Friday, November 16, 2018

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire

Riccardo Freda’s 1971 giallo location hops from London to Dublin to Switzerland, features a series of grisly murders and attempted murders using acid and straight razors, has as its protagonist an ex-cop with a violent streak brought in by his former boss when more conservative methods of investigation fail, and said individual belligerently uncovers a morass of blackmail, envy, corruption, venal snobbery and casual sex. Throw in the fact that it stars Dagmar Lassander – the frankly gorgeous star of minor genre classics ‘The Frightened Woman’ and ‘Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion’ – and we’re talking giallo heaven, right?

Mmmmm, not quite.

It’s an odd one, is ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’. The title is reminiscent of Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and Sergio Martino’s ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’ – both prototypical gialli shot through with lurid set design, POV-heavy camera work and grand guignol set pieces. ‘Iguana’ offers none of these. Visually, it’s austere: the palette is subdued, the locations drab to say that the film is peopled with privileged ‘establishment’ types, and the staging blunt and realistic rather than baroque and stylised. Nor is there any of the bizarre psychological noodlings that explain the killer’s motives in many a giallo, just a sad commentary on class and entitlement.

The film starts with a young woman being murdered. Shortly afterwards, her body is discovered in the boot of a limousine belonging to Swiss ambassador Sobieski (Anton Diffring). His eccentric and alcoholic wife (Valentina Cortese) and his shifty chauffeur, who wears sunglasses round the clock – he claims conjunctivitis – are easily the most suspicious of those present … until, that is, Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan) turns up to make his enquiries and Sobieski, politely but firmly, refuses to cooperate by claiming diplomatic immunity, thereby hoisting himself to the top of the suspects list.

Lawrence responds by calling in John Norton (Luigi Pistilli), a man with a violent past and a not-exactly-peaceable present. Norton, as Lawrence intended, promptly makes waves. He makes waves by dint of getting into a protracted brawl with Sobieski’s security staff and by starting an affair with his daughter Helen (Lassander). Along the way, we learn why he got kicked off the force (think Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Offence’ boiled down into a thirty second flashback). He makes for grim company, does Norton – even his courtship of Helen is a sour, cynical piece of manipulation – and yet the sleaziest, most pugnacious aspects of his personality are held in check by his domestic situation, wherein three generations of Norton’s, the other two being his mother (Ruth Durley) and his daughter coexist under one roof in an atmosphere of good-natured frustration at each other’s foibles.

Early scenes of en famille Norton are played for comic relief: Mrs Norton’s habit of losing her spectacles is set up as a running joke; the young Miss Norton’s wise-beyond-her-years shtick is cute. But as Norton’s investigation takes him closer to the truth and the culprit, his family come to the killer’s attention and the Norton women find themselves in mortal peril for precisely these reasons.

The narrative recalibration from Norton whittling down the suspects list by the simple expediency of provoking each of them into a reaction to the killer going after Norton’s family makes for a sudden tonal shift made particularly jarring since, for most of its first hour, ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ is an austere and procedural-driven giallo. Sure, it has its lurid moments – the killer’s modus operandi is a vial of acid tossed in the victim’s face followed by a straight-razor to the throat: overkill, much? – but for the most part we follow Norton as he talks to, accuses and sometimes punches people. Subject of his two-fistedness, a bit of rough ‘n’ tumble is no bad thing in a crime movie, but the film boasts two hand-to-hand set pieces, the first of which is filmed entirely in the shadows of an unlit room and blocked and edited in such a way as to suggest that the budget didn’t stretch to professional stuntmen and the actors weren’t comfortable with doing their own stunts. I’m not saying that the scene plays out in visually incomprehensible fashion, but here’s a screengrab taken at random:

The other fisticuff-centric set piece – Norton’s mano-a-mano smackdown with the killer at the end of the home invasion sequence – is shot with prurient attention to detail. Ditto the travails of Mrs and Miss Norton prior to Norton’s not-quite-timely-enough intervention. The filmmakers’ leering enjoyment of this final stretch is palpable, and the shift in tone is as if a Fernando di Leo poliziotteschi had lurched uncomprehendingly into, say, the final reel of Lucio Fulci’s ‘Contraband’. (In the interests of fairness, I’m not sure how many of the film’s failings can be laid at Freda’s door: he was apparently so unhappy with the final product that he had his name removed from it: the director’s credit goes to “Willy Pareto”.)

If for no other reason, you could make a case that ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ earns its giallo credentials purely by its title. Although you’d have to give more than a passing nod to the unapologetically tenuous bit of dialogue which explains the reference. But a giallo’s a giallo for a’ that and a’ that, and ‘The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire’ offers corruption in high places, seductive and possibly duplicitous women, blackmail, jealousy, family secrets, murder most foul and if the not standard issue incompetent coppers who are a mainstay of the genre, then at least one who has to resort to unprofessional methods to crack the case. It doesn’t however, have any of the visual flair, eyeball-watering set design or style-over-substance set-piece porn that Bava, Argento, Martino and their ilk established as a gaudily beautiful template for the genre.

I’ve often said in these Winter of Discontent reviews that the cardinal sin an exploitation movie can commit – the audience, after all, has been ready to forgive bargain basement production values, bad acting, shoddy writing and wonky direction – is to be boring. ‘The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire’ isn’t boring by any means, but it’s visually and stylistically bland – and for a giallo that’s just as bad. If not worse.

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