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SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO (Italian-French-West German co-production, 1964)
Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava
Story and screenplay: Marcello Fondata, with the collaboration of Mario Bava and Alberto Bevilacqua
Camera operator: Ubaldo Terzano
Editing: Mario Serandrei
Music: Carlo Rustichelli
Main players: Cameron Mitchell (Massimo Morlacchi); Eva Bartok (Countess Christina Cuomo); Thomas Reiner (Inspector Sylvester); Dante Di Paolo (Frank Scaolo); Claude Dantes (Tao-Li); Mary Arden (Peggy); Arianna Gorini (Nicole); Luciano Pigozzi (Cesar Lesar); Massimo Righi (Marco); Franco Ressel (Marquis Richard Morrell); Francesca Ungaro (Isabel)
Alternate titles: Six Women For The Murderer; Blood and Black Lace; Fashion House of Death; Bloody Murder
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
SYNOPSIS:

Isabel, a model at the chic Haute Couture fashion house, which is owned by the recently widowed Countess Christina Cuomo and managed by Massimo Morlacchi, is brutally murdered by an unknown assailant. The subsequent police investigation, represented by the arrogant Inspector Sylvester, reveals the salon to be a veritable hotbed of drugs, corruption and blackmail. When it is discovered that Isabella kept a diary which detailed these indescretions, everything is thrown into a quandary. Initially the diary falls into the hands of Nicole, who promises to take it to the police, but another of the models, Peggy, manages to get it away from her unnoticed. Later that night, Nicole goes to visit her lover Frank at his antique shop; while there, she is terrorized by strange sounds and fleeting shadows, but before she can escape, she is attacked and killed by a mysterious figure dressed in black.

Finding that the dead girl no longer no longer has the diary, the murderer flees from the antique shop and kidnaps Peggy from her apartment. Although the terrified girl assures the killer that she has burned the diary, he refuses to believe her, and so proceeds to torture her. When she removes her assailant's mask, revealing the guilty party to be Massimo, she is forced to pay with her life.

Massimo had previously assisted his lover Countess Christina to murder her husband, but when Isabella discovered the murder, she blackmailed him. Once her demands became too high, he killed her, not realizing that she had written everything down in the diary. Now that the diary and all that had privy to its information has been disposed of, Massimo seems to have nothing to fear. However, the inspector is convinced that the murderer is right under his nose, so he places all of the men connected to the crimes under arrest. In a bold move to shift suspicion away from her lover, Countess Christina dons the killer's atire and slays another model. Since this crime takes place while the men are in jail, they obviously can't be guilty, so they are set free. Yet Massimo is well aware that he is not out of danger yet, so he instigates a cunning plan to lure Christina to her own death, at the same time giving the police the impression that she was the maniac they have been seeking. Things backfire, however, and the guilty lovers die in each other's arms.


CRITIQUE:

Initially designed by the West German co-financiers to be a routine, by-the-numbers police thriller in the Edgar Wallace mold, SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO represents a tremendous advancement in the development of the modern horror film. It is, in fact, arguably the first ever slasher film, though that label cheapens Bava's achievement for reasons that will soon become apparent.

In this film, Bava de-emphasizes character and psychological motivation, thereby creating a literal symphony of violence in which nobody is what they appear to be. In the film's paranoid millieu, nobody is to be trusted. Seemingly respectable business men turn out to be sadistic killers; everybody else is either self-righteous and holier-than-thou (for instance, the inspector) or a treacherous blackmailer. Needless to say, viewers looking for an up-beat movie about wonderful, happy people need not apply here. Bava uses his camera to physically make the audience a part of the action, yet he does not encourage the viewer to sympathize with the characters; for this reasons, many critics continue to vilify SEI DONNE, taking Bava to task for creating a remorseless celebration of sadism.

Quite frequently, Bava's characters are marked by their inability to love. Nowhere is this concept more apparent than in this film. Though most of the major characters are involved in relationships, they are still too caught up in their own worlds to actually feel for one another. The sleazy antique dealer, Frank, for instance, brags to the inspector that he "doesn't believe in permanent, exclusive relationships." What is more, he seems genuinely unaffected by the fact that two of his lovers have been savagely killed. It is only when the police suspect him of the killings that he begins to show interest in anything beyond sex and drugs. The inspector, too, lacks any passion, even apparently for his work; he can almost be seen as a parody of the Joe Friday / DRAGNET school of "just the facts, ma'am" authority figures. Only Countess Christina exhibits any true emotion, though paradoxically this leads to her demise. Her love for Massimo is quite genuine, so much so that it blinds her to his faults and compels her to commit heinous acts in order to keep him at her side. By contrast, Massimo is exclusively concerned with possessions: fast cars, expensive clothing, the fashion center, etc. It is he who compels Christina to murder her husband, thus enabling him to take control of the fashion business. Finally, when he tires of her, he coldly arranges for a way to dispose of her by making her a scapegoat for his crimes. In his inability to love Christina, Massimo literally destroys himself. While he may feel that he can use anybody to get what he wants, he fails to take Christina's strength and resourcefulness into account. Christina is totally blinded by her emotions -- there is nothing she can do to control this -- but, ironically, if Massimo had only invested some genuine love into their relationship, he could probably have gotten away with his crimes; it is HIS emotional impotence that destroys him, not any weakness on Christina's part.

Many Bava films deal with morally bankrupt pseudo-aristocrats, and SEI DONNE is no exception. Christina is distinguished by her title: she is a Countess, and this title renders her socially elite. With her social class, of course, comes money -- the very thing which fuels the characters' motivations. In the same way that the Menliff family of LA FRUSTRA E IL CORPO uses their social "superiority" to cut themselves off from society, Christina inhabits a world of her own design. The Christian Haute Couture Salon is less a business than a symbol of social graces; the dresses/fashions which she helps to promote lines her own pocket, enablimg her to cut herself off from the "commoners" of Rome. Bava's obvious mistrust of such privileged people -- which stems from his core mistrust of taking people at their face value -- come through quite strongly. Christina, pawn though she is in Massimo's game, is still a deceptive murderess. Whatever sympathetic characteristics she may possess stems from her inability to find love and attention from the right people; she is surrounded by sycophants who secretly gossip about her and who, as in the case of Massimo, plot to take from her wealth. Even more revealing is the character of Richard Morrell, a so-called Marquis who possesses a fancy title and little else. A preening buffoon of a man, Morrell objects to being man-handled by the police and proudly anounces that, as an aristocrat, he is above such treatment. Like Christina, Morrell also lives in very "exclusive" surroundings: a plush villa which is seemingly haunted by the ever-present figure of a singularly sad-looking, ancient family retainer. Morrell is a leech who lives off of the wages of his attractive fiancee Greta, one of Countess Christina's models. It is Morrell's fear that his debts to Isabella will be discovered, thus shattering his image as a wealthy playboy, that embroils Greta in the tragedy. The irony of Greta's death is that Countess Christina, who already uses the girl's image to promote her business, uses her death as an iron-clad aliby for Massimo's innocence (she is killed while Massimo and Morrell languish in jail). With her death, the real murderer is set free, while the worthless Morrell is spared any embarassment. The subtle allegory her is one of immoral aristocrats using the more accessible, "inferior" working classes to their own nefarious ends. The notion of the overly privileged elite sealed off from the rest of the world, indulging their every whim, informs many of Bava's others films, including ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO and LISA E IL DIAVOLO (both of which deal with overly protective mother/Countess figures who attempt to keep their off-springs mental aberrations from spreading), IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA, and OPERAZIONE PAURA. This idea also works its way into Bava's first western, LA STRADA PER FORT ALAMO, in which the European settlers are depicted as money-grubbing racists, while the so-called undesirables (Native Americans, outlaws) are shown more humanistically. Bava's suggestion seems to be that lack of contact with every day reality is a dangerous thing, even if the world at large is far from perfect (cf. CANI ARRABBIATI).

Executed with morbid flair and filled with the kind of dazzling stylistic touches that have had such a profound influence on Dario Argento and Martin Scorsese, SEI DONNE represents a logical step in Bava's growing maturity as a filmmaker. The somewhat limited restraints of the gothic/peplum genres had the director chafing at the bit to try something new. Though LA RAGAZZA CHE SAPEVA TROPPO did enable him to leave the artificial trappings of the period film behind him, it still suffers from a certain lack of maturity -- it may be the first first giallo, but it is an uncertain one. In I TRE VOLTI DELLA PAURA, the director took a step in the right direction with the "Il telefono" segment (his second modern dress thriller), but SEI DONNE remains the first full-blooded example of the giallo. It is a film of such remorseless cruelty and embittered cynicism that it shook the genre to its very foundations. Even if it is not the finest thriller to have emerged from Italy (that honor belongs to Dario Argento's PROFONDO ROSSO, 1975), it is a textbook example of what endears Bava's work to the congnoscenti, and of what others find to be lacking, or just plain offensive.

Visually speaking, SEI DONNE is one of Bava's most beautiful films: there is not a single shot that does not seem to positively glow. Though criticized in BROKEN MIRRORS / BROKEN MINDS: THE DARK DREAMS OF DARIO ARGENTO by Maitland McDonagh for being inconsistent, there is nothing slapdash about the film's visual look. Predating Argento's artfully choreographed massacres by several years, Bava does not miss any opportunity to give his unconventional imagination full reign. A woman has her face repeatedly smashed against the trunk of a tree, yet another girl's face is ripped apart by a blade-lined metal glove (shades of LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO's opening execution), and another victim is scalded to death by a red-hot furnace. Bava's seductive staging and impeccably orchestrated use of color lends these scenes a disturbing beauty; Hitchcock might well have pioneered the self-analytical, voyueristic aspect of filmmaking, but Bava was the first to blatantly confront audiences' mordbid obsession with violence. The violence is intense, far moreso than anything in Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) or Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM (1960), but there is hardly any blood spilled. The color red, irrevocably associated with acts of violence for obvious reasons, is predominant in SEI DONNE's candy-colored palette, from the red telephones and draperies of the Haute Couture salon to the lipstick and nail polish which adorns the bodies of the model-victims; Massimo's guilty conscience is reaffirmed by the crimson-spotted vest he wears. This use of color is not hyperbolic, but rather serves as a symbolic representation of the blood-stained narrative.

Bava's use of setting gives SEI DONNE particular impact. The very idea of setting a violent murder thriller in the confines of a fashion house is a deliciously ironic concept, immediately establishing an uneasy conflict between action and setting. Superficially, the salon represents the height of beauty and culture -- it is here that people go to look beautiful -- but, again, things are seldom as they appear in Bava's universe: to say the least, the corruption that lurks beneath this exterior proves to be destructive and deadly. Through his ever-creative use of color and shadow, Bava gives the salon a look that is both sinister and beautiful. In the same way that the director finds beauty in the various murders strewn about the narrative, so do the setting manage to be both unsettling and pleasing to the eye.

In a very laudatory review of SEI (cf. FANGORIA #100), Tim Lucas comments on the film's "ripely mysoginistic" point of view, yet there is no denying that the male characters are presented very unfavorably. There are no heroes in this film, and Bava does not encourage the viewer to sympathize with anybody. The black-garbed killer, his face concealed with a white silk scarf, represents the evil side of every man. Unlike later "serial killers" like Freddy Krueger, Bava's killer is presented without any personality whatsoever. Part of the reason that the slasher genre has reveived so much negative criticism is that, intentionally or not, lesser filmmakers have presented their killers as heroic figures who are out to punish deserving people who have, in one way or another, broken the moral codes of society. Bava never makes this mistake. Instead, by provoking an exhilarating response from the audience during the murder scenes, Bava is encouraging the audience not only to step back and examine his or her own moral code, but to think of the power of the visual medium. In a very concrete, non-abstract way, Bava forces the viewer to see cinema's awesome potential to make even the most horrific acts look disturbingly beautiful.

Even if the films it has inspired (including John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, 1978, and Martin Scorsese's CAPE FEAR, 1991) are not, SEI DONNE remains a film of substance and power, and a classic in its own right.


Review © Troy Howarth


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