‘They found the head of a black cat on the tracks.’
A blind pianist overhears a blackmail plot on the night his girlfriend ends their relationship. The next day she is murdered under mysterious circumstances at the fashion house where she works. Then her cousin is killed, and he determines to investigate over the objections of the police…
Fair to middling Giallo thriller that takes some second-hand story elements from previous entries in the sub-genre and attempts to mix them into something new. Director Sergio Pastore also assembles a cast of familiar faces for this Italian-Danish co-production partially shot in Copenhagen.
Composer Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen) is unsurprised when he’s stood up by young lover Paola Whitney (Isabelle Marchall) on a restaurant date. What he doesn’t expect, however, is to overhear two voices in the next booth planning a blackmail scheme. They are vague on the details, and his blindness prevents him from carrying out an identification. The next day Marchall dies suddenly in her dressing room at work, the only clues to the cause being some scratches on her face and a strange wicker basket that disappears.
It doesn’t take long to uncover that Marchall was starting a blackmail scheme with her cousin, photographer Harry (Romano Malaspina). Their target was the manager of the fashion studio, Victor Ballais (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), who’d been unwise enough to bed Ms Marchall in the glare of Malaspina’s flashbulb. Unfortunately, his playboy lifestyle depends on his wife, Françoise (Sylva Koscina), who owns the business. Unsatisfied with the efforts of Inspector Jansen (Renato De Carmine), Steffen determines to look into the situation himself, with the aid of right-hand man Burton (Umberto Raho) and Marchall’s roommate, Margot Thornhill (Shirley Corrigan).
Giving some old ideas a fresh coat of paint is nothing new in cinematic terms, particularly in the Italian film industry, where a slavish following of popular box-office trends was a given. So, director Pastore, who co-writes with Sandro Continenza and Giovanni Simonelli, can be forgiven for wearing his influences prominently on his sleeve. The concept of a blind detective goes all the way back to Henry Hathaway’s ’23 Paces to Baker Street’ (1956) but, of course, had been more famously revived in the person of actor Karl Malden by Giallo master Dario Argento for ‘The Cat o’ Nine Tails/Il gatto a nove code’ (1971). Similarly, director Mario Bava utilised the fashion house setting with far more style and effect for seminal early Giallo ‘Blood and Black Lace/6 donne per l’assassino’ (1964). Even the past event providing the catalyst for the murderous rampage had previously served as a plot device.
Pastore, therefore, has little to offer in terms of originality beyond the rather novel method used in some of the earlier murders. This M.O. does strain credibility more than a little, but it is the one thing the film possesses that is slightly different. The lack of ideas in the well-thumbed plot throws the weight of expectation on the technical execution and the cast, and neither really rises to the occasion. Pastore relies on an over-use of whip-pans and crash zooms to try and infuse the drama with some energy but beyond a dash of suspense in a final act scene set in an abandoned glassworks, the film never really gets out of first gear. There is also a particularly nasty kill late on, which is queasily effective thanks to some rapid editing but feels strangely out of place with what has gone before.
The cast features a roster of reliable performers, many with previous Giallo credits. They do what they can with the material, but many of the roles are severely underwritten. Steffen is perfectly convincing as a blind man but never approaches the levels of personality that Malden displayed for Argento, so he fails to engage any significant audience sympathy or investment. Raho manages some subtle moments as Steffen’s almost ever-present factotum, but the acting plaudits mainly belong to Giovanna Lenzi, here credited, as per usual, as Jeanette Len. Her performance as a drug addict blackmailed into helping the killer feels more urgent and immediate than anything else on offer.
There are a couple of nice touches for genre and horror fans, though. Steffen isn’t just a run-of-the-mill working pianist and composer; he scores films. His latest project? Apparently, it’s Lucio Fulci’s classic Giallo ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin/Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (1971)! There’s also a throwback to classic horror when Lenzi enters a pet shop, and all the animals go wild, recalling Simone Simone’s efforts to exchange her feline friend for a bird in Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ (1942). It transpires that Lenzi owns the pet store in this film, but it’s still a pleasing moment.
Crucially with a Giallo thriller of this kind, the mystery manages to stay engaging, even if it’s not hard to guess the killer’s identity, and everything is wrapped up a little too rapidly in the final scene. However, despite all the obvious flaws and shortcomings, the general level of production value and all-around competence does see it through. Pastore is wise enough to keep things moving, so the pace never flags, and he delivers the requisite procession of corpses to keep the audience interested, if not precisely on the edges of their seats.
Giovanna Lenzi had a role in Pastore’s first-ever film ‘Crisantemi per un branco di carogne’ (1968). The two often worked together over the years before and after their encounter with the Black Cat. They married in 1972 and remained hitched until his death fifteen years later. Lenzi had begun her screen career with a small role in the underrated Barbara Steele vehicle ‘An Angel for Satan/Un angelo per Satana’ (1966), which also starred Steffan. Minor assignments followed in early Giallo ‘A…Come Assassino/A…For Assassin’ (1966), Eurospys ‘Spy Pit/Da Berlino l’apocalisse/Le tigre sort sans sa mère’ (1967) and ‘Agente Sigma 3: Missione Goldwather’ (1967) before she snagged a more significant role in Giallo thriller ‘Deadly Inheritance/Omicidio Per Vocazione’ (1968). In the 1980s, she moved behind the typewriter and collaborated with Pastore on two projects, which she also directed, including the poorly-reviewed Giallo ‘Delitti’ (1987).
If judged on its own merits rather than compared to its far superior sources, this one just about gets a pass.