Friday, October 08, 2010

Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes

Posted as part of Operation 101010
gialli / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 95 of 100

Made two years after ‘Deep Red’, Lucio Fulci’s ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’ – the last of a decade’s worth of great gialli including ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ and ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ – has definite parallels with Dario Argento’s classic. Both centre on a protagonist who initially misinterprets a crucial detail glimpsed at the scene of a violent crime. Both follow the blundering amateur sleuthing of the protagonist only for them to realise, far too late in the game, the extent of their involvement in…

But that would be telling.

If you haven’t seen either of these films (and I hadn’t seen ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’ until yesterday; kudos to the gentleman who made it available to me), make a point of doing so. They’re stone cold classics.

Before we go any further, a note on the title. In its original Italian, it’s ‘Sette Note in Nero’ (literally, ‘Seven Notes in Black’. It’s also been released as ‘Seven Black Notes’ and – most popularly – ‘The Psychic’. It was under this American release title that I watched the film and ordinarily that would be the title I’d have reviewed it under. But I’ll be damned if ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’, ticking two of the three traditional giallo boxes (animal, colour and number), isn’t one of the most awesome fucking titles in a genre renowned for awesome fucking titles. Also, ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’ (and there’s no way in hell I’m opting for some ‘MttToSBN’ acronym for the rest of this review; I’m enjoying typing it way too much) yields up a darker meaning as the end credits roll and you’re left to ponder a supremely ambiguous closing shot.

But again, that would be telling.

The movie starts in England as a distraught woman drives to a clifftop, parks her car and walks to the edge. A credit tells us it’s 11.45am. The scene cuts to Florence, Italy, and a young girl who’s one of a party of schoolchildren on a trip suddenly stops dead, a look of horror on her face. A credit tells us it’s 11.45am. A series of shocking cuts (well, maybe not that shocking, since the body that smashes into the cliffs in loving close-up is plainly a mannequin) juxtapose the young woman’s suicide with the girl screaming “Mother!” (IMDb list these incredibly specific references to the time as a “goof”, citing the fact that “continental Europe is one hour ahead of the British Isles time zone in which the time in Florence should read 12.45”.)

I wonder if whoever wrote that even bothered to watch the film to the end. That was the first thing that nagged at me, because I was sure Fulci had done it for a reason. And even then I was completely taken aback when he pulled the rug from under me round about the halfway mark and everything that I had taken in one context – and which had fit together perfectly – suddenly took on a whole different meaning.

The opening scene is Fulci’s answer to Marc Daly’s slow, confused walk along the corridor to Helga Ullman’s apartment in ‘Deep Red’. It’s there if you know what you’re looking for, and it’s so brazenly stated on a second viewing, that the sheer chutzpah of it is magnificent. Note to IMDb: it’s not a goof. It’s quite deliberate. It’s layered with meaning.

Events then move forward eighteen years and that selfsame little girl – all grown up and very elegant with it – is revealed as American designer Virginia Ducci (Jennifer O’Neill), recently married to suave Italian businessman Francesco Ducci (Gianni Garko). Bidding hubby farewell as he jets off to the States to close a deal, Virginia installs herself at an old farmhouse that’s been in his family for years, intending to renovate the property. En route, she has a vision: a room decorated in hellish red; an ornate mirror, broken; a reproduction of a Vermeer with something written on it; a hollowed out section of a wall; an ornament tipped over to reveal something hidden beneath; a man’s face emerging from the shadows; a discarded magazine with an attractive model on the cover; a cigarette with distinctive yellow paper smouldering in an ashtray; someone with a limp slowly approaching; bricks and mortar, a cavity being walled off, a corpse hidden. A strange, almost childlike tune floats through her mind during the vision.

Virginia reaches the farmhouse, starts pulling dust covers off furnishings and recognises the mirror from her vision. She hammers away at a section of wall (psychic visions; childlike musical cues; protagonist alone in creepy house; walled up area containing corpse – all ‘Deep Red’ touchstones). Next thing, the authorities are involved and Francesco, returning from America, is taken into custody pending a satisfactory explanation as to the presence of a skeleton in a home that’s been in his family for generations. Then the lab boys confirm said skeleton as the final remains of a model with whom Francisco once had a relationship. All of a sudden things are looking bad for our boy. Virginia reluctantly joins forces with Francesco’s hoity-toity sister Ida (Evelyn Stewart) and tries to prove his innocence.

For the next forty minutes or so, Virginia sifts red herrings (hmmm, a certain someone smokes a certain brand of cigarettes), identifies clues, and – with the help of her therapist Dr Fattori (Marc Porel) and his Nancy Drew-like secretary Bruna (Jenny Tamburi) – establishes a watertight mass of evidence that prove Francesco couldn’t possibly be the killer. Just one problem: the only thing that correlates all of the evidence is a vision. Which, as Francesco’s lawyer helpfully points out, is pretty frickin’ useless in a court of law.

Then Dr Fattori picks up on a crucial but overlooked detail and the entire picture changes …

I’ve rammed home the ‘Deep Red’ connotations to such a degree that I may have misrepresented ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’ as being derivative. Like IMDb’s misunderstood “goof” at the start, Fulci is actually using the audience’s assumptions very very cleverly. He evokes ‘Deep Red’ so well – right down to some Goblin-like motifs on the soundtrack – that it’s easy to take Virginia as a replacement/stand-in for Helga and assume that when she …

But that, once more, would be telling.

‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’ is brilliantly conceived and executed, beautifully shot (it’s a damn shame that most people remember Fulci primarily for the gore and not how inspired a visual stylist he was) and ends on such a viciously unresolved and debate-in-it-the-pub-for-hours-afterwards note (and I use the word “note” very specifically) that it makes the last shot of ‘Inception’ look like an act of closure.

There are two moments that don’t quite add up (one along the lines of “but if X and Y are still at Location 1 it must mean that only a couple of minutes have passed so how come Z is already at Location 2 and spouting reams of expositional dialogue to certain secondary characters?”; the other involving the from-nowhere availability of building materials and an unfeasibly fast clean-up operation), and he overuses the technique of zooming into Virginia’s eyes every time she uncovers a clue that prompts a flashback to her vision of the crime to the point at which it’s become a cliché after just half an hour, but why carp? For one thing, Jennifer O’Neill has the kind of opalescent eyes that close-up was invented for; and for another, Fulci manipulates imagery, timelines and audience perception with such legerdemain that ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’ proves a headfuck so satisfying that you’ll be sparking up a post-coital cigarette and hoping you can do it again soon.


Narayan said...

Lucky you,
I have been desparately searhing for this Fulci classic for long...and for that matter other Fulci classics. But the dvds of the same have not yet hit India.
But this movie was a huge hit when it aired in India in the Seventies. Local directors blindly tired to copy it- and the result was something artrocious.
looking forward to more reviews of Lucio Fulci movies from you
Narayan Radhakrishnan
lawyer and author, India

Neil Fulwood said...

Hi Narayan, thanks for the comment. I'll certainly be reviewing more Fulci titles in the future, particularly with a pristine remastered print of 'The Beyond' having just been released in the UK.

'Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes' is, to the best of my knowledge, available either as a Region 1 DVD under the alternative title 'The Psychic', or online via one of several streaming sites.