‘The face of that American will always be on file in my brain.’
A mysterious killer is targeting women in Rome and leaving behind a unique half-moon medallion with each victim’s corpse. When a young newlywed is attacked on a train, she survives, but the police report her dead, and she goes into hiding. Her new husband begins to suspect the slayings are somehow linked to the hotel her family used to own…
Violence and mystery from co-writer and director Umberto Lenzi, delivering another of his half dozen or so stand-alone Giallo features. Rather than an imported American star, this Italian and West German co-production is headed up by Antonio Sabato and Uschi Glas, with Giallo regular Marisa Mell in support.
An unidentified prostitute known as La Tuscano (Gabriella Giorgelli) is murdered. The only clue is the strange, half-moon-shaped medallion left by her body. American artist Kathy Adams (Marina Malfatti) dies next, but beyond the killer’s unusual taste in jewellery, Inspector Vismara (Pier Paolo Capponi) can find no connection between the two women. A break in the case arrives when honeymooner Giulia Torresi (Glas) is attacked in her compartment on the Rome to Paris Express. She is badly wounded but survives, and the killer escapes. When questioned by Capponi, she recognises La Tuscano as Ines Tamburini, who used to work as a maid at the hotel run by her parents before they passed away. Capponi persuades her to play dead for her own protection, and she goes into hiding with her new husband, fashion designer Mario Gerosa (Sabato).
Later on, a trivial incident triggers a sudden memory recall for Glas. The half-moon design looks identical to a key ring owned by a mysterious American who was a regular visitor to her parent’s hotel one summer. The couple obtains a list of guests staying there at the time, and it includes the second murdered woman, Malfatti. They give the information to Capponi, but Sabato is unimpressed by the official investigations and determines to pursue the matter himself. His efforts to identify the unknown American lead to the apartment of party animal Barrett (Bruno Corazarri), who gives him a name: Frank Saunders. But Saunders is in the cemetery, his grave decorated with seven blood-stained orchids.
Lenzi’s film is a typical Giallo of the time, which never strays too far from the template established by Dario Argento’s smash hit ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970). There’s a killer on the loose with an unknown motive arising from past events, a young hero putting the heroine in danger with his unlicensed investigation, and the police Inspector lagging a couple of steps behind everyone. Given such a familiar setup, the mystery itself needs to deliver, but it’s only intriguing for the first hour or so. The script, co-written by Lenzi with Roberto Gianviti, demands a certain level of suspension of disbelief, too, given some of its leaps in logic, and the resolution is a tad pedestrian. The half-moon medallions are only a crude plot device to connect the murders. Glas’ sudden memory of a similar key ring left behind on a restaurant table several years earlier is a remarkable and conveniently delayed feat of recall. When the link between the victims is revealed, most of the mystery goes with it, save the killer’s identity, which isn’t that hard to guess.
It also doesn’t help that Sabato is such an unlikeable hero. He has an ongoing beef with the police, which is never explained. This is supposed to justify his solo investigation. However, Glas is safely under wraps, and her status is only likely to be compromised by his unofficial meddling. As a result, his actions come over at best as self-indulgent, at worst as a dangerous ego trip. Sure, the official forces don’t cover themselves with glory, far from it, but there is a killer at large, and Sabato’s ongoing refusal to share the results of his enquiries with Capponi is putting women at serious risk. Yes, it is a movie, so he’s more likely to unmask the killer than the police, but his decision becomes increasingly harder to credit. By the time we arrive at the climax, his determination to fly solo is verging on the ridiculous.
The general incompetence of the police is also an issue here. Even the senior officers on Capponi’s team are shown as slow-witted and incompetent. Their boss is credited with far more intelligence, but he’s far too ready to accept easy answers. It’s also a stretch that Sabato has such a free hand, with Capponi happy just to put the women on the hotel guest list under surveillance and make no effort to identify the mysterious American that ties the case together. So it’s left to Sabato to pound the pavements, make a sketch of the mystery man with the aid of Raffaele Ferri (Claudio Gora), interview the priest (Renato Romano) at the church who officiated at the funeral of Sanders and track down potential victim Elena Marchi (Rossella Falk) at the sanitarium where she resides with her paranoid delusions. Of course, official investigations can be shambolic in real life, and mistakes are made. Still, it’s pushing credibility a little that a task force in the Italian capital resembles the deputies of a local Sheriff’s office in some jerkwater town in the middle of nowhere.
Thankfully, Lenzi was a veteran director, so many of the problems are papered over by the technical efficiency and professionalism on show. The murder scenes are memorable and delivered with surprising intensity, although potentially graphic moments are shown only briefly. Most notable is the scene where Mell is impaled with a power drill, although its use makes more sense from a shock standpoint than anything else. After all, the killer is conducting a patient and long-premeditated campaign against specific targets, so it’s hardly likely he’d be so unprepared as to rely on the convenience of weapons that happen to be available on the day. The most chilling moment, however, is when red paint drips down onto the naked corpse of artist Malfatti, falling from a can overturned in her death struggle. It’s the kind of creative touch sadly absent from much of the film.
However, Lenzi does a very neat job of presenting even the most insignificant bystanders as shifty and suspicious. This is achieved with small moments of socially awkward behaviour and by holding closeups a beat too long, mainly at the end of interactions. The music from reliable composer Riz Ortolani also helps generate suspense, even if some of the work is repurposed from his previous collaboration with Lenzi on ‘So Sweet… So Perverse/Così dolce… così perversa’ (1969). Fans of Giallo veteran Mell are likely to be sorely disappointed, however. The actress only appears in the film’s final half-hour, and though the role serves a critical function in the story, her appearance is little more than incidental.
Lenzi’s directorial career began in 1956, and his work primarily reflected the box office trends of the day. Starting with historical dramas, he moved into Peplum in the early 1960s with films such as ‘Samson and the Slave Queen/Zorro contro Maciste’ (1963) and ‘L’ultimo gladiatore’ (1964). When James Bond clones were running around the continent, he contributed ‘SuperSeven Calling Cairo/Superseven chiama Cairo’ (1965) and ‘Last Man to Kill/Un milione di dollari per sette assassini’ (1966) before delivering a couple of Spaghetti Westerns, most notably ‘Una pistola per cento bare’ (1968) starring US actor John Ireland. A more famous American import, the Oscar-nominated Carrol Baker, graced his first Giallo picture ‘Orgasmo/Paranoia’ (1969), and they continued their collaboration with ‘So Sweet… So Perverse/Così dolce… così perversa’ (1969), ‘A Quiet Place to Kill/Paranoia’ (1970) and ‘Knife of Ice/Il coltello di ghiaccio’ (1972). Irene Papas took centre stage for ‘Oasis of Fear/Un posto ideale per uccidere’ (1971), but by the middle of the decade, the market was moving toward more explicit horrors. By the early 1980s, Lenzi had switched to zombies for ‘Nightmare City/Incubo sulla città contaminata’ (1980) and scarcely more human monsters for the notorious ‘Cannibal ferox’ (1981), which was allegedly banned in 31 countries, if you believe the publicity. Lenzi carried on working until the early 1990s, mainly in the crime and horror genres, and passed away in 2017.
It has an intriguing setup and sporadically delivers the goods, but ultimately it lacks a creative script and an engaging mystery.