Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Fifth Cord: Sharp-Looking Italian Thriller

The Fifth Cord
Blue Underground // 1971 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
This sharp-looking Giallo delivers plenty of sex and violence in a serpentine story that’s convoluted beyond belief.

An alcoholic journalist (Franco Nero, Street Law, Die Hard 2) finds himself on the trail of a murderer when the police make him a suspect in their investigation. This Giallo (Italian thriller) serves a smorgasbord of cinematic style, sex, and outrĂ© violence — all hallmarks of the genre. There are enough plot threads for two movies and the story makes little sense, but the film is so beautifully photographed that I didn’t care.

A Bit of Plot

Iconoclastic newspaper reporter Andrea Bild (Nero) attends a New Year’s Eve party and makes small talk with his neglected mistress. In the coming days, Bild’s editor assigns him to cover a series of grisly murders throughout the city. The reporter soon discovers all the victims are socialites who attended the same New Year’s Eve party. More disturbing, Bild realizes the killer is framing him for the crimes — and the police are beginning to wonder if Bild himself might be responsible. The maniac leaves a lone clue at the scene of each murder: a single black glove with one of the fingers cut off.

Historical Context and Significance
Directed by Luigi Bazzoni, The Fifth Cord (Giornata Nera per L’ariete, aka The Black Day of Aries, Evil Fingers) is the best-looking Giallo I’ve seen. While the plot may unravel like a reel of film tossed to the floor, and the violence isn’t quite on par with the craziness on display in other period Gialli (such as The Black Belly of the Tarantula), this is still gorgeous filmmaking. Credit for that goes to legendary, three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now). A brilliant visualist, Storaro also framed one of the earliest Giallo films, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Bazzoni directed a mere handful of films, of which The Fifth Cord is the only available title at this writing. Whatever skill Bazzoni bought to the table, his main contribution was assembling a terrific crew. This is Storaro’s show all the way. His work here is easily the film’s selling point; truly, Storaro’s artistry with film and camera transcends the tawdry material. His compositions are by turns ultra formal and symmetrical, then Storaro will pitch a change-up and shoot from some odd angle that complements the surroundings (like a diagonal shot of someone descending an escalator or stairs). Storaro stages brilliant lighting effects and, even at this early stage in his career, shows a superb facility for camera placement, silhouette shots, tracking shots, subjective angles from the killer’s point of view, and unusual lens choices to create cool shots just for the hell of it—like the image of one character reflected off the sunglasses worn by another. For a crash-course in effective cinematography, this picture is a must-see.

The story is gibberish and will likely frustrate anyone who tries to sort it out. But the nudity is plentiful and occasionally even erotic, and the murders are staged for maximum suspense, especially a sequence featuring a crippled woman who must leave her bed to escape the killer. She hits the floor and pulls herself along painfully by her hands, straining to reach a wheelchair. Shooting at floor level, Storaro’s camera captures her anguish full-on. It is an intense moment in a film tightly coiled with suspense. The climax is a real nail-biter as Nero takes on the killer and his straight razor to save an endangered child. Nero does most of his own stunts and proves himself quite the bad-ass. A perfunctory ending is disappointing, since motivations no one could possibly have known are summarized in a tidy bit of voice-over. Then fade to black. My final impression was, “huh?”

The Fifth Cord also features a prototypical, early-1970s guitar and bass score, with dissonant piano by famous film composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). No Giallo would be complete without fuzztone guitars and a heavy, seductive bass line.

What’ s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Blue Underground delivers a sharp, anamorphically enhanced transfer in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.77:1. Colors are rich and vibrant—a byproduct of Storaro’s keen eye, no doubt—although images are occasionally marred by pixelation, smearing, and obvious edge enhancement. On the plus side, The Fifth Cord is presented uncut for the first time in a U.S. DVD release (apparently, an older Japanese issue left much to be desired). The mono audio sounds clean, although some characters are dubbed into English. Nero speaks in his own voice, but in some scenes it appears that his halting English was looped in post-production, which is just as distracting as if he had been dubbed. Blue Underground would do fans a great service by presenting these films with the original Italian audio tracks and optional subtitles—features that are available on only a select few titles in their catalog.

Supplements are limited to a 16:9 enhanced international trailer, which is intriguingly weird and runs unusually long, plus a 16-minute featurette of separate interviews with Nero and Storaro. Their recollections are interesting, but brief.

The Contrarian View
Giallo films emphasize style over substance, and shock effects over coherent storytelling. The Fifth Cord is no exception. Better to ignore all the false leads and red herrings that substitute for cleverness and just marvel at the imagery, instead. There’s also a fair amount of nudity and violence directed toward women, so this probably shouldn’t be the first title you pluck off the shelf for date night.

A must for Giallo fans. Looking beyond the so-so acting and headache-inducing plot, this not-bad unrated thriller is worth a spin just for the cinematography. The result is trashy cinema, to be sure, but trash polished to a high luster.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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