Ah, 1970s Italian films. There's really nothing like them. I'm not nearly well versed enough in cinema history to know what it was that fuelled the explosion of fabulous Italian cinema in the late 60s and 70s but I'm glad it happened. From Spaghetti Westerns to supernatural slashers, a number of my favourite films, directors and film scores come from the era.
More often than not, these films get unfairly dismissed or overlooked. With large multi-lingual casts speaking whichever language came naturally to them and then being dubbed for release, cheap sets and often clumsy dialogue, a lot of modern film fans sadly mistake these for bad films. They're not. With the exception of a few well-known greats - like Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone - most of the star-players of Italian cinema seem to be restricted to only cult appreciation. It's a shame because so many of these films are beautifully shot and scored, and ought to be better known.
Torso, today's film, is a giallo flick from Sergio Martino. Like so many of the genre, a number of artsy, rich, female American students meet their end at the hands of a sadistic sexually driven killer (the Italian title translates as The Bodies Presented Traces of Carnal Violence...). Of course, the aim is to catch the killer but you can never really ignore the obvious glee the film takes in punishing these confident, promiscuous women. Besides the obvious sexism - which these films held in common with most other films of the era - the Italian cinema cycles are so confusingly anti-American. Just as the Spaghetti Western took a classic American good-versus-bad narrative and turned most of the Americans into greedy, cold-blooded murderers, mercenaries and cowards, Giallo films are obsessed with Americans but brutal towards them too. Here, the Italian art professor registers his surprise that his student, "a product of American technology", could possibly have real feelings for art. He suggests that perhaps her real reason for being in Perugia is to "buy the coliseum". The irony of these films' resistance to American capitalism being delivered side-by-side with English dubbed dialogue for sale to foreign markets is apparently lost on the film-makers...
Anyway, in Torso we have a bunch of art students being picked of by a killer. It's not really the plot or the mystery that holds the attention here so much as the tension and drama surrounding the murders. The first death, early in the story, is a masterpiece of suspense. A couple have sped off from class to a deserted spot to have sex in their bright-red mini (it is the 70s...). The camera lurks in the bushes, creeping around the car for a better view, making the viewer just as sleazy a voyeur as the masked man whose viewpoint we are seeing. Expendable Boyfriend #1 spots the masked man and charges out of the car and into the undergrowth in pursuit. We're left alone with Flo in the car, the camera still lurching uneasily, as plucked strings warn of what's to come. You know she's going to die. But that's not the point. Even though it's predictable as can be, with plenty of the those moments where you just want to scream "NO, no, no, stay in the car!", at the hapless soon-to-be-victim, the real art of the seen is in the buildup to the inevitable. The strings get more insistent. Someone in the orchestra has found a drum and begins gently tapping it. The camera lurches more awkwardly. We see a flash of leather gloves, a movement in the bushes, a peeping figure round the wall. Suddenly it's all crescendo and murder.
Throughout, the score and cinematography are what really drive this film. Even in moments of calm the camera has a tendency to creep around obstacles in a disarming manner. As with more famous examples, such as Argento's Proffondo Rosso / Deep Red, a certain amount of the mystery revolves around seeing: mistakes, confusion and half-glimpsed actions lead detectives and characters astray and the viewer becomes a part of the voyeurism that drives the story. The camera shoots from face to face, watching people watching. The score is similarly impressive: silence is used to good effect, and the absence of music is often as tension-building as the music itself. When the music does kick in, little recurring patterns foreshadow moments of violence and build towards violent, noisy bursts. Guido and Marizio de Angelis did a very good job here.
Torso is not the giallo I'd suggest for anyone's first taste of the genre - probably some Argento would be as good a start as any - but it's a decent film. However much the dialogue and plot may be somewhat clumsy, there's a lot of style and tension in it that is all too often missing from modern films.