(By Henrik Hemlin)

Perhaps Mario Bava's most off-beat (and most underrated) film is FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. Some consider this terrific movie a dull trifle, one of the less important Bava pieces. I'm sure they feel their case is strengthened by the fact that the self-effacing director himself referred to it in one interview as surely his worst film. I emphatically disagree with that statement, and will briefly discuss some aspects of the film below, which I find interesting.

The plot: A wealthy industrialist, George Stark, invites three friends and their wives to his isolated island beach house. The guest of honor is Gerry Farrell, a brilliant inventor in bad need of a vacation. The getaway turns out to be a plan by Stark and his two business associates to coerce Farrell into selling the rights to distribute his latest invention: a brand new industrial resin. With secret bids and sexual intrigue in the air, tension and distrust builds as the guests turn up dead, one by one.

It could be argued that FIVE DOLLS is the companion film to Bava's 1963 film THE WHIP AND THE BODY. Made a mere six years earlier, the gothic thriller would seem much different from the psych era giallo shot at the last breath of the sixties, in October 1969 -- and yet there are many similarities. Both films depict a small group of people in an isolated house by the sea (the Menliff castle and and the Stark beach house were mounted on the same cliff at Tor Caldara, as noted by Tim Lucas in his commentary for VCI's THE WHIP AND THE BODY disc). In WHIP, the nobleman Kurt Menliff, whose former lover killed herself, arrives at a castle by the sea. Mysterious deaths ensue, including his own. He is then “resurrected” by his killer/lover (Nevenka), only to be “killed again” at the end. In FIVE DOLLS, the scientist Gerry Farrell, who murdered his colleague, is invited to a house by the sea. Mysterious deaths ensue, including his own. He is then resurrected by his “killer” (Isabelle) only to be condemned to death for his earlier crime.

As the stories evolve, no further characters are introduced, other than those present from the beginning (bar the brief appearances of a priest and some coffin bearers in WHIP; a captain, a couple of sailors and two chauffeurs in FIVE DOLLS). Virtually all scenes take place in the various rooms of the castle/beach house, on the beach, in the garden surroundings, and in the crypt/freezer. The concept of time is ignored, and both films are basically a string of setpieces. In both instances, Bava did not contribute to the original script, although he made drastic changes in that of FIVE DOLLS (including the twist ending). Finally, there is this connection: both films include a beach confrontation between a man and a woman (Kurt/Nevenka; Nick/Trudy). On both occasions, the scene opens with a pan from left to right, starting from the edge of the water, and stopping where the woman is sitting on a rock, facing left, and watching the sea. Enter the man from the left of the screen. Before the camera reveals the man to us, the woman discovers him and turns her head left.

Within this given framework, the films are each other's polar opposites -- i.e., opposites much in the same way that Jess Franco’s VAMPYROS LESBOS relates to the original story of Dracula. WHIP takes place mostly at night, in the dark, whereas FIVE DOLLS is a daylight movie with bright sets. The darkness vs. light also reflects the downbeat/upbeat quality of the films respectively. WHIP is set in an old age, while FIVE DOLLS is set in an ultra-mod milieu. While WHIP is deliberately slow and silent, FIVE DOLLS is fast-paced, with many successive short scenes, rapid-fire dialogue and editing. Both films feature the director’s trademark complementary red/green and blue/yellow hues. However, while Bava paints his gothic masterpiece with colored light, in the latter film, he is using colored objects instead of gel lighting. One example is a composition featuring a blue dress, a yellow fruit, a red scarf and a decanter filled with green liquid.

There is much to like in FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON. For one thing, there is the weird, inventive soundtrack by the late lounge Maestro Piero Umiliani which complements the film perfectly. Here is one of those instances when the soundtrack becomes the movie. Ingeniously, when a character turns on the radio, no ordinary radio station is heard. Instead, a variation of a theme from the soundtrack is played. This, in turn, contributes to the sense of isolation and time-suspension. As a giallo, this picture is very rare indeed, as none of the murders are depicted. Instead, Bava devises inventive and decorative ways of showing how the bodies are found by the remaining characters. There are no attempts at creating any shock effect (cf. SIX WOMEN FOR THE MURDERER); the characters’ reactions to finding their various spouses dead seem equally unruffled. This laid back attitude towards everything creates an ethereal, detached atmosphere which is largely the spirit of the film.

(Click the image of Trudy by the window to see from which film Bava recycled this composition).

Because of the desert island premise, there is no police investigation, which certainly is no loss. In fact, there is no element anchored in “reality” (cf. the character of Midge in Hitchcock's VERTIGO), which is essential in making FIVE DOLLS exist in a timeless little bubble of its own.

Most reviewers complain about the characters’ being dull and uninteresting. I beg to differ. Besides, if the characterizations (or lack thereof) were to be changed, the film would not be the mysterious, wacky movie that it is. And we don't have to care about the characters, in the sense that we care if they live or die, as they'll all magically return when we watch the film again. They are not so much characters as they are stereotypes (or rather archetypes), but I think this may be pivotal to the film. Populating the film with stock characters does seem to be a key ingredient in the giallo formula.

A whole lot of the camera compositions seem to deal with squares. They are squares within the rectangle (a modified square) of the frame that is the film itself. Perhaps the squares are just a visual gimmick, but subconsciously they have a symbolic value, too. In numerology, the square is synonymous with the number 4, which represents form, the material world, law, order and stability. (According to Genesis, the earth was formed on the fourth day of Creation). The square represents boundaries that both hinder us and protect us. We grow up in a square crib in a square house, study in a square class room, and then end up in a square office or maybe a square prison cell, like Professor Farrell at the end of the film. At the beginning of the film, Isabelle approaches one of the beach house windows to look at the other characters partying. Before the concluding prison scene, we see Isabelle through a square window set in the door to the house freezer. This time, she is looking at the corpses of the other characters. We then cut to Isabelle appearing at a similar door to the prison corridor where Farrell is awaiting his doom. Isabelle asks him for the code to cash in Nick’s millon-dollar check. “It’s a very simple number: 2-2-3-3-3.” (Note: the English soundtrack mistranslates this as “two two, double three,” but the Italian dialogue says “due volte due, tre volte tre,” which is “two times two, three times three”). These numbers add up to 13. In numerology, one would reduce this number to a single digit, by adding 1 and 3. Once again, there is the number 4.

Notably, the cast consists of four married couples, and one all-seeing, unseen onlooker, Isabelle (thus we have five female characters -- five dolls). The squares symbolize the house hosting the characters, their confinement, as well as the material world of the businessman. It is the tangible world, that which we can see and touch. But the material world is corrupt -- material things will not last forever, as illustrated in the scene where Isabelle sketches dollar signs in the sand, whereupon they are washed away. That shot could also be seen as an ironic in-joke, as Bava was handed dud cheques for his work on several occasions.

As an auteur piece, FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON is a brilliant and adventurous excercise in style and another great showcase of Bava's veritable arsenal of different compositions for establishing shots and dialogue scenes. If anything, it stands as a monument to what Bava could do with poor material and little preparation.

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