The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l’ariete (1971)

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l'ariete (1971)‘Don’t bother to express your sympathy; poor Sofia was a living corpse.’

A handsome young teacher at a language school is brutally attacked and hospitalised on his way home from a New Year’s Eve celebration. The following month another party-goer is found strangled to death and thrown down the stairs in her home. A black leather glove is discovered next to both victims, leading the police to suspect the same culprit…

Smooth, professional Giallo from director Luigi Bazzoni with some fine technical credits and a standout performance from star Franco Nero. Under the influence of Dario Argento’s international smash ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), the sub-genre was beginning to conform more closely to the template it’s recognised for today. Specifically, a serial killer with black gloves, a twisted plot lining up a series of suspects and the big reveal of the killer’s identity and motivations at the climax.

It’s just another New Year’s Eve, and drunken journalist Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) is propping up the bar trying to catch the eye of ex-lover Helene Volta (Silvia Monti). Lovers Edouard Vermont (Edmund Purdom) and Isabel Lancia (Ira von Fürstenberg) wrestle each other across the dancefloor, and Doctor Riccardo Bini (Renato Romano) tries to ignore his invalid wife Sofia (Rossella Falk). Meanwhile, John Lubbock (Maurizio Bonuglia) is headed for the vomit comet in the Gentleman’s facilities. And it gets worst for Bonuglia from there as he’s beaten with a length of pipe in an underpass on the long walk home, an attack interrupted by track driver Walter (Luciano Bertoli) who’s been racing the engine of underage prostitute Giulia (Agostina Belli) nearby.

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l'ariete (1971)

‘Half a gallon of whiskey is not a working expense…’

The police are no closer to finding the culprit a month later when Falk is murdered in her home, but link the cases due to the single black glove left at each scene. Nero begins to investigate the situation, using it partly as an excuse to spend time with old flame Monti. His initial enquiries reveal that brand new widower Romano is paying off Bertoli for unknown reasons and that Bonuglia was upset by the announcement of von Fürstenberg’s engagement to Purdom. It also turns out that Bertoli’s sister is none other than Nero’s sometime live-in girlfriend Lu (Pamela Tiffin). Worse still, after another suspicious death, Police Inspector Haller (Wolfgang Preiss) has the journalist pegged as his prime suspect.

This is a complex scenario with events focused on this small, intertwined group of acquaintances, and moving quickly throughout the film’s tight 91-minute running time. However, after the final reveal, audiences could be forgiven for concluding that most of these complications and blind alleys are little more than meaningless diversions. The core mystery is pretty simplistic, to say the least, and not particularly creative. In short, the plot is a little messy, and the killer’s motivations, such as they are, are thin and barely explored. Elements in the final act such as astrology and a young child in danger seem to have been almost thrown in at random with no foreshadowing, adding to the vaguely shambolic feeling.

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l'ariete (1971)

‘This Blade Runner sequel is bound to be great…’

But while the story may not be the best, the film scores very highly in many other departments. Director Bazzoni and award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro combine to create a highly atmospheric visual package, highlighted particularly during the climactic confrontation on an abandoned factory site. There’s another classy score from Ennio Morricone, and a selection of striking locations, including the overgrown wasteground beneath the road bridge where the killer stalks Belli. This is one of the film’s outstanding suspense scenes, only surpassed by the early sequence where the invalid Falk is trapped in her house, which Bazzoni turns into a real tour de force.

However, it’s the outstanding Nero who catches the eye, giving a performance of rare intensity and conviction. His drunken journalist is a man on the edge of disintegration, battling the bottle with a weary fatality that’s ever-present in his eyes and drawn features. His chemistry with Tiffin is also terrific, playful and caring for the most part, but with the potential to explode into sudden violence without warning. Again, it’s played just right, providing insight into his fractured state of mind without compromising his role on the side of the angels or overshadowing the mystery. It’s a balancing act and one that Nero seems to accomplish without effort.

The Fifth Cord/Giornata nera per l'ariete (1971)

‘I’m sorry, this is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship…’

Bazzoni had less than half a dozen feature credits in his short career. However, these included outstanding early Giallo ‘The Possessed’ (1965) (a co-directing credit with Franco Rossellini) and the potentially stunning ‘Footprints On The Moon’ (1975) a film fatally compromised by its dreadful twist ending. Storaro also worked on the latter before picking up Oscars for ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), ‘Reds’ (1981), ‘The Last Emperor’ (1987) and ‘Dick Tracy’ (1990) as well as many other international awards. He has created a new 35mm film format with the intention of its adoption for both television and film as a universal aspect ratio and developed a series of custom colours gels for cinematographers that bears his name.

Nero was no newcomer to the Giallo, having appeared in early example ‘The Third Eye’ (1966) but was launched to international stardom of the back of his title turn as ‘Django’ (1966). He played Lancelot du Lac in Joshua Logan’s all-star musical ‘Camelot’ (1967), where he met wife-to-be, Vanessa Redgrave. He’s appeared in such diverse projects over the years as Luis Buñuel’s ‘Tristana’ (1970), ‘Enter the Ninja’ (1981) and ‘Die Hard 2’ (1990) with Bruce Willis. When working on this film, he flew to England and back on weekends to shoot his scenes for Otto Preminger’s ‘Saint Joan’ (1972). He has recently won several prestigious ‘Best Actor’ awards for his role in ‘La Danza Nera’ (2020).

Technically, a Giallo out of the top drawer, but all those qualities are somewhat undermined by a weak mystery and untidy story development.

Yellow: The Cousins/Yellow: le cugine/Die Muhle Jungfrauen (1969)

Yellow: The Cousins/Yellow: le cugine/Die Muhle Jungfrauen (1969)‘Keep your vulgar lewdness for girls who apparently can’t get enough of it.’

The two granddaughters of a rich man come into his mansion and estate after he dies. One of the girls is an uninhibited, wild child with a brand new husband, the other a repressed but beautiful spinster who has spent her life looking after the old man. Tensions and jealousies soon erupt among the trio, leading to murder…

Obscure and somewhat predictable Giallo from director Gianfranco Baldenello. The story treads a very familiar path without enough incident or drama to keep the audience truly engaged, events rarely escaping the confines of the mansion and its grounds. Almost the entire running time is occupied with the interactions of the three principal cast members, and their shifting relationships and intrigues are never really compelling.

The funeral procession of a wealthy old aristocrat is interrupted by the arrival of his blonde granddaughter, Valentina (Caterina Barbero). She comes complete with miniskirt, red sports car and brand new husband, handsome artist Pierre (Maurizio Bonuglia). Her loud entrance doesn’t go down well with older cousin Marta (Laura Seagram). She has been running the house and looking after grandpa all the while Barbero has been gallivanting around Europe, spending the family’s money. When grandpas’ will leaves Barbero the estate but stipulates that Seagram is to continue looking after it, the two are forced to co-habit, and Bonuglia comes with Barbero.

Yellow: The Cousins/Yellow: le cugine/Die Muhle Jungfrauen (1969)

‘Are you sure this is the way to the shower?’

This isn’t an incredibly inventive setup, but one that does have possibilities, and there’s a potentially interesting culture clash. Ice-queen Seagram represents the old world: frigid, proper and repressed, the slow decay of her womanhood reflected in the splendid yet crumbling house with its doors locked and furniture covered in dust sheets. Barbero, on the other hand, is the new order: wilful, selfish, fun-loving and irresponsible. In one of the film’s few memorable scenes, she and Bongulia make love on the dead man’s bed immediately after his funeral. When challenged later on by Seagram about her lifestyle, she replies: ‘You’re right, I left all the morals to you, I wouldn’t know what to do with them.’

But the new world intrudes on the old and Seagram’s iron control begins to crack. Barbero and Bonuglia bring some of their groovy friends back for a party one night and all the drug smoking, casual snogging and hammering on the sitar starts getting her hot on the collar. Bonuglia has already been putting the moves on her too. Initially, Barbero seems to find that amusing, but a few glasses of wine soon loosen her tongue. Unsurprisingly, Bonuglia has been less than faithful in the past, and this is just one fling too many. He storms out of the house after they argue and she follows, only to be found dead in the grounds the next morning, apparently the victim of a tragic accident. The police are initially satisfied, but was it murder instead?

Yellow: The Cousins/Yellow: le cugine/Die Muhle Jungfrauen (1969)

‘If you ask for ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ one more time, I’m going home.’

Before the Giallo was redefined in the first few weeks of 1970 by the international success of Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), the form was far more wide-ranging. Giallo had begun as a series of pulp paperbacks in the later 1920s that were typically Italian translations of mainstream thrillers by the likes of Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and Raymond Chandler, among many others. The word was simply a ‘catch-all’ term for a ‘murder mystery’ and, in its later stages, the film does start to resemble something that might have come from the pen of, say, James M Cain. Another comparison would be an episode from a 1970s TV anthology suspense programme. There simply isn’t enough of a story to sustain its 90-minute running time, and the twists and revelations at the climax are somewhat less than surprising. 

Undoubtedly, the best aspect of the production is Seagram’s performance. She’s convincing as a conflicted and desperate woman struggling with her long-caged desires for sex and love. On the other hand, Bonuglia and Barbero can’t do much with their one-note characters and the late addition of Commissar Saccara (Renato De Carmine) doesn’t add a great deal of dramatic weight. Director Baldenello mostly shoots in a very matter of fact way which doesn’t infuse events with any real energy. It’s to be applauded that he resists some of the more self-indulgent flourishes of his contemporaries, but a little more style would probably have gone a long way.

Yellow: The Cousins/Yellow: le cugine/Die Muhle Jungfrauen (1969)

‘Bring me another bunch of lilacs and you’re asking for it.’

Seagram’s screen career was surprisingly undistinguished, consider the showing that she makes here, this being her only significant lead and her last notable credit. Previously, she had guest-starred on several US network TV shows of the early and mid-1960s including ‘Bewitched’, ‘The Beverley Hillbillies’, ‘Honey West’ and ‘The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.’. Although probably her most visible performance was as Lila, the sidekick of arch-villain Louie, the Lilac who took on Adam West and Burt Ward in Season 3 of ‘Batman.’ Barbero’s screen appearances were in supporting roles, with an occasional second lead, but she accumulated only nine credits in 14 years. 

Bonuglia was only active for a couple of decades, but his resume contains some notable pictures and several leads. His rugged good looks and charm saw him swiftly rise through the ranks to play the amoral Aldo in Giallo ‘Top Sensation’ (1969), an almost identical role to the one he plays here. Featured supporting roles in comedies, Westerns and Luigi Bazzoni’s notable Giallo ‘The Fifth Cord’ (1971) followed. Then he snagged the male leads in period romantic drama ‘Sepolta viva’ (1973) and Giallo ‘The Perfume of the Lady In Black/Il Profumo della signora inner’ (1974) but stardom did not result. Two years later, he was way down the cast list of ‘Holiday Hookers/Natale in casa d’appuntamento’ (1976), top-lined by the imported Ernest Borgnine!

Yellow: The Cousins/Yellow: le cugine/Die Muhle Jungfrauen (1969)

‘Hey, baby, how about it?’

Baldenello had served his apprentice as an assistant director since 1952 and graduated to helming his own projects with ‘Gold Train/30 Winchester per El Diablo  (1965), a Western that he also co-wrote. Most of his work mined similar outlaw territory, but he did take a detour with tedious Eurospy ‘Danger! Death Ray/Il Raggio infernale’ (1967) and there were some comedies in the latter part of the next decade, closing out his career with uncredited work on ‘Very Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind’ (1978).

Resolutely unremarkable tale of familial tension and violence. Giallo completists will want to track it down, but it’s unlikely to have a broader appeal. 

Top Sensation (1969)

Top Sensation (1969)‘You can’t think, you don’t have the equipment for that.’

A rich businesswoman with a son who has the mind of a child takes him for a trip on her private yacht. She has employed two beautiful women to join them in the hope that if they can awaken his sexual desires, he will become a normal adult. But when they run aground on the coast of a remote island, events take a very dark turn…

Sleazy Giallo drama that combines plenty of sea and sun with an unapologetic obsession with sex. Writer-director Ottavio Alessi’s film may be taking the usual potshots at the lifestyles of the international jet set, but it’s fair to say that he seems just as interested in the considerable charms of his, often naked, leading ladies.

What is business tycoon Mudy (Maud Belleroche) to do with her ‘problem’ child, Tony (Ruggero Miti)? At his age, he should be a man, but he still acts like a child, playing with toys and refusing to speak. Even the expensive clinics in Switzerland have failed to cure him. Belleroche’s latest scheme involves taking him for a trip on her private yacht. Along for the ride are two of her employees; ruthless husband and wife Aldo (Maurizio Bonuglia) and Paola (Rosalba Neri) who are both only too happy to warm Belleroche’s bed as and when required.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘It’s ok, I saw it on a YouTube tutorial.’

The grand plan was to have Neri seduce Miti, thus making him a man and curing all his problems. It seems unlikely that this is approved clinical procedure, but it doesn’t matter because he has refused her advances anyway (he certainly does have issues!) Hired prostitute Ulla (Edwige Fenech) has also struck out, and the quartet is at a loss to know what to do next. It’s a particularly trying situation for Neri and Bonuglia as they are ‘on the promise’ of an ‘oil concession’ from Belleroche if they can succeed.

Just when all seems lost, the yacht runs aground on a sandbank. Bonuglia was supposed to be steering, but he wasn’t looking where he was going because he and Fenech were too busy having sex on the cabin floor. And, yes, there’s no need to worry about the complexities of the group’s interpersonal relationships. Apart from Miti, everyone is having sex with everyone else, and most probably in all the combinations that you can imagine.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘What do you mean, you want to talk about your motivation?’

While they are stranded, Miti makes his escape to the bleak island off the port bow and meets lonely young goatherd Beba (Eva Thulin). The others should be in hot pursuit, but Neri takes the opportunity to shoot some goats with her rifle instead (no reason, really, just a bit of harmless fun) and Belleroche has to offer to pay off disgruntled farmer Andro (Salvatore Puntillo). Meanwhile, Fenech is having intimate relations with one of the goats while Bonuglia takes some photographs of their romantic tryst. It’s hard to see why the British Board of Film Classification refused to give the film a certificate for 36 years, isn’t it?

When they finally catch up with Muti, they find him talking with the innocent Thulin and seemingly interested in her. Forming a new strategy, they invite her back to the boat where the clueless Fenech and Neri give her a ‘glamorous’ makeover, completely missing the point of why Muti was attracted to her in the first place. However, the session does provide an excuse to trap the young girl into a lesbian threesome, and that was far more important. However, there is another problem. Thulin is Puntillo’s child bride, so Neri and Fenech must provide a distraction when he comes on board. Drink proves the answer rather than sex as they can’t have it off with him obviously; he’s loud, sweaty and belongs to the lower orders. Meantime, Thulin and Muti get the chance to spend some quality time below decks.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘These split ends are a disgrace.’

It’s not hard to see why this film has quite the reputation in certain circles. It’s not pornographic by any means, but it certainly pushes the envelope, with our central foursome taking almost every opportunity to indulge their physical desires. And no, Fenech’s intimate liaison with the goat is not shown explicitly, although the naked actress and the animal seem to get fairly friendly! (I can’t help but wonder if she spent the rest of her life getting asked about that scene at respectable parties).

The subtext of the amoral rich living with no regard to societal or behavioural limits isn’t exactly subtle, and Alessi’s lingering camerawork somewhat undercuts any attempt on his part to take the moral high ground. On the one hand, he seems to be asking the audience to condemn these characters but, at the same time, revel in their excesses. But, before you dismiss the entire thing as tasteless exploitation, it’s worth noting that Neri has gone on record in recent years to praise the collaborative process on location. In fact, Alessi was so impressed with her suggestions, that he insisted she received an ‘Assistant Director’ credit.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘I know he’s your husband but he’s a bit of a dick.’

And this is a drama where the women are very much in charge. Maybe Thulin and Fenech are a little passive, but it’s Belleroche and Neri who lead the action and call the shots. The handsome but dim Bonuglia just takes orders, and Puntillo is portrayed as an ineffectual and stupid drunk. Of course, Muti remains the loose cannon on the male side of the equation with his limits never defined and the history of his ‘troubles’ left mostly ambiguous. It’s this uncertainty that provides the story’s element of suspense, although those expecting a more traditional Giallo are likely to find this a little half-hearted.

Alessi was primarily a writer who worked in both comedy and drama and was one of a half a dozen scribes who contributed to the Peter Ustinov family fantasy ‘The Man Who Wagged His Tail’ (1957). He also worked on the historical drama ‘The Mongols’ (1961), a US-Italian co-production which starred Jack Palance and Anita Ekberg and on the screenplay for jokey Eurospy ‘Dick Smart 2.007’ (1967). His only other assignment in the canvas chair was as writer-director of uneven Giallo comedy ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Toto?’ (1964), a showcase for the Italian comedy legend of the same name.

Top Sensation (1969)

‘All ahead full.’

Listing Neri and Fenech’s genre credits would take a whole separate post, but, suffice to say, both women appeared in numerous Gialli, sex comedies and horrors throughout the 1970s and Neri’s career went back to the Peplum craze of the early 1960s. Bonuglia virtually reprised his role here in ‘Yellow: The Cousins/Yellow: le cugine’ (1969) and later played the male lead in notable Giallo ‘The Perfume of the Lady In Black/Il Profumo della signora in nero’ (1974). Despite a decent showing in this, her screen debut, Thulin’s career never went anywhere, and this is Belleroche’s only screen credit. Her participation is a bit of a puzzle as she was already an award-winning, best selling novelist!

A different kind of Giallo that’s a little short on darkness until the final act but has a good pace and delivers a decent level of entertainment. And admirers of its leading ladies will need no other reason to check it out.