Friday, April 16, 2010

Lady Grinning Soul: Joe D'Amato's Death Smiled at Murder (1973)

The career of Aristide Massaccesi (a.k.a Joe D'Amato) is in some ways one of the most disappointing in Italian film history. D'Amato was arguably one of the best cinematographers that came out of the golden age of Italian cinema in the fifties and sixties, so his eventual decision to finally just start churning out adult films for profit in the mid eighties made him in a way a near tragic character. Still, despite where his career ended up, D'Amato was clearly gifted and a handful of his films as a director show these gifts clearly. One of his best is his first foray into the horror genre, 1973's LA MORTE HA SORRISO ALL'ASSASSINO, or as it is more commonly known, Death Smiled at Murder.

Death Smiled at Murder is, in many ways, a total mess. Taken from a, nonsensical at best, script credited to D'Amato, Claudio Bernabei and Romano Scandariato, Death Smiled at Murder makes little to no sense, and D'Amato as a director seems at times downright confused about exactly what kind of film he is making. Still, despite its problems, Death Smiled at Murder is a totally captivating and haunting work. It is the kind of film that could have only come out of Italy in this period, and the problems with the story and tone of the film finally help give it a weird dislocated aura that becomes one of its saving graces.

D'Amato was already in his mid thirties when he directed his first horror film on a shoestring budget and tight schedule back in 1973. Tim Lucas points out in his recent Mario Bava book, ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, that D'Amato had started out as an assistant camera man with not only Mario, but also his father Eugenio Bava, and that Death Smiled at Murder was in many ways a tip of the hat to both of them.
D'Amato began getting regular work as a cinematographer, after working as a cameraman, throughout the late fifties and early sixties. Most of his early photography credits appear to be Spaghetti Westerns, but it was 1972's WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO SOLANGE that would truly mark him as a man with unique and striking eye (especially for horror). D'Amato would start shooting Death Smiled at Murder shortly after completing work on WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO SOLANGE. Dallamano's great giallo must have been fresh in D'Amato's mind when he wrote the story for his film, as they both center on the murder of a young girl.
Shooting on location on a beautiful old Italian estate, D'Amato and his crew assembled with one of the best casts he ever got on one of his films. Starring in the film is the lovely Ewa Aulin, a former Miss Sweden who is best known for her work in 1968's Terry Southern adaptation CANDY. Aulin is an interesting actress and despite appearing in only a handful of films she remains a genre favorite. She does fine work for D'Amato here, giving the most eerie and captivating performance of her career.

Joining Aulin is the striking Angela Bo, who only appeared in a handful of films herself, and Sergio Doria who had just appeared in Riccardo Freda's fierce IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (1971). Appearing in smaller roles are three genre favorites; Luciano Rossi, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart and a reasonably calm Klaus Kinski as a doctor who makes house calls and then some.
D'Amato himself provides the film with its dreamlike photography, and pushing the film even further into the near surreal is the beautiful hypnotic score credited to Berto Pisano. The score is quite remarkable and it is, along with Aulin's performance and D'Amato's photography, the thing that is consistently great throughout the films brief running time. The three are so good in fact, that they make it seem easy to forgive the films numerous problems.

Death Smiled at Murder is a hugely important film in D'Amato's canon. Many of its main themes would pop up on later films of his including most notably his masterpiece, 1979's BUIO OMEGA, but perhaps more importantly it would introduce D'Amato as a director who liked to mix multiple genres together, like he was creating some sort of exotic stew with something in it to please everybody. D'Amato would improve on this kitchen sink technique and whereas Death Smiled at Murder just feels confused at times, later works like his BLACK EMANUELLE films and EROTIC NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD would mix genres with much more ease. Perhaps those films aren't as ambitious as Death Smiled at Murder but D'Amato later became a smarter director than he was in 1973.

D'Amato himself seemed a bit confused as to what to make of the film. Tim Lucas points to a quote from that D'Amato gave to Peter Blumenstock where he calls the film his most personal, but he would be quoted in the book SPAGHETTI NIGHTMARES as saying it was 'pandering and mechanical'. Whatever his final thoughts were on the film, it remains one of the most frustratingly great works he ever committed to celluloid. It's a unfocused but poetic work, and its best moments show that Aristide Massaccesi was much more than just the 'businessman' he later referred to himself as.
The film would play briefly in the United States under the title DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER (which has a very different meaning than its better known title)and it is now out on a so-so Region 1 DVD. My copy is an import on the Italian Shock label and it features a nice widescreen presentation of the film, along with its trailer. Berto Pisano's achingly beautiful score is available on a cd with two of his other works, and it can be found through some of the better online vendors.

Aristide Massaccesi, or Joe D'Amato if you like, wouldn't direct another notable film until he met Laura Gemser in 1975 and they began their very memorable collaboration together. He would rack up well over 200 features before passing away in the early part of 1999. Despite a slightly notorious reputation, D'Amato seemed to be a very well spoken and nice gentleman whose biggest mistake seemed to be undervaluing himself. Death Smiled at Murder is one of the most memorable films he ever shot, and one worth seeking out. Despite its flaws, or in a way thanks to them, it is one of the most oddly poetic horror films to come out of Italy in the seventies.

***Edited from an earlier piece here.***


Amanda By Night said...

I haven't seen this one yet, nor do I think I've seen much by this director. I liked Buio Omega, although I found the direction kind of sloppy. I thought the ideas behind the movie were really moving (and of course Goblin's awesome soundtrack didn't hurt).

I would like very much to see this, thanks for writing about it!

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Amanda! It's always great to hear from you here. Pretty much all of D'Amato's films have a bit of that sloppy quality you mentioned and this one is no different. Still, there is a lot of good stuff in many of his films and, I think, as a cinematographer he is really underrated. Netflix this one if you get a chance and thanks again for commenting!

dfordoom said...

I've been wanting to see this movie, but I've been a bit suspicious of the quality of the DVD releases. I've been burned several times recently by DVDs that have turned out to be either cut, or fullframe, or just generally very poor quality.

Jeremy Richey said...

The current DVD releases are just so-so. Hopefully one will come along eventually that will do the film some justice.

dfordoom said...

Jeremy, that's what I'd heard about the DVD releases, so I think I'll hold off on buying that one.

But I would like to see some of D'Amato's other movies - do you have any recommendations for D'Amato films with decent DVD releases?