The Pyjama Girl Case Review
Although the giallo craze enjoyed its greatest success in the early 1970s, the genre has stuck around, in one form or another, for the better part of 40 years, outlasting every other Italian filone, including the wildly popular Spaghetti Western. It has often struck me that the genre's later entries were of a far more mean-spirited nature than their early-70s counterparts, with Lucio Fulci's nihilistic The New York Ripper, Paolo Cavara's sordid Plot of Fear and Dario Argento's brutal Opera being the front-runners when it comes to showing the unpleasant underbelly of life. 1977's The Pyjama Girl Case (or La Ragazza dal Pigiama Giallo, to use its original title) is, in that regard, very much a product of its era: a cold, pessimistic tale populated by victims of circumstance, it remains one of the most unusual gialli ever made, even if its experiments are not entirely successful.
The body of a young woman is discovered on a beach in Sydney, its face so mutilated that identification is impossible. With the only clues to go on being some grains of rice found on the body and the distinctive yellow pyjamas in which it is dressed, the curmudgeonly Detective Inspector Timpson (Ray Milland) comes out of retirement to lend his experience to this baffling case. Facing the derision of his younger colleagues, he puts his tried and tested methods of detection to work, piecing together the sad story of Glenda Blythe (Dalila Di Lizzaro), all the way to its tragic conclusion.
As it happens, whether or not you consider this film to be a giallo will depend on how rigid your own personal definition of your term is. Certainly, the body count is extremely low, with the entire film geared around a single murder and spending significantly more time on the personal drama that occurred before it than on the detection process. There is no enigmatic black-gloved assassin here, no fetishistic close-ups of his weapons of destruction, and no deep-rooted personal trauma leading to unbridled insanity: as is established early in the game, Glenda's killer must have been scared out of his wits, and probably never intended to murder her. The most unusual aspect of this film is that it has no heroes or villains: the killer, when finally unmasked, is revealed to be an impulsive individual who acted rashly on the spur of the moment. The police are no better, willing to go to extreme lengths to extract a confession, to the extent that they beat an obviously innocent schmuck to the point that he is willing to agree to anything - something which puts more than a little doubt in our minds when they use the same tactics on the real killer. (One of the defining aspects of the real-life case upon which the film was based is that, although a man was charged for the woman's murder, re-investigation has consistently thrown doubt on his conviction.)
Glenda, too, is not without her flaws. Involved with three men at once, she treats them all rather shabbily, and none more so than her husband, Italian immigrant Antonio (Michele Placido). Flitting from lover to lover without a moment's thought, she is, according to the laws of the giallo, doomed from the moment she first appears on-screen. And yet, for all her duplicity, there is something incredibly redeeming about her. While many of the hardships that befall her are of her own making, hers is a life that spirals out of control, and on more than one occasion she ends up being a victim not of her own making but because events take place that are beyond her control. A lot of the character's complexity undoubtedly comes from Dalila Di Lazzaro, who, clearly relishing the chance to play a more three-dimensional character than the usual giallo fare, goes for the sympathy vote and makes it impossible not to see her plight as that of someone who has simply been extremely unlucky. The moments dealing with her character's declining circumstances are by far the strongest elements of the film.
It's a shame, therefore, that the other half of the film - that which deals with the detection process - is not of the same high standard. Director Flavio Mogherini adopts a somewhat unusual technique, intercutting the "before" and "after" scenes in a seemingly random manner, rather than going down the more conventional route of using the "before" scenes to illustrate the detectives' discoveries. Here, the two halves periods never interact in a satisfying way, to the extent that it is initially unclear that the film is taking place in two different time periods. That's not to say that the detection scenes are completely without merit: indeed, Ray Milland is to this film what Max Von Sydow would later be to Argento's Non Ho Sonno, with his "jilted old cop" routine providing some of the most genuinely enjoyable moments (his passing gesture to a man caught masturbating to the sight of his next-door neighbour hanging out washing is priceless). Milland seems actually to be having fun with this part, and although he carries with him the air of an accomplished actor down on his luck and forced to accept roles that would at one point have been considered beneath him, this is entirely appropriate to the character, whose best years are behind him and who finds himself having to adapt to a world that he would rather not be a part of.
Apart from the scenes in which Milland appears, however, the detective material is leaden. At 102 minutes, the film is a good ten minutes longer than most gialli, and I can't help feeling that a lot of extraneous material could have been left on the cutting room floor, particularly given that the various scenes of police officers questioning shifty-looking eyewitnesses never really end up aiding the detection process. The audience is constantly several steps ahead of the police, being in full possession of the knowledge of the victim's identity while Timson and his associates are fumbling in the dark, and the result is that, as a murder mystery, the film is a failure. Viewed as a tragic drama, however, it is possible to see it in a more favourable light, and in fact I can't help thinking that it would have been more successful had the scenes with the detectives been removed completely and Glenda's story played out in a more linear fashion.
Aesthetically, this is not a particularly attractive film, with the sun-bleached landscape of New South Wales and the harsh concrete of Sydney's cityscape contrasting starkly with the baroque Italian architecture that has come to define the giallo genre, while Riz Ortolani's pounding electronic score, augmented by a couple of truly morose pop ballads, is about as far from Ennio Morricone as you can get. Still, the ugliness is appropriate to the subject matter, and, given that the director's background was in production design, it makes sense to assume that its austere look was intentional. Filmed mostly on location, it certainly makes excellent use of its surroundings, with the Sydney Opera House featuring prominently in a number of scenes. The harshness of the film's look also augments its central subject matter, which is all about isolation: the isolation of Timpson in his old age, the isolation of Italian immigrant Antonio in a city simmering with hostility towards foreigners, and, of course, the isolation of Glenda, who, having burned all her bridges, finds herself with no-one in whom to confide.
With its focus on despair and desperation, The Pyjama Girl Case is not a cheerful film to watch, and one which, despite its lurid title, lacks the sensationalism and campness that have come to define, for so many people, the giallo hits of the earlier half of the 1970s. Mogherini and co have crafted a truly tragic film and one that, flawed as it is, possesses a completely unique tone, and as such is one that all fans of the genre owe it to themselves to see.
Like all Blue Underground releases, The Pyjama Girl case has received a transfer that has as many flaws as it does strengths. Presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the print is in excellent condition and the encoding is handled extremely well, but the softness and abundance of edge enhancement that has come to define this studio's output is as problematic as ever. The transfer has a very harsh look to it thanks to the heavy amount of ringing, but it is so filtered that it never possesses much in the way of fine detail, except in the tightest of close ups. Still, it goes without saying that the presentation here is better than that of the various VHS releases by leaps and bounds.
The only available audio option is the English dub, presented in two-channel mono and suffering from more synchronisation errors than usual for films of this type. Despite being set in Sydney, only a small number of the characters are dubbed with anything that sounds remotely like an Australian accent, while the clarity suffers from all the usual age-related problems. That said, I'm sure this sounds as good as the source materials allowed, and I won't bemoan the lack of an Italian dub here, given that, in a film set in Australia, everyone is meant to be speaking English anyway.
As per usual with Blue Underground, there are no subtitles. Laziness or sheer stubbornness? You decide.
The main extras is The Pyjama Girl Mystery: A True Story of Murder, Obsession and Lies, a 30-minute documentary which essentially takes the form of a lengthy interview with Richard Evans, the author of the book The Pyjama Girl Mystery, which investigated the mystery surrounding the real-life 1934 murder which inspired the film. It offers some fascinating insights into what must have been a truly bizarre media phenomenon and sheds some light on the differences between the real murder and that which is presented in the film (which, in many cases, maintains the real names of certain individuals despite completely altering their characters and the roles they play in the crime). Evans also offers a few grudging compliments regarding the film, which he clearly considers to be doing something of a disservice to the real thing. (He does praise Mogherini's attempts to capture the isolation felt by Antonio, however.)
The 4-minute English theatrical trailer is also contained on the disc. Also included inside the DVD case is a reproduction of The Pyjama Girl, a rather strange and not particularly accomplished comic strip by Eddie Campbell which explores the fascination with the real-life murder.
This release of The Pyjama Girl Case is very much "business as usual" for Blue Underground, who continue their commitment to releasing the more obscure offerings from the grindhouse circuit. As always, marvellous as it is to see a neglected title seeing the light of day, certain aspects of this DVD could have been improved, not least the lack of subtitles.