a.k.a. Sei donne per l'assassino
Now before I get started on this here review, let me say that this film was viewed in very unusual conditions, namely by file sharing download on an iPod in a moving vehicle going down B.C. Highway 1. No matter what's being watched, those conditions make for a helluva case of carsickness. That aside, I couldn't make screen captures from an iPod, so here's a link for another review of this film (with great captures).
As a newbie to giallo treading through the genre's golden age of the '60s and '70s, it was absolutely form-fitting to start with one of the granddaddies of full-on giallo. Blood and Black Lace is considered as a landmark in the genre, combining rich imagery and color with liberal amounts of sex and nudity. Okay, "liberal" is not the right word here, since this film's only got smidges of what at the time would have been absolutely forbidden from American-made films (though one should note it would only be four more years until the Hays Code was offically dead).
The print I watched was the English language VCI DVD print, with a bit of a sub-par image quality, but that did not really deter the colorful atmosphere (I mean really, what other supposed fashion house has red mannequins?).
After the jazzy opening credits, we suddenly cut to the sign of the film's setting, a fashion house, erratically swaying in the wind, which then swings out of shot to reveal the fountain at the front of the house. This sets the atmosphere of the film, putting jarring danger and death against a haute couture backdrop. SPOILER ALERT, ladies and gentlemen...
With the death of the first victim, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), the other models discover a diary she kept documenting the shady dealings of the house. Soon, it becomes apparent that pretty much everybody has a reason to worry about (and an itching to read) the diary, including the proprietors, Max Marian (Cameron Mitchell) and Contessa Christina Como (Eva Bartok).
One of the models, Nicole, (Ariana Gorini) takes the diary, telling the others that she plans to take it to the police, when really, she intends to read it first. During a runway show, however, another model, Peggy (Mary Arden) manages to take it unnoticed. Nicole is then lured in the middle of the show to Isabella's boyfriend Frank (Dante di Paolo)'s antique shop where, after being terrorized by strange sounds (and majorly creative lighting) in a showroom, is attacked and killed with a spiked glove mallet by the same faceless figure in black who murdered Isabella. The killer steals Nicole's car and flees when it's discovered she doesn't have the diary.
Meanwhile, Peggy comes home with her boyfriend Marco (Massino Righi). The maid, Clarice (Harriet White Medin), is dressed in similar garb to the killer, in a bit of a red herring, and soon leaves for home after Peggy and Marco arrive. After Peggy sends Marco out, she takes out the diary and proceeds to read and then burn it in her fireplace. Soon enough, the killer, in an effort to locate the diary, arrives and kidnaps Peggy. When Peggy discovers his identity, the killer then burns her to death by putting her face to the red-hot surface of the basement furnace.
Frank discovers Nicole's body and goes to his friend Richard Morell (Franco Ressel) to plead with him to supply an alibi. Initially Morell refuses, until Frank threatens to expose his theft of money from lover Isabella. This alibi fails to convince Inspector Sylvester (Thomas Reiner), who, to keep more murders from happening, arrests all five of the male suspects (Max, Frank, Richard, Marco, and dress designer Cesar Losarre (Luciano Pigozzi)).
That night, Morell's fiancee Greta (Lea Krugher) drives home and upon opening the trunk discovers Peggy's body. In fear, she hides the body in her house, but is then smothered to death with a pillow by the black-clad killer.
The next day, the Inspector concludes that all five of the men he arrested cannot be guilty due to having the best alibi they can have: being in jail the entire night. He has no choice but to let them go.
When Max comes home to Christina, things take an interesting turn when it is revealed he is the murderer after all. Before the film's events he had assisted Christina in murdering her husband. Isabella had discovered this, and blackmailed him, among others. When her demands became too much, she was murdered, Max not realizing she had written every scandalous secret down. He also killed Nicole and Peggy, but when he was arrested, Christina donned the outfit and mask, killing Greta to throw suspicion off him. To further frustrate the Inspector, Max asks his lover to kill another model. Cut to Christina, in the black outfit, drowning Tao-Li (Claude Dantes) and cutting the model's wrists to suggest suicide. A knock at the door forces Christina to try and escape down the drainpipe, but she falls. The door knocker happens to be Max himself, who had decided to double-cross Christina and sabotage the pipe, in hopes of her being killed while making it look like she was the real murderer.
Seeming that all is well for him, Max, confident that he will now inherit the fashion house, loots through Christina's desk. One of the first things he takes out is a gun (dumb idea, Max). A noise startles him and he looks up to see Christina, mortally injured. As she confronts him, Max tries to convince her otherwise of the truth, and they seemingly embrace. Suddenly, a shot rings out, and we see Max collapse, dead of a gunshot wound. Christina then succumbs to her injuries when trying to call Inspector Sylvester. The last shot we see is of a red telephone receiver swinging back and forth.
Blood and Black Lace introduced many elements that would become quite prevalent in the genre, like the black glove of the killer, use of vivid imagery, and an incompetent police force. Even though Inspector Sylvester is pretty much the ideal inspector, he fails in the end to catch the killer(s). In most giallo films, the murderer usually dies, and only if the protagonist is a police officer is a lawman good at his job.
Acting is passable, with Eva Bartok definitely conveying the best range out of the cast. Dubbing does not suck by any means, though female voices pretty much fall into the same vocal range. Lower voices with Christina and Tao-Li would have worked wonderfully for their characters. It would have been great, though, to hear Bartok and Cameron Mitchell's real voices in the film.
Mario Bava's creative cinematography really stands out during the fashion show, when the scene continually switches between a certain character and the diary, until the diary's gone, as well as the minutes leading up to Nicole's murder, as we sense the tension stirred up together by the score, the pacing, and the set, which randomly lights up sections of the antiques showroom.
Fright-wise, the scariness and very slight gore is tame by today's standards, though anyone just passing by and not expecting it might just jump at those parts. The score by Carlo Rustichelli fits the groove of the film, though in murder scenes it gets a bit cliched, but not so much that it detracts from the sequence.
Probably the most brilliant aspect of the film is the MacBeth dynamic between Max and Christina. There's no doubt that Christina first thought to kill her husband (though at the least, she and Max plotted it together), but then it switches to Max being the dominant one, killing off those who stood in his way of getting the diary (sure, it's not the Scottish throne, but it's a lot more relatable). But then, when he's released, Christina gets a bit tipsy and describes when they killed her husband, making him a bit uneasy. In the same scene, however, Max convinces a now hesitant Christina to carry out one last murder. He stays in that position when he traps her into escaping and she falls, but in surviving she gains the upper hand and kills Max, but at the expense of her own life (on a side note, Lady MacBeth is also the only character to not die by murder, though with Christina Max arranged for her to fall).
So there you have it. The prototype of a murder mystery giallo. Simple, yet well made, Blood and Black Lace is worth a definite recommendation for those wanting to watch something new in their movies.