tirsdag 31. mai 2011

Death Steps in the Dark/Passi di morte perduti nel buio

Italy/Greece, 1976

Directed by Maurizio Pradeaux

Leonard Mann, Robert Webber, Vera Krouska, Marie Elise Eugene, Nikos Verlekis, Antonio Maimone, Anestis Vlahos, Barbara Seidel, Nikos Vandoros, Lefteris Giftopoulos, Andreas Ioannou, Evagelia Samiotaki, Anthi Andreopoulou

Maurizio Pradeaux is a fairly obscure Italian director who only made a handful of films. He took two stabs at the popular giallo genre. The first one was Death Carries a Cane (1973), which was released just at the tail-end of the giallo craze of the early 1970s. This could very well have ended up as Pradeaux’s first and only foray into giallo territory, but the tremendous success of Dario Argento’s giallo masterpiece Deep Red (1975) led to Pradeaux trying his hand at the genre one more time with Death Steps in the Dark.

The film begins with Italian photographer Luciano Morelli (Leonard Mann) and his airheaded Swedish fashion model girlfriend Ingrid (Vera Krouska) are travelling with the Istanbul-Athens express. They share a compartment with four fellow passengers – one of whom is a distracted-looking young woman (Anthi Andreopoulou) who keeps fumbling nervously with her pearl necklace.

Strangers on a train

The nervous woman

After a lot of fiddling with the necklace, the cord finally breaks and the pearls fall all over the floor. While the other passengers are helping the girl pick up the pearls, the train goes into a tunnel and the lights go out. When the train emerges from the tunnel shortly afterwards, they are all shocked to discover that the nervous young woman has been stabbed to death with a letter-opener.


A local Greek police inspector (Robert Webber) questions Luciano, Ingrid and the other three passengers, which consist of Omar Effendi (Antonio Maimone), a shady-looking Orthodox priest; Ben Amuchin, a suspiciously-acting man of few words; and Ida Tuclidis (Barbara Seidel - the film’s assistant director), a somewhat arrogant divorcee. But unfortunately for Luciano, the letter opener used to commit the murder belongs to him so he quickly becomes the prime suspect in the case. Fearing arrest, Luciano goes into hiding with the help of his buddy Salvatore (Anestis Vlahos), a petty criminal, and shacks up in an old fishing hut. Eager to prove his innocence, Luciano – with help from Ingrid – begins his own investigation to catch the killer.

Dangerous sleuthing

In the meantime, Raul Komakis (Nikos Verlekis), a handsome playboy who was also aboard the Istanbul-Athens express, reads about the murder and sees pictures of the five suspects in a newspaper. Upon reading that the killer cut the electric circuits in the wash room to make the train go dark when it entered the tunnel, Raul realizes that he has actually seen the killer entering and exiting the wash room. Together with his lover Ulla (Marie Elise Eugene), a saucy black nightclub singer, Raul starts blackmailing the killer – leading to a chain of brutal and gory murders...

Even blackmailers like J&B

Death Steps in the Dark opens very promisingly with an excellent train sequence that plays like something straight out of Agatha Christie and establishes the intriguing central puzzle right away. Unfortunately, the film fails to fully deliver on its initial promise as it eventually gets bogged down by some seriously misguided attempts at humor. While a running gag involving the inspector’s digestion problems is fairly amusing (largely because it is underplayed and doesn’t interfere with the flow of the film), the more broad attempts at comedy fall terribly flat and seriously test the viewer’s patience. Luciano dressing up like a woman to hide from the police is one of the more awkward lowlights but the absolute worst offence is the grossly exaggerated stupidity of the Swedish girlfriend, Ingrid, whose imbecile behavior begins to seriously grate on the nerves after a while. The tonal shifts between the moronic monkey business and the rest of film (which is played completely straight) are really jarring, and Pradeaux achieves particularly catastrophic results when he attempts to fuse suspense and comedy in the same scene. Such is the case with a potentially suspenseful sequence involving a break-in at an old villa, which is completely bungled by a series of truly insufferable gags involving Ingrid’s lack of intelligence (a bit with an umbrella is particularly cringe-worthy). This sequence is by far the low point of the film and it’s made all the worse by the fact that goes on forever.

A lame attempt at comedy

The piecing together of the murder mystery is not fully satisfactory either. It is blatantly obvious that the killer has to be one of the five people who were present in the train compartment, and since Luciano and Ingrid are clearly established as innocent, that leaves us with only three possible suspects. This number is much too low for a giallo and it is not made any better by the fact that all of the three suspects are given rather limited screen time. Instead, the plots puts a lot of focus on the blackmailing playboy Raul and his racy black girlfriend Ulla, and various characters connected to them, such as Ulla’s unnamed lesbian lover, and a rather mysterious gallery owner, who also happens to be Ulla’s lover. With that said, the Ulla character is actually one of the film’s most entertaining figures and her nightclub act – in which she performs the catchy song “Making Love to You” (by the film’s composer, Riz Ortolani) and then switches to a blonde wig for a scantly-dressed dance routine – is a definite highlight.

Ulla’s nightclub act

I have to say that in spite of the misguided attempts at humor and a bit too much focus on irrelevant characters, Death Steps in the Dark is still curiously difficult to dislike. For the most part it plays out quite enjoyably and it has plenty of points to recommend it by. For starters it is a very slick-looking and well-shot film. Aldo Ricci’s cinematography makes great use of the picturesque and sunny Greek locations during the daytime, while the night exteriors are brilliantly lit and atmospherically framed. Ricci also employs some extreme close-ups in several scenes – most notably a lesbian lovemaking scene where tongues, nipples and genitalia are shown in ultra-close-up. Really sleazy stuff but it is rather original too. I, at least, cannot remember having seen anything like this before.

A good example of the film’s lovely compositions and lighting

Lesbian love in ultra-close-up

Ricci’s cinematography is also an instrumental part of the impressive staging of the film’s stalk-and-slash sequences, which are captured from stylish camera angles and tightly edited together. This helps to create an effective tension, and we are given a satisfactory pay-off, too, as Pradeaux does not skimp on the red stuff. Most of the killings are indeed very graphic and brutal, and – just like the lesbian lovemaking – the merciless razor slashings are captured in loving close-ups.

Stylish slashings

It should be mentioned that the Scooby Doo style method used for unmasking the killer is one of the least credible I can remember seeing in a giallo (and that says a lot), and the explanation for the killer's motive is delivered rather clumsily in a great hurry during the last minute of the film! But, ultimately, I don’t think this detracts too much from the film, which on the whole is agreeable and pretty nicely paced.

The cast is quite good here even if none of them are allowed to stretch their acting muscles to any great degree. Leonard Mann is a likeable leading man, while Robert Webber is charming as the police inspector who struggles with indigestion. Since this was a co-production with Greek company D. Dimitriadis Film and filmed almost solely in Greece, the majority of the supporting cast are Greek actors but, strangely, the only one of these to receive any on-screen credit is leading lady Vera Krouska. All the other Greek actors are uncredited even though several of them play substantial roles, and instead fake credits are given to various Italian actors who do not actually appear in the film. It’s almost as if the makers didn’t wish to acknowledge that this was a Greek co-production. In any case, Vera Krouska does as well as can be expected in the role of the annoying Ingrid, while the handsome Nikos Verlekis (known from The Devil’s Men, 1976) is convincing as the blackmailing playboy. Enigmatic black actress Marie Elise Eugene, who can also be seen in Nico Mastorakis’ bizarre thriller Death Has Blue Eyes (1975), really digs into the role of the sassy bisexual nightclub singer, and has no qualms about appearing nude at the tip of a hat.

The English-dubbed version of the film is very good, and benefits a lot from having both Mann and Webber dubbing their own voices, while versatile dubbing actress Silvia Faver does a commendable job of voicing Vera Krouska in a suitably clueless and ditzy-sounding fashion. Other notable dubbing favorites who can be heard include Frank von Kuegelgen (as the voice of Nikos Verlekis) and Nick Alexander (doing the voice of the inspector’s assistant played by Lefteris Gifropoulos), while Edward Mannix, Susan Spafford and Ted Rusoff dub various smaller roles.

In summation, Death Steps in the Dark is a pretty nice little giallo. While I didn’t appreciate the broad attempts at humor, the film thankfully stays on track for most of its running time and is ultimately very likeable in spite of its flaws.

© 2011 Johan Melle

Leonard Mann as Luciano Morelli

Robert Webber as The Inspector

Vera Krouska as Ingrid Stelmosson

Marie Elise Eugene as Ulla

Nikos Verlekis as Raul Komakis

Antonio Maimone as Omar Effendi

Anestis Vlahos as Salvatore

Barbara Seidel as Ida Tuclidis

Nikos Vandoros as Theodoro Theodopolis

??? as Little Baffo

Lefteris Giftopoulos as The Inspector's assistant

??? as Ben Amuchin

??? as Omar's mistress

??? as Ulla's lesbian lover

Andreas Ioannou as Ida's husband

Evagelia Samiotaki as Baffo

Anthi Andreopoulou as The first victim

??? as The train conductor

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