Caesar’s Wife’s Blues… FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION on Arrow BD.

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BD. Arrow. Region B. 15.

Minou (Dagmar Lassander) lives a privileged life of pampered ennui as the neglected wifey of workaholic industrialist Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi). Comfortably marooned in Jacqueline Susann territory, her most significant daily decisions include what colour to paint her toe-nails, which wig to wear (she and her snooty pals all boast extensive wig collections, any of which pale into insignificance in comparison with the legendary lacquered Capponi comb-over) when she hits Barcelona’s hot and happening nite spots (FPOALAS is clearly shot in Barcelona, though at several points in it characters can be seen waving wads of US dollars around) and how early in the day she can get away with downing a tumbler or two of J&B and popping a few prozacs. Yep, Minou is bored off her delectable arse and longs for a little excitement in her life, but you know what they say… be careful what you wish for! Attempting to see off the blahs with a moonlit walk on the beach, Minou is waylaid by a menacing dude (Simón Andreu) with a sword stick who cops a feel off her and demands that she “beg for me… plead for my kisses”. When he’s done groping he disappears, but not before advising her that her husband is “a fraud and a murderer”.

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Pier Paolo Capponi and friend… anybody noticing a recurring visual motif yet?

You have to keep reminding yourself that all of this is taking place in pre #metoo days, otherwise the general reaction to Minou ordeal at the hands of a sword stick wielding weirdo might seem a little… off-key. “It was probably just a prank”, hubby helpfully suggests and the victim herself seems to take the incident in her stride, refusing to alert the police on the grounds that “they just make you fill in forms”. Later, at a hep party where ageing swingers bust their funky moves to delirious dollops of Morricone Hammond heaven, Minou meets up with pal Dominique (“Susan Scott” / Nieves Navarro) to discuss her run in with the kinky maniac. “It means you’re bursting with sex appeal”, gibbers Dominique (who’s at it with Peter behind Minou’s back, incidentally) : “I’d adore being violated!”. No big deal then, it’s unanimous… indeed, there seems to be the suggestion that a bored, spoiled woman is just getting carried away with her Angie Dickinsonesque sexual fantasies.

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Stoking the fire, Dominique shows Minou some (rather tame) nuddy photos she’s had taken of herself and her pals (which had to be developed in Copenhagen!) Who should turn up in one of them, but Mr Menacing Dude from the beach?! He subsequently contacts Minou, claiming that the recent death of one of her husband’s creditors (from the bends, of all things) was no accident. Taped telephone conversations seem to lend credence to this version of events, and Minou is only too well aware that Peter has been suffering some serious cash flow problems, so she agrees to meet the blackmailer… but was it really wise to go in that mini skirt?

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Minou offers to buy Menacing Dude’s silence but he scorns her paper dollars: “You don’t know me, Minou…” he emotes: “You must submit your mind and body… you must suffer and be my slave!” What this florid nonsense boils down to is the blackmailer bonking her while taking pictures. With the eponymous forbidden photes in his possession, Minou’s tormentor reveals that he has faked the incriminating evidence against her husband but now has a strong bargaining position from which to demand her ongoing sexual favours… which she seems to dispense, shall we say, not without enthusiasm. Deduct several credibility points if you haven’t worked out there’s more to this debauched scenario than meets the eye and that there are several twists still to come…

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On the evidence of his Death Walks On High Heels (above, 1971) and Death Walks At Midnight (1972), each of which has its moments but both of which ultimately amount to less than the sum of their convoluted parts, I’d long considered Luciano Ercoli a bit of a second stringer, an underachieving Sergio Martino wannabe. While researching a piece on how the “bonkbusting” strain of giallo (presiding goddess Carroll Baker) gave way to the “psycho slasher” variant (and the divine Edwige Fenech) after the success of Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage, however, I rewatched Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (1970) and completely revised my long-standing, complacent opinion.

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Martino’s gialli are clearly key transitional works between the sexually overheated, money-motivated murder mysteries of Guerrieri and Lenzi and the post-Crystal Plumage sagas of deranged sex killers, mix-and-matching elements from both strains to keep their audiences guessing while simultaneously, director Sergio, producer Luciano and writer Ernesto Gastaldi  furiously attempted to figure out which side of the equation was going to put the most natiche on Italian cinema seats. No fewer than four aspiring assassins are interacting in their attempts to eliminate Edwige during The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971). Just one of them is a full-blown nutzoid sex case, while the others coolly calculate the financial benefits potentially accruing from her demise. Subsequent Martino efforts essentially reshake the mix while refreshing the flavour with such incidental distractions as a black magic cult (in All The Colours Of The Dark, 1972) and the boho / Poe stylings of the same year’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key.  Martino finally came down firmly in psycho killer territory with Torso (produced by Carlo Ponti in 1973), which stripped the narrative right down to “pretty girls vs drooling loony” basics, with the most sexually conservative girl surviving the kill spree… establishing, in the process, the template for the whole American slasher / splatter phenom.

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From Copenhagen with love…

FPOALAS was released over the last two months of 1970 in Northern Italian cities and during early ’71 in the South. In other words, it was an earlier response to TBWTCP than any of those Martino pictures and anticipates several of their recurring narrative strategies. Like Fenech’s Mrs Wardh, Minou responds to marital neglect by drifting into an abusive S/M relationship with a cad, here the prolific and still busy Simón Andreu, who would combine the neglectful and sadistic male roles in Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride, two years later (his roles in both films are so archetypal that his characters in each remain unnamed!) Just like Ivan Rassimov, who would subsequently take the corresponding role in Martino’s thrillers, Andreu tends to lurk in the shadows or barely glimpsed through rain-streaked windows, turning up at pivotal plot moments to further turn the screws on the increasingly desperate heroine. The ease with which Dominique converts Minou to the joys of amateur Porn prefigures Edwige Fenech’s rapid recruitment to a Satanic cult when Marina Malfatti suggests it might remedy her conformist malaise in All The Colours Of The Dark… jeez, Lassander even does the “take a shower in your slip” thing before it ever occurred to Edwige Fenech to do so!

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What really clinches FPOALAS’s place as a seminal text in the discourse between the bonkbusting and Argentoesque substreams of giallo is the self-consciousness with which the conspiring characters discuss precisely this dichotomy.  “You want to defeat me with your money… you’re trying to make a fool of me!” chides Mr Menacing when Minou attempts to buy him off: “Both of you think that your money can buy anything. You’re like animals, yet you call me mad!” “He’s crazy…” Minou confides to Dominique ” he doesn’t think like other people, there’s no way of knowing what he’ll do next”. As it happens, he’s only playing a role, but acts it out so (over)enthusiastically that he ends up spoiling the scam that his puppet-master (guess who) had devised. “He enjoyed playing the maniac and forgot I was paying him to follow instructions” complains the actual culprit behind this whole tawdry affair, before the cops arrive and gun him down… but if Andreu’s anaemic antics during this film (which amount to handing out a few superficial scratches with that sword stick) constitute him “going over the top” as a sex killer, one can only wonder what a half-assed attempt by him could possibly have looked like! The “rational” motive for all the unseemly shenanigans in Ercoli’s film, furthermore, when ultimately revealed, makes no sense whatsoever… I mean, I know there was all sorts of crazy stuff going on in Italy during the ’70s, but has there ever been a time (anywhere?) when insurance companies paid out on suicides?

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Luciano Ercoli (who also produced FPOALAS… Ernesto Gastaldi, still working through his obsession with Les Dialoboliques, wrote it) retired from the film biz after inheriting a fortune in the mid ’70s, presumably to enjoy the J&B quaffing, leisured lifestyle with his muse Navarro (who carried on acting – in several Joe D’Amato titles, among others… till 1989). Hopefully they spent their time until Ercoli’s death in March 2015 more harmoniously than Peter and Minou. The interviews with them on the supplementary materials for this release, conducted in their ostentatiously luxurious Barcelona apartment, rather suggest that they did. Indeed, Ercoli seems so happy with his lot that in his closing remarks he expresses the desire to live another 82 years, setting up the featurette’s final ironic caption. Gastaldi also has his say on their collaboration. Much of this material seems to have been re-edited from Arrow’s earlier releases of Death Walks On High Heels / At Midnight.

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Among the other extras, aside from the expected trailer, soundtrack nabob Lovely Jon illuminates the working relationship between “The Big Three” (Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and Alessandro Alessandroni (from the privileged position of having himself collaborated with Alessandroni) and suggests that Nicolai, in particular, has been given short shrift, credits-wise, in relation to Morricone (Billy Strayhorn suffered much the same in his collaborations with Duke Ellington). Lovely Jon also takes the time to credit the contributions of the angelically voiced Edda Dell’Orso, among others. There’s a lengthy and revealing interview with Lassander, conducted by the inestimable Steve Green on stage at Manchester’s Festival Of Fantastic Films in 2016. During her commentary track, Kat Ellinger eloquently champions pre-Argento, non-Bava gialli with reference to Michael Mackenzie’s “F-giallo” / “M-giallo” schemata. I’m not altogether convinced by this distinction… is Lucio Fulci’s Perversion Story (which we’ll be reviewing shortly), for instance, an “F-giallo” or an “M-giallo”? A social media friend (and if I could remember who it was, I’d give them due credit) drew what is, for me, a wittier and more useful distinction between “60s scheming gialli and 70s stabby gialli”. If anything, the current background buzz over Umberto Lenzi and Romolo Guerrieri’s early Italian thrillers gives me grounds for optimism that Arrow might be preparing long overdue BD releases for them. Mr Mackenzie, incidentally, contributes an essay on FPOALAS in the illustrated collector’s booklet that accompanies the first pressing of this edition, but not the screeners that we hacks get.

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Quite aside from all the worthy extras, the main feature’s colour palette is presented here with significantly more nuance, vibrancy and general oomph than on Blue Underground’s previous DVD release… suitable grounds for an upgrade.

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“I hope you threw that cucumber in the bin afterwards!”

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