Sunday, November 18, 2012

L'assassino… è al telefono (1972)

aka The Killer Is On The Phone

aka The Killer Is On The Telephone

Warning: spoilers are unavoidable in this case

When successful theatre actress Eleanor Loraine (Anne Heywood) arrives at the Bruges airport she accidentally meets a bald gentleman (Telly Savallas) whose mere appearance causes her to scream and faint. When Eleanor awakes, she has lost the memory of the last five years of her life. She neither remembers the supposedly accidental death of her boyfriend Peter five years earlier, nor the fact that she's married now, nor the reason for her sudden breakdown. Eleanor seems to have had a more minor case of amnesia after Peter's death, too, and clearly hasn't been in the best mental health despite professional success during the past few years, so her family and her acting partner Thomas Brown (Osvaldo Ruggieri) are rather slick and practiced in their attempts to help her come back to the present again, but Eleanor is understandably unwilling to trust anyone.

The only thing Eleanor is sure of is that she not only needs to remember the life she led in the past five years but finally has to remember the circumstances of Peter's death she repressed five years ago. This project would become all the more urgent for her if she knew what the audience knows - that the bald gentleman who caused all this is a professional killer, and that he is now stalking her, as if he'd feel the need to get rid of a witness to one of his murders…

Alberto De Martino's L'assassino (whose titular telephone habits aren't actually important to the movie's plot, by the way) is a giallo about confusion and uncertainty. Eleanor - as picture-perfectly played by Heywood - spends the largest part of the film utterly confounded by what is going on around her, unsure not only of the meaning and truth of her surroundings, but also of her own identity, trying to interpret herself and her life through what other people tell her and her fragmentarily returning memory. While the audience knows a bit more than Eleanor does, and can guess even more, that surplus knowledge is never concrete enough for us to feel superior and secure in that knowledge. We may be pretty sure that Telly Savalas's sneer is that of a killer, but we know as little as Eleanor does about how the world she tries to understand truly works.

One of the film's more ridiculous but effective moments comes when Eleanor confuses her real life with elements of a theatre role she was playing, an idea that is absolutely fantastic on a thematic level but becomes more problematic if one attempts to apply the rules of normal reality to it. Realistically, Eleanor should remember playing a femme fatale in a stage play, not being a femme fatale, even if one takes Eleanor as an intense lover of the Method.

It is, however, this feeling of irreality, of a lingering, dream-like confusion that makes it difficult to separate truth, dream, memory, and stage play from each other that is L'assassino's great strength. It's not about being realistic, but about sucking the audience into the same state of mind Eleanor - and sometimes, it seems, also the killer - is in. Here, the giallo is an engine of confusion and doubt that only works all the better because it leaves consensus reality behind.

De Martino's often stylish, sometimes melodramatic and sometimes surprisingly subtle direction furthers the project of turning the movie into something close to a dream. As photographed by Joe D'Amato in a very good mood, Bruges looks like the least real place on Earth, and therefore the perfect place for Heywood to look in turns confused and determined in while the Stelvio Cipriani score swoons rather hypnotically.

On the negative side, I could well have done without the evil lesbian explanation at the film's end, but then I'm not living in Italy in 1972. On the other hand (I think it's number three), this is a giallo where the heroine solves her problems under her own powers in the end, so L'assassino's politics aren't quite as conservative as one would fear. I'm not even sure that should come as much of a surprise in a film this devoted to letting its audience share the state of mind of said heroine.

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