Tuesday 13 December 2016

Psychout for Murder (1969)

Director: Edward Ross
Writers: Biagio Proietti and Diana Crispo, from a subject by Oscar Brazzi
Stars: Adrienne la Russa, Nino Castelnuovo, Alberto de Mendoza, Idelma Carlo, Renzo Petretto, Nestor Garay, Rossano Brazzi and Paola Pitagora

On 18th September, I reviewed The Bobo at Apocalypse Later to celebrate the centennial of Rosanno Brazzi. It seemed like a decent choice and indeed it was, for Apocalypse Later, just not for Rosanno Brazzi because he was hardly in it. Sure, he appeared third on the bill, right behind the two leads, Peter Sellers and Britt Ekland, but perhaps that was merely an acknowledgement of his stature. After all, he was an important European actor who had starred in one of the biggest hits of the previous decade, South Pacific. Still, he was hardly in it, so I needed to find an alternate. There are plenty to choose from, given that Brazzi made 120 films in all, which doesn’t touch on his television work, though many are difficult to track down today, not least because he spent the first half of his screen career in Italy. I’m not sure what the survival rate of World War II era Italian films is but I hope there was an equivalent to the Phantom of the Cinémathèque, Henri Langlois, who saved so many French films during that same period.

Brazzi’s first English language film was MGM’s Little Women in 1949, by which time he had 36 Italian pictures behind him, including We the Living, a 170 minute adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel that soon fell foul of Mussolini’s political watchdogs. Other titles of note, based entirely on reading about them, include a 1942 spaghetti western called Girl of the Golden West, a historical romance set in the 11th century called The Gorgon and a Pushkin drama in 1946 called The Black Eagle, which prompted a sequel in 1951. On he went in Italy, turning out drama after drama, many of them historical or romantic in nature and often both at once, such as Milady and the Musketeers, a version of The Three Musketeers told from a female perspective. Inevitably though, Hollywood called loudly enough to summon Brazzi over the ocean, but even with hits in 1954 like Three Coins in the Fountain and The Barefoot Contessa, he continued to make films in Italy with just a few American titles here and there to dot his filmography like confetti.
The easiest place from which I could grab a title is the late fifties, because he shot seven English language films in a row, from Loser Takes All in 1956 to Count Your Blessings in 1959. This is the time of South Pacific and it included titles with John Wayne, Sophia Loren and Joan Crawford. The Crawford picture, The Story of Esther Costello, looks particularly interesting, but I found myself drawn to the late sixties instead, not just western movies I knew like Krakatoa: East of Java or The Italian Job, but Italian genre flicks like Seven Men and One Brain and Psychout for Murder, not only for their subject matter but because Brazzi didn’t merely act in them; he wrote and directed them both too. The former looks like a rather wild Eurocrime thriller but it doesn’t seem to be available in subtitled form, so I chose the latter instead, a psychedelic giallo originally titled Salvare la faccia and also known as Daddy Said the World Was Lovely. Brazzi plays an important on-screen role but I’m even more intrigued by what he did off screen.

He’s not listed in the opening credits as crew. The director is Edward Ross, generally accepted as a pseudonym for Brazzi, but who wrote the film is a little trickier to identify. The opening credits list the screenplay as by Biagio Proietti and Diana Crispo, working from a subject (or story idea) by Oscar Brazzi, who was Rossano’s brother and the film’s producer. Wikipedia only has a page on its Italian site for Salvare la faccia, but that backs up what’s on screen. IMDb omits Proietti entirely, odd given that he wrote a lot more than Crispo, but adds both Renato Polselli and Piero Regnoli as writers, with Rossano Brazzi listed for both screenplay and story. It may be that IMDb is misleading us, which wouldn’t be for the first time, but other sources share its suggestions. However much or however little he contributed to the writing, however, he was clearly interested in directing pictures that were different from the films he’d acted in. In particular, there’s a stylish, experimental edge to this one that helps to flavour it well.
Back on screen, Brazzi plays an industrialist called Marco Brigoli, a very important character, as ably highlighted by the first scene in which his new factory is opened to great fanfare by an aspiring politician whose wife, Laura, Brigoli is doing on the side. He isn’t the lead, however, that role going to Adrienne la Russa as Licia, his youngest daughter. We’ll soon discover that she’s the only key player absent from the ceremony, as her boyfriend Marco has talked her into spending the day in bed with him instead. While it’s not overtly called out, they’re apparently in a brothel, hence why a scandal arises after the police raid the place and a half-naked Licia is photographed trying to escape onto the roof. It’s all a set-up, so Marco can successfully blackmail Brigoli and get out of his cheap apartment. The downside is that, to quieten the scandal, Laura talks Brigoli into announcing that Licia is sick and thus must spend some time in an asylum to recover. Ah yes, the overblown drama of the rich and powerful.

Of course, Licia, who swans around in the wildly colourful mini skirts of the late sixties with her long hair floating in the breeze, as free as a bird, is far from comfortable in austere white gowns and ponytails. We don’t know how long she spends inside, but we do know that she hates every moment of it and she leaves with a serious grudge. If she wasn’t crazy when she went in, she is after she gets out and, in a giallo, that doesn’t bode well in the slightest. One of the successes of Psychout for Murder is its editing. It’s shot well by Luciano Trasatti, but it’s how those shots are cut together by Amedeo Giomini that turns up the style. It’s overt editing, obvious in scenes like the one where Licia is driven to the asylum. We jump around frenetically between three scenes which represent her past, present and future: the factory opening, which she didn’t attend but can imagine if it might undo the past; the car, a notably uncomfortable present; and a small Licia in white against a big wall, hidden away from everything in the asylum.
Another success is the performance of Adrienne la Russa, who dominates this film. She changes wildly, in ways that often torment the people around her. One minute she’s both childlike and childish, floucing around an empty estate destroying flowers in a fit of pique; while the next she’s clearly an adult, teasing her sister’s husband from a distance with sexual allure, only to vanish when he decides he might want to do something about it. There’s a great scene in which she switches from one to the other and back: she’s going into town with daddy and he stops his sports car to open the gate. She suddenly gets acutely serious, takes off the handbrake and lets the vehicle roll towards him, screaming as it goes, then stops it just in time and leaps out for a big hug to give thanks that he’s still alive. Oh yes, she’s dangerous, as she tells Mario. She lies in wait for him at his new place, spins around in a vast chair and points a empty gun at him. ‘I can kill you whenever I want to,’ she says. ‘I’m mad, remember?’ Then she pulls the trigger.

I didn’t recognise Adrienne Larussa, as her surname is usually spelled, but she made three Italian pictures in two years, her two in 1969 being notable; the other was The Conspiracy of Torture, a non-horror from Lucio Fulci that many deem underrated and unfairly obscure. She fits this material wonderfully, epitomising that free European spirit but turning psychotic whenever a scene calls for it. Given that, I was wildly surprised to find out that she didn’t in the slightest. I didn’t expect her to have been born in New York or to have ended up as a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. I hadn’t realised that I’d seen her before (in The Man Who Fell to Earth) or that her best known role was on an American daytime soap, Days of Our Lives, in which she played ‘the scheming Brooke Hamilton’, as IMDb would have it, for three years. I was particularly shocked to discover that she was married to Steven Seagal for four years in the eighties. All these things are true, but none of them seem remotely likely. Well, except for the scheming part.
The scheming part is everywhere here, as is appropriate for a giallo. In Italy, ‘giallo’ is simply the local word for thriller, regardless where such things happen to be made. However, it’s taken on a more specific meaning to film fans, namely a recognisable style of murder mystery with psychological overtones, consistent cinematic elements and touches of horror, violence and eroticism. This is an early giallo but it checks all the boxes, even if it doesn’t contain quite as much death as the seventies would soon condition us to expect and it’s much easier to figure out than many of the more complex movies to come. It also builds relatively slowly, easing us into the world of the Brigolis and gradually isolating us there; that’s helped by a scene in which Licia, freshly released from the asylum, wanders round town and realises that everyone sees her differently now. It’s not important whether that’s real or just in her mind; the effect is the same, which is to bring her, with us in tow, back to the Brigoli estate to fester.

Even when we leave the estate, we’re still firmly stuck in this family’s grip. We wander with Brigoli over to Laura’s house so they can get it on and lay plans that will elevate everyone in prestige and wealth. We leap with Licia into Paterlini’s car, Brigoli’s right-hand man, so she can set him up and derail those plans. We gyrate with the teens during the dedication of a swimming pool which ends with a reputation neatly sabotaged. Gradually, though, we focus in on the estate, watching Licia set her traps and waiting for everyone else to fall into them. What’s surprising is how closely all the traps spring, because they’re mostly left until the final act, which is blistering. I won’t spoil the final scene, but it’s a beautifully shot demonstration, sans dialogue, of both victory and defeat, the inevitable conclusion to one bad decision. Well, there may have been more bad decisions, as there are certainly undercurrents here, but it’s all framed as one quest for revenge spawned from one inappropriate action.
Given where we end up, I wonder why Rosanno Brazzi was drawn to this material, even if he didn’t write it. Perhaps it appealed to him as a combination of old and new. The old is most apparent in the story, the classic European tale of the rich and famous doing what they want but eventually coming a cropper for it. The new comes in the choice of style and genre; this could not be mistaken as a film from any other era, partly because of the costumes and wild score but also because it feels naturally like a giallo without a deliberate effort to adhere to the iconography of the genre. Sure, it’s about madness and murder, violence and voyeurism, but it’s short on gore and nudity and the protagonist is female. It’s more stylised than regular films, with the opening credits unfolding to extreme close-ups of eyes or lips, but it’s not stylised to the degree of having an Argento colour palette. The editing is spot on for giallo but the story is too focused. Italian genre cinema is a fascinating beast and I wonder if Brazzi was caught up in its changes.

Maybe he wanted to comment on such changes by abstracting them onto the screen. There could well be social commentary going on here but, if there is, I can’t speak to it beyond highlighting how the various roles are all archetypes. There’s no depth to any of these characters except for Licia. Her father is Brigoli the industrialist, ever set on improving the family’s lot. Laura his mistress is even worse, orchestrating everyone else, including her husband, the politician who is never given a name. Licia’s sister, Giovanna, is nothing but Licia’s sister, just as her husband, Francesco, is nothing but a man to steal away. Paterlini is just a businessman and the Monsignore is just the Monsignore, put on screen not as a character but as the encapsulation of the Roman Catholic Church. It falls to Licia, the young and vibrant creature who just wants to live and love, to stir everything up because she’s too free to fit into an easily categorised box. Maybe it’s about generational warfare at the time of the counterculture, but maybe I’m stretching.
Oddly, I haven’t called out any of the actors, but that’s because this isn’t an actors’ film. Sure, Paola Pitagora gives great reaction as Giovanna and Alberto de Mendoza looks like an Italian cross between Robert Vaughn and Bruce Campbell, but there’s little to talk about on the acting front. With the notable exception of Lucia, this is all about story, direction and style, which means that Brazzi is all over the film even when he’s not on screen. He cares about this more than he did other wild movies like Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, in which he plays the lead, and I can only assume it’s because he had a lot more to do with this than simply act. There are better gialli out there and better dramas, but this is fascinating stuff and I’m keen to follow up with the other two films that Brazzi wrote and directed: Seven Men and One Brain, a Eurocrime flick from 1968, and The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, a 1966 seasonal film with his wife, Lydia Brazzi, playing Mrs. Santa Claus. Never mind South Pacific, Brazzi in the late sixties is where it was at.

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