Director: Mario Bava (Italy, France, West Germany). Year of Release: 1964
A mansion in the middle of nowhere – the home of the Christian’s Haute Couture Fashion House. A storm is brewing, taking the sign outside the house off its hinges. A fountain pours erratically. A man and a woman meet secretly and exchange a few furtive words about Isabella before he hurries off. Then Isabella appears in a red raincoat. She looks up, shocked, to see a man dressed like Harry Lime in a long leather coat and fedora. His face is covered in a white mask.
Isabella is strangled and her body bundled away. The police are called in, and suspect the work of a sex pest. And yet there’s the issue of Isabella’s diary, and what might be in it. The various workers and hangers on at Christian’s Haute Couture have a range of secrets from drug use and hidden abortions to secret relationships and marriages. Everyone has a reason to want to get hold of the diary, and not let its contents be known.
As the models perform in a fashion show, the diary is deposited in a handbag. We watch people come and go, the handbag sitting untroubled in the background – until briefly, we lose sight of it. One of the models, who believes she is the current keeper of the diary, is called to an urgent meeting, borrows a friend’s car, and skips the show, asking her friend to cover. You can put good money on her not making it till the film’s end.
As Blood and Black Lace continues, different models are picked off one by one. After the strangling there’s a brutal beating with a blunt instrument, a face is acquainted with a very hot surface, there’s a smothering and, finally, a woman is drowned in her own bath, then her wrists are slit to simulate a suicide. If this feels all a little like dime store literature, then welcome to Giallo films (of which this is arguably the first example), which would treat the comparison as a compliment.
The other aspect of Giallo is that everything looks just great. From blood trickling out in the bath to a bright red telephone, there is a strong use of primary colours and expressive back lighting. And everyone seems to live in a luxury house with a backdrop of old paintings, period furniture and the odd empty suit of armour. We also see scenes in an antiques shop and in the fashion house itself, full of eerily faceless mannequins hovering creepily in the background.
The film is not really a whodunnit, though it does follow some of the genre’s conventions. The police, pursuing their theory of a sex murder, detain all the men who knew models working for the fashion house (which amounts to a sum of five people). When another murder happens while the men are in police cells, the cops have to consider other theories, and our interest is slightly pricked as to who might be to blame.
But not long after that, the killer reveals himself (or is it herself? Well, that would be telling). Because this is all about the journey, and not the destination. The police never find out who did it – well, not before the end of the film – and the revelation of the killer is done in such a matter of fact way, that we don’t treat it as that big a deal. Nothing to see here, let’s just move on and look at some more pretty pictures of violence against women.
There is something, though, that is thoroughly disconcerting. The film, originally recorded in Italian, has been dubbed into English – apparently this was common for early Giallo films. Now I’ve now seen enough films dubbed into German that I barely even notice the disconnect between the speed of lips moving and the words coming out on the soundtrack. But this was something here above and beyond the usual strangenesses we experience with dubbed films.
Most of the characters speak in a clipped accent, and use a sentence construction which is strained at the least. It is as if the script writers – and sometimes the actors themselves – aren’t just non-native English speakers, but have had little acquaintance with the language. At one stage (Phone rings. “It’s for you”. “Yes, for you.” “Is it for me?”) you aren’t even sure that the people doing the overdubs has shared the same studio.
Now maybe this is a sophisticated use of the Brechtian alienation affect to make us think more about what was being said. More likely it’s just the best you could expect from a limited budget or the technology available at the time. Whatever, if you take it the right way, it suddenly makes parts of the film very funny. There was a lot of laughter in the cinema tonight. I think that more people were laughing at the film than with it, but I don’t think that really matters.
I know that some critics feel that this is a groundbreaking film, or that it has important things to say about the way the fashion industry objectifies women. Well, maybe. Just maybe. To me it was a piece of period kitsch, the sort of film that they don’t make any more, often for very good reasons. But equally, if we treat it as a representative product of 1960s cinema, it is interesting in its own way, and helps us better understand both the society and the culture which produced it.