Death Carries a Cane/Passi di danza su una lama di rasoio (1973)

‘You’d better cut that jazz out and get back into bed, y’hear?’

A woman witnesses a murder through coin-operated binoculars, but the police don’t believe her. When they find the body, it links up with a previous killing, and the woman’s boyfriend becomes a prime suspect…

A weary and generic Giallo from director Maurizio Pradeaux that still musters a few notable moments. Nieves Navarro stars under her usual screen name of Susan Scott, and she’s supported by Robert Hoffmann and Jorge Martín.

In an idle moment when waiting for her boyfriend Alberto Morosini (Hoffmann), photographer Kitty (Navarro) looks through a tourist viewfinder that provides a panoramic view of the city. Unfortunately, it’s not such a beautiful sight when she sees a woman through a window brutally murdered. The killer is a figure in black, but she can’t see its face nor be sure exactly where the incident happened. Police Inspector Merughi (Martín) is sceptical of her story, and artist Hoffmann is likewise offhand about it. However, a few days later, a body is found, confirming the truth of her account.

Evidence left at another killing suggests that the killer walks with a cane, which brings Hoffman into the Inspector’s cross-hairs as he is walking with a limp after allegedly spraining an ankle a few days earlier. The detective is also trying to field off the persistent questioning of nosy reporter Lidia Arrighi (Anuska Borova). Her composer boyfriend Marco (Simón Andreu) is working on a show that Navarro and Hoffman hope will include some of their artwork.

Despite a professional presentation and some positive aspects, this is primarily a turgid experience that looks thrown together hastily and with little enthusiasm. The story is obviously inspired by Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo’ (1970), with Navarro unexpectedly witnessing a murder and unable to intervene. The culprit is another unknown figure in black, complete with a hat, and a programme of slaughter follows, with the killer’s identity revealed at the end. So far, so Giallo. It’s the standard template. Yet rarely has it been delivered in such an offhand fashion.

The problems are evident within the first few minutes. After witnessing the murder, Navarro tries to grab someone to help, but no one wants to get involved. When Hoffman arrives, instead of going straight to the police, they take Navarro’s aunt and uncle to the airport to catch a plane. When they discuss the situation on the way back into the city, their chat has all the urgency and passion of a discussion about last week’s weather. When they finally talk to Inspector Martín, he seems as bored as they are. Is their indifference supposed to be satire? It’s certainly not very thrilling.

As the story unfolds, there’s an increasing sense of characters being introduced simply to bump them off. The justification for most of their appearances is a photograph that was apparently snapped by a tourist when the killer was escaping. It appears on the front page of a newspaper and conveniently provides the killer with a list of targets. Although it might be assumed that hotshot reporter Borova is behind its publication, the script never addressed how the photograph got into print or who took it in the first place. It’s no surprise that it doesn’t feel as if any of these developments are occurring organically, more that the filmmakers needed to fill one chunk of running time after another until reaching the denouncement. When that finally arrives, it’s hopelessly rushed, probably because it has little foreshadowing and doesn’t make more than rudimentary sense.

The characters could also be better-defined and more sympathetic. Navarro and Hoffman are artists, apparently; their latest project involves Hoffmann disembowelling mannequins and Navarro photographing the results. They try to interest Andreu in their work for his show, but that seems to consist of a single dancer doing a half-hearted striptease on a darkened stage while he plays classical piano. Later on, we learn she’s a ballerina! Oh, and the connection between the victims is blindingly obvious from the start, but Martín misses it completely, and it only hits Hoffman with about twenty minutes of the film remaining. Of course, he follows it up himself, rather than bothering with the police.

Perhaps the silliest scene involves Martín recruiting Navarro to act as bait during a stakeout in a park. When he suggests the idea to Hoffmann, her wonderful boyfriend is happy to accept on her behalf because ‘she’ll leap at the chance.’ And what girl wouldn’t? Especially when it involves pulling on a red Afro wig and a leather micro-skirt and posing as a prostitute! Strangely enough, the scene ends on a humorous note, again suggesting satire, but that quality is almost entirely absent elsewhere.

No one involved seems to be showing much interest, and that’s strange in Martín case as he gets a script credit. Thankfully, at least director Pradeaux knew where his priorities lay: sex and death. So there’s a lot of the usual nudity and writhing around for Navarro and more of the same for journalist Borova, who also plays her bitchy twin sister, Sylvia. Her boyfriend is Giallo gun-for-hire, Luciano Rossi, who manages to look suspicious just by existing.

The undisputed highlights of the film, though, are the murder scenes. The killer favours a cane and straight razor combination, a unique method which allows Pradeaux to stage some impressive sequences. These include the murder of the Chestnut Vendor (Gualtiero Rispoli) and a victim slashed through a bedsheet (which makes it seem all the more brutal). The final confrontation between the killer and Navarro in a greenhouse is shot better than anything else in the film. Unfortunately, even in this regard, Pradeaux fumbles the ball with one attack coming from the back seat of a car. It would be reasonable enough, except the victim is driving at the time, and the vehicle is moving at high speed. Obviously, it’s a given that Giallo killers are psychologically damaged, but I didn’t know that made them incredibly stupid too.

Pradeaux began his film career with a handful of production jobs before debuting as a writer and a director on Spaghetti Western ‘Ramon il Messicano’ (1966) starring Robert Hundar. He followed that with two vehicles for action star Richard Harrison, the second of which was the war movie ‘Commando Attack/I Leopardi di Churchill’ (1970), which also starred Klaus Kinski and Helga Liné. He also returned to the Giallo with ‘Death Steps in the Dark/Passi di morte perduti nel buio’ (1977), and made his final movie in 1989. None of his films seem very well-regarded today.

A few great moments in search of a decent film.

Naked Girl Murdered in the Park/Ragazza tutta nuda assassinata nel parco (1972)

‘I couldn’t find my smoking dentures.’

A businessman is murdered at an amusement park in the afternoon. The police think it’s a robbery gone wrong, but the insurance company aren’t so convinced, especially considering the victim took out an expensive policy earlier the same day…

Rather curious Giallo from director Alfonso Brescia that often has the feel of an old-fashioned Agatha Christie murder-mystery. Austrian actor Robert Hoffmann leads the action with the reliable support of the ubiquitous Adolfo Cell.

Berlin 1945: in the retreat from the Allies, a Nazi officer flees with a teenage girl, leaving her mother and young brother to die. Twenty-seven years later, in Madrid, respected businessman Johannes Wallenberger is found dead in the ‘Tunnel of Horrors’, a fairground ride at a popular amusement park. Inspector Huber (Celi) favours the theory that it’s a robbery gone south. However, the dead man was carrying a considerable sum of money, and his visit to Luna Park in the middle of the day was out of character.

Insurance Company supremo Losel (Tomás Blanco) is even less inclined to believe a random robbery, given that the man had taken out a multi-million dollar life insurance policy a few hours earlier. He assigns his top investigator Chris Buyer (Hoffmann), to get close to the family over the objections of antagonistic colleague Martin (Philippe Leroy). Going undercover to romance pretty daughter Catherine (Pilar Velázquez), Hoffmann eventually gets invited to spend the weekend at the family mansion.

Brescia’s thriller begins promisingly with a pre-credit sequence set during the fall of Berlin at the end of the Second World War. A young mother and son watch helplessly as a Nazi soldier sets a bomb in their home and absconds with the family’s teenage daughter. This dialogue-free scene is shot in black and white and mixed with relevant stock footage, and it’s an intriguing way to kick things off. Some sources credit Giallo veteran Rosalba Neri playing the uncredited role of the mother, but although there is a physical resemblance, it’s likely to be a misidentification. The opening credits follow, scored with an impressive piano-based theme by Carlo Savina.

Flashing forward to Madrid in 1972, Brescia presents some surreal images of skeletons floating in darkness inside the ‘Tunnel of Horrors’ before the old man’s corpse emerges into the daylight, lying across one of the cars. All this is quite a striking way to open proceedings. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there, with neither the cast nor director able to strike any sparks from the rather listless, undeveloped story.

Hoffmann’s insurance agent is a big part of the problem. His fencing with old sparring partner Celi is half-heated at best, and the character is resolutely unsympathetic. He dallies with amusement park waitress Ursy (Teresa Gimpera) and even beds Velázquez’s promiscuous sister, Barbara (Patrizia Adiutori). At one stage, it even looks like he’s set his sights on her mother, Magda (Irina Demick). It’s all in the cause of his mission, of course, and his behaviour makes sense in the story’s broader context. However, the actor gives too bland a performance to sell the drama in an effective way.

Pacing is also an issue, with matter slowing to a crawl once Hoffmann joins the family for the weekend. The household has the usual roster of suspicious servants; sinister butler Bruno (Franco Ressel), curt maid Sybil (María Vico) and strapping stablehand Günther (Howard Ross), who’s lusting after Adiutori. Here, the film drifts into ‘Old Dark House’ territory, with such well-worn cliches as the ‘family portrait’, the ‘locked room’ and a sudden ‘lights out’ that prompts an unfortunate trip to the fusebox.

These shortcomings are mitigated somewhat by the big reveal of the killer’s identity. It’s a genuine surprise, even if it creates some plot holes better left unexamined. Unfortunately, Bresica also muffs it, tagging on an action climax featuring characters largely peripheral to that point. It clarifies some plot points, but it’s an odd choice, to say the least, and one that makes for an unsatisfying finish. It’s also a very flat visual experience, and Bresica fails to inject the drama with any real urgency. Savina also opts for the easy way out, favouring the kind of wordless girlie chorus that has graced many a sub-Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

The brightest elements are the performances of Demick and Adiutori. Neither character is precisely nuanced, but there’s some fun to be had from both, with Adiutori’s endless flirting and sarcasm providing the breezier moments that the film so desperately needs. Demick is also entertaining as the semi-unhinged Magda, whose odd behaviour seems initially triggered by grief until it becomes clear that she’s probably always been a few sandwiches short of a buffet.

Hoffmann was born in Salzburg and studied acting in Paris, getting his big break in the title role of the TV show ‘The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ in 1964. Filmed in French, it was dubbed into English and became a staple of children’s programming in the UK over the next ten years, usually shown in the mornings during holidays. Some leads in adventure and crime films followed before he starred alongside Edward G Robinson, Janet Leigh and Klaus Kinski in the multi-national caper movie ‘Grand Slam’ (1967). His first brush with Giallo was the excellent ‘A Black Veil For Lisa/La Morte Non Ha Sesso’ (1968), followed by the considerably less impressive ‘The Insatiables/Femmine insaziabili/Carnal Circuit’ (1969). Later, he starred in ‘Spasmo’ (1974) for director Umberto Lenzi and appeared in science-fiction disappointment ‘Eyes Behind the Stars/Occhi dalle stelle’ (1978). His workmate dropped off in the mid-1980s, but there was still time for a couple of appearances on US Network TV soap opera juggernaut ‘Dallas’. His last screen appearance was in 2004, and he passed away in 2022.

A somewhat sluggish and disappointing entry.