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Death Walks Twice

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Dual Format BD/DVD
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Luciano Ercoli
Susan Scott (Nieves Navarro)
Simón Andreu
Luciano Rossi
Claudie Lange
Bottom Line: 

By the time Luciano Ercoli came to direct these two entertaining but lightweight gialli back-to-back in 1971 and 1972 respectively, he had already been toiling away in the Italian movie business since the early 1950s, having worked his way up from production assistant to assistant director, then becoming an editor before finally attaining the role of producer after beginning a collaboration with long-term business partner Alberto Pugliese. He also met the Spanish-born model-turned-actress Nieves Navarro at around this period, and her performances in a number of Italian comedies and Spaghetti Westerns that were produced by the duo during the 1960s came to a head when financial considerations and convenience both dictated that Ercoli should also turn his hand to directing what was also to be his and Pugliese’s first foray into giallo territory: 1970’s “Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion". Navarro had taken on her anglicized screen name of Susan Scott for two Fernando Di Leo films in 1969, and hung on to it thereafter for all her subsequent screen roles. Filmed in Barcelona, and showcasing a breezy Morricone Bossa nova score alongside a finely poised screenplay from master of the form Ernesto Gastaldi,  with its a familiar “Les Diaboliques” filched plotline hinging on a repressed and isolated Dagmar Lassander becoming the victim of yet another far-fetched plot to drive a defenceless woman insane (similar to the kind of ‘mini-Hitchcock’ thriller Jimmy Sangster was producing for Hammer in the ‘60s, in fact) -- Ercoli’s giallo debut was pitched to strike a thoroughly modish late-‘60s note in order to fit tonally with the latest trend in elegant but kinky continental sex melodramas of the period, such as American director Radley Metzger’s glossy, Italian-backed production “Camille 2000”. A spicy, well-crafted but bloodless giallo-lit, it featured Scott in a slight but nonetheless memorable supporting role as Lassander’s vivacious, bi-curious friend and confidant, and was typical of all of Ercoli and Gastaldi’s work together in that it relied on a  slew of outrageous fashions and an unbelievably convoluted plot, with a string of fiendish red herrings and some mind-warping twists and turns to pad out a simple tale that otherwise had only a small cast and limited locations at its disposal.

Ercoli demonstrated a knack for turning low budget necessity into an impressive, stylishly mounted form of cinematic hysteria incorporating sex, comedy and mystery, and “Forbidden Photos …” showcased his practical talents and a skill for extracting as much production value as possible from limited resources. This in fact became the hallmark of a director often dismissed as a journeyman in comparison to the much more vaunted names of Bava, Fulci, Argento, and even Sergio Martino -- and we see the same artistic-practice-forged-from-good-business-sense associated with his style utilised in both of the two films included on this set.

In fact, in Ercoli’s determined efforts to pack his widescreen compositions with as much visually diverting stimulation as possible through artistically rendered production design, his use of arresting, exotic background exterior locations and an exquisitely costumed mise-en-scene, all three of Ercoli and Navarro’s giallo collaborations have come to be appreciated as a hugely distinctive addition to the genre, with the ‘trilogy’ attaining its own enthusiastic fan-base in recent years. This marvellous set from Arrow Video focuses on the two films that came after “Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion" –the unpredictable and totally wayward overseas giallo “Death Walks on High Heels” and the deranged kitsch classic “Death Walks at Midnight”. These two films work particularly well as a double-bill, and not just because they are linked by similar titles (they have previously also been teamed up for No Shame’s US DVD special edition); each one is distinctive from its partner in terms of their approach, form and setting, yet rely almost exclusively on the same cast and behind-the-scenes crew, with Gastaldi feverishly working to wrong-foot even the most savvy of giallo audiences at every turn with two of the genre’s most outrageously pretzel-twisted plots. They also both see Nieves Navarro promoted from her supporting role inPhotos to lead actress -- a move that coincided with the development of her romantic attachment to Ercoli. By the time“Death Walks at Midnight” went into production (the film that absolutely defines her screen persona as one of the great giallo heroines of the 1970s) the two had become man and wife.

It seems that the Italian giallo can roughly be broken down into three main types: first of all, you have your more serious artistic efforts, usually associated with the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Gialli such as "Profondo Rosso", "Don't Torture a Duckling" and Pupi Avati's "The House with the Windows That Laugh" are examples of this breed. They may contain plenty of absurdities in their plots but there is always an artistic vision detectable in the background that makes such films endlessly satisfying to revisit. Secondly, you have the "trashy but fun" variety, which includes such titles as "The Case of The Bloody Iris" and "Eyeball"; these have usually dated rather badly in comparison, but are still entertaining in an almost camp sort of way. They are invariably outrageously politically incorrect from a modern-day standpoint, but the ‘best’ of them can be so exuberant in the execution of their more exploitative elements that they are often, as a result, a lot of guilty fun! The giallo cinema that Ercoli, Gastaldi and Navarro made together in the early 1970s can be seen as a third type -- a messy but accomplished halfway house between the other two opposite stances: Ercoli was aiming squarely at a popular market, and so each film is leavened with plenty of comedy asides that are made to seem as integral to the tone as their more obvious lurid elements and which provide a series of eccentric bit roles for a roster of European character actors. In the case of “Death Walks at Midnight”, a screwball element is introduced into Navarro’s lead performance that sits perfectly harmoniously alongside the tenser instances of suspense and violence.  Regarding the latter, both films in this set display an acute flair for the suspenseful giallo set-piece: in one of his commentaries for these two films, Tim Lucas goes so far as to award Ercoli the title of being ‘the Italian Brian De Palma’ because his gialli share an interest in playing around with audience perspective and in contrasting different viewpoints on the same events, playing them against or alongside each other; this as well as the sheer audacity displayed in their execution of cinematic violence. Some elements in “Death Walks at Midnight” for instance, seem to anticipate visual ideas and tropes that were seen again not so long afterwards in De Palma’s “Sisters”.

Nowhere is this peculiar combination of high and low elements more noteworthy than in the first of the two films in this set,”Death Walks on High Heels”: an enjoyably bonkers Luciano Ercoli giallo with a Gastaldi screenplay that already feels like it is attempting to parody the genre, despite only having been made in 1971. In fact, the  plotting reaches all the way back to the Italian thriller's British literary antecedents for its inspiration, which were also influential in shaping the West German Krimi genre that this film eventually comes to resemble in its second half thanks to one of the most outrageous midpoint flips ever attempted. Of all the Ercoli/Susan Scott collaborations, this one develops along more typical police procedural lines once it eventually morphs half-way through to become a murder investigation involving a pair of incompetent Scotland Yard detectives who are reliant more on luck than judgement in their pursuit of the crazed blue-eyed stalker with an electronic voice box  who, after terrorising her in her apartment with a straight razor, has followed Scott's character Nicole (an exotic dancer who is also the daughter of a murdered jewel thief) from her apartment in Paris, all the way to a remote English coastal fishing village hideout that’s filled with a quintessentially Italian take on the great British eccentric -- i.e., various iterations of the oddball pub local: these take various forms that include a cross-dressing caretaker with a wooden hand ("please forgive me ... It's a vice, a vice I tell you!"), and a peeping tom ex-ships' captain with a telescope trained on the bedroom of the beachfront residence Nicole bigamously shares with her married eye surgeon lover, whom she’d previously met backstage in a Parisian strip club! Despite its ridiculously haphazard plotting and unusual structure, designed with no other objective other than to wrong-foot the viewer at every turn, “Death Walks on High Heels” ends up being a solid giallo entry, filled with all the requisite genre elements including lurid scenes of fetishistic sex and murder and a fabulous euro-lounge arrangement for Stelvio Cipriani’s score that can be cheesy but also incredibly atmospheric when required.

If we look at all three films in the context of their relationship to the development of giallo cinema, it almost feels like Ercoli and Gastaldi aimed to use these gialli as their means of charting in microcosm a course through the mystery and detective fiction of Italy that was particularly influenced by the Italian publishing house Mondadori, which first started publishing yellow covered Italian translations of foreign thriller fictions in the 1930s as part of its I libri gialli imprint. “Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion", as mentioned, takes its cue from “Les Diaboliques”; “Death Walks on High Heels”, though, fast-tracks us through a plethora of thriller sub-genres, starting with a crime scenario that has Parisian club dancer Nicole Rochard (Navarro) and her hot-tempered French boyfriend Michel (Simón Andreu) suspected by the French police of hiding Nicole’s jewel thief father’s latest diamond haul  – a belief clearly shared by the masked stalker who murdered him while he was en route to Spain (Switzerland in the English dub) by train. The film then turns into a sort of euro-sleaze mystery with a similar feel to some of the work being created at that time by Spanish exploitation specialist Jess Franco, especially because of the lengthy and strangely dreamlike striptease sequences it sports, scored to particularly romantic Cipriani lounge cues. When Nicole is stalked and then cornered in her apartment by the black-clad killer who murdered her father, the influence of Dario Argento’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is easily discernible, as it is during a tremendously atmospheric night-time street stalking scene, scored by Cipriani with a nursery-rhyme cue played on the celeste that seems to anticipate The Goblins’ main theme from “Suspiria”. Later, when Nicole relocates to the English Kent coast with Dr Robert Matthews ((Frank Wolff) -- a smitten bourgeois fan of her rather suspect gyrating black face erotic dance routines -- the movie takes on all the characteristics and narrative tropes of a classic Gothic melodrama, albeit one played out largely in the exaggerated terms of parody, and dressed up in the London fashions of the early ‘70s (Matthews takes Nicole on a Carnaby Street shopping spree, which initiates a sprightly montage).

It is here, though, that Gastaldi’s tricksy plotting combines with Ercoli’s voyeuristic direction to produce a genuinely intriguing set-up that plays host to a number of increasingly unpredictable plot moves. Although this makes the film feel unsatisfying on first viewing (since the movie appears unable to make up its mind whether it wants to be one thing or the other, with main protagonists coming and going at a prodigious rate), subsequent re-watches reveal an entertainingly rich and diverse piece of work that combines various tonal shifts incredibly skilfully: comedy digressions -- such as the interplay between Scotland Yard detectives Baxter and Bergson, for instance -- play side-by-side with examples of incredibly brutal screen violence that go way beyond anything even Argento was doing during this part of the 1970s: when Nicole isthreatened in her apartment by the black gloved assailant, for instance, the sleaze factor goes off the scale, with the invader ripping off Nicole’s dress to use as a blindfold while he runs the blunt edge of his cutthroat razor all over her exposed skin in a cruel attempt to make her believe that the body she depends upon for her livelihood is being irreparably mutilated. When another female character is indeed murdered later in the picture, the killer really does mutilate both her face and body, in images that are dwelt upon in uncomfortably voyeuristic fashion to such an extent that the sequence can be held up alongside Lucio Fulci’s “New York Ripper” as an example of the extremes the giallo was sometimes prone to … and that film was still considered beyond the pale in 1982, a full ten years after this!

At this time, Luciano Ercoli seemed to favour building up a dependable repertoire of actors and filmmaking collaborators whose services he could turn to again and again. 1972’s “Death Walks at Midnight” has virtually the same cast as “Death Walks on High Heels”, with Scott once again joined by Simón Andreu as her male co-star, and Carlo Gentili once again playing a useless police inspector, with prominent roles also reserved for Claudie Lange, and Luciano Rossi, the latter moving from playing an eccentric one-handed transvestite caretaker who secretly likes to dress in his mistress’s saucy fashions, to an eccentric, giggling knife-throwing assassin! Once again, the movie is shot by Fernando Arribas, who this time brings a cool, sleek look of geometric modernity to the colourful proceedings. With its fashionable 1970s Milanese settings at the epicentre, a light breezy style is established from the off during the title sequence courtesy of a lush, swooning theme written (as is the rest of this attractive score) by Gianni Ferrio. His rhythmic, sometimes jazzy, sometimes funky music cues always seem to perk things up whenever the film threatens to get too bogged down in complicated exposition. The spirit of this likable entry is encapsulated, at least in the Italian audio track, by Nieves Navarro’s signature performance as Valentina: a spirited, hot-tempered young woman who will take no shit from anyone, yet always seems to find herself embroiled in trouble wherever she goes. In fact, this woman cannot walk down a street without getting herself involved in an altercation of one kind or another. Disputes usually end up with her either slapping someone hard in the face or screaming how such-and-such is "a bloody bastard" at the top of her lungs; either that or she’s defiantly hurling an ash tray at someone, or lobbing a brick through the window of whoever happens to have offended her last! When she exits a room she will inadvertently smash a door into some poor sap's face; if she opens her front door there will probably turn out to have been someone leaning on the other side of it who will promptly fall into the room!  Throughout the bulk of film, though, Valentina rarely has a hair out of place and always looks ready to appear on the nearest catwalk at the drop of a fedora hat!

“Death Walks at Midnight” is a wonderfully stylised and colourful piece of kitsch 1970s Italian popular cinema that veers wildly between an Argento-esque combination of screen violence and art-for-art's-sake aesthetics and pure comedy slapstick. Even the rooftop punch-up at the end is choreographed more along Buster Keaton lines than the hard-hitting, gritty action fest one imagines you'd find at the heart of this type of thriller. It looks stunning, but it never pretends to be anything other than a finely wrought but highly superficial piece of pop entertainment. I've seen it four times now and I still can make precisely no sense whatsoever of a plot that is surely an example of one of screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi's less coherent narratives, although that fact never detracts from the overall entertainment value. The Brian De Palma connection is even more in evidence here, as certain aspects of Ercoli’s embellishment of suspense dynamics anticipate traits later found in De Palma’s best work. This one initially plays as far more of a traditional modern giallo, based, as it so clearly is, on an updated version of the scenario that kick-started the genre’s cinematic explosion in the 1960s when it formed the basis of Mario Bava’s “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”. Anyone who remembers that film will recognise instantly how the woman-witness-under-the-influence plot has been retooled for this: Scott’s feisty, flame-haired photo fashion model agrees to take part in a bizarre experiment for a magazine to test the effects of a new hallucinogenic drug. While under the influence, she has a vision of a young woman being bloodily gored, mutilated and murdered with a lethal-looking spiked glove (Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” is surely being explicitly referenced here) by a strange, malicious-looking man dressed in shades and a raincoat. Unknown to Valentina, the Journalist/photographer, Gio Baldi  (Simon Andreu), who was on hand to record the experiment for a photo journalistic article, has no qualms about revealing her identity to his readers and printing her photograph with the article. After losing her job when the drug experiment comes to the attention of her fashion agency, Valentina is pleased to receive a note asking her to attend a meeting in the apartment opposite her own regarding a new modelling assignment. When she gets there, the apartment building is empty ... apart from the man with the spiked glove from her vision, that is! Valentina's life is saved in the nick of time when her artist boyfriend Stefano (Pietro Martellanza) reappears -- but the killer slinks away unseen. Naturally no-one believes her because of the drug influence, until it is discovered that a girl was found murdered with a spiked glove as described by Valentina, a good six months earlier! Unfortunately, it wasn't the girl she saw in the vision, and the supposed killer, a drug addict called Pepito (Fabrizio Moresco), was apparently apprehended at the time and sent to an asylum. But he also turns out not to be the same man Valentina saw when under the influence of the experimental drug …

It’s all rather convoluted and complicated and the plot only seems to thicken from hereon in as more and more strange characters are revealed to be somehow implicated in the tortuously complex goings on. Soon, the dead bodies start piling up. The film is at its least convincing when it comes to actually explaining what’s been going on and tying up the loose ends; it gives every indication of Gastaldi having written it all on the hoof, with little idea of where he was planning on ending up. However, the stylish Hitchcockian flourishes employed by Ercoli ensure that the intricacies and absurdities of the storyline matter not one jot: from the wonderfully staged set-piece that sees Scott being pursued by the steel-gloved assailant through a derelict modernist apartment block; to the hysterical scene in which she is attacked by inmates from an insane asylum, stumbling outside only to hitch a lift with a would-be rapist; not to mention the graphic, hallucinogenic flashbacks to a gory murder -- these are just some elements that ensure, along with Nieves Navarro/Susan Scott’s likable character, that this film is sure to be seen as a blast that is fully able to satisfy any giallo addict’s hunger for deranged thrills. 

These two films have never looked better thanks to the suburb 2K restorations Arrow Video have sourced from the original camera negatives. The set is another limited edition -- restricted to 3000 copies -- and is a dual disc release, featuring HD Blu-ray and standard definition DVD copies of both films. Better still, each comes with a choice of English or Italian mono audio; with newly translated English subtitles for the Italian tracks and optional English subtitles for-the-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing for the English tracks. A 60 page booklet of new writing by authors Danny Shipka (Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France), Troy Howarth (So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films) and writer Leonard Jacobs, illustrated with original archive stills and posters comes exclusively with the set, which also features the usual reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx for each of the titles.

The extras haul is headed up by two excellent and informative commentaries for each of the films, both recorded by Tim Lucas who has perfected a fine balance between the need to deliver accurate background information on the films in question while colouring in the blanks with his own personal scene-by-scene analysis, informed by a decades-long career of writing about cult cinema for the unmissable Video Watchdog magazine, which he also publishes and edits. The other extras are something of a mixed bag: each film comes with an introduction from screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, and there are some serviceable interviews with director Luciano Ercoli and lead actress Nieves Navarro on the “Death Walks on High Heels” disc; but the garrulous Gastaldi’s interview on the same disc is somewhat rambley and incoherent -- a disappointment considering his importance to the history of the giallo. Out of all the many things Gastaldi could have talked about here, he seems fixated for some reason on explaining why the plot of Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” doesn’t work. Some tighter editing and more focused questioning might have made this an essential feature on a supremely important figure, but in truth it’s probably more a case of padding, since we get a bit more that's of greater interest from Gastaldi, on his early career and on his scripting of “Death Walks at Midnight”, on the second disc, when the interview continues.

Far more forthcoming is composer Stelvio Cipriani, who provides a whistle-stop tour of his career and the old-school craftsman’s techniques he used to score his movie assignments. Trailers for “Death Walks on High Heels” round off the first disc, while “… Midnight” contains an extended TV version of the film that includes some dialogue scenes missing from the Italian theatrical cut (taken from a 4:3 VHS source). Finally -- perhaps the best thing here -- a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie (whose doctoral thesis on representations of gender in the gialli can be downloaded here). This articulate and clearly formulated appreciation examines the career of Nieves Navarro, aka Susan Scott, in terms of her unique contribution to the giallo or, more specifically, what Mackenzie terms the ‘F-Gialli’ -- his own term for those gialli that were centred round a female central character. I watched this feature after I’d already written the bulk of this review, and I still found its insights considerably enhanced my appreciation of what Ercoli and Gastaldi were up to with these films, even though I’d already re-watched and thought a lot about them myself beforehand. The visual essay feature is one that I think Arrow Video  pretty much pioneered on their “Fall of the House of Usher” disc, and is a form that the label has really started to make its own recently, not being afraid of allowing an academic slant to inform the material while at the same making sure it remains accessible. This video essay, along with a recent Brian De Palma essay on the Arrow Blu-ray of “Blow Out”, is the best so far. Another essential Arrow release.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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