A man is decapitated by a digger, which the police initially put down as a (pretty big and unlikely) accident. Inspector Peretti isn't so sure, especially when the digger operator is found hanged, and double especially when he proves that the hanging was murder. It turns out that the kidnapping of a child - which resulted in both her and her father's death - several months previously holds the key to unlocking the mystery of these murders. The decapitated man had investigated the kidnapping for an insurance company and had discovered who perpetrated the act. And now Peretti's trying to recreate the investigation, with the killer lurking in the background tying up loose ends, AKA killing everyone just before Peretti can extract vital information from them. But will he eventually find a clue which will enable him to stage a Poirot-style drawing room summit?
As noted, the basic elements of this giallo are fairly old-school - the detective leading the investigation, the intrigue and deception among a venerable, rich family and the drawing room finale. The investigative plot does actually largely hang together, and requires some genuine investigating by both Peretti and the decapitated dude, in whose footsteps the Inspector is following. A lot of online reviews I've seen mention the convoluted plot; it's actually a very basic plot when laid end to end. The manner in which it's unfurled does require one to pay close attention, as we're observing a group of characters seeking to piece together the details of the investigation which uncovered the truth. And the truth is extremely simple, it's just obfuscated by the layers of detecting.
That's not necessarily a criticism of the film, or filmmaking - the version I watched was an English dub, and I initially assumed that it had been slightly cut for export, which was common at the time, but according to George Hilton the film was shot in English, so there's likely no extended Italian version. That means that Tonino Valerii took a lot of chances with his exposition, with several links of the investigative chain alluded to rather casually, requiring the viewer to be attentive and perform some rudimentary detective work of their own to assemble the plot in one's own mind. This is something of which I'm a fan - no harm in exercising the ol' mental muscles of the viewers from time to time! Even if the odd nuance is missed by the audience, the fact that the underlying plot is pretty simple, and relevant events are depicted through flashback, means no-one should really be lost. The fact that a whole new cast of characters are introduced after almost an hour, when Peretti locks on to the kidnapping angle, does make things confusing for a time. A lot of info is transmitted verbally, including the names of the newbies, but the shift does also give the film a shot of adrenaline which carries it through the remainder of its running time.
It's also worth noting that some audience members may be thrown by the slightly unwieldy manner in which some of the plot information is disseminated - the kidnapping, which is at the root of said plot, is introduced by a minor character referring to it completely out of the blue, unmotivated narratively or dramatically. Other developments or conclusions are similarly shoehorned into the dialogue without any apparent concern for verisimilitude. But hey, who watches a giallo for documentary realism? Having said all this, I will concede that much of the deductive reasoning has flimsy, at best, foundations, with Hilton (and the killer - more on that anon) indulging in some Extreme Extrapolating. Then again, Sherlock Holmes was very much prone to doing likewise, and in both cases the detective proves unerringly accurate, so maybe there's something in that line of detecting. Who needs boring facts and clues, when you can ride the wave of off-the-cuff speculation?
Tonino Valerii began his career working in spaghetti westerns, and based on the opening credits seems to have taken his graphic designer with him for this job. The opening murder - the infamous digger scene - is shot with forensic precision, with the variety of camera angles and framing redolent of a Sergio Leone shootout (Valerii having begun his career as an AD on Fistful of Dollars).
The setting of the film is unusual, in that it straddles the country/city divide, and similarly the cast of characters run the gamut from rich family to penniless scrap merchants. It's as if someone took Don't Torture a Duckling and melded it into a 1960s rich-family-at-war-with-itself inheritance plot. Except (SPOILERS!) this isn't actually an inheritance plot at all; it's broadly speaking a 'murder by insanity' film, but the motivation really could be defined as 'general jealousy', rather than the effects of a specific traumatic past event, plus the killer isn't really insane (shades of the excellent modern giallo The Three Sisters here, with the inheritance/jealousy switcheroo). (END SPOILERS) The slightly old-school feel can also be found in the direction, which is largely on the conservative, classical end of things (and that's not a criticism; it's a brilliantly shot and framed film). The exceptions to this come in a couple of murder scenes, especially one involving a circular drill which, along with the beheading, is responsible for what reputation the film has among filone fans. The drill scene isn't even that outrageous, but the camera does linger somewhat, and the matter-of-fact framing contrasts somewhat with the gentle-paced, widescreen photography of the rest of the film.
I do also need to address the film's depiction of paedophilia. One of the characters is clearly coded as a paedo, albeit one whose activities seemingly do not trouble the law. It's a character-type that used to be surprisingly common (and I, unfortunately, refer here to real-life) - the 'odd' man parents warned their children to avoid, with everyone seemingly knowing he (always he) was a predatory threat, who somehow was permitted to live in the community on the tacitly understood condition that he accepted being generally shunned. And, here, the paedophile isn't even shunned - he lives in a glorious villa, sublimating his desires into his art - at one point we see a naked pre-pubescent girl reporting for posing duty, only for him to dismiss her, saying he'll paint her later. Peretti, who witnesses this, stops to watch the girl (clothed) playing with a skipping rope as he leaves, turning to cast his gaze up at the artist, who observes from an upstairs window, cowering from the detective's gaze. The sequence is set to an especially haunting piece of Ennio Morricone music and is an immensely powerful sequence, all the more remarkable for having no dialogue and only a couple of shots. Thanks in no small part to the score, we conceive of a general sense of childhood innocence, the lust which threatens that innocence, the shame which underpins the lust, and the disgust, despair and powerlessness of the wider society. A truly remarkable sequence. It should be noted too (SPOILERS) that the painter is so racked with guilt at his predilections that he seems to have convinced himself that he's guilty of the kidnapping and murders, even though he wasn't. Even though he's a free man in incarceratorial terms, to make up a word, he's far from free of mental torment. (END SPOILERS)
Finally, I just have to touch on the killer's uncanny ability to stay one step ahead of Peretti. There's frequently an element of this in various gialli - think of the character who discovers the killer's identity, sets up a meeting with the police over the phone, and is offed before they have a chance to pass on the crucial info. We accept such a scenario, unlikely as it is that the killer will be aware of the phone call and arranged meeting, on the understanding that sometimes you just strike it lucky and kill the right person at the right time. Plus, the victims' ridiculous aversion to divulging any info over the phone means they fully deserve their deaths, amirite? This scenario recurs throughout this film though, in some ways justifiably - the police are retreading a previous investigation, and because of the time lag and the fact that the clues being acted upon are months old, everything the killer does is designed to block the re-investigation. As such, because ol' killy knows the path the original investigation took, they can predict the police's actions in their investigative retread with reasonable certainty. We see the killer observing Peretti and his girlfriend early on in the film, so you could also argue that their unlikely omniscience could be partly as a result of spying on the police. But, all the same, wouldn't it have been much easier to just kill Peretti?
Overall, this isn't a top-of-the range giallo, but it has its moments (two iconic murders, and the incredibly powerful paedophile scene). It's also [I've just resumed writing this review after an hour's break and I've no idea what I was planning to say there, so I'll just wing it) nice to see George Hilton playing a straight up hero, albeit one who seems to slightly hate his partner, and whose penis seems to hate him. The use of a child's drawing as a clue is also interesting (ah, I think this is what I was planning to say a while ago), as it was likely somewhat inspired by the naif painting in Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but, in turn, possibly inspired the use of the drawing/paintings in Deep Red, which play a very similar role in that film's narrative.
But anyway, before I take another break and forget what I was about to say, I'll give this a lukewarm recommendation. It's not a classic, but it's well worth a piece of your time. Just be ready with the chapter skip button if you do end up showing it to Grandma.
IF YOU find yourself talking to a silent houseguest, make sure you say their name aloud before they manage to silence you forever.