THE FIFTH CORD (1971)
An alcoholic journalist finds himself on the trail of a murderer after the police make him a suspect in their investigation.
Franco Nero had already earned his cult status as an actor. He played Django in Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Western, the prime inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012)—in which he also cameoed. Nero had already ventured into giallo territory as the star of Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), a mystery thriller with supernatural undertones. In Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord, he demonstrates a considerable range and is prepared to be unlikable, even despicable at times, as his drunkard character wrestles with outdated masculinity that wins him little sympathy.
We watch Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) crumbling before our eyes as he struggles to prove his worth as a newspaper reporter by solving a puzzling case ahead of the seasoned Police Inspector (Wolfgang Preiss). He’s consumed by his obsession whilst his relationships—with his young girlfriend Lu (Pamela Tiffin) and his ex Helene (Silvia Monti)—fall apart around him. There’s one particular shot, without dialogue, when we view him through the reflections on a window pane as his face moves through all manner of tortured expressions. He sure knows how to use those blue eyes!
The original Italian title is Giornata Nera per l’Ariete, which translates as “a black day for Aries”, and means not an auspicious day for those born under the astrological sign of Aries. Now that makes sense when you’ve seen the film, but I was puzzled by the English title. The plot has a central motif of a glove with fingers being cut off to signify each kill, so the fifth and final finger would be significant, but I’m unaware of a specific link between a glove and the word ‘cord’—maybe it could refer to the decorative ridge stitched along the back of each digit? I wasn’t convinced, but I came across an archaic definition of the word ‘cord’ as “a moral, spiritual, or emotional bond”—and in retrospect, that seems to make perfect sense!
The story’s as much about Andrea’s inner turmoil, in a rapidly changing society, as it is about the detective thread of the plot. There are brief moments when it toys with becoming a family drama as he revisits people and places from his past. In this way, the film’s quite similar to Bazzoni’s debut six years earlier, The Possessed (1965), which also sought to bring out the inner life of the characters and is often referred to as a proto-giallo as it helped define ground rules for the genre. Both films are at the arthouse end of that spectrum but, whereas The Possessed is hardly recognisable as a giallo, there’s no doubt about The Fifth Cord.
The giallo had only just been consolidated as a definable sub-genre with Dario Argento’s debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), which though it initially struggled to gain proper distribution suddenly became box office gold on its re-release after success in the US. Distributors realised there was a market for these pulpy modern thrillers and, hungry for increased export sales, actively encouraged production companies to make more and more as rapidly as they could.
The Italian film industry of the late 1960s and early-‘70s was an unstoppable machine that churned out so many films so quickly that lucrative genres were quickly exhausted. The peplum had dominated the early 1960s, but audiences were tiring of those epic ‘sword and sandal’ period dramas and seeking new thrills. Lucky for them, a new wave of young cinéastes was taking the industry by storm with inventive fusions of older genres given a distinctively Euro twist.
The Spaghetti Western exploded across international screens with Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964) and was followed by a host of innovators and imitators—including Duccio Tessari’s excellent A Pistol for Ringo (1965) and, of course, Sergio Corbucci’s aforementioned Django (1966). Directors like Romolo Guerrieri looked to the German krimi films, and so the gritty Poliziotteschi crime thrillers were born; an early example being Un Detective (1969) also starring Franco Nero, with the fiery Florinda Bolkan. Gothic horror films in the Hammer style, but with an increasingly sadistic edge, were attracting attention with classics like Black Sunday/La Maschera del Demonio (1960) from Mario Bava, who then fused horror with the crime thriller in Blood and Black Lace (1964)—considered by most to be the first true giallo. The genre then boomed in the early-‘70s but was already fizzling out by 1975.
So, when taken in context, The Fifth Cord, which may appear decidedly derivative today, was one of the movies responsible for defining the genre and it remains a high-end example of the giallo. It does follow a similar recipe as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and even looks similar at times. That’s no surprise, as Luigi Bazzoni had called upon his good friend (and cousin) Vittorio Storaro as director of photography, who’d also been Dario Argento’s cinematographer of choice for Plumage. There are notable parallels with his work for Argento a year earlier, particularly in the treatment of location—the interior and exterior architecture.
Here, he uses the first-person point-of-view extensively to let us see through the eyes of the killer, a clever device to put us in the place of the villain rather than the hero, whilst concealing their identity. This is a technique Argento would also employ prominently for The Cat o’Nine Tails (1971). Vittorio Storaro would work on all of Luigi Bazzoni’s subsequent productions, including another intriguing giallo-esque mystery Footprints on the Moon (1975) and the hugely ambitious five-part documentary series Roma Imago Urbis (1992-95) charting the history of Rome.
The Fifth Cord opens with a long tracking shot as we enter a cheesy nightclub seen through a madly distorted fish-eye lens. A slurred and sinister voiceover tells us “I am not a murderer. Not yet… my motive is rational, compatible with the magnificence of my purpose…”, and the voice goes on to justify murderous intent, assuring us that death “could only be a liberation” for the chosen victims and admitting that “I’m a man or a woman…” There are people who return our gaze, a bar, red velvet curtains… y’know, if you’ve seen The Prodigy’s video for “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997) you’ll agree that this must’ve been the inspiration for it. Along with that reference in the opening narration to the killer being either a man or a woman…
Luigi Bazzoni co-wrote the script with Mario Fanelli and Mario di Nardo and they structured the story as a kind of Agatha Christie-style whodunnit in reverse. At the outset, during a nightclub’s New Year’s Eve party in full swing, we see all the major players in one room. The victims and the killer are assembled along with the person who’ll eventually crack the case and identify those responsible. It’s not quite that straightforward because, as with most good gialli, there’s more than one character involved with something criminal that they want to hide. So, expect a few slippery red herrings (or perhaps yellow haddocks—that’s ‘eglefini gialli‘ in Italian) along the way. There’s deviant sexuality, underage prostitution, blue movies, queer teachers, blackmail, drugs and dodgy doctors… all the standard fare!
As with The Possessed, the story is based on a novel, which is uncommon for gialli. This time it’s a book by David Mcdonald Devine, a successful crime writer who penned 13 novels published over two decades from 1961 to 1981. His novel The Fifth Cord came out in 1967, just a few years before the movie, and was set in rural Scotland. Clearly, Bazzoni has reinterpreted the original story and, instead of a working-class Scottish setting, here we get a modern urban backdrop populated mainly with the corrupt elite and nouveau riche who, to a varying extent, are seen to exploit and prey upon the vulnerable poor. Of course, all the characters have been rearranged and name-changed but, apparently, the core narrative and structure of the book survived.
Corrupt, depraved rich folk are a staple in gialli and poliziotteschi, often serving as a thinly veiled critique of a detached ruling class and uncaring government. As I noted in my review of The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975), the exploitation of youth by the older generation is a recurring metaphor for the exploitation of the weak by the strong in a broader context: the rich and powerful preying on the poor and vulnerable. Villains are often portrayed as wealthy degenerates that consider themselves to be above the law.
Not all so-called gialli have a political subtext or any depth of meaning. The majority were simply made-to-order sensationalist movies with low budgets and lower production values, rushed through to cash-in on a genre while it’s still hot. I don’t really think of those in the same context and for me, a good giallo is marked aside from the lesser exploitation films of the period by a few essential factors. These include a clever plot that presents an intellectual puzzle and becomes a kind of inventive narrative game. I expect a visual style that is more audacious than it needs to be, surprising cinematography and clever editing—usually involving a few tightly planned and executed set-pieces. The deliberate use of visual language should explore an interesting subtext and give extra layers. Often the soundtrack is essential in creating the right mood. And I’m also expecting stylish, liberated women and moody (probably moustachioed) men in dodgy checked jackets or mustard brown suits, great modern interiors, classy cars, prominent art and design that capture the trends of the time… Oh! And a maniac—there’s got to be a maniac!
Now, The Fifth Cord ticks all the boxes in those departments! It goes without saying that Storaro’s cinematography is solid. Though it’s fairly restrained and remains naturalistic for the most part, he does use the extremely wide ‘mad-lens’ a couple of times to good effect. What stands out the most about how the film’s photographed is the obvious consideration given to the framing. The characters often seem enclosed or trapped in their environments, with Venetian blinds (ubiquitous in the 1970s) used like horizontal prison bars. Locked doors and security shutters are used to isolate and imprison as much as they protect.
There are a few clever set-pieces. The first involves a hidden assailant stalking the disabled Sofia Bini (Rossella Falk) and is probably the most ‘conventional’ giallo-esque sequence in the film. Her home is all dark wood panelling and heavily framed paintings, with real fires flickering in magnificent fireplaces. It’s the kind of Gothic interior one might expect to see in a Bava movie. There are plenty of shadows for the killer to lurk in. Sofia panics and fails in her attempt to get into her wheelchair which rolls away beyond a dark doorway. There’s an intense mood of menace as we hear tiny movements from the shadowed recesses but see nobody as Sofia tortuously drags herself along the floor. It reads like a traditional horror scenario, but with the level of sadistic cruelty that Argento always strives for.
That Gothic set-piece is bookended in the third act when, instead of a vulnerable woman, it’s a young boy who’s being stalked in another house. This time it looks like something from the TV series The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes: all bare concrete, huge windows, open staircases, a fire in the middle of the room with a suspended canopy, and big expanses of empty floor. Not Gothic in the slightest. This time, it’s the lack of dark recesses that create the sense of dread. The victim is exposed with nowhere to hide from this intruder-with-intent.
The use of these two contrasting interiors, both sparingly lit to create a menacing mood, also gives a clue to an underlying thematic thread that binds the film from start to finish. As the 1960s segued into the ‘70s, there was massive social and cultural upheaval as traditional gave way to the modern. It was a boom time when the working class had more opportunities than ever. Jobs were easy to come by, so employers had to look after their employees. There were enough jobs to go around, so young women had more chance of landing a proper job and having their own means of support. International travel was becoming affordable and aspirational lifestyles began to appear attainable.
The sexual revolution of the ‘60s had polarised gender. Women had more freedom and many macho men overcompensated by becoming openly chauvinistic. The mainstream media reflected those attitudes and, usually, gialli challenged them by exposing the corruption in so-called respectable society. Young women were depicted as sexy, stylish, liberated, independent. In The Fifth Cord, Helene (Silvia Monti) has become self-sufficient and has clearly moved on from a past relationship with Bild.
Bild, like many men of the day, is troubled by this transition from traditional patriarchal values to a more egalitarian society. Franco Nero is well cast as he brought with him the image of the cowboy, an established symbol of changing times and a disappearing way of life. Andrea is insecure in the extreme but too manly to admit it. He self-medicates with drink and strikes out at anyone who has an inkling of his inner pain.
The editing is in the hands of Eugenio Alabiso so, of course, it’s more than competent! He’d worked with Leone on For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). He’d already cut a few gialli including Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), as well as Sergio Martini’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971) and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971). There would be plenty more key gialli among the 170 films he worked on in a career spanning five decades.
The soundtrack is also in the hands of giallo ‘royalty’ with music by Ennio Morricone, a prolific composer of beautiful and quirky soundtracks. Here he seduces us with some soft lounge jazz and also falls back on the tinkly nursery rhyme style with incongruously dreamy vocalisation that became a signature of Dario Argento’s flashback sequences.
There’s even that nice twist on the black-gloved killer trope! The villain is satisfied to wear latex gloves to hide their fingerprints but leaves a black leather glove at the scene of each murder. At the first, botched attempt, the glove is intact. Then a similar glove is found near each body, with a finger cut from it as a sort of count down to the fifth and final victim. Considering that it’s quite an early example of the genre, it’s precociously self-conscious of the codes!
So there’s no denying it’s a classic giallo. However, having recently reviewed Bazzoni’s debut, The Possessed, I now feel that while The Fifth Cord is stronger in many ways, the former is the better film. Though it was his debut, it’s just as assured, yet more experimental with a very interesting use of cinematography, a central character with more emotional depth and a mood that makes for absorbing viewing that will leave a lasting impression.
Don’t get me wrong, The Fifth Cord is an important piece of Italian pulp cinema and a must-see for hardcore fans of the giallo. But. For me, it lacked the pizazz I was hoping for. Most of the characters are hard to identify with and I didn’t get emotionally attached. Nero’s alcoholic journalist, though it’s a great performance, may well appeal to some macho types but is perhaps too flawed? Peter Baldwin’s possessed novelist is more sympathetic and sophisticated.
Also, there’re just too many characters (all well-played) in The Fifth Cord! I had to make notes to keep track of them all! It’s cluttered with irrelevant subplots that create a good sleazy mood but are only really there to obfuscate threads that would lead to the killer. Andrea Bild can’t reveal the real culprit until the finale but must do so before the viewer works it out… otherwise, we’d simply lose interest. So, a lot of the time, we’re just being slapped about with those herrings or haddocks!
It’s great to able to finally compare two of Bazzoni’s formative gialli now they have both been restored by the wonderful Arrow Films! Just like their beautiful 2K restoration of The Possessed, The Fifth Cord has been meticulously remastered from the original camera negative to be celebrated in this HD Blu-ray edition packed with the extras we’ve come to expect, this time including an intriguing deleted scene—a poignant montage that shows the key characters at happier times. No one knows where the sequence would have sat in the overall film, but it works well in isolation, perhaps approached as an epilogue. It becomes a bubble of time forever adrift in the sunshine, never to be sullied with all the death and depravity those characters may otherwise be touched by. Quite beautiful…
director: Luigi Bazzoni.
writers: Mario di Nardo, Mario Fanelli & Luigi Bazzoni (based on the novel by David McDonald Devine).
starring: Franco Nero, Silvia Monti, Rossella Falk, Edmund Purdom, Maurizio Bonuglia & Pamela Tiffin.