Roberto Curti & Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l’assassino (1964, Mario Bava)
When it comes to singular works on a singular filmmaker it is hard to beat Tim Lucas’ astonishing labour of blood, sweat and brain, his tome of critical history and analysis of the career of Mario Bava. The book in question is Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. The book is heavy (about 12 pounds), gorgeously designed and impeccably researched. If a book could attain the status of cult item, this may well turn out to be it. As of this writing, on Amazon.ca there are two copies available to purchase, one at $1634.00 and a second at $2008.00 (yep this is no typo). And over at .com, one copy at just under $1000.00 (US currency).
You would think that there is nothing left to say about Mario Bava, but one Roberto Curti did not get the memo. His recent 2019 contribution to the Devil’s Advocate series on Bava’s seminal Sei Donne per l’assassino, 1964 Blood and Balack Lace is a revelation for those who thought they knew the film well. Even with Lucas’ work, Curti reveals some fascinating information on the film, especially in relation to the broader cultural terrain of Italy in the 1960s. Of course this ‘little’ book comes on the back of a shelf long list of books Curti has written on popular Italian filone, notably the gothic horror film, the gialli, the fumetti neri and the poliziotteschi. It seems only natural that Curti, being Italian from the Tuscan town of Cortona, would be better positioned than Lucas to deliver the Italian subtleties of the film. To finish on the publisher, The Devil’s Advocate’s series of small-sized books on important horror films has already published over 30 volumes and seems poised to become the BFI Classics series equivalent for the horror genre.
As Curti notes, 1964, when Sei Donne per l’assassino was released, was the peak period of film production in Italy with 315 films. The film was originally titled L’atelier della morte, which references the fashion studio setting of the film, and as a title says more about the film’s thematic blend of violence with beauty, a theme which Bava worked into many of his films, most notably Five Dolls for an August Moon, where a series of corpses of beautiful victims are covered in plastic and stored in walk-in freezer like slabs of beef.
Curti is especially strong on placing the film within the broader context of Italian popular art of the 1950s and 1960s, namely the German Krimi films, fumetti neri, gialli novels, fashion, and fotoromanzi. For example, there is a clear influence of the Krimi (German for Kriminalroman) but there were already crime stories in Italy since 1929.
With the coming of the giallo the duality within women that was common in the gothic horror cinema (Black Sunday), between the bad and the good woman, or the one who died, and the one who survived, came to an end. Now in the giallo you could not be sure who of the female characters will die and who will survive. In fact, Bava in his usually sheepish self, pretty much TELLS viewers who the victims are going to be in his sublime credit scene, where characters fated to die, to be one of the “six women”, are framed next to mannequins. As Curti acknowledges, this formal innovation was in fact Bava’s borrowing from the fotoromanzo comic book, which would often open with a picture, name and description of each key character in the story.
English language reprint of the Killing fotoromanzo, introducing characters
The wonderful use of mannequins feeds a discussion of Freud’s famous essay on “The Uncanny,” a common aesthetic device for generating fear in his films, notably in Kill Baby Kill, Lisa and the Devil, and Curti cites the influence of the Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours”, where a salesgirl trapped in a department store is revealed to be a mannequin. And a lesser (if ever?) cited reference, the 1954 Luis Bunuel film Ensayo de un crimen. The killer’s costume in that film and his featureless face is likened to the featureless faces of Man Ray and Di Chirico, and René Magritte’s “La metafisica” or “Les amants”.
Curti is a diligent researcher but has excellent analytical skills which he puts to good use throughout this book. On page 56 he discusses the marvelous set-piece where Nicole is stalked by the trench coat killer Massimo in the antique store. The way in which Massimo is able to seemingly appear and disappear suggest an ‘uncanny’ if not supernatural power. In an audio-visual essay on “Blood and Black Lace: An introduction to the Giallo” by In Praise of Shadows the author describes the scene where the killer moves backwards into the space, his movements hidden by when the light goes black, and how in one point his body lingers just long enough to be visible. He says this is an editing error, but Curti argues more convincingly, given how the film was edited by a masterful editor Mario Serandrei, who had 266 credits to his name, that Bava and Serandrei let the image overlap a few more frames so that the killer would be given a pseudo fantastic power of time shifting in space.
Tech geek’s will love the elaborate discussion of Bava’s use of the Pan Cinor zoom lens (69-71), which fits into his love of objects –the lens itself an object– ‘objectif’ in French, but narratively, the way his camera often veers from humans to objects. Curti has a great quote from novelist Cameron McCabe (a.k.a. Ernest Bornemann) from his novel The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (1937) that reflects this well, and especially that long tracking shot through the atelier: “chess played with figures that look like human beings –but they only look like humans: they aren’t.”
Through the book we learn many production details. The original script suggests it was to be shot in Florence, but budgetary reasons switched it to Rome, yet Bava depicts a Rome unlike any other, minus the usual tourist attractions and far more sinister, desolate and noirish. We learn that the film did not do well domestically, 137 million lire, which is more than La Ragazza che sapeva troppo but less than his next western. But is sold well abroad. It was filmed in English with an English script to help sell it but they only recorded a guide track. And the track dubbed by Mel Welles in Italy which included Mitchell and Arden doing their voices was not the one used by United Artist who purchased the rights. A trend which would continue, alas, in later films picked up for US distribution. They recorded another one with Lou Moss supervising it, but this is not the one used in the US release of the film.
In the final chapter of his book, chapter 12, “The Red Telephone” (is this Bava’s clever homage to the Krimi novels, which often, like the Italian novels, are color coded, red instead of yellow?), Curti performs one of the fairest and most impassioned declarations of Bava’s importance and uniqueness as an filmmaker that you are ever likely to read. Curti brilliantly synthesizes Bava’s career within in a broad Italian cinema and cultural context which makes gloriously inventive links between the newly birthed post-ww2 Italian fashion industry and the Italian film industry, in ways which draw on Italy’s Renaissance past and the Italian personality trait known as the “art of getting by” (art di arangiarsi). Sei Donne per l’assassino sets a series of murders in and around a fashion house, a theme he would return to in 1970 with A Hatchet for a Honeymoon. And, as Curti speculates –and I would agree— surely influenced Nicolas Winding Refn for his fashion set noir horror Neon Demon. Curti concludes by acknowledging that Sei Donne per l’assassino has earned its reputation as an important giallo, eurocult item and highly influential film for both Italian and international cinemas. But Curti captures the true value and uniqueness of it as a project which lives within the conventional dictates of its many genre affiliations, or its many ‘threads’ (filone) —the crime novel, the fumetti neri, the gothic story— yet remains deeply personal and filled with creative freedoms. He quotes French scholar Jean-François Raugier, [the film] operates a “radical rupture[…]with the rhetoric it references to in its very being, and gets rid of clichés and stereotypes without disavowing its own nature of genre product, thus reaching remarkable creative freedom and expressive autonomy. Therefore, if its successors have plundered its aesthetics and even whole sequences, no one reached the core of Bava’s film: that is, the denial of catharsis, the laying bare of the futility of detection, the sublimation of aesthetics and the annihilation of the human elements” (Curti, p. 108, Blood and Black Lace, 2019, The Devil’s Advocate).
Curti concludes with a fascinating parallel expanding meaning from the film’s house of high fashion setting. Many critics have discussed this relationship by noting a parallel between the aesthetic chicness of the setting and the stylized deaths, but Curti takes this connection to a deeper level. He argues that in postwar Italy they tried to create a “made in Italy” brand that was always tied to its grand renaissance past, to the value of coming from craft, hard work, and the family passing down knowledge and mastery of tradition, the “know-how of generations”, in contrast to France’s haute couture, which had been in existence since the 1900s and with ties to the avant-garde as well as popular. In terms of concurrences, Florence hosts their first fashion show in 1951, at the House of Giovanni Battista Giorgini, a buyer for American department stores.
From this point on Italy creates its own brand and styles, different from France’s haute couture, which distinguished between formal wear and accessories. “Italian fashion turns the tradition of artisanal workshops and quality production into artistic creation” (108). Curti suggests a similar shift was occurring in the Italian film industry and specifically in their soon to boom popular genres. The industry grew with the help of American production experience but “Hollywood on the Tiber” would never have prospered if not for the skilled technicians and craftsmen that were able to more than meet the demands of bigger and more sophisticated productions that the American companies brought to the table. Americans gained by the great skills that were inventive and resourceful. As the Italian industry grew, Italians never lost the pragmatism to work more with less, which led to the flowering of popular cinema filone. “In a way, one can see the various genres, from the peplum (itself a term related to an item of clothing) to the Gothic, from the Italian Western to the giallo, as just as many fashionable creations” (109). This same notion of tradition and skill being passed down by family speaks volumes to the Italian film industry, specifically the Bavas, from grandfather to father to son; but now, moving forward in the Economic Boom, tries to assimilate the brand to a mass culture and increasing accessibility, we can see Bava’s cinema, born from great value of the artisanal worker, his (and his father’s and later son’s) ability to make more with less, seemed to suggest the Italian film industry was adapting much like the Italian fashion industry. The Bava family indeed, from the silent days to the great filoni period of the late 1950s, 1960s, were the go to solution for producers and other directors trying to come up with workable solutions to technical problems having to do with lighting, camera work and special visual effects. Curti likens it as the revenge of the craft and skilled worker on mass production, “the exaltation of the individual’s value in the era of infinite reproducibility” (110). “It is the paradox of the Italian approach to genre cinema, which starts from a definitive model but does not limit itself to tracing it exactly, and –willingly or not– offers variations, rereadings, reinventions, where even the occasional (or rather, the many) imperfections, errors, and false notes, are part of the charm” (110).
Opening and closing images
In the Italian film landscape, bigger budgeted art films, like La Dolce Vita, L’aventurra, Senso, established a cinema of refinement and high culture, but the same values were transported onto lesser budgeted filone products, from peplum to gialli to gothic horror. The characteristic that is so ingrained in every Italian, that skill of “getting by” (‘arte di arrangiarsi’), informs the film production methods, as well as the actual performers who often build their personas around it (from Alberto Sordi, to Vittorio Gassman to Massimo Troisi, to Roberto Benigni). Curti concludes by returning to the opening of the book, where he invokes an quote about Bava in an interview with a French critic being asked about the visual symbolism of the opening and closing shots, the swinging red sign and the swinging red phone receiver. What is the meaning of this mirroring device, the critic wonders? Bava replied that he did not even remember how the film ended! Curti suggests that Bava is being conveniently disingenuous, noting how the visual motif of swinging objects appears throughout his filmography, and in this case closes the circle by offering two swinging inanimate objects bookending a menagerie of inert corpses. Curti suggests that Bava’s convenient memory loss is Bava placing himself on the side of the artisanal craftsman rather than artist. A knowing wink to those who want to see it. Curti ends this wonderful book by suggesting that we return once again to a film which rewards repeated viewings endlessly. A film where death seems to invent itself like a fashion trend. “Watch it, and smile with Bava” (115).Likewise, I suggest, “Read this, and smile with Curti.”