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Director/Cinematographer: Mario Bava
Screenplay: Mario Di Nardo
Camera Operator: Antonio Rinaldi
Editing: Mario Bava
Music: Piero Umiliani
Main Players: Teodora Corrà (George Stark); Ira Furstenberg (Trudy Farrell); Maurice Poli (Nick Channing); Edwige Fenech (Marie Channing); William Berger (Gerry Farrell); Renato Rossini [aka Howard Ross] (Jack Davidson); Edith Meloni (Jill Stark); Helena Ronée (Peggy); Ely Galleani [aka Justine Gall] (Isabelle); Mauro Bosco (Charles)
Alternate titles: Five Dolls for an August Moon; Island of Terror
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

In essence a remake of Agatha Christie's venerable who-dunnit TEN LITTLE INDIANS, the story brings together a motley crew of characters on an island retreat owned by wealthy industrialist George Stark. Foremost among the guests is Gerry Farrell, a brilliant young inventor who is badly in need of a vacation. While the first night passes uneventfully, Farrell is enraged to discover that Stark, together with several of the other guests, has planned this "getaway" as an opportunity of coercing him into selling his latest invention: a new brand of industrial resin. Stark and his associates are hell-bent on buying the distribution rights, even if it literally means stabbing a few people in the back.

Farrell is immediately established as a decent man, and though his marriage to Trudy seems content, she is secretly involved with Stark's wife, Jill. Actually, none of the relationships are especially healthy: Nick is verbally abusive to his coquettish wife Marie, but he does not object to her sleeping with other men, especially when it can help in advancing his career; Stark is less a husband to Jill than a business manager (he arranges for her paintings to be publicly exhibited) and a constant source of criticism. The sole exception appears to be Jack and his girlfriend Peggy, though this is revealed to be a lie by the end of the film. The strained nature of the relationships is bound to be aggravated by the claustrophobic surroundings, however, and it is not long before violence begins to erupt.

As Stark and the other men badger Farrell for the secret formula, Jill makes a horrible discovery on the beach: the dead body of Stark's houseboy Charles, covered with sand crabs. Having already sent the motor launch away in order to prevent Farrell from leaving, Stark has no way of contacting the mainland. so he moves the corpse into the freezer, where it hangs amid other chunks of meat. Of course, Bava has the same fate in mind for the other characters as well. They are completely irredeemable, and the director knows it: the only way to deal with them is to sit back and watch them destroy one another. This approach is in line with the rules Bava establishes in SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO, while anticipating the even more cruelly ironic ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO.

Farrell soon meets his own fate, and his body is dragged out to sea. Tempers flare among the group, as the killings continue with alarming regularity. Stark seems the most likely suspect, but such is not the case, and when he discovers that Jack is the killer, he also comes to a bad end. Jack has not been acting alone, however: Trudy is the real mastermind behind the scheme. By playing the men against each other, she has managed to collect several checks for one million dollars each -- with the understanding that she would hand over Farrell's formula. Once she gets Jack to hand over his chack, she pulls a similar trick. She shoots him, but her plan backfires when he kills her with his last ounce of energy.

However, Bava has yet another trick up his sleeve. In a typically perverse move, he reveals that Farrell -- the apparent innocent -- actually stole the formula, killing the real inventor in the process. Together with Trudy, he concocted the whole scheme, but his treachery does not go unrewarded. Isabelle, a young girl in Stark's care, tried to rescue Farrell by drugging him and pushing his body into the sea -- in this way, he would not fall victim to the killer. However, she did not realize that the drug she used on him would compel him to confess the truth. Unfortunately, his rescuers end up taking him to the police, and he confesses his crimes, thus sealing his own fate. At the end of it all, Isabelle makes off with the money, while Farrell is sentenced to be hanged.


CINQUE BAMBOLE is a curious film, too flatly written and sloppily constructed to be entirely successful, yet too stylish and bizarre to be unlikable. Bava himself was not at all taken with the script and that, coupled with the total lack of preparation ("They paid me on Saturday and we started shooting on Monday," Bava was quoted as saying) gives the film a coarse, unfinished feel.

Bava's excellent use of decor gives the film an added advantage. Rather than tie himself down to a script he despises, he basically ignores it, turning the film into an absolute exercise in style. Particularly interesting is the way that he uses the landscape in relation to the claustrophobic island setting. Long, sensuous panning shots emphasize the apparent enormity of space, but ultimately the characters are trapped on every side by the ocean that surrounds them.

In the same way, the house functions as a kind of island-within-the-island, the modernity of the decor providing some comfort among the unfamiliarity of the natural world outside -- "civilization" in an uncivilized place. Bava also heightens the contrast between these two settings by emphasizing the utter artificiality of Stark's home in relation to the sun-drenched benevolence of the island itself. This sophisticated use of setting lends an added depth to the characters, though this may not register on a conscious level. By extending the metaphor of the island, it soon becomes apparent that the characters are all stranded in their own individual worlds, worlds marked by treachery, violence and infidelity. Stark is incapable of establishing normal relationships, so he buys whatever he wants; the world he creates for himself is cold, unemotional and phony. His wife, Jill, is miserable and lonely. She yearns for her former lover, Trudy, and when she comes to realize the failure of her life, she commits suicide. Everybody is too caught up in their own problems to be of any use to themselves or anybody else for that matter; in fact, nobody seems to really care about any of the gory goings-on. This attitude is perfectly summed up by Jack, who responds to Charles' death by opening a bottle of whiskey and saying, "House boys come and go, but there's always a bottle." As such, Mario Di Nardo's simplistic and uninspired screenplay is transformed into a much more resonant tale of greed and isolation in which the images of violent death seem inevitable rather than shocking.

Bava also opts to soft-pedal the violence in favor of building tension, but the characters are not terribly interesting and the meandering narrative is developed too haphazardly. In order for a story such as this to work perfectly, one needs to have some interest in the characters. A perfect example of this is the 1965 version of TEN LITTLE INDIANS, directed by George Pollock. While nowhere near so stylish or adventurous as CINQUE BAMBOLE, Pollock's film at least manages to create some suspense by virtue of its well-drawn characterizations. In the Pollock film, the viewer actually cares about what is going to happen to the characters, though this is due more to the excellent cast (Dennis Price, Leo Genn, Wilfrid Hyde-White, etc.) than to any added expertise on the filmmaker's part. As Bava demonstrates definitively in such works as SEI DONNE PER L'ASSASSINO and ECOLOGIA DEL DELITTO, the characters do not need to be sympathetic in order to engage the viewer, but they do need to be interesting. This is where CINQUE BAMBOLE stumbles. The fact that the characters are a morally reprehensible lot is unimportant (so are most of the people who populate ECOLOGIA) -- they are just plain dull. Matters are not helped by the fact that most of the actors are unable to do anything with their sketchily written roles. With the notable exceptions of Maurice Poli (Nick, later used more effectively in Bava's CANI ARRABBIATI, 1974), Teodoro Corra (Stark, just as effective as he was in ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK), and Edwige Fenech (a giallo fixture, here cast as the sexy Marie), the performers are every bit as dull as the people they are portraying.

Apart from its many failings and virtues, CINQUE BAMBOLE will most likely be remembered as Bava's strangest film. Within the giallo framework, the film stands apart from his other films in most every respect. Even the title is strange, not to mention senseless. The phenomenal success which greeted Dario Argento's dazzling debut L'UCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO (BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, 1969) had made it fashionable for Italian thrillers to sport quirky titles, ranging from such worthy efforts as Riccardo Freda's L'IGUANA DALLA LINGUA DI FUOCO (IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, 1971) and Lucio Fulci's UNA LUCERTOLA CON LA PELLE DI DONNA (LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN, 1971) to the bargain-basement shocks of Paolo Cavara's LA TARANTOLA DAL VENTRE NERO (THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, 1971). Even the worst of these films manage to provide some feeble explanation for their titles (usually, as in Argento's film, it provides a clue to the killer's identity). Not so with CINQUE BAMBOLE. Much like the film itself, the title is both striking and nonsensical.

It is noteworthy that, for the only time, Bava served as editor on this film, possibly in an attempt to save the production company some money. Certainly Bava manages to keep the action moving swiftly, even if it is at the expense of narrative cohesion. Bava adopts a jagged, succinct editorial style that sets the film apart from his earlier work, though it can be seen in more refined form in the films which follow it. From beginning to end, Bava cuts sharply from one set-piece or location to the next, with few of the atmospheric longeurs typical of his other work. There are no dissolves or fades, and the very concept of time is basically ignored. In utilizing this technique, Bava gives a further boost to the otherwise uninspired screenplay by lending it a subtly disorienting quality.

In the final analysis, this cannot be considered a successful film, but Bava's fans should find some points of interest. In any event, it is a hard film to dislike.

Review © Troy Howarth

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