THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH
The importance of THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH in the history of the giallo film cannot be understated. While Mario Bava had given us the basic narrative elements of the typical murder mystery giallo in THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and the instantly recognizable iconography of the same in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (both of which would be melted into a single formula by Dario Argento in THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE in 1969), there existed a whole separate strain of the giallo that deviated from Bava's conventions, a branch in which the murder elements took a back seat to more intimate psychosexual and emotional concerns.
Made in 1968, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH came along as the giallo was really starting to take shape. While it's still a little difficult to characterize what is and is not a giallo film, it becomes quite a bit easier when we're discussing the black gloved killer species of gialli. But that is merely one form the giallo film takes. The other is a much quieter, introspective mystery film, one where bloody murder is rarer (or at least a bit more nonessential to the film) and the more classical elements of traditional suspense film take precedence. If we were to draw an evolutionary tree for the giallo film, we would find two distinct branches forming, one that dealt with cold blooded murder and the other that deals with more typical (though no less interesting) forms of crime.
While the seeds for THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH had been planted by earlier giallo films like LIBIDO and DEADLY SWEET, it is the first giallo film to tell this kind of story in a solid, cohesive manner. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi (who was already working in the genre, most notably writing and co-directing the aforementioned LIBIDO), THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH repositions the tension and danger from without to within. It gave birth to a string of films which deal with naive characters in dubious relationships being threatened, often blackmailed for money or sex, always by someone within their social circle. Without THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH, it is unlikely we would have Lucio Fulci's PERVERSION STORY, Umberto Lenzi's Paranoia trilogy of films (A QUIET PLACE TO KILL, SO SWEET... SO PERVERSE, and PARANOIA, all featuring DEBORAH star Carroll Baker) and Luciano Ercoli's gialli, especially THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Gastaldi, one of the most prolific of giallo writers, would use the story of this film as a template time and time again, especially in his work for director Sergio Martino.
THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH features Jean Sorel and Carroll Baker as Marcel and Deborah, a couple of well-off newlyweds on their honeymoon in Geneva, Marcel's country of birth. One night, Marcel sees an old friend named Philip (played by genre stalwart Luigi Pistilli). Philip isn't exactly happy to see his old friend. Marcel had left Geneva to go to America, determined to no longer be a good-for-nothing. He planned on making something of himself. He left behind his girlfriend Suzanne (the beautiful Ida Galli) and she, desperate and depressed by his absence, killed herself. Philip tells Marcel that he is guilty of murdering Suzanne because had he not left, Suzanne would have never taken her own life. Marcel is wracked with guilt. When he and Deborah visit Suzanne's parents, they find their home deserted. While at the house, the phone rings. Deborah answers it and a man on the other end informs her that she will soon be killed as revenge for Suzanne's death. As they leave the house, they begin to hear a piano playing the same music Suzanne used to play.
The threats don't stop there. Even when Marcel and Deborah pack up and move their honeymoon to Nice, the calls happen again. Someone is following them, taunting them. Marcel thinks he sees Philip at a boxing match, but has he really followed them? And what about the handsome painter (giallo regular George Hilton) staying in a house beside their vacation home who seems to be smitten with Deborah? Could he have something to do with it? And even more interestingly, is Suzanne really dead?
Those who think the giallo only trades in flesh and blood really need to do themselves a favor and explore the side of the sub-genre that exists outside the shadow of Dario Argento. While this film does contain a healthy dose of eroticism, the sex the film contains is understated and exists (outside of a quick, early excursion to a posh night club that provides us with the chance to watch a stripper do her thing on stage) as a part of the story and not something draped on top of it for market appeal. There's nary a violent scene through the whole movie (with only two such scenes occurring in the last half hour) and the action is shifted away from the car chases and fist fights of the usual giallo into the realm of psychological violence and menace. The result is a much tighter mystery narrative with a higher degree of character study than (I fear) most giallo fans will be used to.
But the plus side is a narrative that is genuinely involving. Half the fun of watching a giallo film for the first time is trying to figure out who the killer/blackmailer/etc. is. Half the fun of watching a giallo film a second time is seeing how well the build-up holds up to scrutiny. While THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH does contain a few logical flaws, the story is just as satisfying a second and third time as it is the first. The beauty of Gastaldi's writing in this film is probably best appreciated by those of us who have seen more gialli than we care to admit to. For a breed of film that sometimes needlessly complicates their narratives for the sake of hiding the obvious identity of their villains, Gastaldi's writing here is gimmick free and incredibly engaging. The characters are fully formed personalities, the pace and development of the mystery is tuned to perfection and the payoff is wonderfully satisfying.
This was the best film Romolo Guerrieri ever directed (only THE DOUBLE comes close in quality) and it is absolutely stunning to watch. The location shooting is marvelous. From the choice of interiors, all of which exude the kind of pop milieu the giallo film is known for, to the beautiful footage of the hills and country sides of Geneva, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH is perhaps the most visually stunning of the early giallo films (outside of Bava's efforts). Guerrieri clearly cribs a few of Hitchcock's tricks, but his style is never obtrusive or overbearing. He gives us only what we need, never sacrificing the narrative to the scenery. He has also never worked with a better group of actors. While Baker was never known for her acting chops, she creates in Deborah a strange mix of devilish charm and genuine insecurity. Sorel walks the fine line between anger and grief well and no one can do more with a single stare than Pistilli. Hilton and Galli are underused to an extent but both manage to create something meaningful out of their brief roles. Simply put, this is the perfect cast for the material.
Watching THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH again I was struck by how fresh the film felt. For a film made in 1968 (not to mention a film I've seen well over a dozen times), it still feels modern and alive in a way many of the early gialli do not. While this style of giallo would quickly be eclipsed by the more bloodthirsty gialli of Argento, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH remains infinitely more engaging and interesting than 80 percent of the giallo films made during the boom period of 1970 to 1975. If you are a viewer who has immersed himself in the gialli of those five years, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH might feel too slow and talky. Or, as I do, you may find it to be a breath of fresh air. It is suspenseful and effective in a purely Hitchcockian way. A truly underappreciated classic, THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH deserves rediscovery. It is one of the finest films the giallo has to offer.