Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Italian Job (Part Three)

With the death of Farley Granger having been announced today, it seemed a fortuitous opportunity to look at a couple more of those sleazy Italian exploitation movies I like so much. Whilst Farley Granger is nowadays best remembered for his appearances in Hitchcock movies like Rope and Strangers on a Train in the 1950s, by the 1970s he was down to appearing in the likes of today's first offering - What Have They Done to Your Daughters. This marvellous slice of 1974 sleaze - which crosses the police procedural with the giallo movie - opens with the discovery of the body of a teenage girl, an apparent suicide. However, it quickly transpires that she has been murdered and had been part of a schoolgirl prostitution ring. Now, I know that this sounds pretty damn sordid, and it is, but the film is surprisingly restrained in its treatment of the subject matter. To be sure, it is chock full of sensationalism - a dismembered body, a hand being cut off and a character getting their head sliced open by a meat cleaver - but all of these are confined to the giallo elements of the film, rather than the underage prostitution storyline, which is portrayed as being thoroughly sad and sordid. Indeed, the only part of the teenage prostitution storyline which seems exploitative comes in a flashback sequence where we see the initial victim arguing with her mother, during which the girl is topless. Having established that the character is only fifteen, (I'm assuming the actress was older), this makes for uncomfortable viewing. Now, it could be that this is deliberate on the director's part, by inviting us to view this schoolgirl as a sex object, he is making us complicit in the fictional exploitation of the girls in the storyline, emphasising the way in which, even passively, men are prone to sexualising young women, regardless of age or circumstance. Then again, it might just be there to provide some bare knockers to get the dirty raincoat brigade into the cinema.

Anyway, the police investigation, (directed by the new lady local prosecutor), quickly finds that various leading citizens are implicated in the prostitution ring, those behind it respond by dispatching a black leather clad motorcycle riding hitman to get rid of as many witnesses as possible using a variety of meat cleavers and large knives - giallo-style. Eventually the investigators unearth evidence indicating that even members of the government could be involved. Obviously, this is the most far-fetched part of the plot - I mean, who could possibly believe that senior Italian political figures might be involved with underage prostitutes? Utterly ludicrous! Oh, and Farley Granger? He plays the initial victim's wealthy father. Ultimately, What Have They Done to Your Daughters is a highly enjoyable, and gory, thriller which, like most Italian exploitation movies of the period, simply wouldn't have been made anywhere else. Let's face it, there is no way mainstream Hollywood would ever have considered making a police thriller with teenage prostitution as its main plot mechanism in the 1970s. Not even Dirty Harry would have taken on a case like this - he stuck to psychopaths, vigilante cops and terrorists, taking them on in a fantasy world where tough, unconventional, but essentially decent, cops could still prevail over the corrupt system. In the Italian film, the cops find their investigations blocked and are prevented from pursuing the real miscreants. In fact, I doubt very much that Hollywood could handle this subject matter today. As for the British film industry, I shudder to think of the sort of bland patronising crap they would have made of this sort of thing in the 1970s.

Another film which I doubt very much would have been made anywhere other than Italy is The Frightened Woman. Made in 1969, this, like What Have They Done to Your Daughters, is very much of its era. Coming on like an especially pervy episode of The Avengers, this one concerns a wealthy philanthropist who spends his weekends kidnapping and torturing women, before having sex with them and killing them at the point of orgasm. Unfortunately for him, his latest victim - a new public relations officer at his institute - isn't all she seems and succeeds in turning the tables on him. After forcing him to admit that he hasn't actually killed anyone - he was simply enacting his fantasies with prostitutes - she seduces him, promising that she can help him overcome his misogyny which has warped his view of women and his relations with them. After continually arousing her captor, he inevitably dies of a heart attack just as they are about to finally consummate their relationship. At this point, it is revealed that the woman has orchestrated the whole thing - she paid off the prostitute the man was meant to be seeing that weekend, then arranged to be at his house that evening in order to tempt him into trying to carry out his fantasies on a real woman. It further transpires that she, like him, is some kind of wealthy predator, who has seduced and ruined and/or killed a whole series of victims.

Now, I have a nasty feeling that the makers of this film probably thought that, with this revelation, they were giving the movie some kind of feminist 'twist', with the 'heroine' symbolic of the empowerment of women, throwing off the shackles of male domination and sexual fantasies. Unfortunately, by portraying her as a sexual predator, they are actually reinforcing all of her captor's prejudices about women - apparently he was traumatised as a child by the sight of a female scorpion eating it's mate after mating. Setting aside its confused sexual politics, the film does contain some wonderful - and not very subtle - imagery. My favourite is a sequence where the man imagines himself entering a huge sculpture in the shape of a woman's splayed legs. As he walks into the vagina, as set of teeth snap shut behind him. A few seconds late they fly open again and spit out a skeleton. Marvellous stuff - you won't find that in Ken Loach film!



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