That’s why I leapt at the chance to take a gander at Arrow Films’ latest release, Giallo Essentials (Black Edition). This three-film set includes the titles Smile Before Death (1972), The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974), and The Weapon, The Hour, The Motive (1972). All of these come with Arrow’s typical high-end treatment, meaning viewers get a great handful of supplemental materials that help both round out as well as deepen the experience. I’ll be viewing them separately and responding to them in this space over the next few days.
First up: Silvio Amadio’s Smile Before Death, a bit of a sexual thriller with more shifting identities than should be possible in a single film … but perhaps that’s what makes it all the more interesting: you never know just who to trust … and that includes the storyteller!
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“After spending years away at boarding school, teenager Nancy returns home to reconcile with her estranged mother, only to learn that she recently died in an apparent suicide. Nancy quickly suspects her cash-strapped stepfather Marco and his mistress Gianna of having murdered the wealthy matriarch, but the truth is even more shocking, and all three soon find themselves embroiled in a complex web of double and triple crosses in which nothing – and nobody – are quite what they seem.”
Who are we to believe? What the storyteller tells you … or your own lying eyes?
From start-to-finish, Smile Before Death is a film obsessed with identity.
It opens quickly: with no credits, no explanation, and a stark cut from black to the scenes of an older woman flailing about in the throes of death – no explanation is given – the audience is thrust into a scene with no context whatsoever. As a consequence, the viewer is forced to make up his or her own mind in an instant – in the snap of a picture – questioning who the woman is, what’s happened to her, and – most subtly – why should I care? The truth to the last query is that ‘care’ doesn’t matter: all that matters is that a death – A murder? An accident? A suicide? – has happened, meaning a plot has been sprung.
It isn’t long before writer/director Silvio Amadio does provide a bit of perspective: Dorothy (Zora Gheorgieva) committed suicide, but before her husband Marco (Silvano Tranquilli) can seize upon her wealth the woman’s daughter Nancy (the lovely Jenny Tamburi in one of her earliest screen roles) enters the picture. She’s returned home from boarding school with the intent of reconciling (of sorts) with her distant mother. Learning that it’s now too late to get to know the woman, she’s instead embraced by Marco and her mother’s friend and photographer, Gianna (Rosalba Neri).
And over the course of Smile’s trim 88 minutes, the identities of these characters continue to flex and change. Initially depicted as a prim and proper boarding school student, Nancy blossoms as a subject for Gianna’s cameras: with each snap of the camera lens, she becomes a different character. Initially distraught with his chances at stealing Dorothy’s estate, Marco moves adeptly from ‘adversary’ to ‘father figure’ when Nancy gives him a modest bit of attention. Before one knows it, he steps into the guise of ‘lover’ as the young woman is captivated by her blossoming womanhood. Gianna follows a similar course, starting out as ‘mentor’ and ‘friend’ but eventually succumbing to Nancy’s sexual advances and joining forces as a ‘conspirator’ to remove Marco from their lives in an odd bit of double cross.
Before those shenanigans, Smile doesn’t offer much by way of differentiating itself from other flicks. Performances are all a bit predictable – though Tamburi’s motivation felt a bit contrived at times, perhaps a bit too cinematic – and much of the cinematography feels a bit obligatory, delivering nothing fresh much less vividly interesting to consider.
IMDB.com reports that Tamburi’s reputation lies more in the realm of erotic films, and – in that respect – she’s certainly got the goods worth watching here. Though she’s not given much range to work with (in terms of development), she parades around in various levels of undress without a stitch of shame. For my tastes, however, Neri shines as the somewhat femme fatale of the flick: hers is an unstated and less gratuitous sensuality, choosing the stand behind the camera and watch her subjects with a trained eye. The actress gets great mileage out of scenes wherein she’s only the observer; where others may’ve simply gone through the motions, Neri looks like there’s something at work in her mind … and you’d love to know exactly what she’s thinking.
Smile Before Death (1972) was produced by Condor International Productions and Domizia Cinematografica. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated via the impressive Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? Again, I’m no trained video expert, but I thought this 2K restoration looked and sounded impressive from start-to-finish.
As for the special features? This Blu-ray disc boasts a solid assortment for fans of Giallo especially. It includes:
- Both dubbed and subtitled versions of the original release;
- An all-new commentary track from authors and critics Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson;
- An interview with Stefano Amadio, film journalist and the late director’s son;
- Extended nude scenes not used in the film’s final cut;
- Image gallery; and
- A collector’s booklet with related essay and production stats.
To the degree that we’ve seen this story before, Smile Before Death still makes for a good experience. There’s a requirement that you suspend some disbelief to a few of these events – I, for one, never bought into young Nancy’s “pronounced infatuation” with the vastly older Marco – but that isn’t hard to do. (Just keep telling yourself: “it’s only a movie …”) By the end, you’ll have learned the lesson that even revenge being served cold doesn’t mean lasting happiness awaits us all. Sometimes devious and sometimes degenerate, this Smile really only has a few teeth.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray set of Giallo Essentials: Black Edition (Smile Before Death; The Killer Reserved Nine Seats; and The Weapon, The Hour, The Motive) by request for the expressed purposes of creating this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.