Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Crimes of the Black Cat (1972): or. Sure, Blame the Pussy

I love a good giallo title. Even though the definitively Italian stalk-and-slash is not my favorite instantiation of the Horror model (I'm much more a Monsters Amok or Satanic Panic kind of guy), there are still few things in the genre that make me smile like one of the really good, really giallo-y film names. Stuff like Four Flies on Grey Velvet, What Have They Done to Solange?, Strip Nude for Your Killer, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key--irrespective of my feelings about the films, those titles roll off the tongue like short poems, beautiful horror haiku conjuring imagery and mystery like almost nothing else in the genre.

The giallo title can be a double-edged sword, however, when the filmmakers (or more often the American translators/distributors) eschew mysterious imagery and evocative sounds for the all-too-literal. Not only does such a title fall flat, but it runs the risk of becoming a spoiler, robbing the film of some of the suspense and uncertainty that is its stock in trade. Such is sadly the case with Sergio Pastore's 1972 giallo Crimes of the Black Cat*, in which spends about the first forty-five minutes to an hour trying to figure out how these baffling, near-impossible crimes are being perpetrated, how a killer could kill and then disappear from a locked room with the only exits much too small for a human being to use...well, thanks to that title (to say nothing of the spoileriffic poster), the audience already knows. Which is a shame, because it takes a little punch out of what is otherwise a stylishly filmed, interestingly plotted thriller rife with the kind of bright-colored groovy ghoulishness Madites know and love.

*The movie's Italian title, Sette scialli di seta gialla, translates roughly "Seven Yellow Silk Shawls." While still not very good as poetry, at least it keeps the killer under wraps.

Bad Kitty.

We open with some travelogue footage shot on the streets of 1970s Rome, a period and place so groovy I want a Way-back Machine just so I can bask in the awesome for an afternoon. (The uber-groovy music by Manuel De Sica, who 22 years later would score the awesome zombie love story Dellamorte Dellamore [aka Cemetery Man], helps a lot.) Soon our roving camera eye focuses on fashion model Paola Whitney (Isabelle Marchall), a blonde in a fur coat adorned with ACTUAL ANIMAL TAILS. Classee. She seems to be going somewhere, intent on doing something, but what and why we are given no clue.

Cutting from the daylit streets of Rome to a nightclub in the backalleys, we next meet Peter Oliver (Anthony Steffen), an avant-garde pianist and successful film composer by trade, who also happens to be blind as a chronically masturbating bat. Stood up by his date via a Dear Giovanni letter he has to get his manservant Burton to read for him (harshful), Peter drowns his sorrows in scotch and happens to overhear a mysterious conversation from the next booth over, where a strung-out woman is being given nefarious instructions by an unseen (duh) gravel-voiced conspirator. When a hippie chick cranks up the jukebox to go all Goldie Hawn/Laugh-In for a few wonderful minutes, Peter loses the thread and the couple departs.

"She writes, 'I don't think we should see each other anymore (haha).' Man, what a bitch."

Next we are plopped down in the middle of a clothing design firm, where head honchess Françoise (Sylva Koscina) and gorgeous sweatshop seamstress Margot (Shirley Corrigan) are selecting models for an upcoming fashion show. Françoise's philandering toyboy and the firm's half-owner Victor (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is also on hand to lend some feather-haired sleaziness to the proceedings. Preparations grind to a halt when star model Paola finds a wicker basket covered with a yellow silk shawl in her dressing room; donning the shawl (like you do) and opening the basket, the girl screams and drops dead of an apparent heart attack! Rushing to her aid, the other models and designers find the room empty of baskets and killers, the only clue being the silk shawl the girl still has clutched in her cooling dead fist.

Of course everything is connected, as Paola was the main squeeze who gave Blind Pete the old heave-ho in the opening scene. Still seeking closure on their ill-fated relationship, Peter shows up at the murder scene and interrogates Police Inspector Jansen (Renato De Carmine, an intelligent, dumpy bald guy with frankly startling green eyes) about his erstwhile girlfriend's death. Also dissatisfied with the polizzi's "natural causes" theory, Margot joins forces with the sightless Casanova to get to the bottom of Paola's mysterious death.

It just so happens Margot knows a photographer named Harry who Paola was intimate with--much to Peter's chagrin--and they decide to head over to his studio-cum-fuckpad to see what he knows. Alas too late, as after dismissing his nicely topless model and retiring to the darkroom, the shutterbug is visited by a heavy-breathing, black-gloved figure of the sort we just knew was going to show up sooner or later. The photog is slashed but good, and when Peter and Margot arrive they just miss slimy CEO Victor rifling through the dead man's negatives. Is he the killer, or just a rapacious collector of still-lifes-with-boobs? That answer will have to wait, as he escapes undetected but without whatever booty he was searching for. Margot and Peter come in and scope the joint, leading to a nicely filmed "discovery" scene where the blind pianist literally stumbles right into the Harry's body, not realizing it till his sighted companion screams.

Douchebag Under Glass

The movie has been beautifully shot up to this point, with lots of the long-perspective compositions and bright primary colors that are hallmarks of the genre. The groovy music and fashions add to the fun, and the acting's not too bad either. Steffen is aloof and slightly dickish as the blind guy who sees more than the cops, but his handicap and apparently genuine feeling for the deceased mitigate that a bit. (His warm relationship with manservant/sidekick Burton, played with Alfred-like sophisticated devotion by Umberto Raho, also helps.) Shirley Corrigan is as gorgeous here as she was in Naschy's Dr. Jekyll and the Wolfman, and in fact seems to be wearing the same boots--not that I'm complaining. The plot moves along at a good clip, and I was very into it and wondering what would happen next.

As it turns out, the negatives the deceased pic-clicker was developing were shots of Victor and Paola in bed, which Harry and Paola hoped to use to blackmail the married-to-money man-about-town. When the truth comes out and Victor must explain his presence at the scene of the murder (along with his jail record for a fraud conviction), Françoise is as understanding as only a Eurobabe can be. She departs for a show in Hamburg, but promises to stick with Vic through thin and thick.


Meanwhile we meet the mysterious, strung-out caped woman from the bar back in scene 1 or 2, whose name is Susan Leclerc (Giovanna Lenzi). Susan used to work in a circus--no, really--until her husband was EATEN BY A LION, leading her to hit the smack and hit it hard. Now middle-aged and wasted, she runs a pet shop mysteriously named UNDULATER (?) and takes on the odd assassination job for our black-gloved mastermind. If you haven't figured out her weapon of choice before you sat down to watch, maybe you should give up the crosswords and focus on the word jumbles from now on. Having trained her pet cat to attack yellow silk by spraying it with a repellent only cats and blind pianists can smell, Susan dips the kitty's claws in deadly curare poison and puts it in her victims' room along with the target-marking scarf, like a tiny furry deathbomb. But who is paying her, and why?

The next several scenes involve Susan, desperate for a fix, knocking off a couple more models from Françoise's firm, including a stand-out scene in which a lesbian model opens the basket only to have the feline ninja (puppet version) leap out into her face as if shot from a...well, let's just say a "trebuchet." Seriously, if the below were the last thing you saw on earth, I think you'd have to admit you went out in a pretty awesome way:


Breasts are seen, a couple of other people die, and Margot is stalked by the black-gloved killer as Peter desperately tries to place the odd odors he keeps whiffing at every crime scene. Guilt-stricken and depressed, Susan commits suicide, and the final confrontation at a glass factory is very tense if you overlook Peter's rather incredible willingness to put himself in dangerous situations for no good reason. ("I know I'm blind, but let's climb onto this 45-degree-angle conveyor belt and see where it takes me! The glass furnace? Oh, SHIT!") He makes it out remarkably unscathed, though, and the Inspector shows up to bring the killer to swift bloody justice.

Or does he? Margot takes a post-climax shower (IYKWIM), giving us some nice nudity that may or may not actually be Corrigan--and we end with a bit of shocking violence and WTF motivation to go out on that should keep fans of the giallo and the Grand Guignol happy.

"Dear God, Vicar, THAT'S not the loofah!"

Writer/director Sergio Pastore shows a lot of visual style in this flick, and I was always impressed with the compositions and colors he used, which though typical for this type of movie and this period are nonetheless effective. As I said, the snooty pianist softened by his compassion for his dead lover and the devotion to his butler and best friend Burton is a neat bit of depth for the character, and I could watch Shirley Corrigan and/or her body double take a shower for an hour and not get bored. For lovers of the MAD there's plenty of blood and boobage on display, not to mention the underused DEATH BY CATS device that's always a joy to see. All of which rounds the flick out as a satisfying viewing experience on nearly all levels.

So despite the spoiler title, Crimes of the Black Cat delivers. 2.5 thumbs, and definitely worth your time if you love a little dangerous pussy. And who doesn't, eh?

Quit While You're Ahead

More cool images from Crimes of the Black Cat:

Shirley Corrigan: "OBEY!"

Eye-catching jewelry.

Maybe she's born with it.

In the Red Room, no one can hear David Duchovny wank.

"Really? You thought I'd be impressed with dinner at The Golden Boobs?"

"...and THAT'S a hole in the ground. See the difference?"


Dark Beige said...

love this site. good work

Tenebrous Kate said...

There's got to be some sort of cats and blind dudes connection in Italian culture of the early 1970s that's lost on me! Perhaps the maker of "Crimes of the Black Cat" felt that "Cat O' Nine Tails" just wasn't *literal* enough :)

Michael J. said...

Argh, giallos. Despite their mod 70's settings, their snazzy Eurobabes, their flashy color pallet, and their improbable killers, they never quite hit the mark for me. I mean, when you get down the the meat and potatoes, a good crime thriller needs a tight, logical story, right? But right there -- the heart of the paradox: Italian movies? Story?
Still, giallos have all the aforementioned going for them -- and those crazy titles. In the end, they're kinda irresistible. BTW, if anyone could come up with a widget to translate ordinary film titles into giallo titles... Just a thought.
Oh and Vicar, you referenced Dellamorte Dellamore? Well here's my official nomination for a MMMMM review.

Anonymous said...

I found this to be a very mediocre giallo and the final murder was really jarring, way too graphic and cruel considering what preceeded it.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Dark Beige: thanks! Glad you found us--feel free to hang around!

@TenebrousKate: CotBC has 100% less crosswords and Karl Malden than CoNT, and about 700% more DEATH BY CAT. I think the scoreboard couldn't be clearer. ;)

@Michael J.: Despite my admittedly AWESOME new user pic, I'm really not the hugest giallo fan either. But some of them are just gorgeous enough, just surprising enough, or just MAD enough to warm the old cockles, and for me this is one. YMMV, naturally. As to Dellamorte Dellamore--it's definitely time for a rewatch!

@Anonymous--that last murder is DEFINITELY jarring, and some folks will be put off by the Scooby-Doo motivations of the killer. ("What, you mean you couldn't TELL I had this unguessable secret fueling my inscrutable revenge?") For me, though, it was SO out of left field as to be kind of wonderful. Different strokes, IYKWIM. :P

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