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

søndag 29. mai 2011

Reflections in Black/Il vizio ha le calze nere

Italy, 1975

Directed by Tano Cimarosa

John Richardson, Dagmar Lassander, Tano Cimarosa, Magda Konopka, Ninetto Davoli, Ursula Davis, Gianni Williams, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Livio Galassi, Dada Gallotti, Giovanni Brusatori, Giovanna D’Albore, Daniela Giordano

Reflections in Black is a giallo I’ve been aware of for quite some time but because the only known English-friendly release is a fullscreen Greek VHS with large chunks of footage missing due to print damage, I’ve kept holding off on seeing it. But once a fan version using a widescreen Spanish VHS as the image source and the English dub from the Greek release as the audio source became available I just had to jump on it. And while this version still looks rather grotty, it is at least in widescreen and around 10 minutes longer than the Greek tape. Plus it’s always nice to sit down with a “new” giallo.

The plot kicks off in classical giallo fashion – showing a mysterious killer in a dark coat and the ubiquitous black gloves roaming the dark streets. An unfortunate nightgown-clad girl named Nelly (Daniela Giordano) is savagely attacked with a razor when she opens the door for this mysterious person in black. In a desperate bid for escape, the bleeding girl flees screaming into the night. She manages to reach a phone booth but her attacker catches up with her and slashes her to death before she can call for help.

Not long afterwards, a ditzy blonde named Emma (Giovanna D'Albore) is having an amorous nighttime encounter with a lover in a park when she is attacked by the same black-gloved killer and gets her throat slashed open.

The killer’s handiwork

Inspector Lavena (John Richardson) is put on the case, and together with his assistant Sgt. Panto (played by the film’s director, Tano Cimarosa) he starts looking into the various people connected to the two victims. It turns out that Emma was the trusted secretary of a powerful and influential notary named Anselmi (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), and apparently she was also very chummy with Anselmi’s sexy wife Leonora (Dagmar Lassander). All the gory details of Leonora and Emma’s relationship are revealed to us by having Leonora gaze at an old photo of Emma, which triggers a long, gratuitous flashback scene of them engaged in some soft-focus lesbian lovemaking to the strains of Carlo Savina’s typically giallo-esque score full of lulling female vocals.

The obligatory lesbian action

Anyway, it soon transpires that the two murder victims knew each other as a photograph of them together is discovered. Also present in this photo is a third woman and two men, and while Inspector Lavena and Sgt. Panto work on trying to figure out who these people are, the audience learns that the third girl is a somewhat bitchy blonde named Marilyn (Dada Gallotti). Marilyn knows the identity of the killer and indulges in a dangerous game of blackmail – with predictable results.

A classic photographic clue

Those blackmailers just never learn, do they?

As the body count continues to rise, so does the list of potential suspects. In addition to the Anselmis there is also their nosy and horny lesbian maid; the mysterious Contessa Orsello (Magda Konopka), a predatory lesbian with ties to all of the victims; the Contessa’s pathetic, drug-addicted son Marco (Livio Galassi), who likes to threaten his mother’s mistresses with a razor; Marilyn’s lover Sandro (Pasolini favorite Ninetto Davoli), who shows a questionable interest in underage girls; and Mario (Giovanni Brusatori), a camp gay hairdresser whose salon the victims used to frequent.

By the time the movie is over, most of these characters will be dead and anyone but the most naïve and inexperienced giallo viewers will have guessed the killer’s identity long before the “shocking” reveal. First-time director Tano Cimarosa was a good, reliable tough guy actor and already had some experience with the giallo genre thanks to his memorable supporting part in Renato Polselli’s appropriately named Delirium (1972), but it’s obvious from the get-go that Cimarosa’s talent for directing is far less impressive. This is a strictly by-the-numbers affair that throws in all the usual giallo clichés and tries to spice up the brew by upping the sleaze factor. And if taken merely as a sleazy romp, Reflections in Black can actually be a lot of fun.

One of the most amusing things about the film is how Cimarosa uses it as a showcase for himself. Although British actor John Richardson – fresh from his giallo turns in Torso (1973) and Eyeball (1975) – is given prominent top-billing, Richardson’s police inspector is continuously overshadowed by Cimarosa’s sergeant, who proves himself to be much smarter than his superior time and time again. In fact, Cimarosa continues to upstage Richardson to the point where one wonders why he didn’t just cast himself in the lead, but I suppose he needed Richardson’s name to sell movie tickets.

What little thunder Richardson has left gets stolen by another cop on the case, the young and promising Manlio (played by Gianni Williams) and his girlfriend Anna (played by 1960s starlet Ursula Davis under her actual name Pier Anna Quaia), whose relationship is given an absurd amount of screen time. Anna is shown to be an awfully sassy girl who likes to wear see-through blouses that show off her nipples. “It’s a sexual revolution! Didn’t you know the girls burn their bras these days?” she chirps to Manlio when he protests. At one point she even endangers herself by deciding to play amateur detective – after which Manlio finally sets her straight by telling her to limit her crazy impulses to the bedroom or the supermarket from now on! Oh, the 1970s!

Cimarosa sets Richardson straight

Manlio and Anna occupy a fair amount of the film’s running time

Visually, Reflections in Black isn’t one of the better-looking gialli. It may be a tad unfair to judge its visuals on the basis of the generally crummy-looking versions that are currently available but aside from a few nice uses of reflective images there just aren’t that many stylish traits to be found here. Some of the sleazier moments actually look downright drab – especially a coarsely shot sex scene between Ninetto Davoli and Dada Gallotti that gives us a closer look at Davoli’s bouncing nut sack than what anybody really needs to see. This scene is made all the more hilarious because it is accompanied by an inappropriate Carlo Savina score that is much too classy to suit the tacky images on the screen. But while none of the general sleaziness on display is all that well-made it does add to the fun.

Ninetto Davoli displays the full range of his talents for our viewing pleasure

One of the many sleazy highlights

Apart from the fun that comes from watching Cimarosa muscling in on poor John Richardson, the film also benefits from having both Dagmar Lassander and Magda Konopka on hand as predatory lesbians. Obviously, the careers of both women had seen better days but they deliver what is expected of them and are definitely easy on the eyes.

Dagmar Lassander sporting an outfit almost exactly like the one she wore in The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971)

Magda Konopka in action

Everyone else is somewhat wasted, though, from old pro Giacomo Rossi Stuart, who hardly registers as a screen presence in the role of Lassander’s cuckolded husband, to poor Daniela Giordano, who gets nothing more to do than show up and get killed (she doesn’t even have any dialogue).

Also worthy of mention is the presence of the usual crew of English dubbers – most notably the unmistakable tough guy voice of Edward Mannix dubbing Tano Cimarosa. It’s a great match as the voice fits Cimarosa’s look and the character’s hardball attitude perfectly. You’ll no doubt also recognize the other voice actors, including Carolynn De Fonseca (dubbing Dada Gallotti), Silvia Faver (dubbing Ursula Davis) and Frank von Kuegelgen (dubbing Gianni Williams).

While far from a great movie, Reflections in Black is nevertheless just about silly and sleazy enough to warrant a recommendation for giallo hounds. You might also want to check out Cimarosa’s second film as a director, the gritty crime flick Death Hunt (1977), which is even more sleazy and enjoyable.

© 2011 Johan Melle

The cast:

John Richardson as Inspector Lavena

Dagmar Lassander as Leonora Anselmi

Tano Cimarosa as Sgt. Panto

Magda Konopka as Contessa Orsello

Ninetto Davoli as Sandro

Ursula Davis as Anna

Gianni Williams as Manlio

Giacomo Rossi Stuart as Mr. Anselmi

Livio Galassi as Marco

Dada Gallotti as Marilyn

Giovanni Brusatori as Mario

??? as Leonora's maid

??? as The Contessa's lover

Giovanna D'Albore as Emma

Daniela Giordano as Nelly