The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion Review
Warning: although I have taken care to avoid identifying the killer(s), this review does contain spoilers. If you have not yet seen the film, you may want to skip down to the technical section.
The first of three chic gialli helmed by producer turned director Luciano Ercoli, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Le Foto Proibite di una Signora per Bene to Italian audiences) serves as a nice partner to the later Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, while still being different enough to stand on its own feet. Released a scant nine months after Dario Argento's seminal The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Ercoli's directorial debut has much more in common with the conspiratorial domestic thrillers of the 1960s than with the flood of post-Argento imitators, so viewers expecting a black-gloved maniac and a high body count will probably be somewhat disappointed. For those with less rigid ideas regarding what constitutes a giallo, however, Forbidden Photos should be quite a treat...
Bored, pampered housewife Minou (Dagmar Lassander), walking alone on the beach one night, is menaced by a sinister maniac (Simón Andreu), who claims that her husband Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi) is a murderer and that he has proof. Fiercely loyal to her husband, Minou submits to all manner of degradations at the hands of the blackmailer, as her familiar and previously safe world collapses before her eyes. Only her best friend and confidante, Dominique (Nieves Navarro), seems willing to believe her horrifying tale, but, in her unflappable desire to help Minou, does she in fact have an ulterior motive?
One of the most appealing aspects about Ercoli's loose trilogy of gialli is how incredibly camp they now seem - a combination of his highly acute portrayal of early 1970s fashion, a focus on high society female protagonists, and dialogue that nowadays comes across as amusingly tasteless. "Try to look on the bright side," Dominique advises Minou when she discusses her first encounter with the blackmailer, which almost led to rape. "Evidently you must be bursting with sex appeal. I'd have adored being violated!" There are plenty more screamers like that peppered throughout the film, and it should come as no surprised that it was penned by Ernesto Gastaldi, the prolific giallo scribe who traded in clichés and poorly disguised chauvanism. However, as I will go on to discuss later, the strong-willed, assertive women that show up in Ercoli's three gialli (always played by his wife, Nieves Navarro) go some way towards offsetting this less agreeable aspect of them.
For all its chic delights, however, the greatest strength of this languidly-paced thriller is the way in which it allows its parameters to continuously shift. The overarching theme is Minou's estrangement from her husband, but the manner in which this is expressed continually changes. At first, it is simply the fact that he is never around, pampering her with an enviable lifestyle but rarely paying her any attention. Then, when she suspect that he is a murderer, she is unable to confide in him. Later, after submitting to a harrowing sexual ordeal in order to prevent the blackmailer from making his accusations public, she discovers that he in fact never killed anyone, but still cannot confide in him as her blackmailer threatens to send him photographs he took of her tryst with him.
Minou's situation continues to change right up to the final climax, but it all boils down to a single problem: as a domesticated housewife, Minou has no agency of her own and is continually forced to do the bidding of others. In that regard, the film feels like something of a forerunner for Ercoli's later Death Walks at Midnight, whose heroine, Valentina, was continually ignored and ridiculed by men. That said, by keeping the power in the hands of the male figures, Forbidden Photos lacks the almost feminist tone of Midnight (Minou certainly never asserts herself in the way that Valentina does, and during the final confrontation she simply lies on the floor in a stupor), but there is something oddly satisfying about the fact that Dominique (who, like Valentina, is played by Navarro) is the only one smart enough to work out what was actually going on, even if she has to rely on the stoic police inspector (Osvaldo Genazzani) to take charge.
There is some nice casting on display. Although the character of Peter is completely one-dimensional, and the actor playing him is unable to give him any more depth than exists on paper, this seems oddly appropriate for a man who seems to be married to his job rather than his wife, and the rest of the unusually small cast are more than equipped to compensate. As the weak-willed "heroine" of the piece, Czech-born Dagmar Lassander does well to evoke sympathy with a character who could easily have come across as incredibly pathetic. The biggest splash, however, is made by the secondary characters of Dominique and the unnamed blackmailer, and it's easy to see why the performers playing them, Nieves Navarro and Simón Andreu respectively, were elevated to the position of leads for Ercoli's subsequent gialli. Andreu, who continued to play less than savoury individuals, here plays a sadistic bastard without a shred of compassion, while Navarro's spunky persona ensures that she steals every scene in which she appears. As a side note, it's also nice to see a character so implicitly coded as bisexual not being "punished" for her transgressions!
As I mentioned previously, this giallo has little in common with the wave of Bird with the Crystal Plumage immitators that flooded the market throughout the early 1970s, and the fact that, excluding the body count of the final confrontation, there are no on-screen murders at all, means that those for whom the biggest draw of these films is their over the top violence are likely to be thoroughly disappointed. Despite its salacious plot, there is little in the way of gratuitous nudity either, barring a few briefly-glimpsed photographs of Navarro in a state of undress. Still, a few of the staples are present, and the black-cloaked iconography launched by Mario Bava in Blood and Black Lace does put in an appearance for a clever mislead in the film's final act. By and large, though, this is not a film for those with short attention spans, and those weaned on the more fast-paced urban thrillers that had become the norm less than a year after this effort was released may find the unhurried manner in which the narrative unfolds a little trying.
"Are they pornographic photos?" "Yes, but good ones." This particular exchange more or less sums up The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. It's trashy and not particularly substantial, but well-made and enjoyable. The films of the Ercoli/Navarro/Andreu team, while not as well-known as their most obvious rivals, the Sergio Martino/Edwige Fenech/George Hilton gialli, are in my opinion significantly more entertaining. All those involved would later go on to bigger and better things, but this serves as an excellent starting point.
Transferred anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this is the weakest-looking of Blue Underground's four March 2006 giallo releases, due mainly, I suspect, to the lower resolution afforded by the 2.35:1 aspect ratio as opposed to the 1.85:1 ratio of the other three films. Edge enhancement and heavy filtering are the name of the game here, and comparing this to the R2 Italian NoShame Films releases of Ercoli's later two gialli (especially Death Walks on High Heels, which stylistically has a very similar appearance) simply hammers home how much poorer Blue Underground's transfers are.
Audio, as per usual, is in English mono, although unlike Ercoli's other two gialli, which were shot in Italian, this one appears to have been filmed with the entire cast speaking English (although, naturally, post-dubbed). The track sounds perfectly fine, although as usual it does suffer from age-related wear and tear, and has clearly not been cleaned up to the same extent as releases from the likes of Criterion. Still, there are no major complaints, barring the predictable absence of subtitles.
As usual, the main bonus feature is a brief interview, this time a 9-minute piece called Forbidden Screenplays, which features co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi reminiscing about how he ended up writing gialli, as well as his experiences working with Luciano Ercoli. Gastaldi's interviews are often somewhat hit and miss, since he wrote so many films that, often, he is unable to remember any specifics about them (and, in any event, many of them simply recycle the same basic storyline with a few tweaks to characters and situations). Forbidden Photos, however, seems to have made something of an impact on him, and he speaks jovially about the script's rapid turnaround, censorship problems, and so on. He ends mentioning why Ercoli didn't direct more films: apparently he inherited a large amount of money and he and Navarro ran off together. Given that this dynamic duo were clearly very much alive when they were interviewed by Christian Kessler in 1996 (the transcript of which featured on Mondo Macabro's UK DVD release of Death Walks at Midnight), it's too bad that they weren't approached (or were unavailable) for this DVD.
The theatrical trailer, a fairly generic and over-long affair, completes the package.
Blue Underground's release of The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion is up to their usual standard: a flawed transfer, respectable (for the film's age and budget) audio and limited but insightful extras. The film itself is no classic, but it is enjoyable and different enough from the more Argento-influenced gialli for it to be a worthy purchase for neophytes and dedicated fans of the genre alike.