When it comes to the giallo one period I have a real passion for is that little pocket of pre-seventies Italian thrillers, which were experimenting with pulp formula right before the genre took on any real sense of convention. When Bava made Blood and Black Lace (1964) Italian horror was still in the midst of a hugely popular Gothic cycle, so it took a while for other filmmakers to catch on to the gauntlet he had thrown down. By the end of the sixties Gothic was considered a bit old hat — as much as I love Italian Gothic, and I really really do love Italian Gothic, there’s only so many tales you can tell in a cobwebbed old castle. So, filmmakers started looking further afield, with some, like Tinto Brass, taking inspiration from Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), combined with a little sprinkling of the lurid Italian fumetti comics. Voila! A hip new, typically Italian, and oh-so-sixties, cool thriller was born. The giallo had begun in earnest.
I adore the gialli of this era. The amazing sixties fashion, the cars, the lush apartments, the continental locations, the melodramatic plots, which were less about black gloves and more about blackmail and seedy sexual liaisons. And, of course the music.
One film that epitomises the excitement and style of the period is Tinto Brass’ Deadly Sweet (1967).
If I had a penny for every time I have had to endure someone scoffing at the films of Tinto Brass, I wouldn’t be a millionaire, admittedly, but let’s just say I would have a lot of pennies. It is a stance that irritates me no end, because this assumption that Brass was a hack appears to pivot around the fact he made Caligula (1979), and then some “smutty” films. And it is exactly this kind of ignorance that has marred Brass’ reputation and career. It’s a well known fact by now that the hardcore inserts in Caligula were put there by producer Bob Guccione, and that they had very little to do with Brass. The film — ignoring these parts because they don’t fit tonally — is a bonafide decadent masterpiece in terms of style and substance. But ever since then, Brass’ career appears to have a huge big split down the middle — before and after Caligula — with people writing off the former, because of what they perceive the latter to be about.
I refuse to make this distinction. Even Brass’ so called smut films are gorgeous. I don’t think he ever lost it. He just committed that cardinal sin of showing a lot of artistic promise early on in his career, before pissing off critics by going into what they deem lowbrow territory — Walerian Borowczyk suffered the same fate; as did Miklós Jancsó.
One of my favourite Brass films is his delightful take on John Cleland’s erotical novel Fanny Hill, Paprika (1991), starring none other than the ex Mrs Klaus Kinski, Debora Caprioglio, which has so much unrestrained powerful female sexuality it actually becomes life affirming. And even up until the millennium, with films like Frivolous Lola (1998), Brass was making beautiful art fuelled erotica. For all those who use the fact the director loved photographing women’s asses as a reason to dismiss his films, the only question I have for you guys is have you never seen a classical nude painting for crying out loud? Seriously, believe me when I say, Brass is an artist.
If you don’t believe me then you don’t have to take my word for it. Go and watch Deadly Sweet instead. Set on the backdrop of Swinging London — using real locations that really capture the time and place — and packed with painfully beautiful people like the lead stars Ewa Aulin and Jean-Louis Trintignant, the film is an exercise in what it means to be truly cool. The film was storyboarded by none other than Italian comic book master Guido Crepax (the artist behind fumetti like Valentina, from which Baba Yaga, 1973, was drawn) and as a result it keeps the look and feel of a pulp comic sprung to life. As Trintignant’s character, Bernard, tries to keep the strange and mysterious girl he runs into — while she is standing over a dead body in a nightclub office — Jane (Aulin), from being wrongly accused of the murder, and safe from a band of mercenary crooks who appear to be pursuing them, the action runs at a furious pace. There is never a dull moment to be found.
Whilst keeping his foot on the pedal, Brass allows Deadly Sweet to ride entirely free into avant garde territory in his loose adaptation of Sergio Donati’s novel Il sepolcro di carta — the director’s preferred style of the period, and one that’s also evident in his early films like Il Disco Volante, The Howl, Nerosubianco, to name but a few. To achieve this, Brass emulates Crepax’s comic book style during key moments, thus breaking from realism, such as having a fist fight between Bernard and a gang of crooks staged like an episode of the sixties Batman series — just far less camp. In addition to this, breaking the cliche romantic convention of the period, the director begins the all important love scene by combining sex with comedy in having Bernard play Tarzan swinging (quite literally, on a rope with his shirt off, bellowing the Tarzan chant) to claim his very own “Jane”, before the tone changes to something quite serious and truly erotic. Art, literal art, is another key feature in the film, with paintings and a high fashion aesthetic being an important part of some of the interior set design.
Oh yes, and there’s a scene where our hero gets his head inexplicably kicked in by a dwarf, who dives out of a car in a busy city street to attack him, and leaves again with no explanation.
And while this might all seem over the top and silly, it really isn’t when you see everything working in unison. Under the hand of Brass it becomes a sublime experience. The film isn’t without its darker, more cynical moments either and the ending, while poetic, is like a punch to the gut. Even though you might have seen the twist coming, it still hurts nevertheless.
Most importantly Deadly Sweet really encapsulates a sense of swinging London that so few other films do — much like the aforementioned Blow-Up — and for that reason alone the film has great cultural value.