‘A criminal kills a charitable old lady who spent her life helping criminals … it’s ironical, isn’t it?’
Since Italian gialli are mostly co-productions, and many of them aren’t set in Italy, I wonder the genre should encompass almost all European films noirs made in colour … this actually does open in Italy, and is built around David Hemmings at the mid-point between his giallo significant roles in Blowup and Deep Red. The director (Richard C. Sarafian) is American and the source novelist (John Bingham) English, and it has an acute grasp of British class issues at the fag-end of the swinging 60s (a fag end is actually a clue here) that differentiates it from most Euro thrillers, which are set in worlds of classless, yet cruel wealth. It was scripted (with waspish venom) by Paul Dehn, a one-time critic whose CV includes Seven Days to Noon and some Planet of the Apes sequels.
Tim Brett (Hemmings) is a recovered junkie who has written a best-selling how-I-kicked-it memoir (Addict) and is shakily settling into the straight life on holiday in Italy. His floral-scarved aunt (Flora Robson) has an odd conversation with him about her dedication to helping reformed characters (she seems to be fishing for the names of redeemable druggies) and then turns up strangled at a tourist site. There’s a dislocating bit of character introduction whereby the corpse is found by Juliet (Gayle Hunnicutt) and Tim manages to get engaged to her in missing scenes about the time of the funeral – watching the first reel again, it’s ambiguous as to when they actually meet or whether they have a pre-existing relationship – but is more interested in a card (from an organisation called ‘the Stepping Stones’) left with a floral tribute but snatched away by a sinister hotel manager (Adolfo Celi). Back in Britain, in a credibly seedy London writer’s flat (all bundles of books), Tim can’t help digging further, looking up his aunt’s odd friends (Roland Culver, Mona Washbourne, Wilfrid Hyde-White). In a train compartment, Tim is talked to by ‘a pathetic old dyke with a face like a bun’ (Mary Wimbush) who gives him a note he thinks is a religious tract but which, when he opens it at home, turns out to be a warning written on his own paper by his own typewriter. A deferential sergeant (Derek Newark) shows up and he tries to complain about the implied home invasion only to be told ‘Bunface’ has accused him of trying to molest her on the train.
Of course, everything Tim says or does makes him seem crazier (or, likely, back on the smack) as polite, concerned, sceptical, faintly sinister official or well-connected people make it plain that they think he’s a loon. Sceptical coppers Glyn Houston and Philip Stone quiz Tim, who keeps referring to the statement he gave the sergeant who – of course – they’ve never heard of. Mystery threatening phone calls come through, it develops that the dead aunt’s husband was killed by a burglar and her whole criminal reform business is a vindictive blackmail ring, and even Juliet wonders whether he’s insane again. Shadowy, bluff espionage types out of LeCarré (Arthur Lowe, Daniel Massey) are involved, a hippie druggie ex-associate (young Kenneth Cranham) lurches about and shows up at the worst times (in church for the wedding) and Hemmings gives a remarkable display of descent into sweaty paranoia as Johnny Harris’s jazzy, flutey score strikes shrill notes and Oswald Morris’s cinematography cranks up the weird. It skips the track at the wedding and doesn’t bother to give all the mystery answers as it homes in on the protagonist’s complete disintegration via one of those mixed-up, everyone-who-is-in-on-it-shows-up-again montages popular since Dead of Night. With Petra Markham and Georgina Moon as giggly schoolgirls and Yootha Joyce as a grim matron. Hemmings is the worthy star turn, but it offers a wealth of wonderfully tweedy, eccentric British character support: note how taken Hemmings is with old pro Roland Culver in their chat together, and how he lets Mary Wimbush (as a Killing of Sister George-style desperate lesbian) get a standout bit in the unsettling strangers-on-a-train scene.