He Should Have Gone To Specsavers… Sergio Martino’s THE SUSPICIOUS DEATH OF A MINOR Reviewed

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BD/DVD Combi. Region B/2. Arrow. 15.

Claudio Cassinelli (in the first of several starring roles for Sergio Martino) plays Paolo Germi, an undercover Police Inspector (it is revealed, half way into the picture) who is investigating the trafficking of minors for immoral purposes in Milan. Impetus is lent to his investigations when informant Marisa Pesce (Patrizia Castaldi) gets sliced up by a knife wielding, mirror shades-wearing assassin before she can pass on the information she had promised him. Hampered by his by-the-book boss (Mel Ferrer) and dozy colleagues (one of whom seems more obsessed with betting than rounding up any bad guys) Germi recruits petty criminal Giannino (a nice comic turn from Adolfo Caruso) as his wing man and continues his enquiries among the city’s tarts, those with hearts and otherwise. As connections with the drugs trade and a kidnapping ring fall into place, suspicion begins to fall on Marisa’s wealthy and influential Uncle Gaudenzio (Massimo Girotti). With his employers continuing to drag their feet, demanding cast-iron evidence, Germi is prompted by the murder of Giannino and his girlfriend to quit the force and confront Pesce while the latter is on a money laundering trip to Switzerland…

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There’s a gag running throughout TSDOAM, concerning the frequency with which Cassinelli’s character breaks the lenses in his glasses. If I wanted to go all clever dick on you, I’d argue that this is emblematic of the film’s fractured stylistic take. I do, so I will…

Having authored some of the more compelling and varied entries in the giallo cycle from 1970 to 1973 (The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh, All The Colours of The Dark, Your Vice Is  A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key) and providing the template for the all-conquering stalk’n’slash cycle with Torso, Sergio Martino could have been forgiven for leaving the yellow stuff well alone, especially as the wave inspired by Dario Argento’s The Bird with The Crystal Plumage (1970) was starting to recede. TSDOAM began life as a poliziottescho effort, a logical progression from the seminal crime slime entries that Martino had already racked up with The Violent Professionals (1973) and Silent Action (earlier in ’75). In the run-up to shooting Suspicious Death, however, the giallo was reinvigorated by Argento’s triumphant return with Deep Red and Sergio’s producer brother Luciano felt obliged, at short notice, to add gialloesque aspects to this picture. As well as the mandatory stalking sequences we get specific references to, e.g. Daria Nicolodi’s malfunctioning car, a stabbed woman breaking a window with her face, a nasty scalding… Luciano Michelini even contributes a main theme that’s eerily reminiscent of the Goblin one to Argento’s biggie.

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Argento copying aside, it can’t have escaped the Martino boys’ attention that Milan-born Massimo Dallamano’s What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (alternatively titled, tellingly enough La Polizia Chiede Aiuto / “The Police Are Asking For Help”) from the previous year combined giallo and crime slime successfully… not to mention turning on a “teenage prostitution racket servicing the great and good” plotline and starring Cassinelli. This cross-pollination of cop / giallo ingredients would produce its prize specimen in 1976, with Alberto De Martino’s amazing Blazing Magnum (1976).

But betting (correctly) that neither gialli nor poliziotteschi had that much life left in them, Sergio further confused matters by incorporating elements of comedy (a genre he had already debuted in with the Edwige Fenech vehicle Giovannona Long-Thigh, 1973, and to which he would successfully return for much of his subsequent filmography) into an already overegged mix. So instead of the nail-biting thrills of the car chase from The Violent Professionals (so impressive it was recycled in subsequent films by Martino and others) we are here “treated” to automobile antics involving nuns, acrobatic head spins and trick unicycle silliness.

In case you were wondering whether such jocularity was appropriate for a film about the sexual exploitation of minors, fret ye not… this is hardly a serious look at that troubling subject, the victims herein constituting the oldest “minors” since Stockard Channing enrolled at Rydell High. Barbara Magnolfi, two years away from her striking turn in Suspiria, had already bid adieu to her teens when she appeared in TSDOAM…. ditto Patrizia Castaldi, the title character. Kooky hooker Carmela (Lia Tanzi, perviously a prostitute in The Violent Professionals) bears a close resemblance to  Nancy Allen and the fate of her character curiously foreshadows that of Allen’s in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981).

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A healthy compliment of strong female characters is rounded out by the feisty Gloria (the ill-starred Jenny Tamburi), with whom Germi hooks up for a briefing (while Giannino is attempting to debrief her) in a down-market Terza Vizione cinema which is screening, incestuously enough, Martino’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room. This sequence segues into one of the picture’s best realised suspenseful action vignettes, with that mirror shaded assassin stalking Germi across (and through) the cinema roof until another Italian shop window mannequin takes the mandatory fall. Mention must also be made of a well-choreographed shoot out on a roller coaster and the ensuing metro station pursuit that ends in somebody being squashed under a train.

Arrow’s BD presentation of this rare title looks just great. We’re getting used to swallowing a bit of grain in return for the revelation of hitherto unguessed at cinematographical subtleties but those pesky pixels are barely perceptible here, a testament to the work of  Martino’s long serving DP, Giancarlo Ferrando. Travis Crawford clocks up yet another commentary track but the normally sure-footed TC seems to be having a bit of an off day, completely missing the director’s cameo appearance while wasting words on a (non-existent) continuity error. He also lavishes much praise on Mel Ferrer, who pretty much phones in his brief appearance here.

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Of course there’s a trailer and a reversible sleeve which, like the limited edition collectors’ booklet, “with new writing by Barry Forshaw”, was not available to me at the time of penning this review. The Ferrando interview mentioned in some of the publicity releases is conspicuous by its absence from the Blu-ray disc I received, though you do get 42 minutes with Sergio Martino, in which he reflects on the generalities of his long and distinguished career (e.g. the pros and cons of making most of your films for a producer who’s also your brother, the lax attitude towards health and safety that applied on Italian shoots and how this might or might not have contributed to Cassinelli’s untimely death during another Martino production, Hands Of Steel in 1986) and the problematic position that TSDOAM occupies within it, conceding what a hotch-potch of styles it represents and how difficult it consequently was to market. Indeed, the fact that this edition comes with an Italian language soundtrack and optional English subtitles confirms ones suspicions that Suspicious Death was just too weird for much of a mainstream release outside of Italy.

Indeed, with genres being so recklessly juggled, it’s amazing that this film’s elements cohere at all, let alone that it’s constituent parts coagulate into such a diverting concoction. As Quentin Tarantino once told me: “Martino’s a hack but he really knows what he’s doing and you’re in safe hands when you watch one of his pictures”. TSDOAM comes nowhere near to what Martino achieved at his peak in either the giallo or crime slime genres but as an interesting snap shot of Italy’s ruthlessly commercial popular cinema mutating, before your very eyes, in response to contemporary box office pressures, it’s well worth the attention of any serious student of Cine Exploitation All’Italiana.

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