Films by Sergio Martino

Italian director Sergio Martino worked in a wide variety of film genres, starting with Mondo-type documentaries in the late 1960s, followed by the obligatory Western, before moving on to giallo, for which he is best known, and later, poliziottesco. The 1960s-70s were an ebullient time for the Italian film industry, which rapidly moved from one genre cycle to another, as filmmakers tried to cash in on the latest commercial successes. Although there had been earlier gialli, notably from Mario Bava, it was the popularity of Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that triggered the wave of psycho-sexual crime thrillers that dominated the first part of the 1970s.

Martino’s first giallo, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971), starred the voluptuous Edwige Fenech as the wife of a diplomat tormented by memories of her sado-masochistic relationship with her former lover, played by the alarmingly angular Ivan Rassimov. The plot, co-penned by Ernesto Gastaldi, a prolific writer behind many of the period’s great films, combines elements of Clouzot’s Les diaboliques and Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train with the black-gloved serial killer typical of giallo. Brimming with style, sensuality and visual invention, the film sets its compelling study of a woman’s conflicted desires among geometrically patterned flats and creepy crumbling mansions. Memorable scenes include the perversely poetic sequence where Rassimov showers Fenech with broken glass before making love to her, crushing crystal shards between their naked bodies; or the otherworldly murder scene in the misty, deserted Schönnbrunn park. A European co-production like many contemporary genre films, it was shot in Vienna and Sitges, and Martino effectively uses the contrast between the melancholy elegance of the Austrian capital and the sun-saturated Spanish seaside. The full sensory experience of giallo is completed by composer Nora Orlandi’s yearning melodies and dynamic grooves.

After the Greece-set insurance-scam murder mystery The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), All the Colours of the Dark (1972) moved to London, with Fenech playing a woman beset by nightmares, medicated by her boyfriend (George Hilton) and terrorised by Rassimov’s intense stalker. Here, the Diaboliques influence (which runs through various Gastaldi scripts) is combined with a Rosemary’s Baby-inspired Satanic cult plot to produce one of the most adventurous and hallucinatory gialli, its phantasmagorical atmosphere heightened by Bruno Nicolai’s psychedelic soundtrack. Opening with a grotesque nightmare sequence and featuring a freaky occult ritual, All the Colours of the Dark feels like a kaleidoscopic mindscape, the internal portrayal of a woman frightened out of her wits by repressed secrets and the stifling legacy of the past.

Martino’s next giallo, Your Vice Is a Locked Room, and Only I Have the Key (1972), drew its title from a sentence in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, and reunited the same team for more marital dysfunction and twisted psycho-sexual games. Torso (1973), produced by Carlo Ponti, rather than Sergio’s brother Luciano Martino, was a departure from the first four gialli the brothers had made together. Set in the beautiful historical town of Perugia, it is a sleazier, simpler serial killer thriller that prefigures the slasher movie. Where Martino’s earlier work had revolved around troubled female psyches, Torso is the more straightforward tale of a murderer who punishes young, sexually free, female students for the childhood tragedy that left him traumatised. The sexualised violence is much more exploitative, without the rich ambiguities of Martino’s previous gialli, but the direction is sharply honed and brutally effective, and the film features an eerie murder scene in a spectral birch forest.

After Torso, Martino turned to comedies and poliziotteschi, the latter a genre that was gaining in popularity following the success of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry and Stefano Vanzina’s Execution Squad (1972). Emerging at a time when Italy was shaken up by chaotic violence, these police thrillers reflected the widespread distrust in the authorities and the perception of the whole power structure as corrupt. Typical of the genre, Martino’s The Violent Professionals (1973) and Silent Action (1975) focused on an uncompromising lone cop at odds with the crooked system that employs him. In The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975), Martino and Gastaldi combined giallo and poliziottesco, and added incongruous touches of comedy. The charismatic Claudio Cassinelli is the unorthodox inspector who investigates a series of murders connected to a teenage prostitution ring and exposes the powerful figures behind it. A dynamic and spirited thriller despite the strange mix of tones, it culminates in a dramatic showdown in a tunnel through the Alps, but cannot conjure up the potent charge of Martino’s best gialli.

Disc: The three Shameless BDs look great and feature insightful interviews with Sergio Martino. Arrow’s 2K restoration of The Suspicious Death of a Minor includes an audio commentary by giallo expert Troy Howarth.

Review published in Sight & Sound, Vol. 27, no. 12 (December 2017).

Picture credit: All the Colours of the Dark (Dir. Sergio Martino, 1972).

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