I haven’t come across any Gialli films that have bored or frustrated me. Whether it is The Red Queen Kills Seven Times or Blood and Black Lace, they have strong qualities that make each film absorbing. Whether that’s eye-popping colour cinematography, a strong mixture of pulp crime and a central mystery plot, a killer soundtrack, or a gory murder count, the Giallo is a sub-genre that will rarely fail to entertain. Unfortunately, the Giallo film that has come the closest to failing my expectations is Riccardo Freda’s Double Face. This 1969 Italian gothic thriller is impressive in its craft, Gábor Pogány’s camerawork is staggeringly colourful, and Nora Orlandi’s soundtrack beautifully weaves crashing piano chords with harp strings and 60’s psychedelic rock.
From a script perspective, Double Face lacks bite as the central mystery of its plot fails for a few reasons. Firstly, Double Face isn’t your conventional Giallo – it’s an amalgamation of both Italian genre cinema and Krimi flicks; German crime capers that have elements of film noir and classic detective stories. There’s hardly a black-gloved psychopath, there are slight hints at eroticism but Freda never digs deeper, and the film behaves more like a basic crime drama about a wealthy husband obsessed with his deceased trophy wife with giallo trappings.
Not every Giallo has to abide by the rulebook, take Sergio Martino who mixes Giallo conventions by having multiple killers, elements of black humour, alternative location scouting, and speeding vehicle chases. Double Face by comparison doesn’t have a lot of depth to its plot or genre twists. A restrained Klaus Kinski stars as John Alexander, a London based businessman whose wife, Helen, dies in a fiery car crash. The plot thickens when Alexander discovers that someone may have tampered with the car before Helen set off, leading the police to suspect that he murdered Helen. Alexander’s world warps further when he finds out about a newly made pornographic film making the rounds in hippie circles. To his shock, the film appears to star Helen, and he spirals downward into obsession, longing for the return of his wife.
If you’re expecting Kinski to deliver a wild performance like in his collaborations with his filmmaking “buddy”, Werner Herzog, you’re not going to get that. Kinski’s performance as Alexander is subdued, low-key, but heartless as he is entranced by an 18-year-old woman played by Christine Krüger. Alexander doesn’t behave like someone who is mourning the loss of his wife when Krüger appears out of nowhere. The first time we see Krüger is in the nude taking a shower; she squats in Alexander’s mansion waiting for him to arrive. Double Face is baffling that way: the film introduces key characters that are personified plot mechanics in the strangest of circumstances. Krüger’s raunchy hippie – who doesn’t look like she’s 18 at all – is the object of desire that sends Alexander to discover the pornographic film, and she doesn’t serve a bigger function to the story other than that.
Double Face is overwritten: when the film is not unravelling strange events, it’s bogged down in dialogue that seems to go on forever. The actors are pawns who say their lines and exit the scene stage right. The delivery of the lines feels off and it makes weirdly phrased sentences even odder. There’s a scene where the detective behind the case notices Alexander’s home projector, and the detective asks him if Alexander likes his movies, only for Alexander to gleefully respond with – “Yes, Mickey Mouse delights me!”. It’s such a verbose film that you lose investment with the who-dunnit plot.
As an attempt to combine the Giallo’s visual style with the plot of a Krimi film, Double Face feels confused in what it wants to do. As a Giallo, it’s not entertaining enough to be enthralled by the mystery. And as a Krimi, it doesn’t do enough to stand out from this obscure wave of crime films. And that’s unfortunate, had Double Face not gone down the route of a basic “man-develops-obsession-with-woman” plotline, and was a pulpier descent into the sleazy world of pornography and murder, then I would be singing a different tune. As is, Double Face doesn’t do enough; sadly, Arrow Video’s latest is a dull and contrived affair.