Directed by Rafael Romero Marchent
Ray Milland, Sylva Koscina, Fernando E. Romero, Franco Giacobini, May Heatherly, Charly Bravo, Ramiro Oliveros, Eduardo Calvo, Maria Silva
Here is my very first blog post – the first of many reviews covering rare and little-seen European genre films – and we’re starting off with The Student Connection, Spanish filmmaker Rafael Romero Marchent’s first stab at a thriller after making a series of spaghetti westerns.
The film begins in an airport in France, where we witness the arrival of a mysterious blue-eyed and moustached man with a neck brace (Charly Bravo).
The mystery man
Removing the disguise
The mystery man then gets into his car – from where he has a good view of the airfield – and sits there smoking numerous cigarettes while frequently checking his watch. After a while, an airplane is getting ready to take off from the airfield but instead it blows up in a big explosion.
Following this interesting pre-credits scene, we are introduced to Dr. Roger Mell (played by ageing Hollywood great Ray Milland), a talented physician as well as the headmaster of a boarding school for young boys. Roger has been carrying on an affair with Sonia DuRanier (Sylva Koscina), a beautiful married woman whose son Jean (Fernando E. Romero) is one of the pupils at the school. Together, Roger and Sonia have plotted to have Sonia’s husband killed by a hitman so they can finally be together.
Roger, the doctor and headmaster
Sonia, the married mistress
Late at night, Roger is visited at the boarding school by the hitman he has hired to kill Sonia’s husband, and he is revealed to be the disguised man from the opening sequence. Roger is mortified when he realizes that the assassin has gotten the job done by blowing up the plane Sonia’s husband was on – thereby killing an additional 140 passengers as well. The two men start arguing and a distraught Roger ends up clubbing the hitman over the head with a heavy steel figurine – killing him.
Worse yet, one of the young school boys (we don’t see who) has witnessed the whole thing but hurriedly runs away. Roger hears the child and tries to follow but is too late to catch him or see who it was. In a panic, Roger buries the hitman’s corpse in the boarding school’s greenhouse but doesn’t know what to do with the little eyewitness. Sonia, however, is perfectly clear on what has to happen next. She insists Roger will have to find out who the young witness is and murder him. After all, this little child is now the remaining only obstacle preventing them from finally being together...
The doctor doing his dirty work
The Student Connection is quite an interesting if off-beat little thriller. Rather than taking the usual whodunit route, this is more of a who-saw-it instead. That said, it really isn’t too hard to guess which boy it was who witnessed the killing. Still, telling the story from the point of view of the increasingly desperate, child-killing Roger is a good idea and gives the film an individual stamp.
Much praise must be given to Ray Milland’s excellent performance as Roger, which is really the glue that holds the film together. It’s not easy to portray a child-killer and still come across like a somewhat sympathetic character but Milland manages to pull it off as he expertly switches between desperate, sinister and guilt-wrecked. It is really the remorse he exhibits (in scenes such as when he discovers he has murdered the wrong child) that helps make the character seem more human. Roger is really just doing these horrible things because he is desperate and feels that it is the only solution. The real aggressor is actually Sonia, a true Lady Macbeth-style manipulator who keeps demanding her lover to commit murder and promising herself as the reward if he succeeds.
The guilt-wrecked killer
But even Sonia is shown to have a soft side as she truly loves her son, and also seems to have genuine feelings for Roger rather than just manipulating him in order to get rid of her husband. The fact the bad guys aren’t black and white villains but somewhat more complex characters with both bad and good sides is probably the film’s greatest asset. It makes the whole thing much more interesting and compelling, and both Ray Milland and Sylva Koscina do a great job here.
The leads are ably supported by child actor Fernando E. Romero as Koscina’s son and the peculiar-faced Franco Giacobini as the police inspector, as well as the stone-faced Charly Bravo, who is creepily effective in his brief turn as the disguised hitman. Other familiar genre veterans are also present in the cast, such as May Heatherly from Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) and Pieces (1981) and Eduardo Calvo from Paul Naschy films like Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973) and Curse of the Devil (1973) but while it is nice to see them, their roles aren’t very substantial.
The style of The Student Connection is perhaps best described as somewhat Hitchcockian. Generating sympathy for the villain was one of Hitchcock’s trademarks, and Merchant effectively employs the same strategy here in several tense sequences where the excitement relies on whether or not Milland’s character is going to be exposed. But the film also boasts more traditonal suspense scenes, with one of the highlights being a really chilling and creepy scene where a young boy is menaced in a dark swimming pool hall by Milland’s threatening, shadowy figure.
The child killer at large
Of course, this isn’t the only European thriller from the 1970s to feature child killings. Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling had just come out the year before, and Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's Who Can Kill a Child? would follow in 1976. Unfortunately, The Student Connection remains considerably lesser known than the two other films – perhaps because of its rather unfortunate title, which really does a poor job of selling the film as a thriller. In the US, the film was released under the more sellable title Witness to Murder.
Though ostensibly a Spanish film, this was also an Italian co-production. The Italian contribution is limited mostly to the presence of actors Sylva Koscina and Franco Giacobini, as well as music by the always reliable Stelvio Cipriani. Most notably, however, is the fact that one of the screenwriters was Italian filmmaker Luciano Ercoli, best known for his trio of enjoyable gialli starring his sexy wife Susan Scott, but it must be said that The Student Connection has a very different feel from those films.
It’s also interesting to note that even though this is a Spanish-Italian co-production, it’s actually set in France. This is probably because it was made during the Franco-regime, and Franco, who was very concerned about how Spain was portrayed in films, would only allow Spanish thriller and horror films if these 'immoral' tales were specifically set in other countries than Spain. Just like with Werewolf Shadow (1970), which was set in France, and Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971), which was set in Portugal. Still, it’s a little odd they didn’t opt to use Italy as the setting since it was an Italian co-production. It would have been more convincing than trying to pass the Spanish locations off as French.
All in all, The Student Connection isn’t an outstanding thriller but it’s an interesting and unusual film that benefits tremendously from Ray Milland’s excellent performance. Milland would go on to appear in a few other Euro-thrillers as well - most notably in The Pyjama Girl Case (1977) but also in shoddier stuff like Oil (1976) and the disastrous The Sea Serpent (1984) - but in retrospect, his work in The Student Connection is arguably his most impressive European work. The film is certainly worthy of a bigger audience than it has gotten, so do seek this one out.
© 2008 Johan Melle
Sylva Koscina as Sonia DuRanier
May Heatherly as Marina
??? as Philippe
??? as Paul
Maria Vico as Philippe's mother