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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadly Inheritance/Omicidio Per Vocazione (1968)

Deadly Inheritance (1968)‘l’ll see you at the cemetery at dawn.’

When an ageing railway worker is run down by a train in an apparent accident, his three daughters are amazed to find out that he was a rich man. However, they can’t touch a penny of the money until his adopted son reaches the age of 21 and three years seems such a long time to wait…

Impressively twisted Giallo thriller from director Vittorio Sindoni that may not rise to the top of the pile, but still delivers a solid 80 or so minutes of entertainment. The ‘reading of the will’ set up may be all too familiar, harking all the way back to ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927) but the vibe feels very different here.
Gone are the usual claustrophobic labyrinth of dark streets, shadowed passageways and dusty libraries. Instead there’s an abundance of daytime location filming and a small town setting centred around the railway crossing run by old man Arnaldo De Angeilis.

Events begin with our crossing guard switching the points for a scheduled train early one morning. Unfortunately, his hearing aid is on the blink and when the points mysteriously switch back, his next ride proves to be right to the end of the line. It’s an effective opening with intercut shots of the train approaching in silence and of De Angelis walking the tracks completely oblivious to the rising roar of the oncoming engine. Undeniably, it’s a simple device, but it really works.

Deadly Inheritance (1968)

‘Shouldn’t you be using a putter from there?’

After his death, it turns out that all the money he supposedly lost through reckless business speculation is still in his bank account, and it amounts to a very tidy sum indeed. This seems like good news for his three lovely daughters, but they’ll have to wait to get their hands on the loot until backward sibling Janot (Ernesto Colli) comes of age.

Youngest Collette (Valeria Ciangottini) doesn’t seem all that bothered by the delay, even if her policeman boyfriend Etienne (Virgilio Gazzolo) is a little disappointed. lt’s much worse for her sisters though, who are both saddled with far more demanding partners. Dark-haired Simone (Fem Benussi) is having an affair with smarmy club owner Jules (lsarco Ravaioli) and Rosalie (Giovanna Lenzi, billed here as Jeanette Len) is saddled with the obnoxious Leon (Ivo Garrani) who is in deep with a loan shark.

Deadly Inheritance (1968)

There was a late disqualification in the ‘Best Hairdo’ contest…

Of course, Colli turns up dead in fairly short order and a mysterious killer starts working their way through the rest of the cast. Enter out of town detective Chief inspector Gerard (Tom Drake) who’s not happy with Gazzolo’s investigation, and forces prime suspect Garrani to go on the run. A number of plot twists pile up to wrong foot the audience before things are finally resolved and the killer unmasked.

Being an early example of the Giallo sub-genre, this is a rather bloodless affair with most of the murders happening off-screen and far more of a ‘mystery’ feel than one bordering on horror. Compensation comes, however, with a tight screenplay and those late twists, which tie up the plot pretty satisfactorily and are genuinely surprising. Performances are solid, although Drake is saddled with a less than convincing hairpiece. He was a Hollywood supporting actor, mostly active in the 1940s, who featured in Judy Garland musical ‘Meet Me In St. Louis’ (1944) before transferring to television for most of the rest of his career. Cult movie fans may recognise him from his role in the woeful ‘House of the Black Death’ (1965) with John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr.

Technically, some of the striking locations are crisply photographed by Ascenzio Rossi and Sindoni keeps a good focus on the story. Given that it was his first gig as a director, it’s a little surprising that his filmography shows nothing more than domestic projects that seem little known outside of his homeland, especially as he contributed to the screenplay. Although I do have one nitpick about the story. Why did De Angelis keep his wealth a secret from his family? Did he take the job running the railway crossing just to convince everyone that he had lost his money? Why? It’s never addressed.

As an aside, I do have to wonder what’s with all these rich men and their last wills and testaments? Why are there always unusual ‘conditions’ attached? Conditions which inevitably provide motives for greedy relatives to commit murder. Perhaps they need better legal advice or just a good dose of common sense.

Above average dark thriller with a good script that comes with some neat twists.