Friday 9 December 2016

Blood and Black Lace (6 Donne Per L'Assassino)

Crimes Of Fashion

Blood and Black Lace
(6 Donne Per L'Assassino)

Italy 1964 Directed by Mario Bava
Arrow Films Dual Edition
DVD Region 1/2 Blu Ray Zone A/B

Those of you who read my review blog often enough will already know that I tend to cite Mario Bava fairly often when it comes to describing the particular style of the colour palette of a movie. It’s quite possibly a lazy cliché of a shorthand to use but I find it effective and anybody who knows Bava’s work will know exactly what I mean. The point I’m trying to make here is that Bava is a very important director when it comes to looking at cinema on a purely visual level. So important, in fact, that I can often use the simple term Bavaesque to describe something relevant to a film I’m reviewing.

For all of that, though, it seems to me that I have hardly any of the great man’s films reviewed on this blog and one of them, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (reviewed here) happens to be one of his worst (and certainly the most spectacular failure I’ve ever seen by him). So it felt like it was time to put something more positive about this director who, still to this day internationally, is not the household name of Italian directors that such luminaries as Fellini, Antonioni or even those who have somewhat inherited Bava’s mantle such as Argento, are. However, this is quite unfortunate because in terms of being an artist contributing to an absolutely beautiful visual cinema that should be studied over and over again by students of film goes... he really has no peer.

Bava is also, more often than not, acknowledged by his contemporaries and inheritors, as being the man who gave us the giallo film. Now the giallo in film is slightly different to the giallo books that gave the screen genre its name and if you want a more detailed account of just what that is, then you can take a look at my quick guide to the giallo here. The first on screen equivalent (although this, too, is surely arguable) is generally accepted to be the film Bava made the year before this one, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which certainly takes the basic tenets of giallo literature and captures it on celluloid, to a certain extent, albeit with a lot of humour.

However, I think most people would agree when I say that this film, 6 Donne Per L’Assassino (aka Blood And Black Lace) is the one which forever set the stylistic content of the cinematic giallo firmly on its track and that ‘Bavaesque’ handle I talked about earlier would certainly become worn out very quickly if you were to consider its application when reviewing the numerous (and there are very many) gialli that came after this. Most famously, perhaps, the cinematic legacy of Dario Argento, whose first movie The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, six years later, would take Bava’s legacy and make the giallo the popular genre it was soon to become... the primary influencer on any such cycle of films being, obviously, a huge box office. Something which I don’t think Bava ever really had for films like this, which is a great shame.

So here we have Blood And Black Lace which is, for me, the first real on screen stab at this genre using the conventions which would define it and, frankly, it’s a strong and pleasurable cinematic ride right from the stylistic opening title sequence which throws in the vibrant, primal colours which were ex-cinematographer Bava’s stock in trade, with camera movements coming to rest on various cast members juxtaposed against the hollow, wicker-basket style mannequins that serve the Fashion House which is the backdrop to the film’s plot... all lubricated with Carlo Rustichelli’s amazingly vibrant, rhythmic opening title music.

After this, we get the exterior of one of the main settings of the movie, beautifully rendered on a rainy night with a creaking and broken sign as we let the film assault our visual and audio receptors in the most pleasing ways possible for a thriller which, for its time, is also one of the more brutal in its choices of the style of the killings on display... if not quite the actual depiction of the moments of grizzly death that Argento never held back on in the same way Bava does here. There are lots of good things in this movie and, of course, lots of terrible but, it has to be said, the terrible things are expected now in hindsight because, they too, have become the mainstay of the giallo cinema as it's progressed over the years, for better or worse.

The weakest stuff on show here is a script containing dialogue which is barely deliverable in a credible way by most actors, one would think, and... appropriately enough... a bunch of actors who, for the most part, are able to deliver that dialogue in exactly that manner... with a complete lack of credibility or believability. With the exception, of course, of the leading lady from The Crimson Pirate, Eva Bartok, as the owner of the fashion house and her lover, the much underrated Cameron Mitchell, who I think makes a big contribution to a lot of the films he’s in, even when he’s as stony faced and less overtly expressive as he is in this one.

One of the ways Bava seems to make up for any shortfall in the performances of his cast is to put together people who have absolutely incredible faces. They all are, for the most part, very memorable and have an almost caricature quality to some of them. There’s one guy in this, for example, who is almost impossible to look at without thinking of Peter Lorre. The dull witted Inspector of police is also much like one you would expect to see in a German Krimi movie although, I have to say, he also looks, to me, like the dead spit of popular movie critic Mark Kermode. More than once through the movie I was almost expecting him to start questioning one of the suspects about the various merits of The Exorcist, the resemblance was that strong.

Actually, while the police in this film are typical ‘giallo police’ in that their investigations never once seem to lead them near to the truth of the situation, they are at least confident in their own powers and seem slightly less ridiculous than some of the genre characters who followed in their wake. That being said, you wouldn’t want these guys on your side because you can pretty much bet that their next suspect is as likely to be the next victim on the killer’s list than anyone useful to their investigation.

However, everything else about this marvellous movie more than makes up for its shortcomings and there’s certainly too much great stuff to list here (this movie really needs its own book). Bava’s mise-en scene is absolutely incredible, pitching his almost trademark greens, reds and purples in single shots while splitting the planes of those shots with various foreground levels or objects to give them a unique depth that many movies don’t have in terms of their use of visual space (I can’t even imagine how amazing a film like this would look if it had been shot in 3D). 

Some of the death scene set pieces are a little ridiculous, such as the woman being smothered in foreground while we see her legs struggling slightly in the background of the shot and her arms splayed out not even once trying to put up any resistance against the killer with the cushion in her face. Seems like she’s almost helping the killer in this scene rather than trying to escape her ghastly fate but, whatever, the aesthetics of the shot are quite groovy and I don’t think I’m supposed to question the authenticity of the murder method in this case, I would say.

The film is very much a piece of art that pushes the visual semiotics of cinema and it uses quite a lot of long, wordless sequences to propel the story forward... something which a lot of modern directors seem almost shy to do at times, it seems to me. For instance, in one of the stalk and kill sequences, a girl is seen running around in the background of a shot and then towards the camera and it’s not until her hand comes in from the direct right of the shot and touches on the quite elaborate and obvious mirror, that you possibly realise you were watching a reflection for the last 6 or more seconds. There’s no attempt to hide the contrivance of the apparatus in shots like these, either... just the director’s confidence that the power of his shot composition, and the movement within the frame, are strong enough to distract from the punchline of the shot until he’s ready to tip his hand. I bet at least 9 out of 10 people who see this are taken in by it too.

Another highlight of the film is a brief but beautiful shot of a woman who has been drowned in a bathtub. We look up at her from the bottom of the bathtub once the killer has tried to cover the murder by slashing the wrist of the lady in question to make it look like a suicide.... we see the red washing up from the bottom of the shot to greet her head and shoulders. Truly gorgeously arresting visuals in this one.

There’s also very much a feeling of art for arts sake embedded into the visual DNA of the film. There’s a certain kind of shot where the camera is moving throughout the movie as if from the eyes of the killer... I’m sure most people have seen these kind of shorthand, first person, point of view shots before. They’ve become a cliché in themselves over the years and, I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn’t Bava who invented them, to be honest.  However, one such ‘roving’ shot takes place right near the end of the picture, with the ‘character’ of the camera eye even knocking down one of the mannequins as it passes. It’s interesting when you realise, as I’m sure not many people do once the shot becomes a third person view, how there’s no way that the camera could have been standing in for any of the characters at this particular time or physical space. It’s an artifice which is used without logic and, to be honest, most people won’t even realise the first time around... I cite it here only as a testament to the fact that, like his successor Dario Argento, Bava was obviously much more concerned with the visual aesthetic of a movie than whether or not the methodology of how he achieved his atmospheres fit into any form of established reality. 'Art is art' versus reality and, it appears, neither of the two are necessarily close companions in the cinema of Mario Bava.

The last piece of icing on the cake is Rustichelli’s gorgeous score. Perhaps somewhat untypical of either of the two most common approaches that music in giallo would take - the jazzy, atonal scores of Morricone or Nicolai versus the progressive rock tinged rhythms of Cipriani or Simonetti’s Goblin - the music in this movie is almost a throwback to the 1950s, which is fair enough considering the proximity of the film to that decade. It’s similar in some ways to the driving rhythm and strident melody of Henry Mancini’s score for Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil. That being said, the score also manages to enhance the atmosphere of the suspense required and has some effective stingers appropriate to the genre. It’s certainly something which should be a big hit in any giallo music lovers library, that’s for sure.

And that’s about it from me on Blood And Black Lace. I upgraded to Arrow’s newish Blu Ray edition from last year mostly because Mario Bava’s mise en scene is always going to look especially vibrant on blu ray and, partially, because it was only £6 in a sale. I’m so glad I did because it comes stacked with extras which, on their own, are worth the price of admission and it also includes a bonus film, a modern giallo, which I haven’t watched yet but which, when I do, will no doubt take up the space of another review on here. If you’re already in love with the cinema of Mario Bava and this film in particular, then this dual DVD/Blu Ray edition by Arrow is definitely the way to go. If you’re a complete stranger to the haunted world of Mario Bava then what are you waiting for? Go grab this one while you still can... it’s text book visual film-making at its finest.

If you want to read a little more about the genre, then my article about it is here. If you want to read more about the phenomenal director behind Blood and Black Lace then Tim Lucas’ epic tome Mario Bava - All The Colours of the Dark, is definitely the way to go... it’s possibly the most thorough and, certainly, one of the greatest books on an aspect of cinema that has ever been seen in print.

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