Directed by: Silvio Amadio Written by: Silvio Amadio and Giovanni Simonelli Produced by: Aldo Pomilia Music by: Armando Trovajoli Cinematography by: Mario Pacheco Editing by: Marcello Malvestito
Cast: Hugh O'Brian (Dick Sherman), Cyd Charisse (Shelley North), Eleonora Rossi Drago (Erika Tiller), Alberto Closas (Inspector Baudi), Alberto Dalbés (Bill North), Juliette Mayniel (Lorena Borelli), Memmo Carotenuto, Franco Giacobini, Manuel Alexandre, Antonio Casas, Carlos Casaravilla, Gina Rovere, Philippe Lemaire, Mario Feliciani, José María Seoane
Shelley North, the rich wife of an army engineer, rings the American embassy in Rome to try and report her husband missing, only to find them of little help. That same night, a drunk finds the body of a murdered man beside a fountain, and two blundering thieves break into an already-ransacked apartment, and leave with only a pair of shoes, and a photo frame. Expat newspaper editor Dick Sherman hears about the disappearance of Shelley North’s husband, and attempts to contact her. She is initially reluctant to meet with him, as they were previously in a relationship before Dick, feeling emasculated by her great wealth, fled America. They soon join forces, along with Erika Tiller, a writer for Dick’s newspaper who has recently divorced her third husband, to try and find Bill North. Dick’s first call is to Signor Maturian, who had been repeatedly phoning Bill before his disappearance. Dick finds Maturian sitting in a darkened office, wearing a ludicrous mask.
Dick enjoys a close friendship with the local Police Inspector Baudi, and through him finds out that the murdered man was found with a bag of heroin on his person, and had Shelley’s husband’s name and address in his address book. Marks on his hands and feet suggested that he had been tortured before being murdered. The two thieves find something wrapped in plastic hidden in the heel of the pair of shoes they stole, and attempt to blackmail the shoes’ owner. Unbeknownst to them however, the apartment belonged to the murdered man, and one of the thieves is arrested, and the other flees to the far side of the city.
Shelley views the body of the murdered man in the morgue, and remembers that a few days previously, while on a sightseeing trip, her husband had briefly disappeared, seemingly to talk to this same man. Dick talks to several people with links to the Rome heroin trade, and finds that the murdered man worked for an American gangster called CHECK. He tells Dick that Bill North owed a lot of money in America, but is killed before he can reveal any more.
Dick and Shelley go to Venice, where Bill North has suddenly turned up, having apparently jumped from a moving car. He has also been tortured, and a skull fragment has punctured his brain. While there, Dick and Shelley run into Lorena Borelli, an acquaintance of Shelley’s. She seems distant, and as they had previously met her husband, who had insisted that she was in America, Dick follows her. He sees her giving a package to an unidentified man, who boards a train bound for Germany.
Upon returning to Rome, Dick tracks down the remaining thief, and the mysterious package which was in the dead man’s shoe. This turns out to contain engineering blueprints from America. Bill has also been moved to Rome so he can be operated on. He is in a state of shock, but manages to mumble something about a red dress, and says the name ‘Maturian’ repeatedly. Dick and Inspector Baudi go to Maturian's office, and are attacked by an unnamed assailant. They find shackles and a red dress when they come to, and speculate that Bill had been planning to sell US army secrets to Maturian so he could wipe out his debts. The man found murdered in the fountain had been sent to pick the blueprints up from Bill, but had hidden them in his shoe, planning to sell them on himself, which led to both his and Bill’s abductions.
Dick gives Shelley the blueprints and tells her to do what she wants with them. He returns home to find his apartment ransacked, and is knocked out by an intruder, who rifles through his wallet. Coming to with Inspector Baudi tending to his wounds, he realizes that the intruder had been looking for the blueprints. They speed to Shelley’s house, arriving just in time to shoot the same intruder dead.
Shelley goes to the hospital, where Bill is recuperating after a successful operation. Lorena Borelli is there with her, and again seems cold and distant. Dick and Erika arrive, and after Shelley turns down her offer to relieve her from her bedside vigil, Lorena leaves. Erika, who has grown close to Shelley over the course of the film, insists herself on being allowed to watch over Bill, and goes to have a quick nap before taking over from Shelley. Dick returns to the newspaper office to finish an article about the events of the previous few days.
Maturian enters Bill’s hospital room and chloroforms Shelley. He struggles with Bill, before knifing him in the back, killing him. Meanwhile, Dick has phoned Inspector Baudi. Cut to him and the police speeding towards the hospital. Dick intercepts Maturian as he is leaving the hospital, and chases him up to the roof. Maturian falls through a skylight, to his death. Dick and the police gather round his lifeless body, and Inspector Baudi removes a rubber mask to reveal Erika’s face.
Dick and Inspector Baudi escort Shelley to the airport. Baudi leaves them to it, and Dick asks Shelley to stay. She says she’s got business to tend to in America, and Dick gives her a ticket for a flight back to Rome, saying he wants to show her the city.
Christ. What that mammoth synopsis didn’t contain is any sort of explanation as to why Erika committed the murders/impersonated Maturian. This is because none is offered, beyond a brief mention in a dialogue exchange between Dick and Inspector Baudi which couldn’t even be described as ‘cursory’. Oftentimes in gialli the process of depicting and solving the crime(s) tends to be of more importance than the solution itself, and nowhere is this more evident than here, where effectively no solution is offered. What explanations are offered come in the form of speculation between Dick and Inspector Baudi after they are attacked in Maturian’s office. No alternative version of these events is forthcoming, so we have to assume that their interpretation is the correct one. The motives behind Erika’s impersonating Maturian are never explained; we know she likes the high life so presumably, like all early giallo protagonists, her motivation was money. Whether she killed and impersonated Maturian or whether he was a fictional creation is also never addressed.
While most gialli can survive leaps in logic and gaps in the final ‘explanation’, Assassination in Rome does suffer slightly on this count because the entire film revolves around the investigation, with very little in the way of set-pieces or action. Even the murder which kick-starts the film’s narrative (in tandem with the disappearance of Bill North) happens off-screen. For a film whose plot revolves around drugs, blackmail, alleged extra-marital affairs and prostitution, it is highly sanitized in execution. This is doubtlessly due to its 1963 production date (it was released in Spain in 1965 and Italy in 1967) rather than any reluctance to fully engage with the subject matter, particularly when one considers that writer/director Silvio Amadio later made Amuck! (1971).
When the film was released in Italy in ’67, it was titled ‘Assassination Made in Rome’, a title which seems designed to sell it as a spy caper, despite the film containing no spies as such. There are indeed several elements of the then-burgeoning spy genre contained within the film, including the stolen blueprints (which neatly fulfill the role of a McGuffin), and the kills, such as they are, are from the spy school of mysterious assassinations and death-by-handgun rather than the more sadistic kills which became a giallo hallmark. The film also contains classic 'evil henchman' characters, who were a staple of spy films of the time (and also krimis). The spy films of the 60s were heavily influenced in terms of their plotting by Hitchcockian thrillers such as North by Northwest, where plot developments come thick and fast without actually developing the plot, but are so exciting that the audience either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. Saying this, Assassination in Rome is nowhere as near as high-octane or engaging as North by Northwest, and the equivalent of the (ridiculous, but) highly-cinematic scene where Jimmy Stewart is lured into the wilderness and dive-bombed by a plane is the scene where Dick follows Lorena Borelli, which takes place in the photogenic city of Venice for no real reason other than to offer up a new location. To illustrate how superfluous most of what transpires in Assassination in Rome is, consider that the identity of the murderer is discovered not as a consequence of Dick’s endless investigations, but rather by chance when he finds an incriminating piece of paper in Erika’s journalistic files (and we never even see a close up of this piece of paper).
I have not been glowing in my praise of Assassination in Rome, as it is not a particularly good film. It is very well photographed (in a glossy, professional sense rather than an inventive Bava-esque manner) and solidly directed, and indeed, unlike most Italian genre films it could pass for an American product. Its delayed release and repackaging as an espionage thriller suggest that it wouldn’t have been very influential in the development of the giallo genre, but yet there is one aspect of it that warrants further discussion. This relates to perhaps the most important aspect of a giallo film (or second-most after the murders if you are a gorehound)- the attempted concealing of the identity of the murderer.
Gialli, in common with all murder-mysteries, are packed full of red herrings. While some murder-mysteries may offer up clues for the intrepid reader/viewer and invite them to piece together the puzzle for themselves, gialli always set out to deliberately mislead the viewer as to the identity of the perpetrator of the crimes and/or murders. This perpetrator is almost always one of the leading or secondary characters of the film, as it is a brave (or, more likely, stupid) filmmaker who introduces an entirely new character at the film’s end, thus rendering the guesswork and speculation in which the viewer has been engaging entirely pointless.* Many films have more than one murderer, with the general aim being to mislead the audience as to the killer’s (or killers’) identity until all is revealed. This is achieved through misdirection, which frequently means that the killer is the one character who hasn’t been offered up as a red herring.
Assassination in Rome offers up a classic example of this misdirection, which in this case is equally brilliantly conceived and botched in execution. The first scene with Maturian occurs very early in the narrative, and seems designed merely to reinforce the notion that the character of Bill was involved in nefarious practices, and had something to hide. If its execution was better, it would be an excellent way of first introducing the killer. However, as I mentioned in my synopsis, it is unfortunately painfully obvious that the character of Maturian is actually someone else wearing a mask in an attempt to conceal their real identity (though it may have fooled contemporary audiences less attuned to bad prosthetics [though, saying that, this may also be doing them a huge disservice]). If this introduction to the character (and all further sightings of them) had been better executed, the reveal that the killer was actually someone else in a mask would have been an excellent late twist. As it is though, we may be able to deduce that the killer is someone else wearing a mask, but we still have to figure out who.
As previously noted, the character of Lorena Borelli is introduced in a manner designed to attract suspicion. She meets the protagonists in Venice, despite her husband having told them that she was in America, which instantly suggests that all is not what it seems where she is concerned. She seems distant and occupied, and Dick follows her through the city as she goes to meet a mysterious man and hands him a package (this occurring at a point in the film when the police are still searching for the contents of the heel of the shoe) before he boards a train. When next we see her she is with Shelley at Bill’s bedside. After her offer to relieve Shelley of her watching duties is rejected, Lorena picks up a large bouquet of flowers and disappears into the bathroom. While she is gone Dick and Erika enter, and upon seeing them when she re-emerges with the bouquet, Lorena, after muttering something about having washed the flowers, quickly makes her excuses and leaves. It is all highly suspicious, and Dick, who clearly doesn’t trust her, enquires as to what she was doing there. Upon hearing Shelley mention that Lorena had offered to give her a break from her watching vigil, Erika immediately offers to do so, and changes the subject straight away by talking to Dick about his unfinished article, which he leaves to finish writing.
The character of Erika, in contrast to Lorena, has been introduced smoothly into the film. She initially appears to be introduced as a rival for Shelley as they compete for Dick’s affections (slightly complicated by the fact that they’re all looking for Shelley’s husband), but she slowly settles into a friendship with Shelley, and does not progress beyond minor flirtation with Dick (who flirts with pretty much every woman in the film apart from Maturian’s receptionist). This is the classic role occupied by many ‘dunits’ in whodunits, that of person-close-to-the-protagonists-who-fulfills-no-actual-discernible-role-other-than-being-always-around. Effectively, hiding in plain sight. Erika’s integration into the narrative isn’t seamless, as she once she fades from view as a potential love rival she effectively does nothing but talk about- and have- lunch for almost the entire film, which does make her stand out as a bit of a third wheel. Nonetheless, it is a decent example of how to subtly introduce a killer to a film.
The scene described above, in which both she and Lorena offer to watch over Bill, is excellently conceived and staged. Lorena is already a figure of suspicion, after what we have witnessed in Venice. The Venice scene is a classic example of how to plant a red herring, as there is no evidence whatsoever that either she or the man to whom she gives her package have any malicious agenda whatsoever. However, as Dick views them with suspicion, and he is our identification point within the film, so do we. We also know, after witnessing the numerous attacks from henchmen, that the killer isn’t working alone. Depending on whether we, the viewer, has already figured out that Maturian is another character wearing a mask, the hospital scene invites us to view her either as another potential henchperson, or the person behind the mask.
Anyone who has seen a few gialli- or episodes of any detective television show- could tell you that anyone who is obviously foregrounded as a suspect is rarely guilty, and if they are it is never as straightforward as had been suggested. Thus, while some viewers might jump straight on the Lorena-is-guilty bandwagon, others will quickly cast their minds over her appearances in the film and conclude that her foregrounding as a suspect is too obvious, too heavy-handed, and this she cannot be a guilty party. The excellence of the scene lies in the fact that by the time this conclusion has been reached, Erika has already breezily offered to watch over Bill, and quickly changed the subject. While it is impossible to fool all of the people all of the time, Amadio does a fine job here of drawing all the audience’s attention onto Lorena, and has Erika act while they are distracted.
Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned, the film mixes the excellent with the not-so-excellent, and the gap which elapses between the aforementioned scene and the unmasking of the killer is far too long, with the couple of scenes which follow the hospital discussion containing little of interest, which allows the viewer’s mind wander; a cardinal sin at this point of a giallo, when we know that we are about to discover the identity of the murderer. Furthermore, having Erika, disguised as Maturian (although I’m pretty sure that actress Eleonora Rossi Drago was doubled in these scenes, unless she had the hands of a 60 year old) engage in lengthy struggles with Shelley and Bill merely draws further attention to the poor make-up and odd body shape of the killer, and gives us further time to consider who might be behind the costume. While Amadio cannot be blamed for the ropey effects work, he is certainly culpable for blowing the opportunity to stage the finale in a much more engaging and skilful manner (effectively by maintaining the momentum generated by the Lorena scene and shortening the time between that and the reveal).
However, flaws are often more endearing than perfection. Not in this case, but still.
*Though there are exceptions where the perpetrator of the crimes themselves is of little consequence, as the film focuses on the person or persons, usually powerful public figures, who issued the orders to the killer, e.g. What Have They Done to Your Daughters? and Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion.