There were giallo around before Dario Argento unleashed The Bird with the Crystal Plumage but that film upended, supplanted and redefined the genre creating a million copycat films in its wake and making all previous films feel like they are part of a different genre altogether. Luigi Bazzoni directed two films in the genre, The Possessed in 1965 and The Fifth Cord in 1971, which straddle both sides of Plumage, making it a fascinating double feature to see how in just a few short years the genre had completely changed. Arrow Video is releasing both films this week with new transfers and some nice special features so now is the perfect time to take a closer look.
"Giallo" is the Italian word for yellow which was the color of the book covers for cheaply produced crime novels coming into Italy from Britain and the United States. Film adaptations of those books took on the color as a genre title and it is now more specifically applied to crime films of the Argento type. Interestingly, most of the films we now call giallo were not actually based upon any book at all, regardless of cover color.
The Possessed, aka The Lady of the Lake, was loosely adapted by a novel by Giovanni Comisso and co-directed by Franco Rossellini. It stars Peter Baldwin as Bernard, a melancholy novelist who travels to a remote lakeside village his parents used to take him to for holiday in search of a former lover, Tilde (Virna Lisi). He returns to find a town full of people who are outwardly friendly but inwardly full of secrets and who may be hiding something dark from their past. After asking around, he learns that Tilde died by her own hand some months prior. But the reasons for her turn to suicide seem illusive. He learns that she took copious amounts of poison but also that her throat was slit, leading some to believe it was not suicide but murder that killed her. As he digs further into her death, he uncovers dark family secrets, madness, and perversion throughout the town.
Shot in gorgeous black and white, The Possessed proves that Bazzoni always had an eye for interesting images and eye-catching compositions. He fills the screen with beautiful shots which he mixes with kaleidoscopic dream/fantasy sequences that give the film an ethereal, unknowable feel. We’re never quite sure whether these moments are actually happening, are simply dreams, or perhaps memories from his past. Which makes for some fascinating visuals but muddles the story quite a bit.
It's more arthouse than giallo. It has more kinship to Hitchcock films like Rebecca and Vertigo or the works of Antonioni than that of Bava, Fulco, and Argento.
Made just six years later, The Fifth Cord is stylistically worlds apart from The Possessed. It lands very much in the Argento mode of giallo with black-gloved killers, plot twists, and violence. It is also based on a novel, this one by author David McDonald Devine. Bazzoni moved it from working class Scotland to the nouveau rich of Italy, changed all the character names, but kept the basic plot structure.
After a rousing New Year's Eve party, a man is brutally attacked in an under-the-highway tunnel. The victim survives, but just barely, and a single black glove is left behind by the perpetrator. Washed-up, alcoholic journalist Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) is assigned to the story. Before long another person is attacked; this time the murder is completed. Another black glove is left behind, this time with a single finger cut off of it. The message is clear. Another four murders will occur before the spree of violence ends. But who will be attacked? And why?
Bild will eventually find the answers to these questions but along the way he’ll cross paths with a litany of standard giallo characters and tropes including underage sex, drugs, blackmail, red herrings, and pornography. More people are brutally murdered, and more gloves show up with increasingly missing fingers. The violence is tame for your typical giallo, but the story is par for the corse. What sets The Fifth Cord above the fray is its cinematic style and cinematography.
Argento set the style standard for the genre mixing wild angles, inventive compositions, lurid color schemes with avant-garde soundscapes, and unconventional scores. Bazzoni along with Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro create a beautiful, eerie landscape in which the mechanics of the story take place. Bazzoni is a master of creating interesting visuals within the most mundane of settings and Storaro imbues it with dynamic color, deep shadows, and reflective surfaces, creating fascinating images within every scene. This more than makes up for its rather generic plot.
The Possessed and The Fifth Cord are two sides of the same genre coin, reflecting the dramatic changes that came after Argento came upon the scene. Taking his queue from European arthouse cinema in the '60s with The Possessed, Luigi Bazzoni created a moody, beautifully filmed mystery more concerned with its main characters' internal landscape than solving its crime. A few years later, he took most of the giallo trappings learned from Argento and created a visually stunning and gorgeously shot crime story that’s more fun to look at than to actually follow.
With both films Bazzoni showed that he was a director of great esteem. Unfortunately, he only made a few other films before dropping out of the industry all together.
Arrow Video has given both films a new 2K restoration and both are quite pleasing to the eye. Filmed in stark black and white The Possessed looks stunning. The blacks are dark and crisp and there is an excellent attention to the details of the contrast in shadows and light. The Fifth Cord is full of color, especially various shades of blue. Storaro is a master and his work comes in clear and beautiful. Audio is likewise very good on both. Special praise must be given to Ennio Morricone’s hypnotic score which comes in fantastically here. Each film comes with both Italian and English language tracks.
As per usual, Arrow Video has loaded both films with lots of extras including new interviews, audio commentaries, and a video essay. Plus, there is the usual full-color booklet complete with essays on the films.
Sold separately, these two films make up an interesting look at the giallo genre pre- and post-Dario Argento’s seismic change to it. They also show what a tremendous talent Luigi Bazzoni was and how sad it is he made so few films.