mandag 1. desember 2014

The Crimes of the Black Cat/7 scialli di seta gialla

Italy, 1972

Directed by Sergio Pastore

Anthony Steffen, Shirley Corrigan, Sylva Koscina, Renato De Carmine, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Umberto Raho, Jeannette Len [Giovanna Lenzi], Annabella Incontrera, Liliana Pavlo, Isabelle Marchall, Romano Malaspina, Imelde Marani, Margherita Horowitz, Bruno Alias

Back in the golden days of popular Italian cinema it was fairly common for filmmakers to attempt to mimic Hollywood conventions or to set the action in the US in hopes of capturing a larger audience by passing their films off as American productions. The giallo, however, was a never a part of this trend. On the contrary, a lot of gialli were set specifically in Italy, and proudly playing out their intricate plots in attractive and urbane Italian locations. There’s also a fair share of gialli which shift their plots to various colorful European cities, but far rarer are those curious occasions where one happens upon a giallo set in the most unusual and unexpected of locations, such as The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971), which is set in Dublin; or Human Cobras (1971), which partially plays out in Kenya. Another giallo that features a similarly unexpected location is Sergio Pastore’s The Crimes of the Black Cat, which is set in the Danish capital of Copenhagen.

The protagonist of the story is Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen – dubbed by Edmund Purdom), a blind composer living in Copenhagen, where he makes a living by scoring violent horror movies. Peter is supposed to meet up with his girlfriend in a bar and while he’s waiting for her to show up, he overhears a strange, whispered conversation from the booth next to him. There’s an ominous tone to the conversation and from the fragments Peter is able to make out, it appears as though a woman is being blackmailed into committing a crime.

Peter overhears a mysterious conversation

Unfortunately, a stoned-looking young woman suddenly fires up the jukebox and starts dancing wildly – preventing Peter from intercepting the rest of the conversation. By the time the music stops, the blackmailed woman is leaving in a hurry and Peter quickly summons a waiter and asks him to describe this mystery woman. Unfortunately, the waiter is only able to catch a quick glance of her and observe is that she is wearing a hooded white cape and has a slightly unsteady walk, whereas whoever was blackmailing her is already gone – leaving Peter with very little to go on.

Peter’s eavesdropping comes to an abrupt end when this free spirit chooses a particularly inopportune moment to put a record on

A waiter vaguely describes the mysterious woman in white to Peter - providing a seemingly flimsy clue that, like always in these film, will prove to be of importance later on...

Peter is also handed a letter that his girlfriend, Paola (Isabelle Marchall), has left for him and in which she informs him that their relationship is over. But being blind and all, Peter has to get his trusted butler Burton (Umberto Raho – dubbed by John Karlsen) to read it out loud to him. Ouch!

Paola is working as a model at a prestigious fashion house and when she arrives at her dressing room the next day, she finds a yellow silk shawl on her desk and a closed picnic basket on the floor. Paola wraps the shawl around her and then opens the mysterious basket – only to let out a bloodcurdling scream and slump to the floor. Alarmed by her screams, Paola’s colleagues come rushing and find her dead on the floor.

Paola’s bizarre and seemingly inexplicable demise

Inspector Jansen (Renato De Carmine – dubbed by Edward Mannix) arrives to investigate and is puzzled by the strange case. Paola’s roommate and fellow model Margot Thornhill (Shirley Corrigan – dubbed by Silvia Faver) was the first to arrive at Paola’s dressing room – mere seconds after hearing her scream – and swears there was no one else there. Indeed, it would appear as though Paola has simply died a natural death, and yet the shawl around her neck is inexplicably torn and there are small scratch marks on her neck. Margot remembers seeing a basket that has since mysteriously vanished, but no one else can recall seeing it, so Inspector Jansen doesn’t seem to put much faith in this observation.

As expected, the police inspector fails to shed any light on the cause of the strange death

Peter, however, believes in Margot and quickly joins forces with her to try and figure out who killed Paola – with Peter’s sensitive smell and heightened hearing proving to be valuable assets in their amateur sleuthing. They start by seeking out Harry (Romano Malaspina – dubbed by Frank von Kuegelgen), a sleazy photographer friend of Paola’s who was helping her make blackmail photos, but before Peter and Margot can get to him, Harry is gorily slashed to death in his studio by a dark-clad, razor-wielding killer with black gloves.

Peter teams up with Margot to solve the case...

...but their meddling inevitably leads to more bloodshed

Peter believes that all of this is somehow related to the mysterious woman with the white cape whom he heard being blackmailed, and indeed it is! This strange woman is revealed to be Susan Leclerc (Giovanna Lenzi - credited under her frequent pseudonym Jeannette Len), a drug-addicted former circus artist whose dependence on drugs forces her to do the killer’s bidding. How? By poisoning a black cat’s claws with deadly curare, putting it into a basket and placing it in the intended victim’s home along a shawl doused in cat repellent. When the victim puts on the shawl and opens the basket, the cat comes jumping out and scratches the victim with its poisonous claws – producing a deadly heart attack!!! No chance of errors in that plan, eh?

The mysterious woman with the white cape...

...and her deadly companion

But who’s the one forcing poor Susan into carrying out this wacky plan? Is it Paola’s playboy lover Victor Morgan (Giacomo Rossi Stuart – dubbed by Frank Latimore), whom she was blackmailing? Or is it Victor’s jealous wife Françoise (Sylva Koscina – dubbed by Susan Spafford), who happens to be the owner of the fashion house where Paola was working? Or how about bitchy lesbian model Helga (Annabella Incontrera), who never liked Paola much? Or could it possibly be Burton, Peter’s (too?) loyal manservant who was always opposed to his master’s relationship to Paola?

Assorted suspects

Sergio Pastore was a peculiar filmmaker who dabbled in all kinds of genres and who never achieved any great success in any of them. Nearly all of his films are currently very hard to get hold of and his work is generally not held in very high esteem by the ones that have actually seen them. The Crimes of the Black Cat is by far Pastore’s most well-known and easily available work, and the only one of his films which appears to have enjoyed a fair amount of worldwide distribution - including a UK theatrical release in 1976 on a double bill with the Spanish horror film The Horrible Sexy Vampire (1970). And that is no wonder, seeing as how the film has a great cast and contains pretty much all of the most beloved hallmarks of the giallo genre, including flashy and violent murders, a complicated mystery, a black gloved killer, blackmailers, beautiful women in extravagant gowns, a terrific musical score, lesbians, silly dubbed dialogue and a top notch cast of genre favorites. Indeed, one might argue that the film plays out like a kind of ‘giallo greatest hits compilation’ – borrowing a number of significant plot points from earlier giallo entries.

The most derivative element is probably the plot point of a blind protagonist who unwittingly listens in on a blackmail conversation just like in Dario Argento’s The Cat ‘o Nine Tails (1971), and Pastore also makes sure to crib the scene where the photographer is killed in his own studio from the same film. He also uses a bird call heard in the background during a telephone call as a clue to trace an apartment like in Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), and borrows the fashion house setting from Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964). But on the flip side, the film also includes a couple of bits which would go on to be re-used in later gialli. For example, a protagonist who is hired to score a horror movie was also featured in Lamberto Bava’s A Blade in the Dark (1983) and the freeze-frame ending was recycled for Carlo Vanzina’s Nothing Underneath (1985).

Giallo Staple #1: A black gloved, razor-wielding maniac

Giallo Staple #2: Lesbians

Giallo Staple #3: Décor and fashion moments to die for

The Crimes of the Black Cat must be said to be a pretty wacky giallo. The killer’s overly complicated modus operandi is beyond ridiculous – even more so because it is entirely contingent on the cooperation of an animal as stubborn and unpredictable as the cat. The film also comes with an expectedly absurd and hastily delivered explanation/justification for the murders in the climax, but when it comes to gialli that’s really more of a feature than it is a bug. And in any case, the many illogicalities do not really detract from the film’s enjoyment factor. On the contrary, the excessively complicated murder method and the improbability that such a plan could possibly succeed add a lot to the fun, and it’s definitely very inventive stuff.

Also quite inventive is the original Italian title, which translates to very gialloesque Seven Shawls of Yellow Silk. A really fabulous title, even if a bit misleading since the film only features four yellow shawls, but I guess they went with seven in the title because Italian giallo filmmakers were generally obsessed with the number seven – see also Seven Murders for Scotland Yard (1971), The Devil with Seven Faces (1971), Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972), The Lady in Red Kills Seven Times (1972) and Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eyes (1973). The English export title of The Crimes of the Black Cat is a bit more generic and follows the seemingly mandatory giallo tradition of referencing an animal. That said, the black cat here is far more integral to the plot than what was usually the case in these films – such as The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, in which the titular animal merely comes from a peripheral line of dialogue.

Stylish newspaper ad for the film with a tag line which tries to make better sense of its Italian title. It roughly translates to this: "7 shawls of yellow silk..... 5 have already killed..... 2 are still missing..... one single order: FIND THEM!..... prevent that they kill again....."

Stylistically, the film feels a bit uneven, with the looped shots and shock zooms during the cat attack scenes coming across as more awkward than effective. Some of the more carefully composed sequences are wonderfully realized, however, such as a stylish and hallucinatory scene in which the drug addicted mystery woman in white breaks into the fashion studio and enters a room full of mannequins.

The film also includes a couple of memorable set pieces – mainly a nighttime scene in which a terrified woman is chased to a dark and deserted train station, and another nocturnal scene in which the blind protagonist has to fight off dangers at a construction site. Both these sequences are suspenseful and very effectively staged – making good use of the isolated and authentic Danish locations, and of the wonderful score by Manuel De Sica.

One of the film's stylish highlights

The expertly executed construction site sequence is a terrific suspense set piece

The creepy scene at the deserted train station is yet another high point

And one cannot discuss this film without mentioning its jaw-droppingly brutal shower murder, in which Pastore graphically exploits what Hitchcock only hinted at in Psycho (1960) – slicing the defenseless victim into pieces with a razor in gloriously gory detail. This is surely one of the most vicious and shockingly violent deaths in any Italian film from the early 1970s, and comes as a real surprise late in the film after a series of not all that graphic murders.

Pastore really lays on the savage butchery in the film’s most notorious sequence

The cast is generally quite good. Anthony Steffen is a bit stiff as always but since he’s playing a blind character his stiffness actually works to his advantage – resulting in one of his better performances. It also helps considerably that he’s dubbed by an experienced pro like Edmund Purdom, whose solid vocal performance manages to imbue the character with a sense of authority. The film also features good supporting performances by character actors Umberto Raho as Steffen’s impeccably correct manservant and Renato De Carmine as the police inspector who is greatly annoyed by Steffen’s interference in his investigation. Giacomo Rossi Stuart is also nicely cast as Sylva Koscina’s playboy husband, and while Koscina herself is somewhat decoratively used throughout much of the film she proves that at age 39 she was just as stunning and elegant as she had been 14 years earlier in Hercules (1958). As the mysterious, drug-addicted ex-circus artist who owns the titular cat, Giovanna Lenzi – Sergio Pastore’s wife, who would later go on to direct her own giallo, the spellbindingly awful Delitti (1986) – carries what is arguably the film’s most intriguing role. She has to suffer for her art, though, as she is made up to look pale and haggard to be convincing as a drug addict. The rest of the attractive female cast, however, is very sexy and appealing – particularly blonde British bombshell Shirley Corrigan as the likable Margot who aids Anthony Steffen in his sleuthing, the always delightful Annabella Incontrera, who plays a predatory lesbian for the umpteenth time, and Yugoslavian-born photo-novel star Liliana Pavlo as Incontrera’s lesbian lover. The film also features an early appearance by the cute French starlet Isabelle Marchall, who has little to do here as the first victim but who would soon go on to be featured more prominently in another giallo, Crazy Desires of a Murderer (1973).

In sum, The Crimes of the Black Cat is not really among the most clever or original gialli but in terms of pure entertainment it manages to hit all the marks. It includes pretty much all of the favorite giallo staples, and at the same time, the film’s unusual setting and the bizarre modus operandi give it an individual stamp that makes it stand out among the endless stream of gialli being produced at the time. Easily an essential watch for all giallo lovers!


1. The very brief clips we are shown from the horror film Peter is scoring are lifted from Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) – presumably utilized here because both films were produced by Edmondo Amati.

Briefly glimpsed footage of Florinda Bolkan in A Lizard in a Woman's Skin

2. The scene with the photographer and his floozy blonde model (played by Imelde Marani) was shot twice. In the version shot for the Italian market (the one used for the Italian DVD release and the fan dubs made from this print) the girl is seen wearing a pair of black panties. However, in the version made for the international market (released, for example, on Greek VHS with English dubbing) she appears fully naked.

How the scene plays out in the partially clothed Italian variant

And here the same scene in its more graphic international variant as seen on the Greek VHS. Sorry for the craptacular photo off the TV screen but at least it proves the point

© 2014 Johan Melle

The cast:

Anthony Steffen as Peter Oliver

Shirley Corrigan as Margot Thornhill

Sylva Koscina as Françoise Ballais

Renato De Carmine as Inspector Jansen

Giacomo Rossi Stuart as Victor Morgan

Umberto Raho as Burton

Giovanna Lenzi as Susan Leclerc

Annabella Incontrera as Helga Schurn

Liliana Pavlo as Wendy Marshall

Isabelle Marchall as Paola Whitney

Romano Malaspina as Harry

Imelde Marani as Harry’s model

Bruno Alias as The hairdresser

Margherita Horowitz as The dress fitter

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