On February 4, Arrow Video will be releasing two Blu-ray discs that offer stunning evidence of an overlooked master of the giallo: Luigi Bazzoni (1929-2012). Though Bazzoni lived to the age of 82, he made relatively few films. The two Arrow releases - The Possessed (La donna del lago, “The Lady from the Lake,” 1965) and The Fifth Cord (Giornata nera per l’ariete, “Black Day For the Ram,” 1971) - represent two-thirds of his total thriller output – the omitted title being Footprints on the Moon (Le orme, 1975). Two titles seem a hardly sufficient number to embody a significant adjustment to what is commonly known about this uniquely Italian genus of thriller, but The Possessed and The Fifth Cord are significant. They are so refreshingly different from the norm of giallo cinema that one can’t help wondering how they’ve slipped through the cracks of historical and critical attention for so long.
Surely part of the reason for their relative obscurity is the very fact of their difference. All of Bazzoni’s gialli were based on serious literary sources, giving them an unusual strength of structure and an even more unusual lack of the offbeat humor and camp excesses so prevalent in such films. Still more tellingly, Bazzoni made his first feature in 1965, that grey period between Mario Bava’s decisive double whammy of The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo, 1962) and Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino, “Six Women For the Murderer”, 1964) and the giallo’s next evolutionary stage with Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970).
Bava had started out with a straightforward, tongue-in-cheek, black-and-white thriller closely modeled on George Pollock’s popular Miss Marple mystery, Murder She Said (1961), based on the novel by Agatha Christie – which, in fact, had been published as a title in Edizioni Mondadori’s yellow-jacketed giallo line of mystery fiction. However, Blood and Black Lace represented a bold step away from the English to the Italian, delineating its body count of six homicidal set pieces (inspired by the aggressively designed murders in Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960) with a hyper-stylized look that made its fashion salon setting fairly drip with garish paperback sleaze and murderous portent. When Argento stepped in, he introduced a new sense of modernity with an art world setting, a jazzy and somewhat expressionistic score by Ennio Morricone, and a male protagonist (Tony Musante) whose incomplete grasp of the murder he witnessed raised the game to an intellectual, even existential level. Between Bava and Argento, the giallo continued to exist, but only in the way Italians understood the word – as a general synonym for the thriller or suspense story. This highly mutable period would encompass such films as Ernesto Gastaldi’s contemporary psycho-gothic Libido (1965), Damiano Damiani’s surreal and erotic mystery The Witch (La strega in amore, 1966 – based on Carlos Fuentes’ novella Aura), and Umberto Lenzi’s erotic thrillers with American actress Carroll Baker, Paranoia (Orgasmo) and So Sweet… So Perverse (Cosi dolce… coci perversa, both 1969).
It was in the early part of this unfocused period that The Possessed appeared, based on a novel by Giovanni Commiso, which in turn was based on a well-known news story from the Italian village of Alleghe in May 1933. It was then that a 19-year-old hotel maid was found with her throat slashed in one of the rooms in the town’s main hotel. The case was initially dismissed as a suicide, but it gained depth and complexity when, seven months later, the newlywed bride of the hotelier’s brother-in-law was found dead near an opening in the ice on a nearby lake. Almost 20 years later, journalist Sergio Saviane returned to his hometown – Alleghe – and began to investigate the story, still a hot topic in local gossip, and eventually exposed the husband’s culpability in these two murders, as well as a third, double murder of a local couple in 1952. The genius of Bazzoni’s adaptation (co-written with Giulio Questi, the future director of Death Laid An Egg) was that it adhered strictly to Commiso’s novel, which fictionalized the names and other superficial information, while also taking another step back to include a psychologized version of Saviane’s investigation, in which the investigator himself becomes an element of the local mystery.
The Possessed looks and plays like no other giallo; it is often commented that it has an “art house” feel. Shot in brooding black-and-white by Leonida Barboni, whose images become more stark or voluptuous whenever the film cuts to the dreams or waking reveries of its writer protagonist, it bears its closer relationship to those Italian films in which a prodigal son returns to his place of origin and uncovers an ugly, festering secret about its past and its people – for example, Bernardo Bertolluci’s The Spider’s Stratagem (Stratagia del ragno, 1970) or Pupi Avati’s The House of the Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976). The film’s morbid setting of an off-season hotel near a body of water prefigures Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).
Bazzoni’s achievement with The Possessed was made oblique when his directorial credit was not only shared by, but made subservient to, the name of his producer, Franco Rossellini. Surviving crew members have attested that the film was solely directed by Bazzoni, who had directed only two short films prior to it - one of which (Un delitto, “A Crime,” 1963) was also a giallo by description and featured the first screen acting by future star Franco Nero. That Bazzoni acceded to Rossellini’s chipping away at his screen credit may point to a first-time director doing whatever it took to get his film made, but it may also point to a sensitive and possibly unambitious personality, a possible explanation for why such an arresting debut film led to a fairly damp squib career – only five dramatic features in a period of 10 years, with almost another 40 years left of life.
In 1967, Bazzoni was able to get another opportunity to direct owing to his ongoing friendship with his discovery Franco Nero, who had become a popular Western star with Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1965). Together they made Man, Pride & Vengeance (L’uomo, l’orgoglio, la vendetta, 1967), a Western reframing of Prosper Merimée’s oft-filmed 1875 novella Carmen, which was actually presented as a Django film when it was redubbed for Germany. In 1971, their partnership enabled the production of The Fifth Cord, based on the 1967 novel of the same name by D.M. Devine – which had been published as a Mondadori Giallo paperback in Italy under the title Il segno dell’assassino (“The Sign of the Assassin”). The film also had brief play in UK theatres and on American television under the title Evil Fingers.
Nero plays Andrea Bild, an alcoholic journalist whose investigation into a murder causes the police to consider him as a suspect – an intriguing mutation of the Possessed premise of an investigator uncovering facts about himself apace with those of the crime. It is worth noting that there is a Mario Bava connection to this film, as it features actress-socialite Ira von Furstenberg and a screenwriter credit for Mario Di Nardo, both recently attached to Bava’s Pop Art giallo redux, 5 Dolls For An August Moon (5 bambole de la luna d’Agosto, 1969). However, the film’s greatest distinction is the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro (a cousin, I’m told, of Bazzoni), who came to this film after shooting The Bird With the Crystal Plumage for Argento and The Spider’s Stratagem for Bertolucci – and just before his international breakthrough with Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il conformista, 1971).
To say the very least, Storaro’s epic visual imagination – turned loose in the incidental geometries of Rome’s EUR district - brings to The Fifth Cord an aggressive yet utterly natural web of design that evolves a mythic dimension, Nero’s compromised character becoming gradually contextualized as a modern day, J&B-swigging Theseus in a labyrinth that inevitably leads him to his Minotaur. Factor in Ennio Morricone’s score – a worthy successor to his work on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, alternating aching female melismas and breathy experimentation with squawking psychedelic crime jazz – and you have something on an altogether higher technical level than Argento was able to attain prior to Deep Red (Profondo rosso, 1975), something so confidently realized that it never resorts to bizarre excess, cheap sophistication, or silly humor – those frequent traits of the gialli so aptly tweaked by Adam Brooks & Matthew Kennedy’s 2014 satire The Editor.
The films of Luigi Bazzoni are the product of a man who was blazing his own trail, telling stories about different men obsessed with probing their inner dark, and doing so bravely and individually, without undue influence of genre. They may not comfortably fit into what you know about the giallo, but you need to know them. Let them in – and they will raise your roof.
© 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.