Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Two Faces of Fear

Tulio Demicheli’s ‘The Two Faces of Fear’ doesn’t enjoy much of a reputation, despite ticking quite a few boxes:

J&B? Check.

Spiral staircase (beleaguered heroine chased up same)? Check. 

Prowling subjective camerawork? Check.

Heavy dose of lifestyle porn? Check.

Genre stalwarts in leading roles? Check – George Hilton and Anita Strindberg.

Vastly overqualified actor slumming it? Check – Fernando Rey.

Former Bond girl in key role? Check – Luciana Paluzzi, she of ‘Thunderball’ fame.

What it doesn’t feature is a black gloved killer (the perp has a preference for surgical gloves instead) or extended operatic death scenes. ‘The Two Faces of Fear’ has the lowest body count I’ve ever seen in a giallo, a very small self-contained cluster of suspects, and a reasonably vigorous examination of motive and interrelationships rather than the usual glut of red herrings that get thrown about it these movies.

The script sets things up with commendable economy in the first seven minutes (including open credits): Professor Michele Azzini (Luis Davila), a senior member of the board at an exclusive private clinic, is considering a job offer with another institution, much to the chagrin of Elena Carli (Paluzzi), whose father founded the clinic and gave Azzini his big break. Elena’s married to the penniless Dr Roberto Carli (Hilton) and fully enjoys the lifestyle her money allows; he doesn’t want to see custom migrate with Azzini or any of Elena’s fortune dissipate in having to buy him out. Azzini’s fellow cardiac specialist Dr Paola Lombardi (Stringberg) is engaged to Azzini, used to have a thing for Carli and is lusted after by the clinic’s administrator Luisi (Eduardo Fajardo). Other titbits thrown out during these first few minutes: Elena has a heart condition which will eventually require surgery; Carli shoots pistols; and Azzini owns a parrot.

Azzini’s office is burgled. He almost disturbs the intruder, but an answerphone message regarding a surgical procedure summons him back to theatre. (They had answerphones in 1972! I was born in 1972. Man, I feel old.) Later, after a full and frank discussion with Elena about the future of the clinic, he finds himself looking down the barrel of a pistol. Three shots, and Professor Azzini exits the narrative.

Enter Inspector Nardi (Rey), who focuses his investigation on Elena, Carli and Paola. “One of those three must be the killer,” surmises, demanding of his sergeant, Felix (Manuel Zarzo), “don’t you agree?” With consummate ingratiation, Felix responds “I agree with everything you say.” There’s plenty of droll interplay between Nardi and Felix – Rey and Zarzo bounce off each other quite well – as well as a running joke about Nardi’s attempts to quit smoking and how irritable it makes him. “I don’t appreciate your approach,” a medico snarls at him as he lights up, prompting Nardi to respond “And I don’t like yours, either – telling the rest of us to stop smoking while you all puff away yourselves.” Demicheli immediately cuts from a roomful of suddenly abashed clinical staff, every man jack of ’em toking on a ciggie, to Felix slumped in the police car outside hastily sitting up straight and pitching his own cigarette out of the window as he sees his boss approaching.

Bucking the trend of incompetent coppers in gialli, Inspector Nardi approaches the case logically and is attentive to ostensibly minor details. With the limited number of suspects, and only so many mileage to be got out of casting aspersions of them, it was inevitable that Demicheli would give over a large chunk of screen time to Nardi and Felix. Casting-wise, he played a blinder. ‘The Two Faces of Fear’ is very talky – virtually every aspect of the power play between the three leads is worked out via dialogue – and there are only two car chases and an on-foot pursuit by way of traditional action scenes. Set design not being as baroque as the genre usually vouchsafes, and off-kilter visuals restricted to just one scene (a shot from underneath a glass topped table of the dying Azzini thrown back by the impact of the bullets), the film has a tendency to the static. The moment Nardi and Felix appear onscreen, though, things pep up immeasurably.

All in all, it would be easy to call ‘The Two Faces of Fear’ a bloodless giallo except that Demicheli saves his big, icky set piece for the final reel. Remember Elena’s heart condition? A tense pursuit by an unknown stalker, which starts on the subway and ends only as she plunges terrified through the door of her apartment, triggers an episode which sees her in intensive care and scheduled for surgery. Carli and Paola undertake the surgery. Suspicion and paranoia have been ramped up to the max. Elena is terrified that she’ll die on the operating table. Nardi, called away to examine a crucial bit of evidence, is powerless to halt the procedure. Demicheli documents the preparations for the operation and its early stages in cold-sweat-inducing detail, only cutting away when Nardi puts the last pieces of the puzzle in place.

There are only two murders in ‘The Two Faces of Fear’; both happen suddenly and aren’t lingered on. There is, however, a cardiology operation and it’s as queasy as anything Argento or Fulci put on the screen.


Tim said...

Intriguing review, but to be honest, all you needed to get me interested was that steel-grey image with the red flowers in the foreground. That is something gorgeous, right there.

Neil Fulwood said...

Yeah, that one shot was when I went from coolly appraising the film to remembering exactly why I love gialli.

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