Monday, March 9, 2015

ORGASMO (1969) aka PARANOIA

Umberto Lenzi, 1969
Starring: Carroll Baker, Lou Castel, Colette Descombes

The recently widowed Kathryn arrives at her husband’s palatial Italian estate for a period of quiet mourning with no company except her disapproving housekeeper and a deaf gardener. She has occasional contact with Brian, her lawyer, who is handling the estate. One afternoon, a young American, Peter, arrives with a broken down car. She allows him to fix the car and then spend the night, where the two becomes lovers. Though he disappears for a time, Peter returns with his sister, Eva, and they introduce her to a hard partying lifestyle, though she soon learns that the siblings are not all that they seem.

Orgasmo, released in the U.S. as Paranoia, is the first of a three-film collaboration between director Umberto Lenzi and blonde beauty Carroll Baker. It’s easy to confuse these often difficult to find films – along with a fourth giallo from Lenzi made at the same time – thanks to their similar release titles, which are as follows:
1) Orgasmo (1969) – released as Paranoia in the U.S.
2) Cosi dolce… Cosi perversa (1969) – released in the U.S. as So Sweet… So Perverse, its direct English translation
3) Paranoia (1970) – released in the U.S. as A Quiet Place to Kill
4) Un posto ideale per uccidere (1971) – released in the U.S. as An Ideal Place to Kill, its direct English translation
So we have lots of paranoia and a few places to kill… and the same lead actress, resulting in a lot of confusion, particularly for anyone trying to find the films in English.

This French-Italian coproduction, perhaps my favorite out of all four, is not quite a giallo, but fits more in line with erotic thrillers. It’s certainly one of Lenzi’s most enjoyable from this period. Like most of the other four films in the series, it involves a threesome and has a plot similar Les Diabolique (1955), where two members of the trio conspire to double-cross and murder the third. The “siblings” Peter and Eva are predictably not brother and sister, but have a complex, competitive Dangerous Liaisons-style relationship. They were close family friends as children, until Peter’s parents divorced and swapped spouses with Eva’s parents, making them step-siblings twice over. This isn’t so much a spoiler, as it is quickly revealed.

Baker, who rose to prominence with her award-winning role in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), subsequently had her career mismanaged by Warner Brothers, producer Joseph E. Levine who wanted to shape her as the next major sex symbol, and a greedy husband. She essentially defected to Italy, where she contentedly made a series of giallo films. She gives one of her best performances here, though she’s unable to rescue the film from one of its chief flaws. Baker, who was in her late ‘30s in Orgasmo, looks to be 25 or 30 at the most, so it’s strange that she’s positioned as an older widow having an affair with a much younger man. The film works far too hard to make her appear older, particularly when she begins spending time with Peter and Eva and referring to their behavior as “young” – when she is also contrasted with the prim, aged housekeeper and her much older lawyer, who is clearly interested in pursuing a relationship with her.

The film’s portrayal of Kathryn is confused in many ways. Sometimes she’s shown as rich and decadent, which is contrasted with depictions of her as lonely, depressed, and miserable, hating her husband’s fortune and the business responsibilities that come along with it. During a luncheon with her husband’s surviving family, she is so stressed out over a discussion of property and inheritance that she actually faints. She is also occasionally shown as wanton, sexual, and an alcoholic – and she briefly discusses her past career as a pop/rock star – yet other times her behavior is conventional, shy, or outright prude.

Overall, the film is restrained in terms of sex and violence, despite its reputation (and title). While Baker is nude quite often – a rarity for Hollywood actresses at the time – and there are a few sex scenes, this avoids the near softcore quality of many of Lucio Fulci’s giallo films made in roughly the same years. It also skates the edge of the anti-capitalist theme introduced in Death Laid an Egg, where greed – and bourgeois excess – are seen and forces of total destruction, but fails to really take the plunge. Although the twist ending insures that characters obsessed with money will get their just desserts, Lenzi also seems to be suggesting that the world is populated with greedy backstabbers.

Orgasmo is certainly entertaining and it will please anyone looking for a slow burning thriller, as well as film fans who prefer psychological torture over physical violence. Between Carroll Baker, some hilariously psychedelic ‘60s shots with an emphasis on the zoom lens, some wonderful atmosphere, and a delightfully creepy script this is an ideal place to begin for newcomers to Lenzi’s giallo series. Plus, come on, that ending. Sadly, it is not available on region 1 DVD, though hopefully that will change sometime soon.

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