Friday, February 13, 2009

FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON (5 bambole per la luna d'agusto, 1970)

Mario Bava's black comedy is set on an island somewhere. I'm tempted to say its in the Mediterranean, but I don't know if you can assume that, since all the characters have Anglo or American sounding names. That may be why Bava and screenwriter Mario di Nardo have such a snide attitude toward the characters. For a couple of Italians, they are the other on which they can project all the nastiness and depravity that makes what happens look like just desserts.

Let's nail down the genre up front. Some call it a giallo, I suppose, but it hardly qualifies. As I understand it, gialli are all about creative ways of killing people. Five Dolls, however giallesque [?] the title sounds, is all about finding bodies that have already been killed, except for a few very conventional shootings at the end. Bava is said to have liked this least of all his work, and the lack of creative killing may be the reason. Still, he found ways to occupy himself, and the film is a triumph of style over substance. I suppose we could also call it a body-count film, since apart from ogling the scenery -- outdoor, architectural and female -- there's not much to do but count bodies. But body-count films are always sort of a subset of black comedy, given how audiences usually respond to them, and we're clearly meant to laugh at this film.

How couldn't you? We have ten people in the cast, four couples and two singles. The island belongs to George Stark, married to Jill, and his guests are Nick and Marie Chaney, Jack and Peggy Davidson, and Fritz and Trudy Farrell. They're gathered so George, Nick and Jack can schmooze Fritz, a professor, into selling them his important secret formula for three million dollars. The prof. isn't interested in selling; a pall hangs over the formula for him because a colleague died while they were working on it. The men's united front doesn't last long, as Nick angles to get exclusive rights to the formula and urges Marie to seduce the Professor, while people start dying, starting with Jacques the houseboy. George's yacht has vanished and his wireless telephone isn't working, so there's no way off the island and no way to communicate with the mainland. There's nothing to do but put Jacques in the meat locker, wait for other people to die, and drink. Nick does most of the drinking, since "Death makes me thirsty." He has opportunities to get quite sloshed.

Professor Farrell (William Berger) struggles to resist all temptation in FIVE

So who's the killer? Is it Isabel, the lone single female, who we see shooting the Professor with a rifle during a break from romping on the beach and stalking people? Well, this is the sort of movie where seeing someone shoot somebody else pretty much guarantees that she didn't kill everyone else -- or does it??? Any further elaboration of the synopsis would only spoil a plot that's pretty gamy already. This isn't the sort of film you watch for the story, and if efficient storytelling is your sole criterion of cinematic quality, you may as well stop reading.

The reasons to look at Five Dolls are the lush outdoor scenery, photographed by Bava and Antonio Rinaldi, the colorfully decadent indoor sets, and the uniformly luscious female cast, from Justine Galli as Isabel to the great Edwige Fenech as the particularly depraved Marie Chaney. The date is 1970, but this is still very much the swinging 60s, put to music by Piero Umiliani's swanky lounge score. It's still the era when it was hard to find an Italian film in which the music, at least, did not sound good. And Bava can't help but make the whole production look much more lavish than it actually was. However he felt about the story, he gets in a few excellent set pieces, including the mock human sacrifice bit at the beginning and a later sequence where we follow some spilt glass balls from the scene of a drunken fight down a flight of stairs into a bathtub where we find the latest victim. There's also one big scare moment near the end when Isabel has to nab a piece of microfilm (I think that's what it is) in the aftermath of a shootout in the meat locker -- which by that point is very well populated.

This is a body count film where you're almost certainly meant to root for nearly all the characters to die. They're such scumbags, such cartoonish incarnations of the idle yet greedy rich, that you most likely will cheer on whoever's doing the killing. But at the same time you can revel in their depravity, from cavorting on a rotating circular bed to puffing a cigarette from between a woman's bare toes. This film is eye candy: pure cinematic junk food that won't make you fat -- and it's okay to laugh. If you didn't, I'd wonder....

Try this clip on for size. It's Edwige Fenech dancing, stripping, and playing the sacrifice for Kraal. While I saw the Anchor Bay DVD in Italian from the Bava Vol. 2 box set, this clip is dubbed into English for your enjoyment.

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