The combination of director Sergio Martino and writer Ernesto Gastaldi resulted in some of the most accomplished gialli. These include one of my personal favourites, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971), the Poe-inspired Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), and the genuinely disturbing, occult-tinged classic, All the Colors of the Dark (1972). So, it’s great to see this lesser-known product of their collaboration finally getting some respect, in the form of a quality clean-up and release, as it was never widely screened outside Italy.
By the mid-1970s, the golden age of the giallo was pretty much over and the genre was tiring. That’s not to say that a few definitive gialli weren’t yet to come. In fact, Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (1975) comes close to being the definitive example, possibly only outdone by the clever plot twists and camera antics of Tenebrae (1982) which followed seven years later.
The prescribed cinematic antidote for a declining genre is to innovate by fusing elements from other genres. With Suspicious Death of a Minor, Sergio Martino pulls in so many elements from poliziotteschi that it crosses the line to become a hybrid of both genres, and no longer sits comfortably in either. He also, disconcertingly, introduced knock-about comedy. The result is a film that, while undoubtedly interesting, isn’t wholly successful.
Suspicious Death of a Minor begins with just that: an underage ‘hooker’ is seen arguing with a suave man in a Rolls Royce. Shortly after, she’s followed and attacked by a sinister man wearing a dodgy plaid jacket and mirror shades. She manages to escape him, but is later ambushed in her apartment by the same man and dies with a slashed throat and staring eyes in fine giallo style. We’re just 9 minutes in when one of the police describes the murder as being “like the work of a maniac.” (I think it’s the unspoken law of giallo that the term ‘maniac’ be used within the opening 10-minutes.)
The film’s working title was Violent Milan, and I suspect that Martino began with the intention of making a pretty straight poliziottesco: imagine an Italian mash-up of Get Carter (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971). Then, Profondo Rosso unexpectedly rekindled the box office appeal of the giallo, so the distributors encouraged him to introduce similar ingredients, including music that sounds uncannily Goblin-esque.
The story features a rogue cop who discovers a dangerous connection between a prostitution ring specialising in vulnerable young girls, and a series of kidnappings involving rich kids. We get to see who the killer is right away, but are given no clear indication of motive, or who the protagonist is. We do get some intriguing character development and enough clues to stoke our suspicions, but nothing terribly solid until almost halfway through. Apparently, it was usual for Italian cinemas to have an extended interval at the mid-point of a movie, and Suspicious Death is certainly a film of two halves, divided by a rather wacky car chase…
Perhaps the distributors, who normally guaranteed the production budget, had been inspired by the spectacular car chase in The French Connection (1971) and suggested Martino include something equally as memorable. It could be claimed he achieved this. The extended sequence is more like a demolition derby, involving a Polizia Fiat chasing a battered Citroën 2CV and featuring a taxi full of nuns, a Fiat 500, a unicycle, and slapstick routines, complete with pratfalls! But if the viewer can get past that “interval”, the second half will certainly reward them.
There are a few very well-handled action sequences, including a shoot-out that begins on a roller-coaster and ends in the dark tunnels of the Milan metro. A memorable climax involves a rooftop pursuit and a spectacular demise, with genuine cinematic impact. (I’m unable to say any more about that without spoiling things!) The denouement is serious and rather subdued, finally in stride with the subject matter.
Although a central theme of Suspicious Death of a Minor is child prostitution, it’s certainly not alone in tackling such uncomfortably transgressive topics. Childhood trauma, in one form or another, is a common trope in gialli, and other Italian horror movies of the period. Such films often dealt with child murders, abuse, and trafficking. The exploitation of youth by the older generation, or the rich preying on the poor and vulnerable, became a broad metaphor for the exploitation of the defenceless by the powerful, in many guises. Politically, the adult becomes the guardian state, the child represents its people. Villains in gialli and poliziotteschi are often portrayed as super-rich degenerates that consider themselves to be above the law.
Claudio Cassinelli turns in a solid central performance as the tough undercover cop, Paolo Germi. He’s eminently watchable throughout, even before we know he’s the hero. The role could easily have become a cliché, but he redeems the stereotype by investing his character with a very real depth of emotion and humanity. He remains true to his own moral core, even when his investigations take him beyond the law.
Additional gravitas is added by two very accomplished veteran actors in Mel Ferrer, as the commissioner, and Massimo Girotti, acting as the ‘impeccable businessman’. The whole cast do a splendid job and aficionados of this era in Italian cinema will have tremendous fun spotting familiar faces in supporting roles and cameos. Troy Howarth’s informative commentary on the Blu-ray will let you know which ones you missed. Similar to the Hollywood noir era, and Britain’s Hammer Horror heyday, Italian commercial cinema back then was a ‘film factory’, with movies churned out quickly and cheaply, with hard-working regulars appearing in many of them.
The array of female roles are all too brief. The likable prostitute, Carmela (Lia Tanzi),who assists Paolo without knowing his true identity, is the closest thing we get to a true heroine. Tanzi is a versatile actress who honed her skills in mainstream comedies, risqué comedies, and soft sexploitation movies. Her face is very mobile and expressive, enabling her to be sensual, whilst allowing a personality to shine through. She’s by no means the ‘whore with a heart of gold’, yet by the time the killer shows up at her apartment, we’re rooting for her. She puts up a spirited fight, and we care about the outcome. On reflection, this lack of a significant female lead could be what the film is missing: Sergio Martino’s most successful forays into the giallo genre all starred the ever impressive Edwige Fenech…
Suspicious Death of a Minor has all the right ingredients, just never in the right proportions, and, although it never quite makes up its mind which genre to align with, it remains a unique film well worth a watch. Martino is an exceptional director, who certainly knows how to deliver a great giallo. However, if that’s what you want, I suggest you perhaps start with The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh.
Special Edition Contents:
- Brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original camera negative produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations.
- Original mono Italian and English soundtracks (lossless on the Blu-ray Disc).
- 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.
- New interview with co-writer and director Sergio Martino.
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon.
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Barry Forshaw.
Cast & Crew
director: Sergio Martino
writer: Ernesto Gastaldi & Sergio Martino.
starring: Claudio Cassinelli, Mel Ferrer & Lia Tanzi.