Duccio Tessari, 1971
Starring: Helmut Berger, Giancarlo Sbragia, Ida Galli
After a young French student is found dead in a park, stabbed to death, police arrest TV personality Allesandro Marchi. He just happened to be seen near the park and has no other alibi, among other evidence against him. He is tried for the crime, but the case unravels when it is revealed that Marchi was visiting with his mistress that day – much to the chagrin of his beautiful wife, who begins having an affair with his attorney. When two other girls are killed with the same M.O. while Marchi is in prison, it seems that the police definitely have the wrong suspect… or do they?
Director Duccio Tessari – known for spaghetti westerns like A Pistol for Ringo (1965) – helmed this surprising giallo, one that is certainly lesser known but is worthy of attention. Deceptively, the first half of the film is presented as a fairly dull courtroom drama and/or police procedural. However, it soon twists itself into a compelling giallo with some surprisingly well-developed characters and moments of genuine sleaze. On the surface level, this is yet another film about beautiful young women being murdered, but The Bloodstained Butterfly shows an unexpected level of sympathy for its victims.
SPOILERS: Though Tessari makes it seem like this is a film about yet another psychopathic killer, murdering while he hides behind a charming mask of gentility, this is merely a well-executed red herring. Though there is no clear protagonist, the film essentially revolves around Helmut Berger’s Giorgio, a spoiled, tormented playboy. The film brilliantly plays with Berger’s reputation from films like Dorian Gray (1970) and The Damned (1970), where he plays characters that are ultimately doomed by their destructive, perverse sexual obsessions. While this seems to be the case here – for instance, he has somewhat violent sex with Sarah (Wendy D’Olive), Marchi’s teenage daughter. Though it is consensual, Sarah admits that she is frightened and Giorgio becomes somewhat unhinged by the encounter. Brilliantly, the film leads us to believe that the increasingly manic, paranoid Giorgio – racing through the labyrinthine streets to flee from onlookers and police – is the killer, but in its final moments reveals that he knows the identity of the real killer and is trying to get revenge for the murder of his girlfriend, the young French girl found rolling down a hill on a rainy day in the park.
The opening sequence – where the mud, grass, and blood-flecked girl is found by two children and their babysitter – is effective and chilling, but also suggests that this is going to be a fairly conventional giallo. The killer is practically revealed to us, as we see everything but his face, and Tessari ensures that a few witnesses spot him, though they are of course later revealed to be unreliable. Tessari somehow manages to be unexpected and unconventional as often as possible, while still sticking to the rough outlines of a giallo film. The Bloodstained Butterfly lacks overt violence or gore, though there are three deaths, and the film seems to work backwards. While many giallo films start off strong and peter out thanks to an ill-structured script, this strong screenplay from Tessari and the talented, if underrated Gianfredo Clerici (of New York Ripper, Cannibal Holocaust, and Don’t Torture a Duckling) takes time to get going, but is well worth the wait.
While not as grim as something like Short Night of the Glass Dolls, this film takes itself more seriously than the average giallo and there are none of the silly psychedelic scenes from earlier films in the genre. Instead, Tessari moves between crime scene, court house, and domestic spaces, showing a fair amount of familial strife for Giorgio and Sarah. After so many entries with journalists, reporters, and both amateur and professional detectives, it’s something of a relief to follow normal people who may be involved in, but are certainly affected by the central murder. The film also lacks the nudity and overt sexuality of many earlier giallo films, though this theme plays an important role as a perverse undercurrent affecting nearly all the relationships between the main players.
The Bloodstained Butterfly is an unexpected delight, but it will only reward patient viewers. It’s worth watching just for the tense, moody concluding sequence where the whopper of a twist is revealed, and of course for Helmut Berger’s lovely, paranoid performance. I am, of course, biased, as I’m a big fan of most of his filmography – one day I’m even going to track down What Did Stalin Do to Women? (1969). The Bloodstained Butterfly, which all giallo fans should check out, is available on DVD, though only as an import, I believe.