I am not a parent. I can’t imagine having the kind of intestinal fortitude, emotional bandwidth, and patience-patience-PATIENCE to deal not only with offspring but with the constant judginess of the world towards everything you do as a parent. All that having been said, I can dig why people who do have kids find films that deal with child murder to be difficult to watch. It’s a nightmare topic that must bring up a potpourri of terrible feelings.
With this in mind, it’s somewhat jarring to watch a giallo with child murder as its central plot device– a genre known for its graphic eroticism and cruelty. Two 1972 gialli tackled this theme: Lucio Fulci’s “Don’t Torture a Duckling” and the lesser-known Aldo Lado thriller “Who Saw Her Die?” The two films share many thematic elements, but Lado’s film has a sense of intimacy and tragedy not found in “Duckling.” It’s a slow burn that winds up being tremendously effective.
George Lazenby (a talented actor sadly best known as the answer to the trivia question of “who only played James Bond once?”) plays Franco Serpieri, a sculptor who is estranged from his wife Elizabeth (striking glamazon and genre veteran Anita Strindberg), who is living in London. Serpieri’s daughter Roberta (Nicoletta Elmi, aka “that creepy red-headed girl who is in every early-70s Italian horror film”) is visiting with him in Venice, but Serpieri is frequently distracted by his art, his socializing, and his womanizing. As Serpieri is coupling with one of his girlfriends, Roberta is abducted and murdered. Elizabeth comes to Venice for the funeral, and the couple tries to work through the tragedy, even as Serpieri is drawn further into the mystery surrounding his daughter’s death.
The film treads a very narrow line between family drama and exploitation murder mystery, and–remarkably enough–its missteps are limited. This isn’t Lado’s only foray into this type of movie-making. His 1975 “The Night Train Murders”, inspired by Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left,” is a harrowing experience in terms of its unflinching violence as well as its emotional impact. In Lado’s world, decent but imperfect people have terrible things happen around them (or to them) and are forever changed by their encounters with twisted members of society.
“Who Saw Her Die?” is a tough film to talk about without making it sound campy, making it seem dire and depressing, or methodically un-knitting its plot and therein ruining its effectiveness. So I’ll just say a few words on the script. The story hangs together MUCH better than that of many gialli, and it does a great job of evoking the perversity and urban alienation characteristic of the genre while dealing with its central theme thoughtfully. Serpieri’s relationship with Roberta is complex–the artist clearly loves his daughter, but has difficulty incorporating a child into his life. A lot of screen time is spent with Serpieri and his child in the days leading up to her death–this gives her eventual fate even more impact to the viewer. Serpieri’s feelings of guilt after her death are painfully well-sketched in Lazenby’s performance, and almost impossible not to sympathize with.
While it’s Lazenby who really holds the movie together, the supporting cast does a fine job as well. The always-charming-and-sinister Adolfo Celi (“Thunderball”‘s Largo and “Diabolik”‘s Valmont) plays Serpieri’s art dealer, Serafian. He’s a powerful man who is as manipulative–and maybe vicious–as he is wealthy. In fact, every member of Serpieri’s social circle is flawed in some way, and the cast does a fine job showing the likable and problematic sides of these characters. Piero Vida is a boisterous journalist, Peter Chatel is a slippery social climber, José Quaglio is a lawyer who knows more than he’s willing to share, and Dominique Boschero is a seductress who may be in over her head with her chosen relationships. The only disappointing role comes from Anita Strindberg–the camera loves this woman, but she seems to be going through the motions here, rather than sinking her teeth into the role of a mother who has just lost her child.
The movie boasts an impressive Ennio Morricone soundtrack that perfectly complements the on-screen events. The sort of jazz-influenced percussion and strings of early-70s soundtracks is combined with children’s choral performances to create a chilling effect.
There’s a great sense of place throughout the film–the city of Venice, slowly and beautifully decaying, is ever present. Scenes are set within rich villas, pigeon-swarmed plazas, and grand places of worship. It’s a lovely but vaguely threatening city that would be used again as a setting in a somewhat similar film a year later: “Don’t Look Now” featuring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.
Quieter and more resonantly disturbing than most movies that can be described as “giallo,” “Who Saw Her Die?” deserves to be seen by Euro-thriller fans looking for a more mature, character-driven story. It’s not light entertainment, but much like other dark thrillers that gain mainstream popularity (the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series comes to mind), it rewards brave viewers with an interesting story, well-told.