Watching Amer made me want to watch some good old Italian slashers. So I went with this Luigi Bazzoni-directed giallo from 1971, starring Franco Nero, with an Ennio Morricone Score, and cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.
Nero plays Andrea Bild, an alcoholic reporter who finds himself in the midst of a string of murders. If you’re familiar with some of the classics in the genre – Cat O’ Nine Tails, Don’t Torture a Duckling, etc – then you know what to expect, and The Fifth Cord doesn’t disappoint. We’ve got the killer with the whispering voice – to hide gender and add menace, the investigator who pieces the crime together via some kind of recollection, the eerie, child-like music, plenty of POV shots, and a ton of atmosphere. As with other successful giallos, Bazzoni plays on the strengths of these types of pictures: introduce a lot of viable suspects, make the protagonist have a particular weakness (alcohol and sex in this case), have a very specific type of clue (days of the week here), and hide the killer’s identity until the last possible moment. There’s also an “all the great ones leave their mark” motif in here as, next to each victim, is a black glove with progressively more and more fingers cut off of it (ie counting down the deaths).
Still, The Fifth Cord manages to rise above some of the other drivel, and stand alongside the giants of the period. Nero turns in a fine performance, and he’s due some credit, but there are three particular scenes that really make this film worth watching:
The beginning set-up plays out in classic whodunit fashion. After hearing the killer’s voice we are treated to a POV shot entering a club, telling us, in effect that the killer is one of the people in the room. Bazzoni does a great job of eliciting reaction shots to camera, indicating that the killer is known and respected. From there we have a series of cuts around the room to the various suspects making eye contact with one another, raising glasses across the dance floor, whispering in each other’s ears. All is played below the music. Bild exits and we cut to the strongest portion of the sequence. Outside. Early morning. The first (to-be) victim walks down a long path by the water. Bazzoni cuts to a high angle with a man and woman kissing in the foreground and between two water towers. He cuts back down to our victim, who enters a tunnel. The camera tracks back with him and the victim looks back – shot to his POV – seeing nothing. The camera tracks forward as he walks, just around the bend. Still nothing. The soundtrack is mostly silent. And then, a figure shoots out from behind him, hitting him in the head and running off. Cut back to the man and woman making out who hear the noise. He goes running into the tunnel.
It’s a great scene for a variety of reasons: first, the silence really sells its creepiness. Second, the high-angle between the water tower, and the long shots looking back and forth through the tunnel expand the space and make wide-openness dangerous – a very different strategy from the claustrophobia that will be employed later. Lastly, the killer doesn’t come into view via the POV. He/she comes in from the darkness. This isn’t a new trick, but the rhythm of the POV shots suggest otherwise, so it’s a nice bit of deception.
The second scene comes towards the end, in a moment reminiscent of 1967’s Wait Until Dark. A mother is on the phone with her child. She realizes there’s danger but can’t get to him. He’s probably about 5. She tells him to go lock all doors and windows. They have electric shutters/grids – a great set piece – so the kid has to go all around the huge house, hitting switches and watching the gates close over the window.
The scene is very tense. First, again, the sound is noteworthy. The mechanical, ominous hum of the gates closing builds and, the more the child shuts, the more obvious it becomes that he’s shutting himself inside with the killer. Second, the set design of the house is great. As I mentioned it’s huge. Meaning that the child has to go all over the place, turn corners, go into new rooms, approach wide open windows…all of these, as any fan of the genre can tell you, are easy horror-movie traps. Think of how many times the killer has popped out from behind a corner or door, or appeared in an open window. It’s called filling negative space, and this house is appropriately full of negative space. Lastly, there’s the direction of the child himself. He’s not scared (yet), and his lack of fright, and therefore lack of speed, plays on our nerves. He’s pretty calm as he goes door to door and window to window.
Perhaps the best sequence in the film is the ending chase scene where Bild is hot on the heels of the killer. It takes place in an old warehouse and, while Storaro certainly deserves credit for the two scenes mentioned above, his photography really nails it here. The scene is fast, and much is handheld. There’s a moment that’s visually breathtaking – the killer leaps out the windows and onto a ledge. He’s running parallel to Bild who is inside. We get Bild’s POV of the killer as his silhouette races by the windows. Through the glass the silhouette looks androgynous, even amorphous. The shots of Bild’s face are much closer and detailed. It enhances the mystery. The killer, in these moments and even though he’s so close, takes on more of an air of mystery. So close, yet so far; so near to touch, yet so intangible.