An early giallo, directed competently by the little-regarded Vittorio Sindoni, this typically twisted whodunit uses a couple of Agatha Christie tics in its solution, involving a thought-dead character who is still alive and lurking, and the reveal that two characters who seemingly don’t even know each are secret collaborators in a murder spree. Evoking the world of Clouzot but also of those Hammer psycho-thrillers with rural French settings, this takes place in a small French town – mostly around a railway line, where a train is used as an unusual murder weapon (there may be trace elements of La Bete Humaine in here too).
An old track worker whose hearing aid malfunctions is run down by an express he can’t hear coming, and turns out to leave a substantial fortune to his three contrasting daughters – haughty loner Simone (Femi Benussi), married-to-a-thug Colette (Valeria Ciangotti) and blonde naif Rosalie (Giovanna Lenzi/Jeanette Len) – which they can only carve up in three years time when Janot (Ernesto Colli), the shambling halfit the old man adopted, turns twenty-one. Colette’s club-owner lover Jules (Isarco Ravaioli) needs cash to pay his grasping wife (Alessandra Moravia, who gets too little to do) for a divorce, and Simone’s husband Leon (Ivo Garrani) is in debt and can’t wait to settle. When Janot is ground up on the track, the local commissioner (Virgilio Gazzolo) calls in hardboiled cop Gerard (top-billed Tom Drake) to investigate and there’s a rash of deaths among the suspects as a subjective camera creeps up to them, they flash alarmed recognition, and later turn up dead … including one victim swatted with a golf club and another suffocated with a plastic bag in the shower. A great deal of time is spent on a chase across picturesque local fields and waterways as a red herring does his level best to get all the crimes pinned on him, but it gets satisfyingly complicated in the home stretch as all the explanations are trotted out and the villains shown up for the horrible people they are (one has previously decapitated a whole coop full of chickens owned by some nuns) before they get their just desserts.
Mario Bava had already laid down the rules and Dario Argento was about to make his debut – Sindoni, who co-wrote with Romano Migliore (5 tombe per un medium, Operazione Paura, A doppia faccia) and Aldo Bruno, isn’t completely au fait with the style and underdirects the stalking set-pieces while indulging in perverse touches (Janot peeps at Simone in a long peek-a-poo shower) that are never more than trimmings. It has a few other oddities – familiar bit-part creep Colli (‘possessed man’ in L’Antecristo) was 28 at the time and looks older, but the plot depends on his character being eighteen, and the gendarme extras look weirdly uncomfortable with their ill-fitting uniforms,white belts, truncheons and sub-machine guns. Drake, whose Hollywood career extended from Meet Me in St Louis to The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe, just shuffles through his tough flic role, very strangely cast since there were any number of name Franco-Italians who could have carried this – though some skimpy set-ups suggest a penny-pinched budget. It does have a decent giallo score by Stefano Torossi, with the requisite warbling ululations for the menace and murder scenes and some psychedelic freak-outery for a visit to Jules’ disco. Also known as L’assassino ha le mani pulite (The Killer Has Clean Hands).