Blood and Black Lace (1964) ****

Director Mario Bava channels his inner Douglas Sirk in a rich color palette for this early version of giallo. About as surprisingly rich is the camerawork, which, for a low-budget picture is exceptionally accomplished, tracking, drifting, bobbing between characters. This early in the 1960s, nudity was not so prevalent but setting a movie in a fashion house – ensuring the beauty quotient is remarkably high – provided sufficient opportunity for ladies to be seen (within a work context naturally) in a certain amount of undress and you can be sure the killer leaves them half-naked. And it’s not the usual giallo sex maniac at work either but, despite the volume of murders, a killer driven by a desire to conceal shame.

Blackmail, theft, abortion, cocaine addiction, pregnancy, impotence and illicit affairs are among the secrets the protagonists wish to keep hidden, all risking exposure by a diary kept by the first victim Isabella (Francesco Ungaro). So rather than a whodunit, it’s a whydunit. The killer is particularly creepy, face concealed behind white gauze like an Egyptian mummy. As the Italian title explains, six women are intended for the chop, so that kind of rules out a great deal of tension as you spend your time counting. Are we nearly there yet? And as we run out of obvious potential victims, who the heck is there left to kill? Of course, by that time, we are into twist territory and that element is certainly neatly done.

The main candidates for the murderer are: Franco (Dante DiPaolo), Riccardo (Franco Ressel), Cesare (Luciano Piggozi). Massimo (Cameron Mitchell)  and Marco (Massimo Righi). These are the official ones, rounded up by Inspector Silvestri (Thomas Reiner). But that still leaves housekeeper Clarice (Harriet Medin) in her black leather coat. And a fashion house being a festering wound of jealousy, sex, status and privilege you wouldn’t discount any of the models either nor an owner Cristiana (Eva Bartok) who is such a slave-driver she denies her seamstresses time to mourn.

Emotions would be running high in this establishment never mind with a killer on the loose. Relationships are so fraught that even when this is the worst possible time to be alone in a house, certain of the models refuse to offer sanctuary to others and one, Tao-Li (Claude Dantes), just plans to head for the hills (Paris, in other words) and abandon the others. Add to that a high degree of stupidity. When Greta (Lea Lander) discovers the disfigured corpse of Nicole (Arianna Gorini) in the trunk of her car, rather than calling the police, she drags the body into the house and hides it under the stairs while her butler is about to serve tea. Except it’s not out of folly, it’s because Greta, like all the women here, wishes to protect a male, passion reigning supreme to the extent that the thought of losing a lover even if he is a murderer is too much to bear.

The inspector’s task would be made easy if the killer had a distinctive modus operandi. Death occurs through strangulation, suffocation, drowning (though with cut wrists to make it look like suicide), falling from a great height and Nicole’s face thrust into a stove. If victims take a long time to die, it’s not from the killer’s sadism but his/her incompetence. Virtually none are speedily dispatched, murder not as easy as you might imagine, an idea that Hitchcock purloined in Torn Curtain (1966)

For most of the time the way the camera moves you would wouldn’t think you were watching a film about a serial killer (in those days as rare in reality as in fiction) but a dense emotional tale as spun by the likes of Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, 1963) amidst a backdrop of wealth and beauty. Setting aside the murders, there is a feast of intrigue, and a rich seam of characters, though the central theme seems to be (not surprising for the era) that money and beauty are not as fulfilling as love, something that women will commit various crimes (though stopping short of murder) to achieve.   

I would imagine it was just such intricate camerawork that put audiences off the picture on initial release, a big flop in Italy and, if screened anywhere else (as in Britain) the lower part of a double bill. Not quite as intense as Bava’s previous The Whip and the Body (1963) nor so stylistically driven as Danger : Diabolik (1968) and some way short of horror masterpieces like Black Sabbath (1963), this is still an interesting watch, something of a template for future giallo and from a pure directorial perspective glorious to watch.

The number of characters featured and the time spent on the various deaths limit the opportunities for any one star to dominate but Hungarian Eva Bartok (Operation Amsterdam, 1960) leads the line on the female side while American transplant Cameron Mitchell (Minnesota Clay, 1964) and Dante DiPaulo (Sweet Charity, 1969) vie for male acting honors. The screenplay was a joint effort by Marcello Fondato, Giuseppe Barilla and Bava.

YouTube has this for free though be warned it comes with ads and for the sumptuous photography alone you may want in any case to splash out.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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