DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS
The older brother to Luciano Ercoli's DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS is one of the best of the early gialli. While DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT (made in 1972, one year after this film was released) is the more enjoyable of Ercoli's two films, DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS is the much better film. It's tighter and leaner, much less convoluted and distracted. The mystery is more substantial and intriguing. Borrowing quite a bit from Hitchcock's oeuvre, most notably PSYCHO, the direction is sharper and impactful. Both films revel in a kind of playful sadism, but DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS shows much less restraint than DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, completely giving itself over at times to the kind of graphic violence and intense fetishisation that would quickly become hallmarks of the giallo film.
The unusually lean story (written by frequent giallo screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and May Velasco) finds Nicole, the daughter of a recently murdered jewel thief, fleeing Paris with a kind British doctor named Robert after she becomes convinced that her boyfriend and manager Michel is the man who has been harassing her, threatening to kill her if she doesn't reveal the location of the diamonds her father had stolen. Nicole and Robert travel to Robert's seaside getaway home in a small village located near London. Nicole, a striptease dancer) sticks out like a sore thumb in this small, conservative town. Robert is married to a rich woman and to protect himself against the rumor mill tells everyone that Nicole is his wife. We meet the various townsfolk including Philip the fish market seller, Lenny the old boat captain and Hallory, a one-armed man who acts as the caretaker of Robert's posh seaside home. Everything seems to be going well for Nicole and Robert until Nicole goes missing unexpectedly.
The next day, someone with blonde hair strolls into Robert's London ophthalmology clinics and shoots him while he is operating on a blind man named Smith. Robert recovers but the incident only adds to the list of questions Police Inspector Baxter has for everyone involved. Michel soon shows up, drunk, angry and determined to find out who killed Nicole. As Michel wanders through town, smacking the high holy hell out of everyone who doesn't give a straight answer, Inspector Baxter works through a mound of alibis and conflicting reports. Who was the mysterious person that visited Nicole on the last night she was seen alive? How much did Vanessa, Robert's wife, know about his affair with Nicole? Who is it that we see spying on Nicole through a telescope at night? Was Michel the blue-eyed assassin we saw killing Nicole's father in the opening scene and if not why was there a pair of blue contact lenses in his bathroom cabinet? And most importantly, what happened to all those diamonds?
Practically devoid of the legions of red herrings and other narrative convolutions that plague most gialli, Gastaldi's screenplay carries itself out with a very brisk pace and a straight trajectory. While there are certainly humorous moments in the film, DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS is far less comedic than DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT. That's to both its benefit and detriment. The serious tone of the film helps the proceedings feel weighty and important, but the loss of humor also makes it feel somewhat cold and impersonal. Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro), so incandescent, plucky and spirited in DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT, plays a much more somber character here and her departure at the forty minute mark (one of the many allusions to Hitchcock's PSYCHO) leaves the film a little empty. What little warmth the film had to offer belonged to her and without her the film seems to slip into a much more impersonal form, much more of a police procedural than slick entertainment.
DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS shares a large chunk of the same cast with DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT. Alongside Scott is Simon Andreu (playing the asshole boyfriend in both), Carlo Gentili (a police inspector in both), Claudie Lange (a secondary lead killed off in both) and Luciano Rossi (a disturbed individual in both). It's clear to see that Ercoli loved these actors and they perform so well in front of Ercoli's camera. Every character is a fully formed creature, the obvious benefit of keeping the cast small. The most notable addition to this familiar cast of actors is the great Frank Wolff. Wolff was an actor that seemed to slide effortlessly into the skin of whatever role he was playing. He brings a certain kind of soft charm to his role as Robert and his performance is so masterful that it's hard to ever get a grasp on his character. In a genre where anyone can be revealed to be the killer in the end, Wolff allows his character to skirt along the line of seemingly guilty and absolutely innocent. His performance alone adds pounds of interest to the story.
It would be easy to just dismiss this film as a light weight giallo. There is really only one graphically violent scene in the film and much of the nudity and sexuality is tame when compared to other films of the time (Ercoli loves to film his then-wife Scott dancing in thong bikini bottoms and nothing else), but that is not all the giallo film has to offer. The most important aspect of any murder mystery is how well it plays with our expectations, how sudden and shocking its reversals are, how unexpected the solution to the puzzle is and how well it holds up to scrutiny. Those are all things that are essential in crafting and delivering a mystery that works, that confounds and entertains. In terms of visual excess (which the giallo is known for), DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS is a failure. But in terms of telling a damn fine story in a damn fine way, you'd be hard pressed to find a better giallo than this.