Luciano Ercoli was a master of the giallo, and his 1971 film Death Walks on High Heels (“La morte cammina con i tacchi alti”) is as good an introduction to this genre as you can find.
Here in the United States, we’re so used to the Hollywood continuity style of movie making that, as an alternative name for this style implies, it has become invisible to us. Films made in this style allow us to absorb the story and understand the relationships among characters without having to notice the eyeline matches and cuts on action and all the other conventions that make this style work. There are other expectations common to most mainstream movies (not just Hollywood products, whatever Hollywood even means any more) that are harder to articulate because they cannot be defined in technical terms. For instance, we tend to want characters to be relatable and for the action to be believable, and evaluate both qualities not in relation to the real world but in terms of conventions we have absorbed from years of exposure to mainstream movies and television.
These conventions have become so familiar that when a film deviates from them, as was the case with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the reaction is sometimes a combination of bewilderment, rage, and disappointment that the director who made such an enjoyable film in The Wrestler has lost his way. In fact, in Black Swan Aronofsky was drawing on another set of conventions, those associated with a type of Italian genre film known as the giallo (the name referrs to the yellow covers of sensationalist paperbacks whose style was imitated by the films). In a giallo, impact and sensation are prioritized over plausibility and good taste, and little matters like creating relatable characters or a plausible plot line may be pushed aside in favor of near-nudity and lots of red, red blood.
Luciano Ercoli was a master of the giallo, and his 1971 film Death Walks on High Heels (“La morte cammina con i tacchi alti”) is as good an introduction to this genre as you can find. It starts off with a bang: the bloody murder of a jewel thief on a moving train. This is followed by a cut to a happy young couple in a cab being driven past the most famous icons of Paris (apparently they asked the driver to take them on the tourist’s route, although they’re too busy necking in the back seat to notice).
Of course, this idyll will not last long. The female member of the couple, Nicole Rochard (Nieves Navarro, using the name Susan Scott), gets a threatening phone call a few minutes later—and we can see, though she can’t, that the caller is dressed entirely in black and has piercing blue eyes. Those eyes are one of many clues or red herrings planted in the screenplay as to the man’s identity, and the title provides another. The police also harass Nicole because, like the mystery caller, they think she knows where her father stashed the jewels. The romance also begins to sour, as Michel (Simon Andreu) starts behaving like a real drip, spending his days drinking and then complaining that he feels useless while she’s out earning a living (as an exotic dancer/stripper, an occupation that provides the director with an excuse to include several topless sequences as well as some truly bizarre stage sets).
When the threats from the mystery man more serious, Nicole flees to a lakeside cabin in England, courtesy of one of her many admirers (Dr. Robert Matthews, played by Frank Wolff). Of course, the man in black has followed her there, and just to make things interesting, Dr. Matthews has a wife, Vanessa (Claudie Lange) who looks remarkably like Nicole. The second half of the film introduces a British Detective Inspector (Carlo Gentili) who says things like “Elementary, my dear bloke” and an assistant who says things like “I say, sir, that was well done,” to remind you that the story has shifted to England. There’s also a policewoman named Miss Pennypacker, whose name just might remind you of someone in a well-known British film franchise.
The plot of Death Walks on High Heels is twisty even for a giallo, with the rate of reverses and revelations accelerating near the end of the picture. Ercoli isn’t interested in playing fair in the Agatha Christie sense of mystery plotting; instead, he’s taking you on a thrilling ride with some soft porn and scenery thrown in. The final explanation of the film’s events are simply narrated by one of the characters, which gives you an idea of how little this film is interested in presenting you with a puzzle to solve. But if you are willing to go with it, Death Walks on High Heels is a lot of fun and quite skillfully put together. | Sarah Boslaugh
Death Walks on High Heels will be screened at 8:00 pm on June 1 at Schlafly Bottleworks (7260 Southwest Ave., St. Louis, 63143) as part of the Webster Film Series Strange Brew: Cult Films series. Tickets are $5. Further information about films at Schlafly Bottleworks is available here and the full Webster film series calendar is available here.