“There's one death too many in this story.” The top two names associated with giallo cinema are that of its creator Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace) and that of its master Dario Argento (Deep Red), but another director whose name should be closely associated with those two is Sergio Martino (The Mountain of the Cannibal God). In the first half of the 1970s, Martino, along with frequent collaborating screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (Almost Human), produced a slew of all-time greats in the feverish onslaught of Italian murder mysteries: The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971), The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971), All The Colours of the Dark (1972), Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (1972), and Torso (1973).
That's quite an impressive resume in itself, in careers that spanned 66 directorial efforts from Martino and 123 writing credits for Gastaldi. However, there is another gialli that was produced during their time working together, but one which has flown somewhat under the radar while the aforementioned titles have taken the lion's share of viewers' attention: 1975's The Suspicious Death of a Minor. Crafted with Martino's eye for style and Gastaldi's acerbic storytelling, it arrived at a time when the giallo (lurid tales of sex and death) was beginning to cool off and the poliziotteschi (gritty urban crime thrillers) were attracting audiences with rough 'n' tumble rogue cops tackling the sort of criminal conspiracies that were happening everyday beyond the cinema's doorstep...
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“She was liberal like all the girls are today.” The film opens with a young woman, Marisa (Patrizia Castaldi), bickering with a mysterious older gentlemen who emerges from a Rolls Royce at the foot of a gleaming skyscraper, only to then be pursued by a man in mirrored sunglasses (Roberto Posse) who is hell-bent on snuffing her out. Marisa desperately calls home, but nobody wants to answer. Forced to flee to the dark apartment of someone named 'Raimondo', Marisa's luck runs out and she is brutally murdered by the silent man in the sunglasses.
“Screw a stranger, change your life.” Prior to her death she encountered Paolo (Claudio Cassinelli, What Have They Done To Your Daughters?), a strange and even kind of sleazy guy, who then takes on the mantle of investigating her untimely death. Who exactly this man is remains unknown for the time being, but his methods are clear – that of brute force and subterfuge – as he violently braces an uncaring landlady who reveals a connection with an under-age prostitution racket. Employing the services of local prostitutes as well as Giannino (Adolfo Caruso), a scruffy thief on a moped who is introduced merrily snatching a bag from a police detective with carefree abandon, Paolo takes a deep dive into the wretched world of 'babysitters', the code word applied to teenage prostitutes such as Floriana (Barbara Magnolfi, The Sister of Ursula), who leads this unwavering investigation forward.
“So what are we supposed to do? Twiddle our thumbs while people are being snatched in the street?” Tracking Floriana to a dilapidated house in the scruffy outskirts of Milan, they encounter 'Il Menga' – otherwise known as Raimondo (Franco Alpestre). A flurry of violence ensues and once the dust settles Paolo and Giannino are left with two dead bodies, a chequebook for a Swiss bank, and a bag filled with ransom money from a very recent child kidnapping case – and now the cops are chasing them down! How far up the food chain will this dark story of trafficking and dirty money go?
“Balls! It happened again – these G.D. Glasses.” Considering the dark subject matter, the undercurrent of humour can sometimes feel jarring, but at least it steers clear of mocking the plight of the story's victims. Indeed, the main target of the (not particularly funny) comedy in the film is often those investigating. Treading a fine line between the usual sense of world weary sarcasm that was often present in giallo films, especially those written by Ernesto Gastaldi, Paolo repeatedly breaks his glasses in what becomes a running gag that actually (albeit briefly) plays an important little part in a development later in the film. Moments of broad, even slapstick, humour dip in and out of the proceedings, occasionally upsetting the tone, but a car chase between the police and Paolo's knackered old Citroen 2CV nonetheless proves to be a highlight. Lurching about on its axles to a startling degree (it's a wonder the vehicle didn't veer off into members of the public during shooting), Paolo orders Giannino to break off the doors and throw them at the pursuing cop car!
Chasing after them, meanwhile, is police detective Teti (Gianfranco Barra), who is regularly pitched to the audience as a hopeless loser, dismissed and tricked by his co-workers, with an endless streak of bad luck while he pines for a win on the lottery. The entire sequence – scored with jaunty music – is akin to the sort of escalating calamities that Italian viewers would have likely seen during this period, when raunchy comedies were one of the most popular genres, with rubber-bodied pedestrians flip-flopping themselves out of harm's way and struck cyclists suddenly finding themselves wobbling about on unicycles.
“If I was a girl you'd bet your ass I'd be out hooking.” Obviously, for a film over forty years old, the sexual and social politics are out-of-date, but do offer an intriguing insight into a bygone era. Take, for instance, Paolo, who is modelled on the sort of anti-heroes that actors like Clint Eastwood was playing at the time: brash, single-minded, and with little respect for authority. Positively chauvinist by today's standards (and even 1970s standards), Paolo nonetheless will not allow himself to say “god damn” (Italy was still considerably religious at the time) and he retains a distinct moral compass when it comes to the establishment doing what it likes with the average punter on the street. Indeed, a common trope with giallo films is the division between the youth and the adults in charge, something which is emphasised here with a further twist as groomers and pimps dismiss their crimes and dump the responsibility onto the “liberal” shoulders of teens looking to break free from the strictures imposed upon them by the generation who fought in World War II.
One of the other common themes was the social divide between the rich urban North and the poor rural South (reflected in Giannino's story), and Gastaldi's script (co-written with Martino) certainly sinks its teeth into the ruling elite as a vast conspiracy unveils itself. The savaging of the 1%, as it were, is most keenly felt in a scene where a group of old, grey men collude in a sauna, rubbing sweat over their saggy bodies as they piece together a plot to enrich themselves and further entrench their collective power. Taking an exceedingly dim view of such powerful people, The Suspicious Death of a Minor dredges up scandal, corruption, and the abuse of power, and pits it against institutional malaise and the restraints of a bureaucratic system. Without spoiling anything, the sombre expression captured in the final shot of the movie sums up a prevailing tone of pessimism in what was then modern society, but something which is still just as relevant today.
“Why do they have to make money so heavy?” While the film may be the least of Martino & Gastaldi's collaborations in gialli, it's certainly not by a wide margin. Beautifully shot by Giancarlo Ferrando, The Suspicious Death of a Minor captures the cutting edge glamour of 1970s Milan, with its stunning architecture boldly on-show, as it peels back that glitzy top layer and exposes the filth squirming beneath it. The mixed tone doesn't always work, but Martino's eye for spectacle (see the moment that our anti-hero dangles from the retracting roof of a cinema, or the gunfight during a roller-coaster ride) combined with a driving score by Luciano Michelini (the energetic main theme seems to echo that of Deep Red, which was also released in 1975) makes for an entertaining murder mystery/crime thriller hybrid.
“Any tell tale traces of love juice, Doctor?” Arrow Video's 2017 Blu-Ray release offers viewers a gorgeous audio/visual presentation, as has come to be expected, with a choice of English or Italian languages and optional subtitles. However, when it comes to extra features, this release isn't exactly swimming in content. There's an audio commentary from giallo expert Troy Howarth, which does provide a wealth of knowledge, and the only main extra is an interview with Sergio Martino – but it does clock in at a very respectable 43 minutes.
N.B. Screenshots are captured from the DVD copy of the film.