequin on his property, and he brings it into his studio to work on it. After a while, it seems to turn into a beautiful woman, but is she just a manifestation of his increasingly fractured psyche?

Somewhat muddled Italian-Turkish Giallo from writer-director Renzo Russo that benefits from some good lead performances but little else. The Turkish financing leads to some aerial shots of Istanbul, but otherwise has little impact on proceedings.

John Ward (Farley Granger) is a long way down a slippery slope into alcohol dependence and mental instability. Most of the time, he sulks alone in his cottage studio, working on pictures he struggles to sell to gallery owner Erol Keskin. One night as he lies in a drunken stupor, a mysterious burglar breaks into his home but steals only a photograph of the artist with a young woman.

The next day Granger finds some hippies on his land, but they’re happy to move on after using his grounds as an outside toilet. They leave behind a battered old shop mannequin, which he takes into his studio. Interaction with local prostitute Mala (Ivana Novak) proves unsatisfactory, so Granger begins talking to the dummy instead, and he’s rewarded when it comes to life as the silent, smiling Subservient Doll (Krista Nell).

But this modern-day Pygmalion story takes a strange twist when the drunken Granger makes love to Nell on the rug in front of the fireplace. When he wakes up, she’s transformed into Erika Blanc (‘The Sensuous Doll’), who is anything but quiet and demure. While he’s off trying to sell his pictures, she starts a passionate fling with shotgun-wielding Venantino Venantini and entertains art buyer Aydin Tezel on Granger’s sofa. When he finds out, the artist’s thoughts turn to murder.

This is a strange, ambiguous piece that struggles to establish a coherent, consistent narrative. There is nothing wrong with non-linear storytelling, of course, but with events being further complicated by Granger’s deteriorating mental condition, it’s hard for the audience to get invested in the drama. On reflection, the inclusion of Nell’s character is a particular head-scratcher with no apparent payoff other than to demonstrate Granger’s fragile grip on reality.

The second act emerges as an extended flashback, triggered by the painter’s delusion of the mannequin coming to life. Granger and Blanc’s behaviour strongly suggests a long-term relationship, and she interacts with other characters when he is absent. However, this assumption is called into question by a couple of late twists, and the scenario is never entirely resolved.

The good news is that Granger and Blanc are both excellent. Neither of their characters is particularly complex, but both manage to exploit every nuance that Russo’s script can offer. The strong inference is that the Granger’s artist is impotent, which has driven him to the bottle and her to other men. He gives a fine, sensitive performance, hinting strongly at times at the good man who is still buried beneath the booze and the torment. Blanc shows us a woman who struggles to resist her impulses but can’t overcome her physical needs and the resentment she feels toward Granger. Later on, she becomes an active sexual predator as her repressions dissipate.

Unfortunately, apart from their work, the film has little to recommend it. Russo’s handling of his material lacks any real imagination and drive. These are significant problems when your story doesn’t have enough development to fill even a scant 78-minute running time. The project would probably work far better as an episode of a TV anthology rather than a full-blown feature.

Russo doesn’t try to play on audience sympathies when he presents his broken characters, which is admirable. However, more context, or past character history, might have helped to alleviate the effort that the audience has to make with such an ambiguous set of circumstances. The lack of information does make for a frustrating experience, especially on first viewing.

The film was unsuccessful, and Russo never appears to have directed again. It was his first film in eight years, and, prior to this, he seems to have worked in the adult film market with titles like ‘The Kinky Darlings/Per una valigia piena di donne’ (1964) and ‘Europa: Operazione Strip-tease’ (1964) on his résumé. There is little biographical information on him and this, his most notable project, is still a little bit of an obscurity. Some sources even misidentify actor Tezel as a separate performer called ‘Aydin Terzel’.

Granger was a Hollywood star who failed to make a significant impact the first time around before re-signing with movie producer Samuel Goldwyn after the delayed release of Nicholas Ray’s low-budget but critically acclaimed ‘They Live By Night’ (1948). Several prestige projects followed, including two appearances for Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Rope’ (1948) and ‘Strangers On A Train’ (1950), the latter being the role for which he is best remembered today. Although the remainder of the decade found him regularly working in the big-budget arena, leading man status was never assured. On those occasions when he did achieve it, he was usually billed below his leading ladies, such as Alida Valli in Luchino Visconti’s ‘Senso’ (1954), his first brush with European cinema. By the early 1970s, he was living in Italy, his work in America generally confined to the theatre and the small screen.

Blanc was born in Lombardy as Enrica Bianchi Colombatto and has enjoyed a long and successful career in film and television, which continues to this day. She began with small parts in Eurospy features, such as ‘Espionage in Lisbon/Misión Lisboa’ (1965), before her obvious abilities led to more featured supporting roles in similar films such as ‘Spies Kill Silently/Le spie uccidono in silenzio’ (1966) and early Giallo ‘The Third Eye/Il terzo occhio’ (1966). Cult director Mario Bava cast her as the female lead in his classic ‘Kill, Baby… Kill!/Operazione paura’ (1966) that same year, and Blanc was on her way to a prominent cult movie career that included more horror, ‘Devil’s Nightmare/La plus longue nuit du diable’ (1971) and Gialli such as ‘So Sweet… So Perverse/Così dolce… così perversa’ (1969) and ‘The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave/La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba’ (1971). There were also further spy adventures, comedies, crime pictures, and Spaghetti Westerns like ‘Vengeance is My Forgiveness/La vendetta è il mio perdono’ (1968) and ‘Sartana’s Here… Trade Your Pistol for a Coffin/C’è Sartana… vendi la pistola e comprati la bara!’ (1970). After the 1970s, she mainly moved into television but won the award for Best Supporting Actress for ‘Sacred Heart/Cuore sacro’ (2005) at the Flaiano Film Festival.

The two leads elevate the material as far as it will go, but script limitations drag the movie down.

Amuck!/Alla ricerca del piacere (1972)

‘What is the monkey to man, contemptuous mirth or painful truth?’

A beautiful woman goes to work for a famous writer living on a small island on the outskirts of Venice. However, she’s investigating the disappearance of his previous secretary, who was her best friend. As she spends time in the household, she’s inexorably drawn into the author’s sleazy world of drugs, decadence and casual sex…

Handsome looking mystery thriller from writer-director Silvio Amadio that attracted a cast as impressive as its Venetian locations. The filmmaker already had previous experience with the Giallo, and this entry easily eclipses his previous efforts.

Greta Franklin (Barbara Bouchet) is a girl on a mission. She’s following in the footsteps of her best friend, Sally Reece (Patrizia Viotti), who worked for the same New York publishing house. This involves getting the gig as new secretary to celebrated author Richard Stuart (Farley Granger) and living at his luxury home on the water outside Venice. Viotti disappeared there without a trace the previous winter, and local policeman, Commissario Antonelli (Nino Segurini), hasn’t been able to make any headway in the case.

On arrival, Bouchet meets the household; Granger’s sexy and uninhibited wife Eleanora (Rosalba Neri), taciturn butler Giovanni (Umberto Raho) and frequent visitor Sandro (Dino Mele). It’s not long before Bouchet’s duties expand from typing and dictation to attending Granger and Neri’s informal soirees, which come with recreational substances and stag films. By then, she’s already been seduced by Neri, who uses the sudden, frightening appearance of slow-witted local Rocco (Petar Martinovitch) to slip something a little spicier than the usual sedative into Bouchet’s medicine glass.

Initially, Amadio’s story is intriguing and has several interesting possibilities. It’s not long before Bouchet becomes a willing participant in the household’s extra-curricular activities. It’s all to aid her investigations, of course, but pill-popping, cuddling up to young stud muffin Mele and falling for the suave Granger is a risky strategy at best. It’s unusual to see such an apparently intelligent heroine exhibit such poor decision making. However, it’s a credit to Bouchet’s well-rounded performance that she never loses the audience’s sympathy and that her actions only seem rather dumb in hindsight.

Amadio was fortunate to have Bouchet, as the dramatic weight of his story falls mainly on her shoulders. Granger and Neri are both excellent as the corrupt, amoral sophisticates, but there is a nagging feeling that they aren’t given enough to do, despite some standout moments. Raho is often surplus to plot requirements, too, although it is nice to see the actor play something other than a cop for a change. It’s the third act and the solution to the mystery that ultimately pulls the film down. It’s not that the resolution is illogical or doesn’t make sense; just the opposite, as a matter of fact. Instead, it’s an entirely predictable and underwhelming conclusion to a second-half in which suspense and intrigue have been allowed to drain away slowly.

The Venetian locations are an asset to the production, though, even if Amadio doesn’t see the unique possibilities that director Nicolas Roeg was able to exploit to such incredible effect in his horror classic ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973). Of course, he may have wanted to avoid a ‘tourist board showcase’ of the famous canalled city, and he does exhibit such restraint in a couple of other key areas. Teo Usuelli’s music is distinctly overdone, so Amadio employs it only sparingly. The baroque choral stylings would be more at home with the extravagant flourishes of a director like Dario Argento than accompanying a grounded story like this. Also, the lesbian sex scene between Neri and Bouchet is frank but not exploitative, with slow-motion employed to highlight the participants’ beauty rather than dwell crudely on the act itself.

The film does display quite a few strong elements. Besides the excellent cast, Amadio and veteran cinematographer Aldo Giordani deliver a sensational-looking movie with some very striking visual moments. Bouchet transcribing Granger’s new novel, which seems to be both a description of how her best friend died and a warning of what will happen to her if she keeps on with her investigations, is a fresh idea and executed with some panache. The duck hunt that turns deadly is very well-staged, and the sequence where our heroine is inadvertently locked in the cellar is an excellent example of a minimalist sound design which is present throughout. Unfortunately, all these undoubted virtues need to be allied to a compelling mystery, and that’s the one crucial element that’s missing in action.

Amadio first dabbled in Giallo with the underwhelming ‘Assassination in Rome/Il segreto del vestito rosso’ (1965), a venture probably most memorable for the completely disinterested performance of its star, Cyd Charisse. Four years later, he tried again with the low-budget ‘No Man’s Island/Twisted Girls/Island of the Swedish Girls/L’isola delle svedesi’ (1969), an undistinguished piece most likely hampered by limited resources. After this step up in class, he continued along the same lines with ‘Smile Before Death/Il sorriso della iena’ (1973), which again starred Neri and featured an uncredited Bouchet in a tiny cameo. After detours into comedy, crime and romantic drama, he returned to the Giallo one last time for ‘So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious…/Peccati di gioventù’ (1975).

Considerably less than the sum of its parts, although undeniably a quality production.