In 1969 a legit, Italian-produced giallo that takes place in San Francisco graced the screen, and the product is as curious as the situation sounds. Before Lucio Fulci went on to become one of the most well known film directors with a penchant for gratuitous, sadistic violence whether it be in a gothic, thriller, or zombified form, he made One on Top of the Other, a confusing, sexy, sometimes romantic picture about an experimental physician who gets caught up in monetary schemes and vice. As the opening credits roll, we see a few California specials–The Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, The Bay Bridge, Alcatraz. Fulci and San Francisco seem like a fantastic combination, and to an extent it is, although sometimes the film does seem like it was made by a filmmaker on touristy holiday. A year after Steve McQueen sped through the city as renegade cop Bullitt, the classiest of Euro-trash actors like Jean Sorel arrived to exploit the sights and the vibes of The Bay.
One on Top of the Other also goes by the title Perversion Story, but I’ll refer to it as the former because there is not that much in it that is particularly perverse. The alternate title is a bit misleading. Sure there are some lingering sex scenes, prostitution, psychedelic strip clubs, random lesbian seduction, nude photography… but in a town like this, Fulci and friends are gonna have to try harder than that. Still, it is deservedly a must see of San Francisco cinema stories. It is worlds ahead of Russ Meyer’s stag sleaze Mondo Topless from 1966, but One on Top of the Other isn’t great enough to crack my triumvirate of of San Francisco films–Vertigo (1958), The Conversation (1974), and Kuffs (1992). That being said, the film is very much Fulci riffing on the tangled identity crises of Hitchcock’s earlier picture.
Vertigo is, of course, about Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), an aging detective turned private eye with a vertiginous fear of heights; he falls in love with Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) while he is assigned to follow her around San Francisco, only to be the cause of her death. Soon he meets Judy Barton, a young woman he is convinced is a reincarnation or perhaps the same exact person as Madeleine. One on Top of the Other is about George Dumerrier (Jean Sorel), a San Franciscan doctor who’s sickly wife Susan suddenly dies. Soon after, he meets Monica Weston (Marisa Mell), a frisky stripper with an uncanny likeness to his deceased wife. Is it spooky coincidence? A plot to frame George for murder in order to steal his inheritance? Something else entirely? One on Top of the Other pursues these questions in classic giallo fashion. One thing is for sure though, and it is that there’s nothing like a good doppelganger story in this town. Fulci certainly owes a debt to Hitchcock for this casual lifting of plot and place, although the story does evolve further into a decidedly different area.
One scene near the beginning works as a metaphor for how I feel about San Francisco. One morning, George and his lover–because clearly a man like Sorel in a giallo needs to have an additional mistress in addition to the wife he hates and the prostitute he is shacking up with–Jane (Elsa Martinelli) walk out to his car, looking fashionable, discussing business. Off in the distance we can see the stucco buildings of the city, the film’s title appropriately mirroring the way in which the severe hills stack residences like they are one atop another. Coit Tower and then further out Alcatraz are visible, and the whole scene is an indicator of the remarkable beauty found throughout the city. The views are endless, and it makes sense that an Italian director would feel at home in a place like this, as some of the architecture and landscape around the city resemble villages in Italy. Then there is a sudden cut to George and Jane cruising down the ridiculously curvy Lombard Street, as if it is some kind of glorified driveway. The breathtaking nature of San Francisco disappears immediately with the appearance of this gaudy tourist trap, but at the same time it makes sense that something this visually elaborate yet simultaneously superficial would be in a giallo. The beauty and the eyesores also pile one on top of one another, and it is quite incidental that Scottie Ferguson’s Vertigo apartment is just a couple blocks away.
One of the most memorable sequences in the film comes soon after when George and Jane find themselves in the Roaring Twenties strip club. It is amazing just how little the exteriors of North Beach vice establishments look exactly the same fifty years later, when so much else in the city has irrevocably altered. Marisa Mell–this time as Monica Weston–performs a strip tease atop an absurd, golden motorcycle, starting off with a loud, black and white cheetah print uniform. Soon enough the uniform is gone, psychedelic wet show projections flashing and distorting behind her. It all makes me think about who the hell even goes to the Roaring Twenties anymore, as 1969 is far closer to the peak fashionability of the establishment and the neighborhood in general.
For so long, I only knew Jean Sorel as the handsome and considerate husband to Catherine Deneuve’s fantastic Severine in Belle de Jour (1967). It wasn’t until I began going on giallo binges–as we clearly all should during gialloween season–that I realised Sorel made quite a career beyond the surrealist art film canon in a series of performances in lurid, insane European co-productions. He also appears in Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) in which he is caught up in the wild dream murders of Florinda Bolkan. After that he was the lead in Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls (1972), which has slowly ascended to the top of my list of favorite gialli. In that one, he flashes back and forward between stumbling through the capitalist occult groups of Prague and laying paralysed but alive in a morgue, trying to figure it all out. His performance in One on Top of the Other sometimes reminds me of his helpless position in Short Night of Glass Dolls, only he finds himself imprisoned in San Quentin, destined for the gas chamber (or not?) instead of on a cold slab, destined for the doctor’s examination table. Jean Sorel found himself in some bleak situations over the years.
As much as One on Top of the Other pretends to be about the satisfaction of base desires and sexual hijinks, it–like many gialli–is really as much about money and power. The best gialli are all about trying to figure out the most elaborate, weird, confusing-as-hell scenario in which to steal someone’s fortune and get away with it, although I can’t think of any where the villainous sociopaths who go about this actually succeed. Along the way femme fatales need to keep turning up, if of course the unhinged villain is not already a fatal woman. One on Top of the Other delivers, perhaps not as bountifully as some other classics of the genre, but while keeping it visually keen and narratively arresting. Incidentally, Mondo Macabro just re-released the film on a good looking blu ray, which some folks may want to add to their collections.