Sunday, September 04, 2011


Umberto Lenzi’s 1972 giallo is an exercise in slow-burn and sleight of hand. Opening with some graphic (and most likely unfaked) bullfighting footage, Lenzi follows the opening credits with this quote: “Fear is a knife of ice which penetrates the senses down to the depth of conscience,” attributed to Edgar Allan Poe. The scene switches immediately to a railway station where Martha Caldwell (Carroll Baker) flinches every time a train passes.

We discover, in short order, that Martha is mute, the cause of her affliction was witnessing the death of her parents in a derailment at a young age, and that she is at the station to meet her cousin Jenny (Ida Galli, appearing under her Evelyn Stewart pseudonym), a soprano just back from a tour. Her physician, Dr Laurent (Alan Scott), is delighted at this positive step and still holds out hope of Martha regaining her voice.

Martha and Jenny are driven back to their uncle Ralph (George Rigaud)’s villa, an idyllic place except for the fact that it overlooks a cemetery. Their driver is the shifty and monosyllabic Marcos (Eduardo Fajardo). Ralph’s other staff are housekeeper Annie Britten (Silvia Monelli) and maid Rosalie (Olga Gherardi). At the villa, prior to a birthday party for the pre-pubescent Christina (Maria-Rosa Rodriguez), the daughter of a friend of the family, Jenny gives Ralph a gift of some books on the occult, a subject of which he seems to have specialist knowledge.

Lenzi takes his time establishing the protagonists and their interrelationships. Almost the first half hour is given over to character study: Martha’s troubled state of mind, her therapeutic love of painting and her friendship with Christina; Jenny’s relationship with Martha (Jenny features prominently in Martha’s recurring flashbacks to the bullfight depicted in the opening scene); Ralph’s interest in the esoteric, his heart condition and his dependence on medication; Dr Laurent’s omnipresence in the household (is he being overly solicitous to Martha, or is there an ulterior motive?); and the ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’-style goings on amongst the staff.

Just when you’d be forgiven for wondering what anything has to do with anything, the first murder occurs. And while ‘Knife of Ice’ certainly plays on the accepted iconography …

… it unfolds in notably bloodless fashion. For anyone who knows Lenzi solely by reputation – i.e. as the purveyor of such violent fare as ‘Almost Human’, ‘Cannibal Ferox’ and ‘Eaten Alive’ – ‘Knife of Ice’ will come as an eye-opener, with as much attention paid to characterization and pacing as there is to the elegant widescreen cinematography, and with a wordless central performance that must rank as Carroll Baker’s best.

The staid pacing is pepped up by some excellent set-pieces, including two fog-bound scenes that Lenzi milks for optimum tension. The lacunae necessary for the final act revelation are niftily scattered throughout the narrative. The eagle-eyed and congenitally suspicious will probably twig who the killer is, but the big reveal comes at the end of a cat-and-mouse sequence that only serves to sow further doubts.

Three corpses in, Inspector Duran (Franco Fantasia) assumes protagonist duties. Not your average giallo cop (i.e. he’s actually competent), Duran’s presence galvanizes the second half of the film, and the manhunt that ensues when the suspicion shifts to a drug-addicted Satanist sees the cemetery location used to excellent effect. But this digression – and it’s hardly a spoiler to say so – leads to a “wrong man” switcheroo comparable to that of ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ and suddenly Martha finds herself again at risk.

‘Knife of Ice’ demands patience in its early stretches, but plays fair with its lacunae, and sprinkles in enough clues (however elusively) to justify its final act rug-pull. It’s not quite as stylish or baroque as many gialli, but it’s quietly compelling and confidently directed.

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