THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE (1977)

the pyjama case girl
In New South Wales, Australia, the burned body of a young woman is found on the beach, and a retired inspector makes inquiries...

This film made it onto my watchlist when it headlined the Shining Violence Season, showcasing half-a-dozen ‘important’ gialli at the 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival. It was billed there with two of the very best examples of giallo I can think of: Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and Tenebrae (1982). There was also Elio Petri’s psychological thriller with supernatural overtones, A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Lucio Fulci’s hard-hitting and tragic Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972), and Pupi Avati’s beautifully perverse The House of Laughing Windows (1976). I mean, what a line-up! I couldn’t make it over to Australia, though, and Flavio Mogherini’s The Pyjama Girl Case (1977) remained elusive and impossible to source a copy of viewable quality. My expectations were high, so imagine my dark delight when Arrow Video announced their 2K restoration of the film, from the original camera negative, set for a high-definition Blu-ray release.

Now, imagine my consternation when I realise that it isn’t a giallo after all. Though some might disagree, I think it made it onto that esteemed festival line-up simply because it was shot in Australia. I think the confusion arose because the film’s original title is La Ragazza dal Pigiama Giallo (The Girl with Yellow Pyjamas). Time to step back and reappraise with a different set of expectations. Okay, I concede it may be considered a neo-giallo and certainly shares a couple of the genre’s sentiments, but it’s much more of a gritty 1970s police procedural.

The main barrier is its dark source material which, atypically for a giallo, is a real murder case. It’s hard to find fun in the reality of a young girl being brutally murdered, and because it’s based on a real case the story is restrained by pedestrian believability. It lacks the cleverer plotting one expects from the genre. Part of the fun in a giallo is deciphering the often audacious puzzle-plot. That said, Mogherini makes up for this, in part, with an unusual narrative structure combining parallel plots and flashbacks. It’s a bit like he wrote the script and then made origami out of it. Now, when that all unfolds and things fall into place, it’s a real revelation. Problem is, though, that up until then, it’s all a bit baffling. He also employed an oft-used giallo twist by killing off one of the main characters unexpectedly early, which does keep viewers on their toes.

It’s also a challenge to find any of the characters at all likeable! Ray Milland does his best, with a limited script, to bring some warmth and humanity to his leading role of retired Inspector Timson, but he often comes over as bored rather than world-weary—which I think he’s going for. His delivery’s flat rather than deadpan. But perhaps this does express the detective’s state of mind. It seems he, like most of the main characters, is caught in a downward spiral toward suicidal tendencies.

It’s a late-career appearance for Milland, who began acting in the 1920s and turned in some truly great performances—my favourites being Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) and Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963). Here he’s introduced tending his flower collection and is later seen presenting a pristine bloom to a young girl who lives next door—a moment that hints at some sort of grandfatherly relationship. But it’s not developed any further and is simply part of the ‘delicate-flowers-bloom-only-to-wither’ metaphor.

Throughout, there’s a subtext of innocence lost, highlighted during the opening credits as a little girl skips along the beach in earnest conversation with her doll. As part of an impromptu game of hide and seek, she heads for the only available hiding place on the long stretch of sand, a pile of abandoned car wrecks. As she crouches out of sight, a bloodied hand falls from inside the car’s carcass and seems to grasp for her doll, like a desperate effort to reclaim long-lost childhood. This provides the only jump scare of the film as we are treated to a gruesome close-up of a corpse’s incinerated features before the little girl’s unblemished face fills the frame as she screams.

The body turns out to be that of a young woman, her corpse stuffed into a sack and her head burnt beyond recognition. The symbolism of the opening sequence is painfully clear. She’s been treated in much the same way as those unwanted, scrapped cars, used until no longer able to serve their purpose and then unceremoniously abandoned as worthless junk. But who is this victim? Not only has she been stripped of her face, any identifying articles have been removed and she wears only unremarkable yellow pyjamas. She was once a sweet young girl, just like her discoverer, what has led her to this horrible fate?

The case is shocking and baffling enough that the Sydney police call Inspector Timson out of retirement, in a purely advisory capacity. They emphasise that he will not be on the payroll. As he begins to follow the trail of clues, starting with a few grains of rice found in the sackcloth wrapped around the body, we also follow the disjointed narrative threads of three immigrants trying to build their lives in Sydney.

Dalila Di Lazzaro is excellent in the lead role as Linda, a young Dutch immigrant. She plays a difficult part with depth and empathy—of all the cast, she’s the only one that I found convincing and emotive. Linda is involved in a sordid love triangle with two other immigrants: the Italian, Antonio (Michele Placido); the German, Roy (Howard Ross); and a rich older man, Professor Douglas (Mel Ferrer). Geometrically speaking that would be a love square, wouldn’t it? We’re spectators to their messy human drama as we witness the immigrants becoming more desperate and less happy and the professor retreats into his increasingly detached and distant ivory tower. It seems that Linda is unlucky in love and all three men are clearly self-absorbed and only want the one thing from her.

Part-way through, as Timson doggedly follows a trail of clues missed or dismissed by the detectives on the case, the police become so frustrated with the lack of progress they decide to employ some unorthodox methods. In an attempt to identify the deceased girl, and at the same time draw out her killer, they decide to preserve her naked corpse with formaldehyde and put it on public display at City Hall in a big glass ‘fish-tank’. The idea is people will come to look, for many different reasons, but someone may recognise her or remember a useful detail. Also, as killers are reputed to revisit their crimes, they hope that the CCTV set-up may capture an incongruous response that gives them away as they come to gloat or further enjoy. (It’s been suggested the killer might be a ‘maniac’, ticking one of the giallo tropes!) Weird as this may seem, this is one historical detail lifted directly from the real-life, or rather real-death, case…

The ‘Pyjama Girl Murder’ was headline news in Australia for more than a decade, and perhaps my bafflement at the way the film tells the story is a result of cultural dislocation. The real scenario that inspired the film was the discovery of a dead girl in a storm drain in the city of Albury, near Melbourne, in 1934. Her identity remained a mystery for the next 10 years because, just like the body in the film, she’d been shot, bludgeoned, and her face destroyed through burning. The police preserved the body in formalin and did put it on public display in a last-ditch attempt to identify the victim.

The names of two missing migrant women of the right build and age, small and in their twenties, came up as potentials. They were Anna Morgan and Linda Agostini, though police were not satisfied either was a good enough match. A little later, though, Tony Agostini (an Italian immigrant and Linda’s husband) confessed to “accidentally” shooting his wife. He was acquitted of murder but found guilty of manslaughter and served six years in jail before being deported back to Italy. The case was never considered solved, and much like Britain’s Jack the Ripper case, journalists and amateur sleuths continue to be fascinated. Agostini’s confession was viewed dubiously, and the body on display was not a perfect match for Linda and was probably someone else.

The weird ingredients of this true-crime murder obviously attracted Flavio Mogherini, not least the eroticism of death, inherent in displaying the nude corpse of a young woman. This is another giallo trope that can be ticked off the list, as often the murder scenes are typically fetishised. Though when they’re stripped of their fantasy and instead represent a real person and their sad death, the entertainment value’s greatly diminished!

To quote a leading proponent of ‘genuine’ gialli, Dario Argento, “I tell stories like they are dreams. This is my imagination. For me, it would be impossible to do a film that is so precise, that resembles real life.” The Pyjama Girl Case almost admonishes us for approaching it as a giallo, as if trying to make the viewer feel guilty for seeking entertainment in the misfortunes of others. There’s certainly no fun in degradation, exploitation, abuse, and murder, and I found the film suitably lacking in any redeeming characteristics. It dwells wholly on the more unpleasant aspects of human nature and does so with an unflinching eye akin to the cinema of transgression.

Mogherini updates the story from the 1930s into a contemporary tale that’s making a serious point about the dispossessed immigrant community, in ‘70s Australia in this case, but remains just as relevant in many more places today. An entire social stratum is forced to live on the fringes, outside the law and without its protection, and when marginalised nationalities become outsiders and are ghettoised, bad things are bound to happen. They become vulnerable in many ways: exploitation in the workplace, gang mentality and crime, coercion, prostitution, scapegoating… If you’re a young attractive girl on the run from an abusive relationship and desperately need extra cash to make good your escape—there aren’t many options available. Even fewer legal ones.

The Pyjama Girl Case is a difficult film to watch. That’s not saying it isn’t well put together. The dual narrative strands and surprise denouement offer tenacious viewers some reward. There’s plenty to get your teeth into if you want to sit back and intellectually analyse this film. For example, the excellent soundtrack features two songs written for the film by Amanda Lear (a protégé of Salvador Dali and friend of David Bowie), who’s gone to great lengths to keep her true identity a mystery. There are many conflicting rumours about her origin, age and even gender, despite a spread for Playboy magazine! Also, the film makes prominent use of body-doubles for the nude scenes, playing with the audience’s ability to accurately compare and recognise the body in the glass tank and referencing the real case, when one body may well have been identified as another.

It was made when the giallo formula was becoming tired and is certainly worth a watch for anyone interested in the development of Italian pulp cinema. I’m glad I waited for this excellent restoration from Arrow, who’ve respected it as a classic and include an impressive array of extras on this Blu-ray collectors’ edition. It may not be much fun, but it remains an intriguing movie and can only be fully appreciated with a second viewing… if one can be bothered.

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the pyjama girl case

Blu-ray Special Edition Contents:

  • Brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original camera negative. Shows off the lovely cinematography of Carlo Carlini, one of the film’s enduring strengths.
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation.
  • Original lossless mono Italian and English soundtracks.
  • Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack.
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack.
  • New audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films. Well, Troy Howarth’s enthusiastic commentary did make me reappraise my opinion and better appreciate the film. So much so, I was tempted to increase my star-rating. He maintains that the film is a true giallo—in his opinion amongst the Top 10, though his commentary does go on to point out how it deliberately circumvents all the main tropes of the genre and really isn’t a giallo, after all… He praises all the cast for their superb performances, which still didn’t quite convince me, although I’m sure they were making the best of what they had to work with! His knowledge of Italian Pulp Cinema is encyclopedic and he really does tell you all you’d want to know about the cast and crew as we go. His style is easy and conversational considering how many facts-per-minute he manages to cram in. He even corrects a few errors that remain perpetuated on-line, even by the IMDb. He praises many aspects I saw as weaknesses in the film and encourages a deeper engagement, in short, he does exactly what a good audio commentary should.
  • Small World: New video interview with author and critic Michael Mackenzie on the internationalism of the giallo. In this specially commissioned 29-minute ‘lecture’, Mackenzie talks about what he terms the International Giallo (often called Jet-set Gialli) which he sees as a response to the post-war industrialisation of Europe. To compete with Hollywood, Euro-cinema began making more international co-productions, and many gialli were set in more than one far-flung location. He cites Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew too Much (1963) as the seminal example of this approach. He argues that commercial airlines had made international travel more accessible, also more aspirational, and writers made good use of this with many films of the time involving foreigners arriving in another country as the catalyst for the plot. He also points out that if the good guys can jet around the world, so can the bad guys—a foreign influence that introduces danger to a community, possibly reflecting the growing conservative protectionism that was eating away the optimism of the late 1960s.
  • Good Bad Guy: New video interview with actor Howard Ross. 32-minutes spent in the company of this charming actor as he talks us through his long, genre-hopping career and reminisces about making The Pyjama Girl Case. He played the handsome, yet loathsome Roy, wearing piercing blue contact lenses in the film to more resemble the aryan ideal. He’s aged well and speaks very highly of Flavio Mogherini’s calm control and the genuine respect he showed for cast and crew. He’s also critical of dubbing directors, lamenting the fact that they go for clarity rather than expression and often ruin a performance in the process…
  • Study in Elegance: New video interview with editor Alberto Tagliavia. 24-minute interview that is very informative and enlightening. Tagliavia was a long-standing collaborator of Mogherini and edited nearly all his films. He explains how in many cases he would begin editing whilst Mogherini was still filming, so that extra shots and cutaways could be added if required. Most interestingly, he explains how this had not been possible with The Pyjama Girl Case, as he was editing back in Italy. He recounts how he edited the film in three very different complete versions. One trying to make it as giallo-like as possible, another making it more like a traditional gumshoe-style ‘whodunit’, and the third where they folded the narrative in on itself and told the story in reverse—it was this more inventive version we see.
  • Inside the Yellow Pyjama: New 15-minute video interview with assistant director Ferruccio Castonuovo. He shares a few behind-the-scenes memories and heaps praise on the director of photography, Carlo Carlini, for making the film look beautiful despite its sordid story. He also remembers how Ray Milland, despite the seriousness of his role, managed to bring the lighter style of his early career to his character and so lighten the tone and add some warmth and humanity to Timson.
  • The Yellow Rithm: Archival interview with composer Riz Ortolani. A 22-minute biography of the prolific and influential composer of Italian film scores, whose cult status was confirmed when Quentin Tarantino used some of his music for Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2003). Apparently, Mogherini was not pleased with the music he wrote for Pyjama Girl Case, until Tagliavia cut some scenes to his rhythm and convinced the director it was actually perfect.
  • Image gallery.
  • Italian theatrical trailer.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon.
  • FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. Not available at the time of review.

Cast & Crew

director: Flavio Mogherini.
writers: Flavio Mogherini & Rafael Sánchez Campoy.
starring: Ray Milland, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Michele Placido, Mel Ferrer, Howard Ross, Ramiro Oliveros & Rod Mullinar.

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