Flavio Mogherini, 1977
Starring: Ray Milland, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Michele Placido, Mel Ferrer
When the unidentifiable body of an assaulted young woman wearing yellow pajamas is found burned on a Sydney beach, the police close in on a local pervert and Peeping Tom. But retired Detective Thompson believes there is more to the case and begins his own investigation with the reluctant help of a younger detective. A woman steps forward and claims the body belongs to her missing daughter, Anna, but Thompson doubts her story. Meanwhile, a beautiful, promiscuous young waitress is caught between a rich older benefactor, an Italian waiter she has fallen in love with, and a physically satisfying German lover. Is one of her paramours the killer?
A moody crime thriller that can only loosely be called a giallo, The Pyjama Girl Case takes some confusing twists and turns and it’s only towards the end of the film that you understand what director Flavio Mogherini has done with his clever script. Mogherini developed a career doing design work for directors like Roberto Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini (on Accattone), though cult movie fans will probably recognize his colorful art direction on Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968). While I wouldn’t call Pyjama Girl an exceptionally colorful or stylish film — it’s certainly not trying to compete with Bava or Argento — it’s lovely to look at and makes the most of its Australian set. Yes, you read that right: Australia. There have been some ludicrous attempts to set giallo films in the UK — such as What Have You Done to Solange? in London, Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye in Scotland, and, hilariously, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire in Ireland — but this is the only giallo I know of that was set (and shot) in Australia.
It actually took me awhile to figure out that the proceedings were set Down Under, because the dubbing includes primarily non-Australian accents, including Milland’s American banter and a number of Italian-accented police officers. This Italian-Spanish coproduction actually centers on a number of immigrants/foreigners to Australia: a retired American detective, a beautiful Dutch woman, and her Italian husband. Based on a famous Australian murder case — the death of Linda Agostini in Australia in 1934 — the film follows its source material surprisingly accurately and dispenses with the string of gory murders so popular in most giallo films and focuses on just one corpse.
In terms of ‘60s and ’70s films, it is actually difficult to describe the dividing line between a giallo film and simply an Italian murder mystery in general, but particularly when it comes to The Pyjama Girl Case. The film plays with some of the genre conventions, but abandons many: there is no black-gloved killer and only one murder instead of a series. However Mogherini does present a fresh spin on a beloved giallo trope — the foreigner vacationing or living in Italy who gets caught up in a crime — and the characters are depicted as being very lonely, isolated people. Other giallo elements appear, including incompetent police, a fairly lewd, gratuitous use of sex, elements of voyeurism, violence, and red herrings. For example, a woman insists that the burned girl is her daughter and provides some evidence, though Thompson soon begins to reveal this as an insurance fraud scheme. Sadly, the film never follows up with the questionable mother and her obviously missing daughter.
Depressing and abundantly morbid, The Pyjama Girl Case is surprisingly not packed with unlikable characters, as many giallo films are, but spends most of its running time breaking down flawed individuals trying to make the best of their lives. It’s really surprising to see Ray Milland here. He emphasizes the grimy one, as he looks exhausted and not overly thrilled about the proceedings. SPOILERS: Taking a page out of Psycho’s book, Milland is abruptly killed halfway through the film, right around the time that he has begun to really follow the killer’s trail. The absolutely beautiful Dalila Di Lazzaro (Flesh for Frankenstein, Phenomena) should have starred in a lot more giallo films, but is in fine form here and delivers some solid acting as Glenda, the film’s loose protagonist. It is unclear why the film follows her and I won’t ruin it for you here. I was expected a typical giallo-style twist, where one of the many men in her life turns out to be the killer, but Mogherini is far more clever than he first seems to be.
Keep your eyes peeled for a roster of genre favorites, including the always suspicious, creepy, and oversexed Howard Ross (New York Ripper, Behind Convent Walls) to Mel Ferrer. After a prolific career in American and British films of the ‘50s and ’60s like Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious and Powell and Pressburger’s Oh Rosalinda!, he inexplicably retired to European cult films like The Suspicious Death of a Minor, Eaten Alive!, and Nightmare City. Handsome Italian actor Michele Placido is convincing and sympathetic as Glenda’s jealous husband. Though he was in more mainstream than cult films, you might recognize him from giallo film Plot of Fear and Walerian Borowczyk’s Lulu (1980).
The Pyjama Girl Case is sadly underrated and deserved some renewed attention. Though gore fans will be disappointed, there are some notably unpleasant moments, including a later scene where a destitute Glenda is forced to prostitute herself and reluctantly accepts a particularly nauseating gang bang. And in an absolutely incredulous scene, the naked corpse is displayed in town behind a glass case (with what looks like a cloth bag over her burned, disfigured face) in the hopes that someone will recognize her. Instead of seeming like a sound method of detection and evidence gathering, it feels like a particularly morbid art exhibit or performance installation. Pick it up on DVD from Blue Underground and be sure to listen for an improbably electronic score from Riz Ortolani — with two songs sung by cult figure, model, and artist Amanda Lear (muse of Salvador Dali and Roxy Music). I would love to hear the story of how that collaboration came about.