Welcome to Part 3 of my increasingly random tour through the sexy-violent world of the Italian thriller. As in Parts 1 and 2, titles viewed in Italian-language only (i.e. for those discs without English subtitles/audio) will be marked “IT-LANG”. Films are listed by Italian title first, followed by the most commonly-known English title, with AKAs collected below them.
As an interesting comparison exercise, click here to access the Random Giallo Title Generator – and see just how closely the fictitious titles and lurid synopses match the real ones below…
Ecco stronzo, ora continuate a leggere…
A.k.a. Seven Shawls of Yellow Silk
D: Sergio Pastore. S: Sandro Continenza, Sergio Pastore, Giovanni Simonelli. P: Edmondo Amati, Maurizio Amati. Cast: Antonio De Teffé, Sylva Koscina, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Umberto Raho, Giovanna Lenzi, Renato de Carmine, Anabella Incontrera. DVD (Italy): Federal Video. IT-LANG.
Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s this maniac, right? And he’s got this bee in his bonnet about catwalk models. Can’t stand ‘em. So he’s togged himself out in his regulation black gloves, hat and raincoat, polished his razor to a dazzling gleam, and is about ready to start his spree – but wait. Something’s missing. He needs a gimmick, something to set him apart from the herd. Something with an oblique sense of irony, perhaps, that tells the authorities they’re dealing with an artist. Then, in a flash, it comes to him: he’ll coerce a morphine-sozzled ex-circus showgirl well past her prime to dress up in a white cape and prowl the streets with a wicker basket, visiting each of his targets in turn. What’s in the basket, you ask? Well it’s that rarely-deployed weapon of choice, the-black-cat-with-claws-dipped-in-curare, driven to attack his female victims when a yellow silk shawl soaked in, um, “feline accelerant” (for want of a better term) is dangled in front of his nose. The yellow shawl is then left at the scene to baffle the cops, who know only one thing about the killer: that he’ll strike seven times in all…
What a hoot! A banal plot is enlivened considerably by some engagingly absurd – not to mention thoroughly outrageous – content, with the cat-attack scenes being a particular highlight: if you can keep a straight face as a fake cat’s head (with glowing yellow eyes!) is thrust over and over again into the camera lens, you have the self-control of a Tibetan monk. Less amusing, but undeniably memorable, is an incredibly vicious shower murder towards the end of the film, which pushes the sexual violence about as far as it could go for 1972. (It’s still pretty shocking today, though the giallo would plumb yet more extreme depths as the decade wore on: Five Women for the Killer  and Giallo a Venezia  are regularly-cited as two of the worst offenders in this respect.) The fact that all the main characters have Anglo names only adds to the sense of derangement – hearing them solemnly intone elegies for ‘Arry and ‘Elga does detract somewhat from the tragedy of the situation, no bad thing in light of the nastier elements.
Director Sergio Pastore tries to keep the visuals interesting, shooting from a variety of unusual angles and through various distorting materials (a plastic dome, a cage filled with birds), even throwing in some kaleidoscopic effects to suggest a drugged-out viewpoint. (This seems to be his most notable effort, though 1968’s Chrysanthemums for a Bunch of Swine sounds intriguing. Despite the title, it’s not a giallo but a western.) Pastore borrows extensively from the Bava/Argento back catalogue, blurring the line between homage and plagiarism: there’s the blind protagonist who overhears by chance a whispered conversation between conspirators (The Cat O’Nine Tails); the fashion-house milieu, stylishly-appointed with red telephones (Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for the Honeymoon); and the crucial phone clue derived from background animal noise (Bird With the Crystal Plumage). The killer’s attire and sibilant speech are also de rigueur for the genre. To the film’s credit, however, it has a lively pace, a nice score (by Manuel De Sica) and never outstays its welcome, unlike other lower-tier entries such as Naked Girl Killed in Park. The killer’s MO is crazily endearing, and while it won’t have you reaching for superlatives, Crimes remains one of the more dottily-entertaining gialli of the period.
The cast is fun, too, mustering several familiar faces: there’s ex-Django Antonio De Teffé (a.k.a. “Anthony Steffen”, of The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave) as the blind, unlucky-in-love pianist hero, tap-tapping his way from one bizarre crime scene to the next with a fixed expression of stoical forbearance; Umberto Raho (Bird with the Crystal Plumage) as his enigmatic valet; and Sylva Koscina (So Sweet…So Dead) as the fashion-house boss, suspecting her no-good husband (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, of The Double/La controfigura) of sampling her girls, and maybe worse. Shirley Corrigan (The Devil’s Nightmare) shows a good deal of skin as the doormat heroine; in a dark echo of her role here, the actress was later almost killed herself by an obsessive stalker. (Christ; if life must imitate art, at least let it be good art.)
Another giallo, another half-arsed DVD. Sigh. The best one can say about the current disc from Italy’s Federal Video is that it’s better than their previous attempt, which offered up an ancient VHS rip to less-than-thrilled customers. This release did include English subtitles, true, but was in all other respects a travesty. The new disc at least presents the film in semi-decent fashion, with a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer from a superior source; alas, given that the film was originally shot in Techniscope (2.35:1), we’re missing a sizeable chunk of visual information. (The opening and closing titles, annoyingly, are presented at the correct ratio.) The image quality is soft and unimpressive, though serviceable. This re-release ditches the English subtitles, carrying only Italian HoH subs; those with a rudimentary grasp of the language should be able to muddle through with these, though it’s hardly ideal. Extras are restricted to text biogs of the director, De Teffé and Koscina.
Incidentally, the version presented here appears to be the complete Italian cut, though as with other films of this ilk certain scenes were shot in more or less explicit versions. A Greek VHS release reportedly includes more below-the-waist details tastefully covered in this edition, though also abbreviates the graphic shower murder – offering a useful insight into the Hellenic mindset. (The DVD carries Italian opening and closing credits, but English-language inserts – “The mistery [sic] of the black cat continues” – for newspaper headlines and the like.) While this DVD isn’t exactly a disgrace, it leaves considerable room for improvement. We can only hope somebody like Camera Obscura has their sights fixed on this title for the future…
A.k.a. Pasos de danza sobre el filo de una navaja, Dance Steps on the Edge of a Razor
D: Maurizio Pradeaux. S: Alfonso Balcázar, Arpad DeRiso, George Martin, Maurizio Pradeaux. P: Mario Alabiso, Francisco Balcázar, Mario Caporali, Enrique Uviedo. Cast: Robert Hoffman, Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro), George Martin, Anuska Borova, Serafino Profumo, Simón Andreu. DVD (Germany): X-Rated, (Austria): Copernicus Film Distribution.
In Crimes of the Black Cat, the hero carried a cane; fair’s fair, now it’s the bad guy’s turn. (And he’s a damn sight more creative with it, I can tell you.) Utilising several of director Luciano Ercoli’s familiar rep players, Death Carries a Cane notably lacks the rich visual textures of Ercoli’s work, and under the flat direction of Maurizio Pradeaux (who later made Death Steps in the Dark, 1976) emerges as a disappointingly mediocre addition to the genre. It’s unoriginal, unchallenging, the Robocop 2 of gialli: clumping through much-loved material with little wit or finesse, though that’s not to say it’s completely without merit. The determined enthusiast, with checklist in hand, may even find some modest enjoyment in ticking off the clichés; the giallo is, after all, a formula comprised of specific components, which can be arranged and rearranged ad infinitum. Much of the fun comes from watching these elements pop up again in new configurations, and even if these shapes aren’t much different from ones we’ve seen before, they can still tickle the fancy quite nicely.
Swedish photographer Kitty (Susan Scott, a.k.a Nieves Navarro) witnesses a murder through a telescope in a public park, but she’s unable to see the killer’s face. The police, and her husband Alberto (Robert Hoffman), are initially sceptical, but once the dead girl’s body shows up they’re forced to take her seriously. The victim was a ballerina, leading cops to believe the death is linked to a prior killing, that of an Australian dancer. Beyond the fact that the killer wears a hat and carries a cane, the police don’t have much to go on – until a photograph taken by a German tourist, containing clues to the killer’s identity, appears in the local paper. The cops are also keen to trace a pair of potential witnesses, a chestnut seller and a local hooker; unfortunately, so is the killer, and they soon wind up dead – half-strangled by the handle of a cane, and their throats cut. Next to go is an American ballerina – graduate of an unorthodox école de dance, where pupils are taught fancy strip routines and the use of body glitter – who’s first suffocated before having her stomach cut open. Believing Alberto is being tailed by the killer, the police inspector decides to use both him and Kitty as bait to lure the maniac out…
Chestnuts for sale, get yer chestnuts! An okay time-waster, Death Carries a Cane never really fires on all cylinders despite ticking most of the right boxes. It doesn’t shy away from prurient detail, with Nieves Navarro and others taking turns to lose their clothes; the film even contrives to squeeze in a spot of token lesbianism, for nothing more than quota purposes. The murders are nastily effective, too, though it’s hard to shake the feeling that Pradeaux’s heart isn’t really in it. Key plot elements are recycled from Blow Up and Bird with the Crystal Plumage, amongst others, and the Rome locations look unusually drab. Adding to the generally lacklustre feel is the score by Roberto Pregadio, a thoroughly rote affair. (I suppose Morricone, Nicolai and Cipriani were busy that week.) The business with the cane is just a lazy means of incriminating half the cast, most of whom seem to have one lying around the house, and turns out by the end to be a blatant red herring. After spending the first half of the film trying to convince us that Hoffman is the killer, the film moves on to accuse almost everyone else, from impotent pianist Simón Andreu to the prim twin sister of Andreu’s girlfriend (both played by Anuska Borova). It’s all a bit wearisome, and well before the end you may find yourself borrowing a line of Hoffman’s: “Cut that jazz out!”
The film is not without amusement value, however. Its sexism is so blatant as to be laugh-out-loud funny, though I suppose that may depend on your outlook. Describing his wife’s sculptures to the police inspector, while she’s right beside him, Hoffman cheerily remarks: “It’s the only thing she does well, besides making love!” Hey, thanks honey. (Hoffman also has his wife pose as a prostitute later on, ostensibly to trap the killer, though his logic seems shaky.) Easily the best thing in the film, Nieves Navarro delivers another spirited performance, though given her key role at the outset it’s a shame she’s sidelined for much of the film. Pradeaux spends far too much time following dull Robert Hoffman (Naked Girl Killed in Park, Spasmo), the poor man’s James Franciscus, and while it’s nice to see Simón Andreu again – Navarro’s co-star in Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight – he has little to do but tinkle the ivories and look moody. Still, the film rises to some decent suspense for the finale, with Navarro pursued through a pitch-dark house and into a decaying greenhouse by the killer, seen only as a black silhouette with a dazzling flashlight. All things considered, you could do worse.
Death Carries a Cane has been poorly-served thus far on home video. The first DVD was an oversized “Hartbox” from German cult outfit X-Rated, which carried a poor, non-anamorphic transfer (under the title Die Nacht der Rollenden Köpfe) correctly framed at 1.66:1, with a choice of German or English audio. That edition was made available in a choice of two different cover designs, using Spanish and Italian poster art. Austria’s Copernicus Film Distribution later released a 2-disc edition, limited to 666 copies, carrying the same German print on the first disc and an improved anamorphic transfer (with less print damage) on the second, this time framed at a tighter 1.85:1. Unfortunately, the latter version plays with non-removable German subtitles when the English or Italian tracks are selected; the transfer is also significantly darker than it should be, though sharper and more colourful than the German edition. It seems unlikely this middling thriller will get a better release – my advice is to go with the YouTube version, a rip of the X-Rated disc with English audio. It’s anamorphic, unlike the original disc, and is at least watchable; though hardly definitive, it gets the job done.
A.k.a. The Night She Rose From the Tomb
D: Emilio P. Miraglia. S: Fabio Pittorru, Massimo Felisatti, Emilio P. Miraglia. P: Antonio Sarno. Cast: Anthony Steffen (Antonio De Teffé), Marina Malfatti, Erika Blanc (Enrica Bianchi Colombatto), Roberto Maldera, Umberto Raho, Joan C. Davis, Rod Murdock. DVD (US): NoShame [w/ The Red Queen Kills 7 Times].
On the face of it, Lord Alan Cunningham (Antonio De Teffé) is the most eligible of bachelors: he’s good-looking, a snappy dresser and – steady, ladies – has three million quid in the bank. Unfortunately he’s also barking mad, having been driven off the rails when he found his late wife Evelyn frolicking nude in the castle grounds with her lover. (He’d have divorced her quick-smart had she not died in childbirth; her body now lies in the family crypt.) Alan’s been in and out of the nuthouse ever since, cared for by sympathetic shrink Dr Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), and now amuses himself by picking up redheads who remind him of his wife, having them dress up in thigh-length leather boots and little else, and chasing them around his torture chamber with a whip. During these episodes he imagines his wife taunting him, driving him into an insane rage – after which he passes out.
What happens to the women we’re not sure, though we can guess; afterwards we see Alan disposing of their clothes, paying off his gamekeeper Albert (Rod Murdock) – also Evelyn’s brother, incidentally, darkly insistent that Alan should never remarry – to keep him quiet about his string of lady visitors. To cheer him up, Alan’s affable cousin George (Roberto Maldera) organises a party at the castle one night, where Alan immediately falls for the glamorous Gladys (Marina Malfatti). The two are married by the end of the week, and with Gladys swiftly moving into the castle, Alan finally seems to be on the mend. But it’s not long before Strange Things start to happen: Alan sees the spectre of his dead wife flitting through the castle grounds, and even Gladys catches sight of her standing at the window. And that’s not all – yes, there’s a killer at large (hooray!), bumping off Albert with a poisoned snake and burying him in an open grave. Next it’s the turn of Alan’s Aunt Agatha (Joan C. Davis), brained with a rock and then fed to the foxes. Soon Alan’s fragile sanity is ready to snap, and he finally decides to lay his fears to rest, once and for all – by making sure Evelyn is still in her grave…
A prime example of thrilling all’italiana at its most sublime, The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave is an absolute blast from start to finish. The first of only two gialli by director Emilio P. Miraglia – the other being the equally-fun Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) – it’s utterly, irresistibly daft, the kind of film where a huge sack of “sulphuric acid” is left sitting beside a swimming-pool, just waiting to be put to good use. Miraglia kicks things off in, ah, exuberant style, as a gurning Antonio De Teffé (under his usual nom d’écran Anthony Steffen) tries to escape from an asylum, his POV vision represented by images seemingly shot through the bottom of a milk-bottle. De Teffé (on far livelier form here than in Death Carries a Cane) may not be everyone’s idea of an English Lord, but makes a nicely-ambiguous protagonist: incorporating everything from raving loon to sardonic predator, his performance is pitched just right throughout. Mind you, his chat-up routine is probably not one to try out on a Saturday night – a firm believer in quality control, he gives each redhead’s hair a firm yank (“I’m sorry, I thought it was a wig”) before inviting them back to his dungeon. Still, it gets results. But then you know what these “British” women are like.
Erika Blanc (sepulchral beauty of The Devil’s Nightmare) gets a memorable introduction, wriggling arse-first from a coffin to a fuzz-guitar cue from Bruno Nicolai. (You won’t get that from Judi Dench.) As a stripper lured to Alan’s dungeon, Blanc (real name: Enrica Bianchi Colombatto) is at her sinister-sexy best; the sight of her tottering around in thigh-boots and knickers isn’t one you’ll forget in a hurry, and may well have inspired a similar costume choice for Sean Connery in Zardoz (1974). The rest of the cast is pleasingly stocked with brooding suspects and gorgeous women, the latter in particular inviting one to wonder whether Cinecittà might have instigated some kind of selective breeding programme after the war. Flawless beauties, every one. (With results like these, the eugenics lobby might finally gain some traction.) Nobly representing the homelier end of the spectrum, eternal factotum Umberto Raho shows up again here, this time as the family bailiff.
Bruno Nicolai supplies another terrific score, featuring a musical cameo from his “De Sade 2000” cue (originally composed for Jess Franco’s Eugenie-The Story of her Journey into Perversion ) – aptly enough, it’s ready-to-roll on De Teffé’s dungeon gramophone when he shows up with a keen hooker. (The right mood is so important to these occasions, don’t you find?) The film is beautifully lit by Gastone di Giovanni: shots are artfully-framed through oddly-shaped pieces of set design, pools of indigo light bathe the castle grounds at night, and the hues of De Teffé’s oh-so-hip suits really pop. The castle itself is a fine location, its walls hung with vast Renaissance paintings, the grounds overgrown and carpeted with mist. A cool Gothic giallo, Evelyn would make a fine companion-piece to Romano Scavolini’s equally-chic Spirits of Death (1972). The climax, in which the film’s title is chillingly literalised, is a wonderful throwback to Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), and though in context it makes no logical sense, it’s still fully in keeping with the overall sense of delirium. The twist ending is every bit as silly as you’d hope, and everything concludes with a Shakespearian heap of bodies. How gratifying.
If I had a criticism to make, it’s that female lead Marina Malfatti (also in Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times) doesn’t quite have the class of her rival scream-queens, often calling to mind a gormless Sondra Locke. But cripplingly shy she is not, and viewers will doubtless derive some amusement from her hilarious cut-to-the-navel outfits, smartly designed for instant wardrobe malfunction. If the films of Sergio Martino or Luciano Ercoli are to your taste, you should find The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave every bit as enjoyable – though with Edwige Fenech or Susan Scott, it might have been even better.
NoShame’s US division did the film proud with their 2006 DVD release, part of a 2-disc “Emilio Miraglia Killer Queen Boxset” (paired with The Red Queen Kills Seven Times) – a limited collector’s edition, now OOP, that came in an oversized cardboard box with a rubber figurine of the Red Queen. (God knows what it was coated with, but that figurine stank worse than burnt tar.) Presented in a robust anamorphic transfer, correctly framed at 2.35:1, the film could either be viewed with the English dub, or in Italian with English subtitles (by far the preferred option). Boasting strong colours and good contrast, Evelyn remains one of NoShame’s finest discs. Extras include interviews with Erika Blanc and production designer Lorenzo Baraldi, some miniature lobby-card reproductions and a booklet of liner notes by Richard Harland Smith and Chris D. It’ll cost you a packet on the second-hand market, but those looking for a cheaper alternative might be tempted by the German release from X-Rated Kult (under the title Die Grotte der vergessenen leichen); as quality goes, there’s no real comparison – X-Rated’s disc is cropped to 1.85:1, for starters, and looks a lot blearier – but the film is otherwise complete. However you see it, just make sure you do.
D: Paolo Cavara. S: Lucile Laks, Marcello Danon. P: Marcello Danon. Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Claudine Auger, Barbara Bouchet, Annabella Incontrera, Barbara Bach, Stefania Sandrelli, Rosella Falk, Ezio Marano, Silvano Tranquilli. DVD (Italy): Ripley’s Home Video (RHV).
In what may be the greatest opening title sequence ever, Black Belly of the Tarantula begins with a naked Barbara Bouchet receiving a full body massage to the strains of a languorous Ennio Morricone theme. She plays Maria Zani, nymphomaniac wife of Paolo Zani (Silvano Tranquilli), who wastes little time slapping her around when he gets a blackmail photo of her up to no good through the post one day. But things are about to get much worse, as Maria is then targeted by a raincoated killer in surgical gloves, who first paralyses her by sticking a loooooooooong acupuncture needle into her spinal column before knifing her in the stomach. Paolo Zani promptly drops off the grid, leading police (led by Giancarlo Giannini’s Inspector Tellini) to peg him as the murderer; the fact that he’s later found to have been hiding out at the home of an acupuncturist pal only makes them more certain he’s their man. But Zani has gone to ground to find the real killer, and armed with the blackmail pic of his wife’s lover starts digging around with a private eye. The cops, meanwhile, have their hands full dealing with more of the murderer’s handiwork: first a shop girl, with ties to the drug trade, then another blackmail victim (Rosella Falk) are found dead, paralysed and stabbed like Maria. And it’s not long before the killer turns his sights on Inspector Tellini and his wife (Stefania Sandrelli)…
Closer in feel to the Argento canon, and more serious gialli like The Bloodstained Butterfly and The Fifth Cord, Tarantula is a solid and engrossing thriller with style to burn. Director Paolo Cavara, best known for the worldwide smash Mondo Cane (1962), presents the first crime scene almost as an extension of the killer’s ritual, with Bouchet as the nude centrepiece of a bedroom altar, surrounded by softly murmuring policemen – gathered like acolytes for some strange ceremony. Like Luigi Bazzoni in The Fifth Cord, Cavara makes interesting use of geometric forms to lend interest to his compositions – spiral staircases, tubular glass tunnels, and the criss-crossing perpendiculars of office-block façades. The murders are filmed in a disturbing, clinical style, emphasising their nastiness. Eurocult fans will get a Bavaesque frisson from one scene in particular, where a shop assistant is chased through a room full of mannequins; the hectic, hand-held camerawork accurately conveys her mounting panic as the killer closes in. Cavara later made another giallo, …E tanta paura/Plot of Fear (1976), with Corinne Cléry and Eli Wallach. My memory tells me it was disappointing, but perhaps it deserves a second look.
The colourful title gets a thin justification from an entomologist, who likens the killer’s MO to that of a species of wasp that preys on tarantulas: first it paralyses them, before injecting them with larvae which then eat them alive. As usual, it has no real bearing on the case – but it sounds good, and that’s the main thing. (Red Belly of the Herring might have been an equally-apt choice, given the number of the things floating round in this film, but that’s the nature of the beast.) The spider angle is also echoed in a minor sub-plot concerning drug trafficking – the smugglers bring the stuff in with rare spiders, reasoning that customs officials are unlikely to stick their hands in to check the box’s contents. But its connection to the main storyline is tenuous at best, and it amounts to little more than narrative misdirection.
Star Giancarlo Giannini will be familiar to Bond fans as Daniel Craig’s sidekick in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, but is perhaps better-known to the arthouse crowd for his collaborations with Lina Wertmüller (The Seduction of Mimi, et al). He’s also great as a hyperactive movie mogul in Roman Coppola’s love-letter to Euro-cinema, CQ (2001) – and, incidentally, is the official Italian voice-double for Al Pacino. His hangdog persona is well-suited to this early role, as the sensitive cop who gloomily realises he may not be cut out for homicide work. Cavara pokes gentle fun at Tellini’s home life: wife Anna (the lovely Stefania Sandrelli, of The Conformist) has sold all his furniture, so he lives in a half-empty flat stripped of all reference to the past – as if inhabiting an existential limbo, waiting for a new life to fill the void around him. Construction cranes loom around his apartment like watchtowers, lending his environment a quietly sinister, almost Ballardian feel. His relationship with Anna is the one certainty in his life, the fixed point he returns to when all else is chaos. Theirs is a loving, humorous, completely credible ménage – and when the security of that world is threatened, we feel Tellini’s rage like a physical blow. We’ve seen earlier hints that his home is vulnerable – the killer calmly films them making love in bed, presumably using a telephoto lens (suggesting another Ballard story, “The Sixty-Second Zoom”, and its grim conclusion) – but by the film’s end, those hints have become an outright declaration of war. The final explosion of emotion as Tellini confronts the killer is anything but cathartic, and the film ends on a note of troubled uncertainty.
The high-calibre supporting cast could hardly be bettered. Barbara Bouchet is always a delight, and though she’s killed off early on, this remains one of her most iconic roles; her face lingers in the mind like the after-image of a flashbulb, and time and again Cavara returns us to the photograph sent by the blackmailer. The director’s fascination mirrors our own. Claudine Auger (from Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood) is the shady massage parlour proprietor, with Barbara Bach (also in Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls the same year) popping up briefly as her lover. Character actress Rosella Falk, whose flaring nostrils spanned the spectrum of quality from Fellini’s 8 ½ to Lenzi’s Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, turns up here as a blackmail victim targeted by the killer. Rounding out the support is Argento’s favourite character actor Fulvio Mingozzi, the taxi driver in Suspiria and Inferno, who has a brief cameo as a surgeon.
Black Belly of the Tarantula has received a fine DVD release from Italian distributor Ripley’s Home Video. Its anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is very attractive indeed, and comes with a choice of Italian or English audio. (The latter requires some amplification, but is otherwise acceptable.) Supplements include a nice, full-colour booklet containing liner notes and poster art, plus a 15-minute video interview with Lorenzo Danon, son of the film’s late producer. (The extras are unfortunately not English-friendly.) A US disc was also released by Blue Underground, probably sourced from the same high-quality elements. I have no hesitation in recommending either disc.
A.k.a. L’adorable corps de Deborah
D: Romolo Guerrieri. S: Ernesto Gastaldi, Luciano Martino. P: Mino Loy, Luciano Martino. Cast: Jean Sorel, Carroll Baker, Evelyn Stewart [Ida Galli], Luigi Pistilli, George Hilton [Jorge Hill Acosta y Lara], Michel Bardinet. DVD (Italy): Cinekult/Cecchi Gori. IT-LANG.
The Sweet Body of Deborah is broadly credited as the film that ushered in a new era of sexual frankness to Italian cinema, where a Catholic rigidity held sway for much of the 1960s. In the films before Deborah, nudity was confined to the peekaboo variety (where it was permitted at all); the Italian censor was not as lenient in this area as his peers in France and Germany, and while content to pass scenes of violence that would have John Trevelyan reaching for his shears, sexuality was restricted in the main to underwear shots and a suggestive wink. But Permissive Attitudes were abroad in the land, infiltrating popular culture throughout Europe – and Italy was no exception. By the middle of the decade, the fumetti neri and fotoromanzi were smuggling relatively explicit sexual content into their pages, to the collective horror of the nation’s moral guardians, and it was only a matter of time before such imagery made the jump to the big screen.
Deborah was the first giallo to put sex and nudity front and centre, supercharging not just the genre but the whole of Italian cinema in the process. Henceforth there would be no room for coy evasion. The doors of bedroom and bathroom could now be flung wide – and woe unto any director who failed to report, with detailed precision, what went on inside. Seen today, the film seems remarkably tasteful next to those made only a couple of years later, an index either of society’s appetite for change, or its limitless capacity for prurience; the jury’s still out. Deborah is essentially a glossier, sexed-up version of the “mini-Clouzots” being churned out by Hammer around the same time, though where Hammer opted for no-nonsense monochrome, producer Luciano Martino went the full-colour glamour route, adding chic locations and a cool easy-listening score by Nora Orlandi. He also added easy-on-the-eye international stars Jean Sorel (Belle de Jour) and Carroll Baker (Baby Doll), who would both appear in many more such things, often together, in the coming years – as would supporting players George Hilton (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, The Case of the Bloody Iris), Luigi Pistilli (Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Spirits of Death) and Evelyn Stewart (The Bloodstained Butterfly, Spirits of Death).
Busy screenwriter and novelist Ernesto Gastaldi (Death Walks on High Heels), the Italian Jimmy Sangster, here laid out the classic template to which he (and others) would later return, time and again: the sexy heroine menaced and romanced by predatory males (usually Hilton), the villain with a taste for operatic persecution, the convoluted web of cross and double-cross, the twist ending (and the one after that)… It would fall to Dario Argento to add the more fetishized aspects of the black-gloved killer – his attire, weaponry and sadistic proclivities – and the vital final ingredient of style, but so far as the narrative components were concerned, Deborah set out the stall quite comprehensively. Without it, the films that came afterwards would look very different indeed.
Newlyweds Marcel (Jean Sorel) and Deborah (Carroll Baker) find their honeymoon in Geneva cut short when Marcel spots an old friend, Philip (Luigi Pistilli), who greets him with open hostility. Pressed for an explanation, Philip informs Marcel that his ex-girlfriend Suzanne (Evelyn Stewart) has killed herself on his account. Thunderstruck, Marcel pours out his heart to Deborah: he and Suzanne (a gifted pianist) had been deeply in love, but loan sharks had forced him to leave Geneva for the US, where he hoped to tap friends for a loan. Vowing to rejoin Suzanne very soon, Marcel set off for the States – but once there, promptly fell for wealthy socialite Deborah, leaving poor Suzanne to dangle in the wind.
Consumed with guilt, Marcel decides to visit Suzanne’s parents to apologise for his behaviour face-to-face. He and Deborah show up at the house, but find it strangely empty – as if abandoned for some time. Inside Deborah finds a cigarette, freshly smoked; Marcel identifies it as Suzanne’s brand. Then they hear music, coming from the next room – a piano, playing Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique”, one of Suzanne’s signature pieces – but the room itself is empty… Suddenly the telephone rings, and Deborah answers. Yes, it’s our old friend, the Voice of Doom: “You will die, Deborah, to avenge Suzanne’s death!”
Sensibly, they clear out of the house at once, and decide to make further enquiries. Checking the local newspaper records they find Philip was telling the truth: Suzanne was killed in a car wreck. Furthermore, the telephone company informs them that it was impossible for anyone to have called the house – the line’s been disconnected. Hmm. To take Marcel’s mind off things, Deborah buys a flash new villa outside Geneva and the two settle down to the pleasures of married life: visiting chic strip joints, grooving away in Pop Art-themed clubs and, um, playing Twister in the garden. But it isn’t long before “Pathétique” rears its head once more, popping up in the most unexpected places. And then there’s their sardonic new neighbour, Robert (George Hilton), forever sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted. Sick of the whole business, Marcel and Deborah agree to move back to the States – but of course, it’s not gonna be that easy…
Though its innovative sheen has been dulled by time, Deborah is still a lot of fun, and a must-see for budding giallo historians. True, much of director Romolo Guerrieri’s stylistic choices seem hilariously naïve from a modern perspective, but the film must be judged by the standards of the day; it’s the product of a far less cynical age, when the Sixties Dream had not yet become a nightmare – a time when a filmmaker could unselfconsciously insert a romantic flashback into his film, with two grown adults frolicking through piles of leaves in slow-motion. Within a year, such carefree innocence would be a thing of the past, lending Deborah an unexpected poignancy as a time capsule of vanished attitudes. The film is not entirely without guile – the wry coda would become de rigueur in later films – but overall its approach is charmingly ingenuous. (Guerrieri would go on to direct another Sorel giallo, The Double, in 1971.) In the first of only three giallo scores she would compose, Nora Orlandi supplies the expected blend of eerie female vocals and Hammond-organ workouts; it’s pleasant enough, though her masterpiece would be her last, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (a key title for all concerned).
Producer Martino would go on to exploit this slick new formula with some success over the next couple of years, in a series of near-identical thrillers directed by Umberto Lenzi (and also starring Carroll Baker): So Sweet…So Perverse (1969), Paranoia (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970), and Knife of Ice (1972). Following the success of Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Martino cannily refined the Gastaldi template to incorporate more Sadean elements, in a series of thrillers directed by his brother Sergio and starring the stunning fetish-actress Edwige Fenech: The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, All the Colours of the Dark, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. (Martino would also produce Fenech’s Case of the Bloody Iris, directed by Giuliano Carnimeo.) Admirers of the Martino-Fenech sequence, in many ways the best of the non-Argento gialli, should certainly give Deborah a look, if only to see where it all began.
Cinekult’s DVD is a notable step-up from their Naked Girl Killed in Park release, though it’s far from pristine. The anamorphic transfer is clean, if a little dull, and framed at 2.35:1; the image seems a bit tight (especially at the right of the frame), suggesting that it may have been slightly zoomed-in at the telecine stage. Closeups look good, though medium- and long-shots seem unnecessarily soft. As usual with Cinekult, there are no English options, with only Italian HoH subtitles present; the disc comes with a reversible sleeve carrying Spanish and Italian poster art. Supplements include the film’s trailer, an interview featurette with director Romolo Guerrieri and a selection of trailers from the Cinekult catalogue, offering a beguiling cross-section of Italian popular cinema over three decades: a 70s sex comedy from director Paolo Cavara (Black Belly of the Tarantula), another with Eurocult favourite Femi Benussi, a 60s teen movie with pop idol Caterina Caselli (who sang a version of “Days of Pearly Spencer” called “Il Volto Della Vita”), a Gothic bodice-ripper (Le Amanti del Mostro, with Klaus Kinski), a political romance with Marisa Mell, and the obligatory Joe D’Amato 80s soft-porn (Eleven Days, Eleven Nights). Per standard Cinekult practice, most are stuffed with nudity – and you can thank The Sweet Body of Deborah for that.
Postscript: An English-friendly DVD has been released in Sweden by Fin de Siecle Media, under the title En röst i mörkret. (It’s around three times the cost of the Italian disc, and likely carries the self-same transfer.) And in breaking news, Deborah has just been announced as a forthcoming blu-ray release from German distributor X-Rated Kult, though no further details are currently available. Watch this space.