The Suspicious Death of a Minor Review
Sergio Martino is one of those Italian directors who tried his hand at a variety of different genres over the years. It could be argued that many of the movies he directed from the late seventies onwards – sometimes under the pseudonym of Martin Dolman - are atrocious. I’m going to be charitable and say that some of these later efforts could, in my opinion, be filed under the category of “so bad they’re good”. In the past I have sat through several of his mid-eighties B-movie calamities like After the Fall of New York, laughing hysterically at the dreadful acting and chintzy production values. Perhaps we should skip over his ill-advised “adventure” trilogy entirely, including the awful Island of the Fishmen. If these films were not ridiculed on an episode of MST3K they probably deserved to be.
You have to go back to the early seventies to appreciate Martino’s real talent as a filmmaker, when he was behind a series of very stylish giallo thrillers: The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, All the Colours of the Dark, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh among others. Aficionados of the genre will rank Martino’s work during this period up there with the best, alongside films by the likes of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. The Suspicious Death of a Minor is one of his lesser known efforts, unusual in that it combines two different Italian genres: the giallo and politziotteschi. In fact, the film was originally going to called “Violent Milan” and marketed as a standard cop actioner, but the distributor had a change of heart and changed the title to suggest a murder mystery after the huge success of Argento’s Deep Red several months earlier in 1975.
The Suspicious Death of a Minor starts in very familiar giallo territory with a girl (the minor referenced in the film's title) being stalked by a mysterious man in shades lurking in the background. She seems aware that her life is in danger and mingles with a crowd dancing in the street, joining a chatty stranger for a brief tango, before making her escape. The menacing guy follows, there is a frantic struggle on a stairwell, but the girl manages to break free. Back in her darkened apartment she finally feels safe, but out of the shadows the killer's face appears and there's the glint of a blade raised in the air.
At this point we know it's not going to end well and sure enough the girl is swiftly and brutally dispatched. It's a highly suspenseful opening sequence with enough intrigue to keep us watching. Even the sinister music at this stage by composer Luciano Michelini is very reminiscent of rock group Goblin, who were renowned for providing the soundtrack for several Argento classics. This is somewhat of a departure though from the traditional giallo, where the only view of the killer initially is just their black gloves, retaining that mystery element. Here we've seen the murderer's face from the get-go, albeit partially hidden behind dark glasses (played to chilling effect by Roberto Posse). It's therefore not so much a whodunnit, but a why have they committed the crime type.
We cut to police at the crime scene, where Detective Teti (Gianfranco Barra) and District Attorney Listri (Aldo Massasso) discuss the case. Although they both sport impressive seventies 'taches, neither instils much confidence from the outset that this murder is going to be efficiently solved. Teti seems particularly inept, more interested in following the sports results than focussing on the job in hand. Fortunately we've been given some misdirection as it turns out these guys are actually secondary characters in the narrative. Though not immediately made clear in the script, our protagonist was actually introduced in the opening scene - that talkative fellow seen dancing with the girl is actually a maverick undercover Detective named Paolo Germi (Claudio Cassinelli on top form).
Germi is on the trail of a Milanese gang involved in kidnapping and underage prostitution to which the murdered girl - later identified as Marisa (Patrizia Castaldi) - was connected. At this point it's worth mentioning that the film doesn't dwell too much on this seedier aspect and is relatively mild in terms of what is shown on screen (reflected in the 15 certificate). In fact it's far less lurid than Martino's earlier gialli, indicating that he and veteran writer Ernesto Gastaldi were aiming for a more mainstream audience. The intention to have wide appeal is almost the film's downfall, as we experience some quite jarring shifts in tone.
Germi recruits a young street kid and petty thief named Giannino (Adolfo Caruso) who becomes his sidekick. There's a car chase early on where Germi and Giannino make off at high speed with some evidence in a battered Citroën 2CV pursued by the police. It's played purely for slapstick value, complete with all the usual clichés, including pedestrians diving out of the way - the same stuntman even does a comedic headspin twice. Chunks of the Citroën are broken off and hurled at the pursuing vehicle, a van full of nuns get caught up in the commotion and some poor cyclist gets struck and his bike snapped in half, only for him to roll away safely on one single wheel. Hilarious you might think, but the sequence doesn't sit comfortably in the film following what has gone before. Maybe Martino was also trying to appeal to any fans of that famous Italian comedy double act Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. Some of the broad humour here falls completely flat. For example, there's a reference to Barney Oldfield during the chase and that joke was completely lost on me until I typed the name into Google. There's also an amusing running gag about Germi's spectacles getting broken during various mishaps, but this will become much more significant later in the story. Watch out for some glaring continuity errors too as cracked lenses seemingly repair themselves.
The film is back on to safer ground after this brief misstep, adopting a more serious tone once again and definitely gets better as it goes along. Germi gathers more evidence about the criminal organisation following help from prostitute Carmela (nicely played by Lia Tanzi), but the mystery killer is still at large, bumping off anyone connected to Marisa. A major strength of the film is that the pace rarely falters, combined with Martino's excellent use of locations. There's a breathtaking sequence at a fair ground on a rollercoaster, with Germi pursuing a gang member. This extended sequence starts high in the air but ends underground in the subway following a thrilling on-foot chase.
The action here is expertly shot by Giancarlo Ferrando, making full use of the widescreen frame, together with crisp editing by Raimondo Crociani. The film also features a cinema with retractable roof that is put to wonderful use during a gripping confrontation between Germi and his nemesis on top of the building. A neat in-joke has the audience inside watching one of Martino's earlier films - Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972).
Cassinelli has enough charisma to carry the film and there's a nice rapport between him and co-star Caruso (who wasn't a big name in Italy). The lack of one strong leading lady is unusual for this type of film. Those familiar with Martino's other giallo thrillers will notice the absence of striking actress Edwige Fenech, who appeared in several of his earlier movies. Similarly, Daria Nicolodi would frequently appear in Argento's thrillers and Catriona MacColl was always memorable in later Fulci horrors. This, on the other hand has a number of actresses in quite small roles, with none managing to make much of an impression with perhaps the exception of the aforementioned Lia Tanzi.
Any viewers seeking a traditional giallo with bravura gruesome set-pieces might feel slightly short changed on this occasion. The Suspicious Death of a Minor is an odd hybrid of genres that doesn't always gel. This may not see Martino at the top of his game, but there are still enough exciting moments in the film to enjoy and make it thoroughly worthwhile.
The film is presented in a 2K restoration from the original camera negative, preserving the correct 2.35:1 ratio. The picture is gorgeous, with rich colours and barely a hint of grain. There are no signs of damage throughout and levels of detail are very pleasing (check out the fine patterns on costumes worn by the characters). There is a choice of audio: original mono Italian and English soundtracks. The Italian track has an option with English subtitles. Italian movies of this era were commonly post-synched, but both options work well. There is also English SDH.
New audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films. It's a terrific commentary, both witty and packed full of trivia.
Violent Milan (featurette, 44 mins) - A new interview with co-writer/director Sergio Martino. The director discusses working with his brother Luciano (who served as producer), the casting and use of locations. The conversation inevitably covers the death of star Cassinelli, who was tragically killed during Martino's Hands of Steel when a helicopter stunt went wrong during filming in Arizona.
There is a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon
Arrow have included an Illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing by Barry Forshaw (first pressing only - not available for review)
The Suspicious Death of a Minor is released by Arrow Video on 25 September 2017.