Monday, June 2, 2008

Quality Is Important In Every Profession

As beautiful redhead Dagmar Lassander lounges in her bathtub smoking a cigarette, she silently thinks to herself, “I’m going to give up cigarettes today. And I’m going to stop drinking. And I’m not going to take any more of those tranquilizers. Anyway, they say it’s bad for you to take them if you drink. That should make Peter happy.” To which I immediately think, hey, don’t feel like you have to stop doing all that because of me! Of course, it’s just the opening of THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION, a 1970 giallo directed by Luciano Ercoli. It goes without saying that as the plot proceeds she’s not going to stop smoking. Or drinking. Or taking those pills, either.

With these proclamations made as the film begins the character Minou, played by Lassander, hatches a plan to make husband Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi) jealous. As she goes out that night she is quickly accosted by a threatening man (Simon Andreu) who, though he seems fully ready to assault, abruptly stops and simply mentions her husband saying, “Peter is a fraud. What if I told you he’s a murderer?” before letting her go, implying that he may soon appear again. She confides in her husband about what has happened, but soon becomes suspicious when she learns of the drowning death of one of his colleagues. She also tells her possibly bisexual best friend Dominique (Susan Scott aka Nieves Navarro) about what happened but her friend reassures her (“Try to look on the bright side: You must be bursting with sex appeal…I’d have adored being violated.”) and then Dominique shows off her private stash of photos (“Are they pornographic?” “Yes, but good ones.”) out of which Minou finds one that may contain the face of her attacker. But even this doesn’t help her when he appears again with certain demands. This is followed by one of the characters, any of the characters, having another drink.

I’m not certain if FORBIDDEN PHOTOS qualifies as a giallo (even if the DVD cover refers to it as one) since at the very least it certainly isn’t a body count film. If it wasn’t for some of the seamier plot developments, it frankly wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine the basic set up used in Hollywood in the 40s starring, say, Barbara Stanwyck. But ultimately the plot becomes second to the infectiously sinuous atmosphere on display. The sexual politics at hand are very much of the time and even that probably isn’t much of an excuse when it comes to a few certain plot developments. But even with much talk of being “violated” from that first shot the film makes clear how much it is about how a woman can sublimate herself to please her man and how that ultimately can damage her if she isn’t careful. As Minou, Lassander does a very good job in portraying this desperation. In the opposite role, Susan Scott as Dominique is the most charismatic person here but of course that’s what her character is supposed to be. She seems more omnisexual in her basic persona than anything else and even if it’s never certain whether she can be trusted, the confidence she is allowed to display provides a potent contrast with Lassander’s weaker character. Interestingly, not only do the two women strongly resemble each other—similar facial features and long flowing red hair—but the two male leads have a similarly stoic look and dark hairstyle as well. It’s unclear to me if this is meant to be a comment of the duality of the characters or if there wasn’t much thought to this at all—it certainly never comes into play in the plot, but the mirrored effect does provide some striking contrasts even when some momentary confusion occurs early on.

Even if it can’t be considered a giallo, the film is very much set in the jet-set lifestyle that some of those films are famous for, with apartments that resemble modern art galleries, bizarre fashions on the gorgeous women and bits of business such as a mysterious phone call at two in the morning followed by someone saying, “Now that we’re wide awake, how about a drink?” Best of all is the hypnotically beautiful score by Ennio Morricone which is draped across much of the film like the most luxurious velvet imaginable. One passage involving Lassander simply walking to a location seems to stop the movie just to allow us to let the music and environment soak in. It’s moments like that which draw me back to some of these films again and again. The script by Ernesto Gastaldi is almost deceptively simple, but on second viewing I began to notice much more going on underneath the plotting with more depth to the sexual politics at hand than I first realized. Certainly the look of the film is everything it should be, with some Scope compositions so striking that I found myself sitting up to try and absorb them better.

THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION (hey, it's a fun title to type out) doesn’t quite have what I expected it to. There are no stylish murder scenes, the violence which does occur is limited and the plot is fairly free of incident. But the way the film got through to me during its running time as that Morricone music seemed to slink into my brain indicated that it was somehow successful, even if in its own dreamlike, sleazy way. I don’t know if I’ve found a new favorite and this is the sort of thing I probably shouldn't show to some people but I’m sure that I want to watch it again very soon.


Unknown said...

"I don’t know if I’ve found a new favorite and this is the sort of thing I probably shouldn't show to some people but I’m sure that I want to watch it again very soon."

Exactly. It's all about atmosphere, and context. There's something about FORBIDDEN PHOTOS that captures this period in Italian exploitation with its unremarkable plot, beautiful people and places, and incredible soundtrack.

I strongly suggest watching the next two films that Luciano Ercoli directed, DEATH WALKS IN HIGH HEELS and DEATH WALKS AT MIDIGHT -- both which also star Susan Scott and Simon Andreu. It will give you the feeling you are watching one endless glamorous Italian jet set murder mystery.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks very much! It wasn't until the second viewing when I hooked into it and decided that while there may not be much to the story, I simply didn't want it to stop. I just wanted that mood and music to go on and on.

I'll keep my eyes out for the other two. Now I really want to see them.