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Cinema

Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective

FILM RETROSPECTIVES

A nostalgic (but not blindly nostalgic) look back at some cult and classic movies. Are they worth checking out once you take off the rose-tinted glasses? Find out in this retrospective section.

The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971) directed by Duccio Tessari

What’s it about?

This Italian-made mystery revolves around the murder of a French student named Françoise Pigaut (Carole André), whose body is discovered in a local park. All of the evidence points to Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia), a middle-aged television personality who lives with his wife Maria (Ida Galli) and teenage daughter Sarah (Wendy D'Olive). However, his attorney Giulio (Günther Stoll) provides him with a strong alibi by coaxing out details of an affair which he was having with another woman named Marta Clerici (Lorella De Luca). Unfortunately, this alibi also requires his wife to corroborate evidence of a mysterious bloodstain which has been found on his coat. Since she is angry with his behaviour behind her back, she chooses to remain silent on the witness stand - thus condemning him to spend his life in prison.

After a while, however, it becomes clear that the murders are continuing. Could Sarah’s rage-prone musician boyfriend Giorgio (Helmut Berger) be the true culprit? Or… it could be Giulio - who, as well as sleeping with Maria behind Alessandro’s back, has some unhealthy designs on their daughter to boot.

Watch a trailer:

Why is it significant?

The Bloodstained Butterfly has (in the UK at least) remained a relatively unknown entry in the Italian giallo mystery cycle up until recently, when it was given a Blu Ray release courtesy of Arrow Video. However, it is of interest for a number of reasons.

The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971) Spanish poster

For one thing, the style of mystery presented here has less to do with the usual giallo tropes and more to do with honest-to-God forensic and legal procedure. Typically, giallo movies focus on two things: firstly, a series of lengthy murder sequences and secondly, the efforts of an amateur sleuth (usually someone who has either witnessed a killing or lost a loved one) to solve them. Here, most of the murdering is kept off-screen, the legal system itself carries out all of the detective work and the focus regularly shifts between characters ensemble-style.

It is also worthy of note for featuring Austrian actor Helmut Berger in a major role. Berger (who is still alive and acting today) became best-known for his starring roles in the films of prestigious Italian arthouse director and former lover Luchino Visconti. However, he also appeared in a number of other Euro genre/exploitation flicks over the years, such as the Massimo Dallamano adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (1970), the Tinto Brass prototype Nazi exploitation flick Salon Kitty (1976), the violent Sergio Grieco crime thriller Beast with a Gun (1977) and Jess Franco’s gory Faceless (1987).

He isn’t the only Germanic actor in the cast here. Wolfgang Preiss played the prosecutor in the court scenes. Prior to his death in 2002, Preiss had amassed 161 IMDB credits spanning a 54-year period. He tended to get typecast as high-ranking Nazi officers in British and American WWII movies and TV series such as Anzio (1968), Hannibal Brooks (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977), The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988). Günther Stoll (who played opposite Preiss in the courtroom scenes as the defence attorney) popped up in a number of other German and Italian crime thrillers during the 1960s and 1970s. He passed away in 1977 at the age of just 52.

The director was Duccio Tessari, an accomplished Italian journeyman who was perhaps best known for the two Giuliano Gemma-starring Ringo westerns (both 1965) and the Alain Delon version of Zorro (1975). His then-wife Lorella De Luca appears here, as she did in a number of his films.

How does it hold up?

If you can call The Bloodstained Butterfly a true giallo, it’s a somewhat classier and more realistic one than average. There’s a fair amount of violence and salacious content hinted at here but only a little of it actually features on screen. Not counting the obligatory finale (which I won’t spoil), only one of the murders is actually shown and, even then, it’s only a fleeting glimpse. While there are one or two tastefully-shot moments of sex and nudity, some more controversial themes of older men lusting after adolescent girls or voyeuristically observing lesbian lovemaking don’t pan out to anything beyond subtle hints. As mentioned above, the focus is more on the routine investigatory work and the relationships between the various characters. In outline, it plays more like a TV mystery than a big-screen thriller.

In practice, however, it’s considerably more interesting and cinematic than you might expect. Director Duccio Tessari adheres well to that eternal movie maxim “show, don’t tell”, something evident from the largely dialogue-free opening 10 minutes. To start with, we are introduced to the various characters involved in the mystery via a string of title cards flashed up over various brief vignettes. This is followed by an extended sequence revolving around Françoise’s murder as we witness events from the point of view of various incidental characters: a mother and her two children watching the young woman’s body rolling down a hill, a couple making love in a tiny Fiat who witness a suspicious man in a mac and hat amongst the trees, and someone watching from a window as the same man scales over a brick wall.

There’s plenty of great framing and camerawork which makes picturesque and atmospheric use of the Italian locations (Bergamo and Milan). The film’s structure flashes back and forth through time to recount various events and piece the puzzle together. Some action is brought in later on as a suspect is chased on foot through some labyrinthine streets and a climactic showdown takes place in the darkened loft of an old building. An interesting score by Gianni Ferrio blends jazz and orchestral cues in a dynamic manner, thereby adding another dimension to the film’s original feel.

Helmut Berger in The Bloodstained Butterfly

The almost surreally handsome Helmut Berger walks away with the acting honours here, turning in an expressive performance as a musician who is clearly even more tortured by his thoughts than is typical for people of his vocation to be. Tortured by thoughts of what exactly? Well… you’ll find out if you watch the film through to the end. This character could conceivably have been the inspiration behind the equally suspicious Peter (played by Keir Dullea) in the Canadian slasher movie prototype Black Christmas (1974).

While fans of the more sensationalist Dario Argento/Sergio Martino style of giallo may be disappointed by The Bloodstained Butterfly’s more sober approach, it is just as satisfying in its own way.

Runtime: 95 mins

Dir: Duccio Tessari

Script: Duccio Tessari, Gianfranco Clerici, based on a story by Edgar Wallace

Starring: Helmut Berger, Giancarlo Sbragia, Ida Galli, Silvano Tranquilli, Wendy D'Olive, Günther Stoll, Wolfgang Preiss, Lorella De Luca, Carole André

Rating: ☆☆☆1/2

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