The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

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Even the most mediocre giallo film can serve as a kind of lifestyle guide—especially for those who pine for the life of a 1970’s era Eurotrash jetsetter. There is a downside to that lifestyle, of course, in that, like most of the characters in The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Le foto proibite di una signora per bene), you would be inherently unlikeable. And that is not to mention all the risks that come with time travel, by which I do not mean that you could return to the present to find that everyone in your family has a cleft lip because you had sex with your grandmother. What I do mean is that, upon arriving in Jane Austen’s England, your lit-nerd fantasy could be shattered as soon as you found yourself in need of modern medical technology or plumbing. Or like Minou, the heroine of Forbidden Photos, you could find yourself in a world where a woman who has just barely escaped sexual assault is told by her best friend to “look on the bright side”, because “you are apparently bursting with sex appeal.” This same woman then adds that she would’ve “adored being violated.” Now I’m not saying that the current era is any kind of golden age for womankind, but at least we take people with such attitudes and promote them to the highest office in the land—rather than having them wander freely among the hoi polloi where they can hurt people’s feelings.

Minou, as played by House by the Cemetery’s Dagmar Lassander, is the lonely wife of Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi), a driven businessman who is frequently out of town. Minou’s many nights alone have primed her like a sexual bear trap, and when we meet her, she is plotting the various ways in which she will manipulate Peter into a sexual frenzy once he returns home—chief among them being to inform him that she is leaving him for another man. That Peter has provided well for the both of them is evidenced by their insanely stylized home, whose Flinstones-style neo-primitive living room gives prominence to a vagina shaped, tortoise shell-lined fireplace.

Finally, Minou breaks out of her self-pitying languor enough to leave the house—a sojourn that ends with her walking through a dark alley in the middle of the night. This is a bad idea, unless she wants to be chased down by a mysterious, black leather-clad stranger on a motorcycle (Simon Andreu), which she is. The man tackles her and starts to cut off her clothes, then contents himself with insinuating that he has proof that her husband is a murderer. He then lets her flee home—only for her to learn that the corpse of a man to whom Peter’s company owed a lot of money has just been discovered. The cause of this man’s death is determined to have been rapid depressurization, or “the bends”, and conveniently enough, Peter’s office comes equipped with its own pressure chamber (I think he’s supposed to work in the aerospace industry.) Putting a finer point on things, Minou’s anonymous assailant calls her and plays a recording of someone who sounds very much like Peter plotting the murder.

Using this as leverage, he forces Minou into a sexual relationship that is less like Fifty Shades of Gray than it is fifty flavors of cheese. Of course, she is portrayed as maybe getting off on this arrangement just a little bit, though this is never treated as any kind of window into her character as much as it is just another example of the movie’s general air of indolent horniness. Minou’s attacker/blackmailer is never named, and like most giallo villains, he hides his face, in this case under a black motorcycle helmet. However, he veers considerably from this tradition halfway through the film, when he reveals his face to Minou. While you might expect him to be one of the characters we’ve already met, he is instead a complete stranger, albeit an especially cruel-eyed and smirky one.

Like Minou, the blackmailer has a crazy pad that is as giallo as all get out. It looks like an exploded curio shop, with weird idols and macabre tchotchkes displayed on every surface. At one point, Minou leads Peter and the police detective assigned to the case to the apartment, only to find that it has been completely emptied. Desperate to prove that she did not hallucinate the whole thing, Minou begins to anxiously describe the room’s contents. It’s a weird scene, because it made me reflect upon how no one in these movies ever remarks upon their bizarre, and presumably self-selected, surroundings. Much as in Mexican lucha movies, where no one refers to the hero’s elaborate costume, you never hear anyone in a giallo say anything like “Man, your apartment is weird”, or “how do you like my wall covered with gold-plated death masks?” or “I see my collection of aboriginal dildos has caught your eye.” Nonetheless, here is Minou saying things like “and over there was a statue of a Chinese devil… and here there were lots of small hands made of plaster sticking out of the wall…” At the end of it, all Peter has to say is “sounds like a bad dream.”

Indeed, Forbidden Photos could easily bear the alternate title Three Patronizing Dicks (or, if you want to stay within giallo tradition, Three Patronizing Dicks on an August Night, or something like that.) And by that I refer to Minou’s husband, her male psychiatrist, and the police commissioner (Osvaldo Genazzani), who all waste no time in solicitously dismissing Minou’s every assertion as a figment of her adorable little imagination. Granted, Minou does have her problems—at one point, upon being told by her doctor to cut down on tranquilizers, she replies “yes, and I’m also trying to drink less whisky”—but this no less calls into question the stridence these men bring to undermining her credibility, and even her sanity. The commissioner even says of her aforementioned assault that her attacker “really didn’t do anything; he just held you down and threatened you.”

All of this makes it unsurprising that Minou would seek comfort from her best friend, Dominique, a sleepy-eyed libertine played, under the name Susan Scott, by Nieves Navarro, a Spanish-born actress who was at the time dating Forbidden Photos‘ director Luciano Ercoli. Dominique tries to take Minou’s mind off her problems by showing her a bunch of nude photographs of herself and then dipping into her personal collection of erotic photography. (I tell you, women and their porn. Amiright?) One of the photos features Minou’s blackmailer. Rather than taking the sensible course of asking Dominque who he is, Minou instead asks to be given the photograph.

Perhaps feeling that this is too straightforward of a story, Ercoli throws in a few bits of business to make the narrative waters a little murkier. Among these is having his two lead actress showing up in certain scenes modeling bizarre wigs for no accountable reason—the lank-haired Lassander at one point going full Dolly Parton. Clearly this could have no other purpose than to confuse us as to which one is which, and it’s pretty successful in that regard. Nonetheless, Forbidden Photos eventually winds its way toward its conclusion. The blackmailer is finally dispatched with, only to be revealed as a hired gun. This places suspicion on pretty much every remaining character in the film, especially those closest to Minou, and the ending, if confusing, doesn’t disappoint in accounting for each one’s culpability.

Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, as written by Italian genre veteran Ernesto Gastaldi, is not an exceptionally plotted giallo. Nonetheless, it has a structure sturdy enough upon which to hang a lot of crazy mid-century design, fraught performances, and striking camera compositions by Alejadro Ulloa (Horror Express, Companeros!), as well a sinisterly enchanting Ennio Morricone score. It ended up being a hit with Italian audiences, in the process rescuing Ercoli’s production company from imminent bankruptcy and prompting the director to collaborate with Gastaldi upon a further series of Euro-thrillers that included 1971’s Death Walks on High Heels and 1972’s Death Walks at Midnight.

Unlike those later films, Forbidden Photos concerns itself with only one murder, rather than a series of them, which might, for some, put it at a distance from the giallo genre as a whole. If you are someone who comes to giallo cinema primarily for its stylized violence that will likely be the case. However, if you are someone who, like me, is content just to bask in the film’s pervading atmosphere of slinky European licentiousness, it should be considered a pleasure not forbidden but prescribed.