When I wrote about Tinto’s Brass’ Deadly Sweet (1966) previously for this season, I mentioned at the beginning of that particular article that I had something of a penchant for early giallo films; specifically the ones that were made before the genre became firmly established, when everything was still a bit restrained but was very fashion conscious and super sexy nevertheless. If there’s one film that sums up the uber-cool vibe inherent in this period, and one that I would pick out as a personal favourite, it’s this: Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet… So Perverse (1969).
Technically the word giallo just means “yellow” in Italian. These films were named in honour of a series of popular pulp thriller and mystery novels published from the late twenties onwards by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, which went out under the series header Il Giallo Mondadori. Amongst the collection were Italian translations of novels by Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Cornell Woolrich. And although the film genre kept certain formula from the Mondadori literary predecessor, it’s the series’ covers — yellow, with very lurid artwork — that share the biggest cosmic link to the later cycle of inspired cinema. This story has been told ad nauseam in relation to the genre, and I really wish I didn’t have to repeat it again, but I think it is important to highlight that in light of this, the giallo doesn’t necessarily have to feature black gloved killers or formulaic murder as some believe. The title really just refers to a pulp aesthetic and mystery element more than anything else.
This brings me nicely to Lenzi’s film, which is considered by some as somewhat slow due to the lack of graphic violence when it’s compared to the gialli made post Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), after censorship started to break down and everything got a bit more nasty. For So Sweet…So Perverse there’s no killer in gloves; no heads being torn apart by broken windows; no stabbing blades into vital organs; no blood. And there’s relatively little in the way of stalking or spying POV shots. What you find instead is a taught little piece of thriller-cum-psychosexual melodrama, with a beautiful cast, sublime interiors, and that all important element of mystery. Sadly, I don’t think the film gets enough credit because of its supposed lack of action. But for me, the languid pacing is exactly what I love about it. Sometimes less really can be more, if you allow yourself to just soak it up and enjoy the show, which really is the case with So Sweet…So Perverse if you go into it with an open mind.
Jean Reynaud (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who was also in the aforementioned Deadly Sweet) is a busy man. He isn’t getting much action from his neurotic wife Danielle (Erika Blanc), so is busy having an affair with Helena (Helga Liné), until his attention strays towards his pretty but frail neighbour Nicole (Carroll Baker), who is apparently being abused by her boyfriend. Jean soon changes from white knight to illicit lover, when he embarks on a passionate affair with Nicole. He is a wealthy man, an industrialist, but Nicole appears to be looking for a little bit of TLC rather than money. Of course, as with all things giallo, nothing is as it seems. What unravels next involves a wicked web of coercion, manipulation, double crossing, and deceit, all of which spells out deadly consequences for at least two of the people involved.
The fact So Sweet… So Perverse is derivative of Diabolique (1955) has been well documented, so I don’t really want to tread over old ground. What interests me even more is the film’s connection to Gothic melodrama, which is something that really demands a little more exploration. Essentially, Clouzot’s aforementioned film also riffs on this classic genre too — inheritance plots, gaslighting etc — but what it lacks, given the austerity of its main settings, is the aspect of grand eloquence and opulence, which is found literally dripping from every frame of the Gothic melodrama. So Sweet… So Perverse, on the other hand, just like the aforementioned classic period of film, carries this in spades. It just swaps out sweeping mansions and period costumes in favour of a slick sixties fashion aesthetic. But the rest of it is there: intimate casts, red herrings and trickery, beautiful interior design, and bags and bags of financial wealth on show. Of course, being more of a contemporary updating So Sweet…So Perverse also provides sex and nudity, which was left firmly in the imagination for films like Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1944), or My Cousin Rachel (1952), but other than that, in terms of pure formula at least, there’s a lot of parallels to be found between the two genres. In fact, there’s an entire discussion to be had over how Gothic fiction — especially the romances of Anne Radcliffe — started that whole red herring, inheritance scams, Scooby Doo mystery thing you find in early giallo films, but that would be going on far too much of a tangent. Let’s just say, if you are a fan of those twisty turny plots, and a bit of trickery here and there, this is likely to be a good film for you.
The film comes loaded with other cool elements too. Take Riz Ortolani’s score for example, with the unforgettable sweeping opening pop ballad Why? The cars, the cosmopolitan living, the brewing undertone of sadism, the queer sexuality, the fact the cast is made up of A-list Eurocult names. Not to mention the fact that So Sweet… So Perverse also had a direct impact on the later giallo films of Sergio Martino (both Martino brothers, Sergio and Luciano serve on the production end of Lenzi’s film). While the scriptwriter was none other than Ernesto Gastaldi, one of the hardest working writers in Italian cult film during the sixties and seventies. The film is practically genre royalty based on its associated cast and crew alone.
It’s frustrating when I hear Lenzi referred to as a hack, or as one commentator put it recently “not even a second tier director”, because this simply isn’t true. I think So Sweet… So Perverse is testament to the fact he was anything but (and on that note I love all the other Lenzi gialli) This film in particular certainly deserves all the love, and more. So why not go and give it some, right now, today. You can also read what Samm Deighan had to say in an earlier piece exploring Lenzi’s gialli here, if you fancy a bit more for afters.