Thursday, July 26, 2018

Who Saw Her Die? (aka: Chi L'ha Vista Morire?)

(1972) Directed by Aldo Lado; Written by Aldo Lado and Ruediger von Spies; Starring: George Lazenby, Anita Strindberg, Adolfo Celi, Dominique Boschero, Piero Vida and Nicoletta Elmi; Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***½

“I have always considered that giallo films in particular, though it’s valid for all movies, use the classic elements of mystery and fear. But overall, these kinds of movies communicate with audiences in a less conventional way. They use fictional elements and certain ways of editing to communicate an emotion. Audiences see movies to receive emotions. It may be fear or joy, but one is always looking for emotion.” – Aldo Lado (from featurette, “Death in Venice: Looking Back at Who Saw Her Die?”)

Giallo films are often typified by a shadowy killer, labyrinthine plots, red herrings, a host of colorful characters, stylized violence, and a protagonist who’s forced to take matters into his or her own hands. Guessing the identity of the killer is half the fun; the other half is letting go and allowing yourself to be enveloped by the mystery. A good giallo film is like a haunted house ride, full of twists, detours, shocks and dead ends. It’s also a puzzle with missing pieces. Only after we’ve established the edges can the rest of the picture take shape. Who Saw Her Die, the sophomore effort by director/co-writer Aldo Lado, (who debuted with the fine, albeit underappreciated, Short Night of Glass Dolls), embodies many of these classic aspects of gialli. Filmed in Lado’s native Venice,* innocuous locations take on sinister tones. Although we’re treated to a few scattered “postcard” shots of Venice as the world knows it, this isn’t a travelogue. Lado stated that he enjoyed exploring the parts of the city not overrun by tourists. The back alleys, rough neighborhoods and industrial areas are an ideal setting for intrigue.

* According to Lado, “Venice has many aspects, some joyous. But there is the sense of still waters that give off the smell of dead flowers. In short, it has the scent of death.” (Ibid)

One-time James Bond George Lazenby (voiced by another actor for the English dub) stars as Franco Serpieri, a successful sculptor. Bond enthusiasts, take further note: the film also stars Adolfo Celi (probably best remembered for his role as the villainous Largo in Thunderball), as Serafian, a wealthy art collector with more than a few skeletons in his closet. In the film’s prologue, set in 1968, we observe the murder of a young girl at a French ski resort by an assailant clad in a black dress and veil. The story skips forward four years, as Franco’s young daughter Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi)* arrives in Venice for a visit. Their reunion is brief, however, after her body is discovered, floating in a canal. After Franco’s journalist friend (Piero Vida) discovers a link between her death and the unsolved murder of another red-haired girl (depicted in the prologue) four years ago, the grief-stricken father devotes his time to catching the killer. As he gets closer to the truth, anyone who learns too much, including his wife Elizabeth (Anita Strindberg), becomes a potential victim.

* Fun Fact: Elmi is no stranger to Italian suspense and horror, having distinguished herself in several general films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, notably Deep Red (1975) as a sadistic kid and in Demons (1985) as a theater usher. According to a recent interview, she quit acting to become a speech therapist.

It’s hard to like Franco, as portrayed by Lazenby. He’s self-centered, egotistical, and a negligent parent. He narrowly averts disaster with Roberta by allowing her to wander off alone at night. Instead of learning from his folly, he puts her in harm’s way again (an error that proves to be fatal), so he can have some alone time with his mistress Gabriella (Rosemarie Lindt). His newfound sense of justice and allegiance to his formerly estranged wife are scarcely supported by the previous scenes, but guilt, I suppose, is a powerful motivator.

As in any respectable giallo, the film is full of red herrings to keep you off the trail of the real killer. Lado keeps us guessing with a long line-up of possible suspects, each with possible motives: a fencing instructor and his girlfriend, and a lawyer with some unsavory predilections, all with ties to Serafian. In one tightly edited sequence, Franco is hot on the trail of a clue to Roberta’s murder. The scene cuts between an intruder in the house, with Elizabeth in mortal danger. In an earlier scene, we see a POV shot as the killer converges on Roberta, followed by a jump cut to a butcher shop (thankfully, we never see the murder itself). The POV shot, through the killer’s black veil, repeats throughout the film, heightening the suspense. There’s also an interesting juxtaposition of a sex scene between Franco and his mistress Gabriella (Rosemarie Lindt), with a sequence of Roberta playing in a courtyard while being stalked, implying that sex and death co-exist, hand in hand. But it’s not all gloom and doom, as Lado inserts some little bits of unexpected humor. Franco is drawn into an impromptu ping pong match when he attempts to question a stranger about the first murder. The ensuing back and forth action is an apt metaphor for the games he must play to obtain the truth (I’m especially fond of the line, “If you can’t play ping pong, don’t get mixed up in politics.”).

Who Saw Her Die boasts another superb score by Ennio Morricone (who scored Lado’s previous film), accompanied by a haunting kids chorus that intensifies whenever the killer is lurking about, raising the tension to almost unbearable levels. It has all the genre elements we’ve come to expect, but Lado does much more than tick all the requisite boxes. He takes the story in unexpected and disturbing territory (even the “good” characters seem a little too attentive to Roberta). Unsettling and eminently watchable, Who Saw Her Die should be high on anyone’s list of essential gialli.

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