Thursday 20 June 2013

The Killer Is On The Phone (L’assassino... È Al Telefono)

The Bald and the Beautiful

The Killer Is On The Phone 
(aka L’assassino... È Al Telefono)
1972 Italy/Belgium
Directed by Alberto De Martino
Camden Collection DVD Region 0

The killer on the phone is not the best giallo I’ve seen, but it’s certainly nowhere near the lower tier of some of these films and it’s got some quite interesting stuff going on it. This held my attention for the full running time without me even looking at my watch... and that in itself is a good thing these days.

It’s a little unusual for the majority of films in this genre... and this one joins the likes of Luigi Cozzi’s The Killer Must Kill Again (helping to create a little sub-genre of giallo all its own, perhaps), in that this is one of the few, the very few that I can even recall, where the identity of the main killer is pretty much known to the audience right from the start of the picture. What we don’t know until the end, although you really will begin to suspect this from very early on... is who the killer has been hired by. Therein rests the mystery, such as it is, in The Killer Is On The Phone.

Now there’s one big problem with this specific giallo and it’s the story/writing. The principal idea is okay and we watch Telly Savalas play a hit man who goes to kill a woman, five years after the death of her husband... an event in which she was a witness. Don’t ask me why it’s taken him five years to figure this out because, frankly, I don’t know. Anyway, when Telly approaches the main protagonist/ heroine, Eleanor (as played by Anne Heywood), she has a bizarre memory thing going on and feints dead at his feet. I don’t know why he doesn’t just finish her off there and then... except that they are out on show to the general public at large to a certain extent... although why you would then confront her in public at all and tip your hand is anybody’s guess at this point.

Anyway, when Eleanor recovers she goes to her house to find it’s been knocked down. When she goes to ring her husband, she asks for her “other” husband who died five years ago, not her current geezah on the spot. It’s clear by now that Eleanor is finding herself a little plagued by memory problems and as, throughout the film, her amnesia has brief signs of clearing through dreamlike flashbacks... including knife murders and bondage sequences opposite both her previous husband and Telly Savalas... our lovable hit man is stalking her and waiting in the wings to see if her memory comes back, delaying his next contract killing so he can sort out his loose ends here.

It sounds okay but the execution in terms of the writing is really not great and while the premise itself is actually quite strong, the writing is just not dextrous enough to pull off any real surprises or take the audience unawares, it seems to me. Right from early on a character is introduced into the proceedings and by then you’ll probably have your suspicions as to just who has been (and is) killing off people around Eleanor... although, it has to be said, the pleasantly surprising motivations behind these murders kinda makes no sense when you think about it... unless Telly Savalas is actually acting completely alone. Which he’s obviously not. So, yeah, I think it’s fair to say that this is one of those gialli when it’s really best not to scrutinise the story content too much and just try and go with it.

Which isn’t a bad thing to go with on this one.

Story issues aside, the movie is a visual and aural treat with performances by all the leads, who are particularly strong for this kind of movie. There are a fair few sequences throughout the picture with little or no dialogue and this makes the majority of this picture just about physical acting... and I’m not talking about action sequences either. Some of these scenes get into the whole aesthetic of stripping the craft of acting down to something along the lines of silent cinema, where a walk across a street can be as interesting as anything else that’s going on during the movie.

This not only gives the actors a breather away from some of the terrible lines they have to say (the version I saw was in Italian with English subtitles but this didn’t blunt the mediocrity of the dialogue as it often can in foreign films) but it also gives the cinematography, set design and music a chance to shine just a little brighter. And they do.

The director does what a lot of his “giallo comrades in arms” do on these things and goes for elaborate camera shots which frame and sub-divide the scenes beautifully. My theory has always been that the scripts on these things were so bad that the directors distracted themselves from the tedium by crafting the most complex mise-en-scene you can get in cinema. Whatever the reason, this film is no exception and De Martino splits shots into smaller blocks to frame different parts of the screen and even goes as far as to add texture or reflection to different plains to push your eyes right where he wants them to be in the frame. He also has some quite dynamic moments with combinations of movements and characters in a single frame falling naturally into each other. An example of this would be fairly early in the film where Eleanor gets into a car and we pan round as it drives off to the right of the shot... and then turns a bend and is driving away from us... then Telly Savalas will enter from screen right as the car is driving away from us and we’ll track back round to the left and follow him to where he ends up. Stuff like this always resonates with me and I find these kinds of films relaxing.

The score, by giallo stalwart Stelvio Cipriani (which was released last year as a 500 limited edition pressing from Digitmovies) is a departure from some of the writing I have come to expect from this guy in the past. It’s not a trippy bass line with beats and a big swooping melody like some of his scoring from around this time... it’s much more sedate and haunting and, it has to be said, a little more mono thematic than I would expect from him. With the exception of just a couple of typical “atonal jazz crime” cues, the score is mostly variations of one theme played repetitively and, mostly, slowly over the course of the film. It’s not bad but you won’t be able to stop humming it for a while... not because it’s particularly catchy but because of the amount of exposure it gets in the film. Still, a good support for the movie and nicely done.

The version I saw is known to be an uncut version but the film is, with the exception of one “giallo-typical” naked lady stabbing, mostly bloodless... even when Telly Savalas dies a particularly nasty death towards the end of the picture... before the, not so big, reveal of the person behind the whole plot. The camera cuts away at his slow dissection just at the last minute... which is curious for a genre of cinema which would normally revel in the amount of gore and arterial spray it can get up on the screen to satisfy an ever jaded audience. This is not a criticism... merely the pointing out of an oddity within the course of a giallo which, to be fair, is decidedly odd itself.

As I said, the performances are great but not particularly character based, although you do get a real sense of some of these characters as you follow them around and little details such as Telly’s collection of toy soldiers flesh the people out just enough without straying too far from the expected territory in that sense. Savalas does an excellent and very subtle job on this one which is kind of strange when you compare it to the role he’d just completed in the same year before shooting this, the over-the-top cossack in Horror Express (reviewed here).

All in all, I would say that if this kind of movie is really not your thing anyway, then I wouldn’t bother with this one... it’s not a jumping on point to get you hooked on the genre by any means. If, however, you are already invested in this genre to some extent, then The Killer Is On The Phone is certainly one you should see if you know what to expect, to a certain extent, from the Italian gialli of this period. Not a great giallo but certainly a competently made and watchable one.

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