Monday, 25 July 2011

Who Saw Her Die?

1972
Dir. Aldo Lado

When the young daughter of Venice based sculptor Franco is heinously murdered, he and his estranged wife begin an investigation to track down the killer. Meanwhile the body-count continues to grow as the crazed maniac bloodily dispatches anyone who strays too close to discovering the truth about their identity.

Set in Venice and featuring the story of a grief-stricken family crippled by the death of their child, Who Saw Her Die? is in many ways uncannily similar to Nicolas Roeg’s startling masterpiece Don’t Look Now, which was released only a year after. Opening with the shockingly frank and brutal murder of a little girl on a snowy mountain in France, Lado’s film really hits the ground running, however while its central mystery constantly intrigues as it twists and turns unendingly, it never really manages to repeat the power of this opening scene. Focusing on Franco’s obsession with finding his daughter’s killer, the film unfolds as in typically glorious giallo fashion, with red-herrings galore, a convoluted and serpentine plot, expertly staged murder sequences and the revelation of the killer coming out of nowhere.


Director Lado was born in Venice, and he films it through the eyes of someone who is intimately familiar with its labyrinthine alleyways and canals. He builds a dank atmosphere of dread and depicts the city as a crumbling, damp and inherently sinister place full of faded beauty and grandeur. The film subverts the usual connotations of water with cleansing and purification and instead associates it with death. This is nicely evoked in a number of moments, such as when Roberta is given a necklace with the astrological symbol for Aquarius on it, prefiguring the discovery of her body in the canal, and what with it being set in Venice and all, there really is no avoiding water! Lado utilises his locations well and Who Saw Her Die? boasts some incredible camerawork, particularly evident in the set piece involving four characters locked in a taut game of cat and mouse in a warehouse which exhibits a dizzying and Escheresque warped logic.


Despite the heart-aching subject matter, Who Saw Her Die? is a strangely unemotional film. Even though we follow Franco’s desperate attempts to find out who murdered his daughter, and it is he who is the anchor and focus of the film, his pain and turmoil is never really expressed sufficiently. George Lazenby delivers an utterly passionless performance that seems to compliment the unfeeling and frigid mood of the film perfectly, while Anita Strindberg, so compelling to watch in Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, delivers a similarly detached performance. As the doomed Roberta, Italian horror stalwart Nicoletta Elmi (whose impressive film work includes roles in such genre classics as Demons, Deep Red, Baron Blood, Flesh for Frankenstein and Bay of Blood) is sufficiently vulnerable and innocent, which serves to highlight the tragedy of her bloody fate. Their family unit is already fractured prior to their daughter’s death and it is only through her death that Franco and Elizabeth reunite. Their reunion is a cold one and the scene depicting it is detached, austere and contains no passion or warmth. A simple but beautiful overhead shot depicts them lying side by side; Elizabeth has tears rolling down her face, Franco has his back to her. The limp thrusting intercut with this conveys nothing but impassivity and bleak resignation. Had the performances been rawer and more emotional, Who Saw Her Die? would have been a film with incredible power.



An unsavoury undercurrent flows throughout proceedings, as most - if not all - of the adult male characters appear to have a dubious interest in Roberta. A number of awkward moments occur as they gaze at her a little too longingly… This is of course Lado’s attempt to establish red herrings and cast suspicion on everyone, and the effect is highly sinister. The child’s murder is revealed to be the latest in a string of murders of other young girls who all had red hair and a strange woman dressed in black mourning clothes and veil is seen nearby. She is a haunting, striking and formidable sight. Flashbacks lace the narrative, as do sinister point of view shots filmed from under the dark veil as the killer closes in on each victim. Close-up shots of the killer’s eyes behind the veil also glare from the screen with unsettling power. The flashbacks, which depict previous murders, convey the killer’s fractured mind and psycho-sexual hang-ups, and their appearance comes without warning; they simply perforate the narrative momentarily; the jarring effect of which is highly perturbing.


Lado has a knack for creating pointedly political films, particularly as far as his gialli are concerned (also see Short Night of Glass Dolls – a stunningly filmed, fiercely original and deeply eerie giallo), and Who Saw Her Die? can be read as a barbed criticism of the Catholic Church. This reading of the film seems to be dispelled at the very end however, when the last line of dialogue reveals something about the killer that is not only random, but also feels tacked on and unnecessary. The moment undoes Lado’s seemingly scathing critique of Catholicism as a corrupt institution. The film really benefits from Ennio Morricone’s haunting score, which comprises of choral pieces featuring a cacophony of infantile voices echoing in and out of each other. It immediately conjures the innocence of childhood and is shot through with an alarming urgency that becomes increasingly sinister, disorientating and panicked as the layers of voices increase. A potent and mesmerising bass line usually signifies the killer’s presence and the use of church organs adds an element of the ecclesiastical to events, which enhances Lado’s arguably anti-Catholic subtext.

In short, Who Saw Her Die? is not without its flaws, and one can only imagine how powerful it would be had its protagonists been portrayed with more emotional resonance, but it is still a striking, daring giallo, beautifully filmed and constructed, and a fantastic follow on from Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls.

I recently wrote a feature called "Sketches of Venice in Red: A Comparative Glance at Who Saw Her Die? and Don’t Look Now."

It appears in issue 12 of Paracinema.
You can pick up a copy of it here.

Happy reading!

7 comments:

Jenn said...

Beautiful review. I love the giallo titles and they sometimes overshadow the actual movie.

Wes M said...

Excellent review James, after reading it I picked up the Shameless disc... I must grab Aldo Lado's Short Night of Glass Dolls as well. I think Lado's Night Train Murders is one of the best Italian films of the 70's - I was hugely impressed by it...

Aaron said...

Great review, James. I was really impressed with this giallo when I watched it for the first time a few months ago. It's also memorable for a lot of the wrong reasons, like the awkward moments involving Nicoletta Elmi and her father, or her and the heavy-set guy who appeared to be fantasizing about hamburgers whenever he stared longingly at her. I also thought the actor who played her father looked like a cross between Henry Silva and Sonny Bono. My major complaint is that Anita Strindberg wasn't in the film enough.

James said...

Cheers Jenn. Yeah, some of the titles of giallo movies are AMAZING! I think my favourite has got to be "Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key", closely followed by “All the Colours of the Dark” – so provocative! ;)

Wes I too was really impressed by Night Train Murders - I think I was expecting a totally different film. I also hope you enjoy Short Night of Glass Dolls - I think it is his best giallo.

I agree Aaron - Anita Strindberg is criminally underused! And while there are a fair few awkward moments, I think Who saw Her Die? has more redeeming qualities than negative ones and has a LOT to recommend it. That score by Morricone has got to be one of his most underappreciated!

Aaron said...

Agreed... the score is WONDERFUL

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I think SHORT NIGHT OF GLASS DOLLS and WHO SAW HER DIE? are two of the very best giallo films. They have a peculiar sensibility and atmosphere that is highly disturbing and all pervasive. If you haven't seen it yet James, may I recommend THE DESIGNATED VICTIM (Shameless put it out), a film Lado co-wrote. Another film set in the beautiful, but eerie cloistered environs of Venice.

James said...

Yes Shaun, I seem to remember you once telling me that Short Night was your favourite giallo? I think I need to watch it again soon - and I'll certainly give The Designated Victim a go, too. I've seen the trailer through Shameless. Looks to be right up my dark and seedy alley! ;)