Saturday, October 11, 2008

Review of Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

After my review of “Valley of the Bees” last month, there was stretch of inactivity on the Film Walrus, owing to jury duty and the convergence of several long-missed friends converging on my apartment. Aside from playing plenty of Cineplexity and turning the presidential debate into a drinking game (one shot every time someone says “maverick,” “change,” or “fundamental”) we also had a late-night giallo triple-feature that included Luciano Ercoli’s “Death Walks on High Heels” and “Death Walks at Midnight.”

Though it wasn’t really planned this way, a few days later Netflix sent me Luciano Ercoli’s earlier giallo “Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion” (1970) that shares a director, writer (Ernesto Gastaldi) and two cast members (Susan Scott and Simon Andreu) with the two other features. It stars Dagmar Lassander, a copper-haired beauty who’s been in several intriguingly-titled gialli that I’ve yet to see including “Hatchet for the Honeymoon,” “The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire” and “Vice Wears Black Hose.”

The film opens with Minou (Lassander) wandering around her fashionable house kicking back whiskey and popping tranquilizers while mentally vowing to give up both. She meditates on mild schemes to make her husband jealous and sadly notes to herself that she dresses too conservatively. Judge for yourself:

[Image: This skimpy, hot-pink dress with revealing stitching is what Minou considers as “too much like a housewife.” She corrects the problem by undoing a couple more of the stitches.]

Shortly thereafter she goes for a stroll along a sketchy stretch of beach and is assaulted by a creepy dude with a blade-cane (Simon Andreu, up to his usual inexplicable knife-throwing). He accuses her husband of murder and almost rapes her, but says they won’t have sex until she begs for it. On that disturbing note, he leaves.

As in a lot of Gastaldi screenplays, nobody reacts in ways that any sensible person would. Minou heads over to a seedy bar for some more drinks reasoning that “the police just make you fill in forms.” Her husband, Peter, laughs it off as “some sort of prank” and later accuses her of ruining his business plans by having “a run-in with a sex-killer.” Even her nymphomaniac best-friend Dominique (Susan Scott) muses enviously, “I’d have adored being violated.” Dominique attempts to cheer her up by inviting her over to look at her latest pornographic photo shoot. It works.

[Image: For Susan Scott fans, the montage that follows this shot is likely worth the price of admission alone. For good reason, it can’t be shown here.]

The story starts to evolve into a typical giallo when the assailant calls Minou with recorded evidence of Peter murderous behavior. Minou realizes just how much she loves Peter and agrees to pay blackmail which, of course, must come in the form of sexual favors. Afterwards, the villain reveals that the recording was faked (Dominique: “Well if he went through all that trouble just to sleep with you, he deserves something.”) and proceeds to blackmail her again, this time with photos of her indiscretion. By the time she finally gets Peter and the police involved, no evidence can be found and everyone thinks she’s crazy (the alcohol/tranquilizer combo isn’t helping her case).

The plot ends up being fairly predictable, not least because there are so few suspects and one can quickly eliminate all the ones that seem guilty. The combination of blackmail, paranoia and a largely irrelevant subplot involving an experimental decompression chamber keeps things moving along, but it’s not quite interesting or twisty enough to really satisfy. Write it off to this being an early outing for the writer and director.

Still, “Forbidden Photos” has its share of pleasures, typically in the form that I’ve come to expect from Luciano Ercoli films: kitschy fashion and set design, inadvertently hilarious dialogue and red-herrings, spurts of outrageous camerawork, beautiful actresses and Susan Scott sassily stealing every scene. Only contrived murder scenes are conspicuously absent. Let’s take the set design first:

The first screenshot above shows Peter/Minou’s white-themed cozy décor featuring hot-pink rugs, weird but generally neutral art and sphere lighting. Compare it to the second shot, displaying the blackmailer’s sordid den with its shadowy stripes, miscellaneous evidence of occultism and crimson lighting. The contrast might be overkill, but that’s giallo atmosphere for you (impressive considering the low budget) and it effectively hints at the level of repression in Minou’s life.

[Image: During a party with Peter and Dominique shortly after her rendezvous with the blackmailer, Minou can’t shake the memories from her mind or the nagging fear that she may have enjoyed the kinky affair. It’s almost as if there was some sort of symbolic undertone in the moments like the one shown here that keep reminding her of sex.]

Minou is somewhat unconvincingly presented as a naïve homebody (remember when the opening scene tried to tell use she dressed conservatively?). She is mildly scandalized by Dominique’s sexually free lifestyle, and furtively curious about it. With Peter frequently away on business, one could almost (given a better screenplay) believe that her experiences were the product of repressed fantasies.

[Image: Here we see what Minou typically enjoys doing in bed: reading comics and engaging in rousing bouts of chess with her husband.]

The blackmailer’s apartment is first introduced to us by (1) a disembodied plaster hand on the wall; distinctly creepy and even a bit sexual in its languorous pose. This will be made quite explicit during Ercoli’s excellent post-coital shot, which tilts downward through (2) a series of beckoning and caressing sculpture hands to (3) Minou’s, which the camera follows across her (4) non-unsatisfied expression. The conflict between her sexual pleasure with an anonymous pervert and her honest love for the more conventional Peter creates the mental schism that leads her towards insanity.

[Images: See numbers in the previous paragraph. Note, too, the similarities between the plaster hand that greets Minou in screenshot #1 and her own hand being untied in image #3.]

The sequence with the plaster hands in stylish way of communicating the dark side of Minou’s world, made easy by the seamy and exotic mise-en-scene. It would presumably be much harder to bring out her day-to-day bourgeois existence through virtuoso camerawork, but Ercoli does so in a simple sequence I quite enjoyed. Returning to the party scene with Peter and Dominique we find Minou (with her hair worn up, of course) and the others sipping soup. The camera again follows hands, this time cutting between the characters and moving up and down from bowl to mouth throughout the delicate and civilized ritual of fine dining. It’s a neat touch bordering on subtlety (for Ercoli) to have the camera’s memory (it’s fixation on hands) mimic the operation of Minou’s memory (plagued by unbidden recollections of the affair).

On other occasions Ercoli uses body parts in less sophisticated ways.

[Image: Although, for the record, I admire the framing also.]

As for hilarious red-herring, I could have done with more, but “Forbidden Photos” does include one of my all time favorites. Minou and Peter get out of bed during a storm after hearing a noise in the other room. They enter to find a glass door open with a wet trail leading into the house. Tension mounts. Peter goes to investigate and… it turns out to be a turtle. Stupid? Maybe, but in Ercoli’s defense he’d actually forshadowed it early in the film.

[Image: A nefarious turtle accidently mistaken for the killer. At least it’s a break from the usual pet-cat-scare that horror movies never seem to tire of.]

I’ve saved the best for last, the moment in the giallo review where I sit back and let a montage of the outrageous fashion choices do the talking for me:

[Image: (Bottom) Italy may have a long tradition of elegant backless dresses, but it takes a giallo to come up with a sideless dress. In case the resolution isn’t high enough, it’s kept together by a few gossamer silver chains.]

“Forbidden Photos” is a notch below Ercoli’s two follow-up films, but still quite a bit of fun in much the same spirit. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack should have given this one a slight edge, but it’s really one of his least impressive scores. Working out more elaborate screenplays and moving Susan Scott to the lead definitely puts “Death Walks at Midnight” and “Death Walks on High Heels” ahead, but they all share the amusing dialog, flamboyant fashion and excessive style that mark these as some of the most entertaining gialli ever made. Fans of the genre should scale up the scores below accordingly.

Walrus Rating: 6.0
For comparison,
Death Walks on High Heels : 6.5
Death Walks at Midnight: 7.0

Oh, and in case the title strikes you as confusing, it’s a play on the 1970 Italian film “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion,” perhaps meant to capitalize on the latter’s foreign film Oscar-winning success. Today, however, the reference seems rather obscure.


Mad Dog said...

Although the movie might not be "good," it at least comes off as entertaining. I wonder what a horror movie comprised entirely of pet-cat-scares would be like...

FilmWalrus said...

I think it would be like Cujo.

But if the main villain was a turtle...

Molly said...

After our stunning giallo triple feature, I'm definitely going to have to check this one out.

You've renewed my enthusiasm for gialli - as soon as I got home I had to watch Deep Red again (my favorite, too, of those I've seen). The charming DVD I was watching had no subtitles, which made the experience extra unique.

FilmWalrus said...

I'm glad you've gotten your giallo second wind! There's a list of one's I've reviewed (almost all positive) if you click on HOME on the sidebar and scroll to the bottom.

I hope the Deep Red DVD was at least dubbed. I've seen several versions, some which have no english whatsoever and really faded colors. I'm kind of fond of mine, even with the switching in and out of dub/subtitled depending on the scene.

I'll try and have a couple more on hand if we get some time during the festival, though we might get a little movied-out.

Mad Dog said...

Blue Underground released a new Deep Red DVD and I think some scenes had to be left subtitled because no dub was available.

Anonymous said...

This is a super stylish movie, I agree with your review but I enjoyed it none the less, if you like Susan Scott check out Fernando DiLeo's A wrong Way To Love, a melodrama but she's great in it.

Unknown said...

Enrico! He's probably the most beloved guy (after Livio Panebianco) in the Italian wine industry in America... such an amazing man, with such a breadth of wine knowledge... and his cellar... OMG, his cellar! What a treat to taste those wines with him! Great post, Gary...
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