Duccio Tessari, 1970
Starring: Raf Vallone, Frank Wolff, Gabriele Tinti, Eva Renzi
Avanzio Berzaghi’s daughter, Donatella, has disappeared. Though she’s 25 years old, she’s mentally handicapped and prone to nymphomania, so he fears the worst. No one will help him until he travels to Milan and meets with Detective Lamberti. A bleeding heart, Lamberti is determined to find the girl, believing that she has probably been kidnapped and forced into the sex trade. Lamberti and his assistants blackmail a con and former pimp, and later a prostitute, into helping them comb their way through the city, one brothel at a time, towards the missing girl.
Based on a novel by Giorgio Scerbanenco, director Duccio Tessari’s Death Occurred Last Night is a bleak, unique blend of giallo and police procedural. Known primarily for spaghetti westerns (A Pistol for Ringo and many others with star Giulio Gemma), Tessari made a few giallo films throughout his career, namely The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971) and the excellent Puzzle (1974). All three of these are unusual approaches to the genre and Tessari is certainly one of Italian cinema’s more underrated directors.
While Death Occurred Last Night takes a while to get going, its premise is fairly brutal. This blending of genres is not really a giallo film, but borrows elements from the giallo, thrillers, Italian police procedurals, and revenge films. What is particularly unique about it – aside from the queasy premise – is how developed and personable Detective Lamberti becomes and that the script is always willing to work at its own pace, often forgoing genre expectations. POTENTIAL SPOILER: Although this information is all over the internet – and other reviewers make it seem like this happens early in the film – the actual main plot point doesn’t occur until more than halfway through. Detective Lamberti finds Donatella’s burning body in a field, just as they have begun to close in on the person/people who kidnapped her. This sets in motion Bergazhi’s parallel quest for revenge.
Like The Black Belly of the Tarantula’s Inspector Tellini, released a year later, Lamberti often laments that he is not qualified for police work – he is simply too sensitive for the relentless brutality of the cases he has to solve. Police officers and detectives fill somewhat of an unusual role in giallo films. Often they are completely useless – occasionally comically so – or they lack the insight of the protagonist. In this case Lambertini’s reluctance to separate victims and perpetrators, which are often one and the same in his world of gangsters and prostitutes, adds a nihilistic, depressed edge to the film. He knows that he is likely to find Donatella’s corpse and futilely races against the clock, hoping to save at least one person. He’s played by exhausted-looking genre actor Frank Wolff, known for everything from early Roger Corman films like The Wasp Woman and Beast from Haunted Cave to spaghetti westerns like The Great Silence and Once Upon a Time in the West, as well as police procedurals (Caliber 9), other giallo films (Cold Eyes of Fear and Death Walks on High Heels), and even erotica (The Lickerish Quartet). He is perhaps not the typically handsome giallo lead (like George Hilton), but he’s incredibly compelling.
Prostitution and the sex trade have not faded over the years as a subject of cinematic interest, and it can even be seen in mainstream works – including recent efforts like Hostel to Taken – where the theme skirts the uncomfortable boundary between exploitation and true horror. Death Occurred Last Night’s script goes to some truly unexpected places and avoids many giallo genre clichés. Rather than being violent and – let’s face it – stupid, the cops are sympathetic and hardworking, average guys who routinely have to deal with the worst of humanity. The father, Bergazhi, is not the standard portrait of overwrought Italian masculinity. In some comic-tragic scenes, he is shown tenderly caring for his daughter. He lives alone and grieves at her absence.
SPOILERS: His (and the film’s) final act is to get vengeance on the people who kidnapped Donatella. Unexpectedly, this is a local criminal hoping to make a quick buck prostituting a beautiful, but senseless girl, along with the aid of Berghazi’s female neighbor, who works at the Laundromat nearby, and her crooked boyfriend. He essentially beats all three to death (or at least unconscious) in a public laundry room, a scene that would be comical if not for the grim tone heightened by a sense of claustrophobia. The final, unpleasant note is the idea that anyone, even the smiling woman next door, is capable of an extremely cruel act of violence – she admits that they killed Donatella simply because she was annoying and wouldn’t stop crying for her father. In response, Berghazi strangles her to death under the weight of pounds of wet bed sheets.
The film’s other unusual element is Herrero, a black prostitute played by Jamaican actress Beryl Cunningham (also seen in The Weekend Murders), one of the few black actresses to make a mark in Italian cult films. In additions to the few aforementioned giallo efforts (including So Sweet… So Perverse), she appeared in exploitation films like Tarzana, the Wild Woman, Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray, Sergio Martino’s Island of the Fishmen, post-apocalyptic film Exterminators of the Year 3000, and her then-partner Piero Vivarelli’s erotic/cult films The Black Decameron and The God Snake, among others. Herrero is a complex character, as she both helps and deceives Lamberti. He invites her to live at his home, where she is reluctantly accepted by his photographer girlfriend. Though Lamberti believes she is complicit in her own misery, the film turns this on its head and shows that Herrero – and women like her – are exploited by a corrupt, broken system, to which there is almost never a means to escape and women are sucked in by abusive boyfriends, drug use, poverty, and a lack of employable skill set (outside prostitution).
Death Occurred Last Night may not be the most stylish giallo (though it does take advantage of the Milanese setting), but its sense of gritty realism is almost unparalleled within the genre. Despite several murders, including the conclusion’s triple homicide, it lacks the flashy, effect-laden gore of giallo films or the over-the-top violence of police procedurals. Hovering somewhere between the two, the film comes highly recommended, though look out for the almost inappropriately jazzy score, some slightly disturbing montage sequences, and plenty of red herrings. Fortunately it’s available on DVD from Raro Video, doing spectacular work, as always.