SMILE BEFORE DEATH
Discussions of the giallo film tend to contextualize the form within the horror genre. This is a mistake, one I myself sometimes make. While the later films of Dario Argento, as well as the later gialli of Martino, Fulci and Lenzi, do indeed resemble horror films - in particular, the slasher film, a sub-genre the giallo film undoubtedly influenced - the giallo film is not - I repeat, is NOT - a form of horror cinema. If anything, the giallo belongs to the crime genre or suspense genre. The popular horror trappings of the giallo film might seem to argue otherwise, but the films that are generally found on DVD, that is to say, the films casual viewers are most familiar with, do little to represent the giallo as a whole. While Argento popularized a particular form of giallo - the bloody, Freudian nightmare thriller - that type of giallo is outnumbered by films whose primary concern isn't bloody murder.
A cursory look through the astounding array of gialli releaseed in the 1960s and 1970s alone provides evidence for this claim. Films as diverse as FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION, PERVERSION STORY, and DEADLY SWEET were all being released, all of which loosely followed the now familiar genre formula. But the difference was in the presentation of that formula. Those three films are all relatively bloodless affairs with nary a murder between them. In each of those films, the motive is greed, not psychosis. There is little doubt that the giallo quickly plummeted down the rabbit hole of bloody murder as time wore on, but in these beginning years, the styles and narrative contrivances were vast and varied
Take Silvio Amadio's 1972 giallo SMILE BEFORE DEATH. It has a deceptively simply story. A woman named Dorothy is believed to have committed suicide. After the funeral has taken place, her daughter from an earlier marriage, Nancy, arrives at the family estate. Her arrival is met with surprise by both Nancy's stepfather, Marco, and her mother's longtime friend, Gianna, a photographer who has taken up residence in the guesthouse, as well as Marco's bedroom. Marco has never met Nancy and expected her to be younger, maybe 9 or 10, instead of a blossoming young woman of 16. It becomes fairly obvious soon enough that Marco and Gianna were the perpetrators of a hideous crime.
They killed Nancy's mother, making it look like a suicide. The only one who suspects them is the housekeeper, Magda, and the only person standing in the way of them inheriting all of Dorothy's money is young Nancy. Their plan is simple. They will befriend Nancy and then bump her off, making it look like an accident. Once she is in the ground, they can finally lay their hands on the loot. Only Nancy is much more than they bargained for. Once she catches wind of the situation from Magda, she begins to play some rather devious mind games. She slowly begins to seduce both Marco and Gianna, turning them against once another in a ploy not only for survival but also revenge.
That's the basic plot of SMILE BEFORE DEATH. It certainly doesn't fit the mold of the more popular "black-gloved killer" gialli, but it is positively dripping with the same kind of transgressive tone and sharp-edged cynicism. It is relatively bloodless, relying instead on a rather cunning game of cat and mouse instead of wild, pulse-pounding set-pieces. Unlike most gialli, SMILE BEFORE DEATH is a character piece. There are only three main characters in the entire film. The fun comes in watching their allegiances break down, their suspicions rise, their motives and methods turn against them. The love triangle that eventually emerges, with both Marco and Gianna falling for the playfully seductive Nancy, reminded me a great deal of the similar love triangle in Sergio Martino's YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY - as did the final, bitter coda that wraps up the film. Usually in gialli, we only have a main character that is expanded upon in any meaningful way. The men in gialli are either lovers or brutes, the females either helpless victims or helpless whores. SMILE BEFORE DEATH eschews these cliched dichotomies. The characters are more complex, more rich and the interactions between them become more and more complex as the film wears on, giving the film a fascinating psychological edge as we wonder who is playing who at any given time. What emerges is a film as black as night, but as entertaining and interesting as anything the giallo has to offer.
This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, if only to soak up the wonderful compositions and visual clues provided by Silvio Amadio, the film's director. I don't remember being overly impressed with the direction during my first viewing of the film. It was only after the final piece of the puzzle came into place and the narrative was resolved that I began to think back over several scenes in the film. On my second viewing, those scenes took on much deeper meaning. For example, pay close attention to how many scenes feature mirrors or mirror images. Pay close attention to the scenes of modeling and photography. Pay attention to the way Amadio frames his actors, creating interesting three-person compositions and who appears in the foreground, middle-ground and background of each scene. Amadio is still a mostly unheard of figure in Italian cinema. Films like this - and, to a lesser degree, his other giallo film AMUCK - show that he was not simply a hack director out to make a quick buck. The simple storyline of SMILE BEFORE DEATH belies the depth of the text.
Also worthy of praise is the film's cast. Jenny Tamburi, Silvano Tranquilli and Rosalba Neri are all wonderful in their roles. They are tricky parts to play, all multifaceted characters who are always operating within a lie. There are very few moments in the film where we see the characters as they truly are. Instead we are watching each and every character vacillate between being devious creatures, passionate lovers and bitter enemies. The constantly shifting narrative piles on the suspicion and the distrust at a fast and furious clip, requiring the actors to slide between sympathetic and loathsome, distinctly unattractive and seductively appealing. All three actors are up to the task and they shine throughout the entire running time. Much like Enzo G. Castellari's COLD EYES OF FEAR - another giallo with a very limited cast and little in the way of violent action - SMILE BEFORE DEATH exemplifies the wonderful elasticity of the giallo film. You don't need a black-gloved killer to produce tension and suspense. SMILE BEFORE DEATH earns them both with nothing more than solid direction, sharp writing and excellent performances.
This is a fantastic film.