Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review of Five Dolls for an August Moon

What do these three moves have in common?
1) “The Ten Commandments” (1956)
2) “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001)
3) The giallo for this review, “5 Dolls for the August Moon” (1969)

Answer: They are all adaptations of top 10 all time top selling books. Sadly, there have yet to be any good film versions of “The Book of Common Prayer” or “Quotations from Chairman Mao,” but I hear that Universal has optioned the rights to adapt “Pilgrim’s Progress” with Sylvester Stallone eager to play the lead.

“5 Dolls for the August Moon” is directed by Mario Bava and unofficially based on “And Then There Were None” (1939) by Agatha Cristie. It is also known as “Ten Little Indians” although it was originally published under a different (and offensive) name. I won’t write it here, but if you’re curious, look it up. The international smash hit tells the tale of ten guests invited to an island mansion by a mysterious host who never appears. Trapped in a ritzy mansion, they are knocked off one by one, each in a different manner. Can you solve the crime?

It might not be worth trying, since the solution is fairly elaborate and non-intuitive, but it makes for a good yarn. Over the years there have been nearly ten film adaptations and a highly successful Broadway version. None are particularly good, but at least “5 Dolls for an August Moon” is a giallo. As the title makes plain, the emphasis is on the female half of the ten stranded islanders who are all conspicuously attractive. They also just happened to have packed enormous wardrobes of revealing outfits as well. The similarities to “Blood and Black Lace” (1964) are striking.

The plot has also been changed to give the ten guests more of a purpose. They are meeting on the island to bid for a scientific discovery made by Professor Farrell. He is uninterested in their monetary millions and is determined to make his formula known to the world. The others don’t like this. Eventually people start getting killed roughly along the lines of the source novel. After the first body is found, there is so much distrustful glancing that you know the murder-floodgate has been thrown wide open.

[Images: …and so on.]

Could the murderer be Trudy, the professor’s cold, loveless wife…
or Peggy, the ditzy blonde…
or Isabel, the naïve youngster with a crush on Farrell…
or the sexually provocative Marie (Edwige Fenech before she was a leading lady)…
or Jill Stark, the abused wife of George, the corrupt mansion owner.
There is certainly good reason to suspect any of them, and the five men as well, simply based on their questionable morality. All sorts of crosses, double crosses, shady deals, sexual liaisons and outright crimes begin to mar the beautiful beachside getaway. When things turn really south, the guests realize that their boat has been sabotaged and they are trapped on the island. While they have plenty of victuals, the real danger comes for their shortage of scruples.

The plot tends to be a little dull, since the “secret formula” is used so obviously as a MacGuffin. The characters are all so unlikable that we are asked to revel in their backstabbing schemes and untimely deaths rather than to care or understand them. They take an undeniable glee in their mercenary, amoral behavior. There is a certain undeniable pleasure in watching the characters complete their predestined roles, but if it wasn’t for Bava’s direction the film would be fairly tiresome.

Here are quotes that lend a little insight into the character dynamics:

Nick: “Now what was I saying?”
Marie: “That I’m a dirty whore. That’s why I’m showering, so at least I’ll be a clean whore.”

Nick: “Well, well, if it isn’t Trudy. A beautiful icicle.”

Jill: “Why did you marry such a beast?”
Trudy: “All men are beasts!”
From the get-go, Bava transforms the straight-laced parlor room trappings of the original mystery into a stylish exercise in excess and indulgence. The characters all act with infinite arch-cynicism and permanent smirks. Their clothes are a source of amusement with a life of their own. The indoor set is turned into a celebration of 60’s interior decoration (complete with rotating couches) and the outdoor jungle becomes a single giant libidinous cue for the oversexed characters.

One of my favorite Bava touches is the fact that the survivors callously toss each new corpse into the mansion’s meat locker. For some never-explained uncomfortable reason, they also sever the heads and hang them from meat hooks. Every time Bava cuts to the row of swinging noggins, he plays a piece of peppy circus music (by prolific composer Piero Umiliani) that makes the mood downright comical.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a giallo if the death sequences weren’t given a little extra spice. They include film history’s favorite focus pull (victim-to-gun / gun-to-victim):

…as well as a beautiful scene of contrived artistic overkill, in which the camera follows a torrent of glass spheres pouring down a spiral staircase and into an indoor pool. The dramatic entrance leads us to Jill’s bleeding corpse and the suicide note she wrote on the mirror in PINK LIPSTICK! There is something hilariously flippant in her choice of mediums and yet it feels perfectly fitting. If only she’d dotted the ‘i’ with a little heart or finished with a smiley :)

Fenech, who is clearly not being given the star treatment that one finds later in her career, steals the opening scene with a kitschtastic striptease as the guests relax in the mansion’s main room. While “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and many other films have taught me that this was perfectly acceptable and even natural behavior for casual social engagements in Italy circa 1960, George ups the ante by strapping Fenech to a tree stump (that he keeps in his living room for just this type of occasion), donning a golden mask and “sacrificing” the girl to pagan god. It’s all a harmless joke, but makes for grim foreshadowing when, an hour later in the film, Fenech is found strapped to a tree and stabbed in a macabre parody of her earlier performance.

[Images: (top) Edwige Fenech pretending to be stabbed and (bottom) Edwige Fenech actually having been stabbed.]

Mario Bava claims to have hated the script and considers this one of his worst films, but when watching it I can’t help thinking he had a lot of fun with it. The whole thing benefits from not taking itself very seriously and interspersing moments of total weirdness. The ending is a slew of melodramatic posturing and ironic twists. It comes close to redeeming the plot with its audacious insanity.

While not a great giallo, and not even a first tier entry from Bava’s canon, this film is enjoyable for fans of the genre. Those who like Agatha Cristie and traditional mysteries will probably not be impressed, but they may find it worthwhile to view this exotic specimen just to complete their collection.

Walrus Rating: 6

And now for the art comparison, brought to you by Matisse:


Mad Dog said...

My god. Those SUNGLASSES.

Unknown said...

Not that you don't already have much more to say than you have time to blog it, but...

something I'd really like to see here is director reviews. I'm not asking for you to, like, dissect Bergman, because ... there are books for that. Many of them...

But some of the lesser-known/ less prolific ones, or, it'd be great to look at the bodies of work from the giallo directors, since we hardly see anything "in order."

Anyway, just a thought. It'd be a change for a format, which usually makes you excited. : D

Anonymous said...

It's not called "10 little indians" anymore - that title was deemed too offensive too.
The new one is "10 little soldiers", although I suppose this one won't last very long either.
As for the movie - I think the biigest problem is the identity of the killer, which is given away 40 minutes in.