Friday 31 October 2014

The Fifth Cord [1971]

THE FIFTH CORD is an Italian giallo that was directed by Luigi Bazzoni and originally released in August 1971 under the title Giornate nera per l'ariete, which a quick translate tells me means 'Black Day for the Ram'.  It stars Franco Nero, Pamela Tiffin, Silvia Monti, Wolfgang Preiss, Edmund Purdom, Ira von Furstenberg, Agostina Belli and Rossella Falk.   Nero plays Andrea Bild, a monumentally grumpy reporter investigating a series of murders in which he himself becomes a suspect.

I'm going to assume that readers are familiar with the concept of the giallo and will therefore skip the 'teaching granny to suck eggs' introduction.  That leaves plenty of room to discuss the merits or otherwise of this film and it seems to me that there are principally two things to mention: firstly, it is one of the most beautiful giallo I have ever seen - and that's in a genre which is noted for its style - and second it has an utterly incomprehensible plot.  I'll admit up front that I watched it over two nights and may have lost the thread; I must have because characters were bumped off that I had no idea who they were and the eventual reveal left me none the wiser.

The brutal assault that kicks everything off.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.  As I say, the film is genuinely stunning to look at.  The photography is by one Vittorio Storaro who of course went on to forge a world class reputation for his long collaboration with Bernado Bertolucci and his Oscar-winning work on APOCALYPSE NOW [1979]. He also short Dario Argento's debut feature THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE [1970] the film which more or less kick-started this genre and set the template for the narrative and visuals.  Storaro is up there with the very best in his profession and if I had to try to characterise his style I would say it is best suited for sumptuous almost dreamlike photography.  I have the impression that he uses warm tones - browns and deep orange - frequently although THE FIFTH CORD is something of an exception in that it uses a mainly blue palette.

Franco Nero and Silvia Monti
I love the Bava-esque splash of colour in this still.
And again here.
I've written before about films that use visual motifs to underscore the thematic concerns of the story: a good example of this is Jean-Pierre Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE [1970] a review of which can be found here.  I must say that despite the recurrent visual motifs in Bazzoni's film I couldn't detect much in the way of thematic concerns.  Then again this is a giallo which tend to use style for it's own sake.  So in this film what we get are elaborate framings which use all sorts of natural shapes and lines, filled in with some outrageous colour.  In some respects it looks forward to the Hollywood style of directors like Tony Scott and Adrian Lyne, all coloured filters and shafts of light.  As far as I'm concerned Bazzoni is no more interested in what all this might signify than Scott and Lyne are. For him and them it's all about the surface.

There are so many parallel lines in this movie but what do they mean?
Everything?   Or nothing?
Nothing, is my guess.
What a surface it is though.  You could take practically any frame from this movie and it would make a sensational poster.  There is the beautiful curve of the tunnel in which the initial assault takes place; there is the spiral staircase in Helene's uber-stylish house.  Even the park, where one of the murders takes place, has a beautifully framed path which almost looks like a river winding its way through a field.  There are shots through blinds, shots through windows, subjective camera shots - all of which might be trying to make some sort of point about voyeurism but I'm not convinced by that.  Any such implications I reckon was inadvertent; I think they were included simply because they look fabulous.

This reminds me of the escape sequence in Jim Jarmusch's excellent DOWN BY LAW [1986]

The reason I don't think the film rests on more than a superficial level is because Bazzoni seemingly makes no effort to construct a coherent narrative.  Much like Argento, at least in his later films - say from INFERNO [1980] onwards - Bazzoni is interested solely in stringing together one elegantly constructed sequence after another.  Which is difficult to sustain in a 90 minute movie.  The result is that scenes don't seem to flow logically from one to the next; characters come and go, locations dot around madly and the information given to the audience is piecemeal at best.  It's the kind of film where it's best to simply let it wash over you.  Revel in the visuals and forget about the plot, such as it is.

Franco Nero is of course one of the staples of European genre movies and the occasional mainstream English-speaking one.  I've written about him before but will limit myself to saying he's wasted here: good-looking but given very little to do because essentially the film isn't about the actors.

Franco Nero as Andrea Bild
Pamela Tiffin is an American actress imported to Italy to give the film some marketability overseas. She's most famous, as far as I'm concerned, for a beguiling performance in Jack Smight's HARPER [1966], the excellent Chandler-esque detective movie.  She was on a downward trajectory by the time she came to make this film and indeed only made a handful more before retiring in 1974 to become a home-maker, as the Americans say, or unemployed, as Alan Partridge says.

Pamela Tiffin as Lu
Similarly, Edmund Purdom had long since been a major star by the time he settled into European genre movies.  Initially he had gone to Hollywood in the same wave as Richard Burton and Roger Moore; unlike Burton, Purdom and Moore didn't do so well.  Later on of course Moore landed the plum role of James Bond and never looked back.  Purdom packed his bags and came back to Europe and started making much more interesting films.  He worked with the likes of Jess Franco, Ruggero Deodato, Massimo Dallamano and even the notorious hack Joe D'Amato.  Purdom died in 2004, in his adopted home of Rome, aged 84.

Edmund Purdom as Edouard Vermont
Monti, von Furstenberg, Belli and Falk are names familiar to lovers of delirious Italian genre films and one or more of them seem to crop up in many of the late 60s and early 70s heyday.  I'll deal with each of them when discussing future films because in truth they mainly to look sufficiently stylish to complement the scenery.  Wolfgang Preiss, whom I have mentioned before as being in A BRIDGE TOO FAR [1977], appears in a supporting role as the police inspector in charge of the murder investigation.  He has a couple of brief but important scenes with Nero which, like everything else in this film, are beautifully done.

Wolfgang Preiss (L) as the unnamed police inspector
And here he is again, in silhouette, on the right
Luigi Bazzoni didn't make many films and to date this is the only one I have seen.  Of his others I have a couple of spaghetti westerns and the apparently bizarre horror / sci-fi / weirdo LE ORME [1975] (also known as'Footprints on the Moon) on my 'to watch' pile and will no doubt get around to them sooner or later.  Watch this space.

A couple of other credits worth mentioning.  The score is by Ennio Morricone and is typical of his work in this period, all breathy female vocals.  The Assistant Director is one Luciano Marin who as an actor appeared in a load of peplums - the other great staple of Italian genre films - in the early 1960s.  Bazzoni's co-screenwriter Mario di Nardo worked twice in collaboration with the great Mario Bava - one of my favourite directors of all time.  If you can you should see FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON [1970], Bava's take on Agatha Christie's 'And Then There Were None' which, in a neat piece of symmetry, co-stars THE FIFTH CORD's Ira von Furstenberg.

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