Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Seven Murders for Scotland Yard (1971)

To what degree can we ever properly judge the quality of a film originally made in a foreign language and subsequently dubbed - usually badly - into English?  How can we be sure that what we are hearing is, in any way, an accurate translation of the original dialogue?  Is it instead subverting the original intent of the makers?  It is also legitimate to question whether what you are seeing is an accurate representation of the original - different edits of films were often prepared for different foreign markets, sometimes featuring radically different footage.  These are all questions I ponder when watching continental exploitation films and all were foremost in my mind as I watched the London-set Spanish/Italian thriller Seven Murders for Scotland Yard.  Starring Spain's answer to Lon Chaney Sr, Paul Naschy and co-written by him under his Jacinto Molinar pseudonym, the film sits somewhere between a German 'Krimi' film and an Italian 'Giallo' in content, style and format.  Unfortunately, at least in the English language version I recently saw, it demonstrates the virtues of neither genre, instead coming over as talky, stilted and very slow moving.

Which is a pity as, on paper, it would seem to have all the ingredients necessary to create an entertaining piece of exploitation.  The central concept of a modern day - 1971 -Jack the Ripper stalking the streets of London, with Naschy's embittered former circus performer the prime suspect, seem promising.  Moreover, the use of actual London locations for many exterior shots suggests the possibility of an atmospheric production.  Sadly, the execution falls well short of expectations.  To be honest, the opening shots of a very sleazy looking early seventies Soho are probably the film's highlight.   It's all downhill after that, as it settles into a plodding police investigation into the murders with the plot not so much developing as stumbling along, with no real narrative drive or visual flair.  The fact is that Jose Luis Madrid's (a prolific Spanish film maker) direction simply lacks either the flamboyance required to pull off a 'Giallo' or the intensity needed to create the neo-Gothic claustrophobia of the typical 'Krimi'.  He isn't helped by the fact that the script lacks the outrageous twists and sheer bizareness which characterise he best 'Giallo' or 'Krimi' movies.  The 'twist' revealing the murderer's real identity (no prizes for guessing, from the outset, that the limping Naschy isn't the non-limping killer) comes as absolutely no surprise, for instance.  Even the murders are flatly filmed and lack any of the eccentricity you'd associate with a 'Giallo' - they are simply presented as straightforward, albeit bloody and brutal, stabbings, seen from the killer's point of view.

Where the film does score is in its off-kilter interpretation of seventies Britain and its complete failure to grasp UK culture or geography.   Despite the use of genuine London exterior locations, the interiors and some exteriors were filmed in Barcelona and Rome, giving the film a somewhat dislocated sense of time and place. There are a couple of jarring moments when the night time action moves from genuine London locations to what is supposed to be a suburban street - a suburban street lined with trees and the clear sound of crickets chirping away in the background, obviously located in Barcelona rather than Camden.   The domestic interiors have a distinctly Southern European feel, while the pub interior bears more than a passing resemblance to the sort of generic tavern you see in many European films of the era. It certainly doesn't resemble the interior of any Soho pub I've ever been in (and I've been in quite a few).  The police offices seem to have come from the Universal backlot: all polished wood, hat racks and wallpaper that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Victorian knocking shop.

Indeed, it is in its depiction of the British police that the film founders most, they all seem to have wandered in from a Sherlock Holmes film, the senior detectives sporting umbrellas, bowler hats, public school accents and alarming facial hair (the main detective, Inspector Campbell has a moustache which seems in constant danger of peeling off), whilst the rank and file coppers all speak with working class accents and behave in a suitably servile manner.  For the film makers 'Scotland Yard' seems synonomous with 'Metropolitan Police', (a pub landlord, for example, calls 'Scotland Yard' rather than his local police station to report a bar room brawl).  When Campbell us seen leaving 'The Yard', late on in the film, it is revealed as what looks like a local police station rather than the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police (the real New Scotland Yard, of course, being instantly recognisable to audiences worldwide thanks to film and TV).  None of which should really be surprising - the film was primarily made for non English speaking audiences, who had only the vaguest ideas (mainly culled from Hollywood films) as to what Britain was really like.  It didn't matter to them that the version of London and the UK here is a caricature, populated by stereotypes - it merely serves as an 'exotic' backdrop to the action.  (The same, obviously, is true of British and US films and TV series set in 'foreign' locations).

The England depicted here is one populated by people named 'Cuthbert' and 'Winston', who live in plushly decorated houses, despite being employed as policemen or teachers and who discuss gruesome murders over tea.  (Indeed, Inspector Campbell's predilection for discussing his active cases with his friend Winston - who might as well have a neon sign over his head saying 'Crazed Sex Killer' - whilst the latter's wife hovers around with tea and cakes, is most perplexing).  By contrast, Soho seems to be entirely comprised of truly grotty flats occupied by prostitutes (which, to be fair, was probably still true in 1971).  It's also an England where the journey from London to Rye seems to take hours (which it would if you took the clearly Spanish train boarded by Campbell - one of the sloppiest uses of stock footage I've ever seen).  The dubbing doesn't help - the quality of the voice actors is very variable.  The main characters are dubbed reasonably well (with the artist dubbing Campbell sounding as if he were attempting am impersonation of Nigel Greene, which was actually quite appropriate to the character's appearance), but the minor characters sport 'Gor blimey' mockney accents which would disgrace even Dick van Dyke.

Which brings us back to the initial question: can we really judge the film based on this version?  Quite apart from the dubbing, this is the 'tamer' UK version, with all the nudity removed, meaning, in practice, that the original murder sequences have been substituted with alternative takes. Perhaps, in their original version, these scenes were more stylishly and dynamically filmed.  Indeed, throughout the film, I kept hoping that this was an inferior alternative version for the foreign market and that somewhere there was a better version, full of verve and style.  The horror films I've seen Naschy in were wonderfully inventive, colourful and insane, full of energy and drive.  In fact the majority of Spanish genre films of this era are similarly lively anf enjoyable.  Seven Murders for Scotland Yard, by contrast, is singularly lacking in pace, suspense or surprises.  Its characters are completely unengaging - Naschy's  Bruno is far less charismatic than his wolfman, Waldemar Daninsky - and left me not caring what happened to any of them. Even the killer's motivation for murdering prostitutes is disappointingly mundane and rather cursorily revealed: he's impotent - in a genuine Italian 'Giallo' his motivation would have had complex roots in long past events and conspiracies.

In the end, the film's main entertainment value lies in the mildly hilarious depiction of seventies Britain and the magnificent seventies styles and clothes on display.  As a thriller, it just doesn't cut the mustard.  Which, as I've said, is something of a disappointment.



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