CINEMA ITALIANO: THE WORLD IN GIALLO

Dagmar Lassander finds herself in peril in Luciano Ercoli’s 1970 “Le foto proibite di una signora per bene” (“Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion”)

   “Le foto proibite di una signora per bene”     (1970)__

                “Why on Earth should I love you less because of a sex fiend?”
 

     A young woman takes a bubble bath, drinks to excess and pops unknown pharmaceuticals while mentally fantasizing about tormenting her husband with a fictitious lover, dresses in a revealing go go outfit while reminiscing about her friend Dominique criticizing her for “dressing like a housewife” and then walks out onto a deserted nocturnal beach where she is accosted by a motorcyclist who she avoids by naturally running into the darkest, most isolated location possible and then is summarily attacked by the leather gloved man who suggestively cuts her dress with a switchblade dagger. And it’s only the opening sequence. All to the accompaniment of wildly inappropriate pseudo-bossa nova music by Ennio Morricone.

      Welcome to the world of giallo.

      Or more precisely, the world of giallo as seen through American eyes as produced by Italian studios to whom the term has an entirely different definition. Confused yet? Giallo is the Italian word for yellow and its genre reference has its basis in mystery novels printed in Italy beginning in 1929 by the publishing house Modadori who released translations of foreign mysteries and thrillers with yellow background covers, the popularity of which led more book houses to take a similar route with original mystery novels. In Italy, the gialli is the mystery story, its transmutation into what American audiences recognize as the “giallo” film, finding its seeds in the German”Krimi” films (with their foundation in the written works of Edgar Wallace) and finding its stylistic roots in two Mario Bava films, 1963’s “La ragazza che sapeva troppo” (“The Girl Who Knew Too Much”, aka “The Evil Eye” in the U.S.) and 1964’s Sei donne per l’assassino” (“Blood and Black Lace”) in which many conventions of this particular style of film would find realization; many of the more exploitative would be adopted into the American horror genre (especially the slasher films). Ever evolving as a genre type, subsequent giallo films would energetically push the boundaries of their own cinematic conventions through an increased, bolder use of color, wilder exaggeration of music, visually opulent bloodletting, sexual fantasy and perversion, gratuitous nudity and madness.

       Or in the case of Luciano Ercoli’s 1970 thriller “Le foto proibite di una signora per bene” (“Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion”), pseudo-giallo might describe the film more appropriately. From its first moments, Ercoli strains to show off that his acquaintance with giallo genre conventions is extensive, with heavy-handed inclusions of gratuitous sexuality, oddly lit shots that frame the face or the eyes in extreme darkness, leather gloved villains, menacing blades that glisten in the moonlight, and sexuality laced with a creeping madness, yet the film never evolves beyond its most basic roots to emerge beyond a cheap imitation of, not a genuine giallo, but of a Radley Metger “Carmen, Baby” wannabe.

     The film is tenuous in every one of its most blatant expressions of the genre including the fact that murder is a tease that is often talked about but never materializes as an actual occurrence except at the finale when the killing is so haphazardly staged, it is reminiscent of a cheap B-Western where someone shoots a rifle and three Indians fall off their horses. The finale is a hurried wrap up of elements that never quite gel, nor are questions within characters behavior satisfactorily explained, thus not only unsatisfying as a mystery but disappointing even the most minimal expectations of sensational depictions of perverse criminality.

       Dagmar Lassander plays Minou, a housewife whose days seems to be spent taking bubble baths, swilling liquor and popping pills until she is accosted by the aforementioned attacker (a typecast Simón Andreu) who resists raping her but instead issues a menacing warning that her husband Peter (Pier Paolo Cappoli) is a murderer. Naturally instead of phoning the police, she tells Peter of the incident who, under the circumstances, seems quite civilized about the entire matter, shrugging it off saying that “he didn’t really do anything to you.”

   Minou’s friend (and Peter’s former lover) Dominique (Ercoli regular Nieves Navarro  credited here as Susan Scott) is a libertine whose facility for hedonism seems only exceeded by miraculously being in the right place at the right time to either, (A) reveal  new germs for  obvious plot “twists”, or (B) to provide a sounding board for needless expository details on what we’ve already seen from the increasingly unbalanced Minou. Needless to say, this is all to the benefit of scriptwriters Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén Velasco, whose scenario plays like an outline for an idea that is not very interesting even on a conceptual level.

                              “Everyone has his price- even a maniac.”

     Minou is forced by the switchblade enhanced attacker to become his sexual slave under the threat that a crucial piece of evidence that would prove Peter a murderer will otherwise be sent to the police. Minou relents and then finds herself blackmailed with photographs of her taken during these illicit erotic couplings. (Just who was taking the photos is another of the mysteries never answered in a script riddled with such implausibilities.) Minou, for some reason that’s unfathomable except for the fact that something has to happen in this film, begins a slow descent into madness that’s visually emphasized by an elevated zoom shot of the ocean and the suffering lady swilling the same drinks and pills she was gulping before her psychic ordeal. The tepid blackmail plot comes to a screeching halt with a “twist” that is neither particularly convincing nor very surprising as even if the solution weren’t telegraphed an hour before, the characters are both so annoying and unsympathetic, you come away not caring who does what to whom.

     Dagmar Lassander plays Minou as a one-note whiner, whereas, even though Nieves Navarro’s Dominique is intended as the film’s most colorful character, (Who doesn’t like a good sex addict in their Eurofilm trash?) the exasperating timidity of the script leaves her little to do except to have a throaty, dirty laugh. As Peter, Pier Paolo Cappoli makes landmark strides in the development of the word “bland”, capped off with either a skull cap oil slick, or the most egregiously distracting combover in Italian film history. To call Luciano Ercoli’s direction perfunctory is to find a satisfying critical perfection in the definition of the adjective.________________________________________________________________

Mimsy Farmer is a magnet for bloody corpses and sexual degenrates; no wonder she's in such a cloudy move in the busy but confused Armando Crispino giallo "Macchie solari".

As Simona, a pathology intern, Mimsy Farmer is a magnet for bloody corpses and sexual degenerates so it’s probably no surprise that she wanders about in a perpetually cloudy funk in the busy but confused Armando Crispino giallo “Macchie solari”.

          “Macchie solari”       (1975)  

                                  “The dog’s only a dog, but you’re a pig.”

    When one approaches a giallo film, there is an automatic presumption of a encountering a visual stylization which goes hand in hand with the exaggerated excesses of behavior which set the plots in motion; usually a gaudy mix of unceremoniously bloody violence and flamboyantly bizarre sexual behavior; genre characteristics which are a bold extension of macchiesolariposterthe American noir with its basis in violence and nihilism served up with a corruptive undercurrent of sexual depravity. (In a way, noir is entirely based on psychosexual gamesmanship.) Giallo merely extends these elements to both colorful and extreme levels, though also increasingly formulaic.

    Armando Crispino’s “Macchie solari” (released in the U.S. as “Autopsy”, though more correctly translated from the Italian as “Sunspots”) opens with a succession of solarized sun flares interwoven with a series of some of the most preposterously staged suicides to be seen on film, including a man who drowns himself in a raging river by first tying a plastic bag around his head (a misguided attempt at scuba diving or just a guy willing to suffocate himself in a very picturesque manner?) and one fellow who, after killing his children, shoots himself…in the chest….repeatedly…with a machine gun…uh huh.

     The bodies are taken to the morgue where they are of particular interest to Simona Sana (Mimsy Farmer), a pathology intern who is coincidentally (What would giallo be without a preposterous level of coincidence?) preparing a thesis on incidents of suicide during heatwaves; her research  methodology seemingly characterized by decoratively scattering lurid maccjiesolari2maccjiesolari1photos of violent murder victims about her apartment. Simona is also traumatized by an unspecified neurosis which makes her fall into convulsive hysterics during sex, as she begins rehallucinating the hallucinations of living corpses she experiences while working in the morgue. The calming balance of normalcy during her psychotically tainted working hours is provided by her co-worker Ivo (Enresto Colli), an unashamed, leering pervert who spends his entire work shift either uttering salaciously harassing remarks, grossly fondling the naked female corpses or, in one heartwarming sequence, attempting a violent sexual assault against Simona. (From this we must presume that all Italian civil servants have extraordinarily forgiving tenure.) Simona confusingly fluctuates in her opinion of sex, wavering between fascination and revulsion, though considering the unhealthy male acquaintances around her, it’s surprising she isn’t armed with pepper spray and a rape whistle. If long hours and warm temperatures aren’t enough macchiesolari4macchiesolari3to spring Simona’s sense of reason into a very dark place, there are her sinister father who is a bit too handsy, and her sinister building super who is always trying to grab a peek up Simona’s conveniently open clothing, or her sinister photographer boyfriend who finds her sexual palsy attacks endearing, or the sinister priest may be a former racer car driver responsible for a dozen deaths, but more importantly is the brother of the initially sinister redhead who’s really a blonde, but it doesn’t really matter since she ends up on Simona’s morgue table- under Ivor’s loving paws -who is initially a sinister visitor from the apartment above Simona’s, and may have a sinister connection to Simona’s sinister father, but is now dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound… or is it?

              “Maybe you still are a monster dear, but you have better style.”

     The film is abundant with red herrings, obvious suspects and blind alleys which lead nowhere and mean absolutely nothing (including the title); in other words, a typically overripe giallo which is far more typical of the genre in the telling than in the finished film. While the script by Lucio Battistrada and director Armando Crispino spins a web of macchiesolarieconfusion and evasion in all directions, each path is colored with unsavory connotations, especially within the character of Simona herself, whose similarity of visions in the morgue and in flagrante delicto suggest a disturbing predilection toward necrophilic fantasy. Much is made of her fascination with suicide, yet she never exhibits the slightest insight on the subject, nor does the plot ever tie in with the slant of her thesis work: the correlative relationship between the sun and suicide. The clinical nature of the film’s opening exposition (much of which is later discovered- by the viewer -to be irrelevant) might be seen to cleverly underplay many of the genre’s stylistic tropes and- in fact -more resembles an Italian police procedural, except for the fact that there are no police and even less procedural.

      If the visual characteristics of classic giallo- vivid colors and expressive use of shadows, et al.  -seem a bit muted in “Macchie solari”, there is ample compensation in the volume of gratuitous nudity in such a questionable, unhealthy context. The film freely imparts the suggestion of that violence- or more importantly, violent death -and sex are linked in an inseparable partnership, an aberrant line of thought that might have value as the motivating, warped perspective of an antagonist killer, but rather macchiesolari1unsettling (not in a good way) as a central construct in the moral character of the film’s heroine. Crispino reveals no sense of location and we’re never quite certain where the action is taking place. However, this is entirely consistent with the film’s peculiar inability to clarify just what action is taking place; the narrative is overstuffed with details and fleeting incidents that are attended to and summarily dropped without further mention, nor importance to any aspect of the film’s mystery. (That the film has a difficult time staying focused as to what the mystery actually is presents an entirely different problem.) Rather than contributing as legitimate red herrings, these details simply accumulate as an amalgam of macchiesolari2unrelated information which clumsily piles up and obscures any clarifying view of the narrative. In “Macchie solari”, the greatest mystery may be deciphering just what the mystery is supposed to be (despite the seemingly endless trail of murder victims which seem to be wholly precipitated by the same clip of a flaring sun, though at no time does anyone suggest the flaming orb be brought in for questioning), the screenplay drifting off with sequences, that in other films, might act as pieces in a larger puzzle (Lenox is revealed as an epileptic in an hysterically prolonged sequence and Simona’s super is dispatched in a patently obvious staged suicide tableau without rating a notice by authorities), but are immediately forgotten; Crispino’s distracted vision amply demonstrating his dismissal of the need for logical narrative connections. The giallo film, though steeped in garishly flamboyant styles and plot devices, is wholly dependent on logical denouements, no matter how unlikely or fantastic the narrative elements.

     “You may be an expert on corpses fella, but you have a lot to learn about women.”

     As Simona, Mimsy Farmer seems to be lingering from the effects of anesthesia, bringing her signature air of blank puzzlement which is uninspired by any character interpretation but rather an unquestionable limitation of acting skills. Farmer is the Euro genre film embodiment of Hitchcock’s blonde ice queen who underneath the frosty exterior is a raging nymphomaniac, except in this Hollywood expatriate’s case, her arsenal is absent of the all important “raging”, though for her portrayal of a sexually intimidated woman, she displays a dedicated proclivity for not wearing undergarments. Barry Primus merely seems unhappy and frustrated throughout the film, as if his energies as an actor are sabotaged by a role which seems reconceived with the turning of every script page.movie

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5 Responses to CINEMA ITALIANO: THE WORLD IN GIALLO

  1. chandlerswainreviews says:

    B.A., M.A., D. Sw. (That’s Doctor of Swainology. You can pay your student loans later.) – Actually no, just the opposite, in fact. Giallos are usually overburdened with keeping the novelty factor alive in the overabundance of homicides in each film. I find that a great many women seem to be engaged in that activity throughout the genre, certainly as much as men; supposing, at least in this particular film form, murderous mania is an equal opportunity employer. Yes, the balance between mystery and mayhem is always entertaining in these films (perhaps that’s why my favorite still goes back to “Blood and Black Lace”), but this particular example is rather weak in both departments. Since you said you’re unfamiliar with this particular title, I’d count you among the fortunate.

  2. Not familiar with this one. Are many gialli devoid of on-screen murders?? I’ve mostly studied Dario Argento and feel his work often includes a few murders. He often includes female murderers. Is that typical of the genre or unique to him?? I also enjoy the balance between slasher and mystery, even though the detectives are not always as competent as the outsider who somehow gets pulled into the investigation.

  3. bijoux82 says:

    Can I look forward to some giallo posts soon??

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