The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Fifth Cord

Take a look to your right and find the runner marked Labels. Can you tell I like spaghetti westerns, a sub-genre of westerns with a cynical take on violence and the old west from the late 1960s and 1970s made with Italian backing and often starring American actors. I love the genre, but it's also opened the door to all sorts of other Italian films like sword and sandal epics to a new genre for me, the Italian giallo, starting with 1971's The Fifth Cord.

A journalist and reporter with a drinking problem, Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) attends a New Year's Eve party and ends more than sufficiently liquored up. He staggers home, sleeps it off and heads into work the next day to find out that a woman who attended the party, and a friend of Andrea's too, was murdered following the party. With an in at the police department, Andrea does his own investigation and doesn't buy how the police are tying it all together. It's not long though before several other murders take place, all of them guests from that same New Year's Eve party. Andrea tries to piece it all together at the risk of his own life, knowing that this serial killer may be targeting him next. Can he track down the murderer before he becomes that next victim?

The term 'giallo' in this context can mean any thriller, often about serial killers, gruesome murders and all that good stuff. Pretty uplifting, right? The genre blends in all sorts of archetypes, from the rather gory murders -- throat slices to decapitations -- to the typically deranged killers doing the deeds. It wasn't just about gore or shock value though, typically trying to amount to more, making an art of the genre. There is a style and a visual that helps it rise above the same old, same old from a familiar genre. I'm not a huge fan of just the good, old-fashioned slasher genre so having something additional to focus on makes it more than just a scare factor movie, a jump out of your seat fright fest one after another. And oh yes, it is pretty creepy.

As a writer -- okay, a freelance writer who typically writes about sports and movies -- I'm a sucker for most movies depicting the oh so glamorous lives of writers, reporters and journalists. If you listen to movies though, anyone who has ever committed a word to paper is drunk, really drunk, a drug addict or has such serious personal issues that it's amazing writers aren't crippled by their own flaws. Franco Nero does a solid job in the lead performance as the drunken journalist trying to track down a murderer before that murderer can get to him. I think Nero was a solid to above average actor, but when he was at his best it was because he was a huge, brooding, emotional presence. A life and death situation certainly brings that out. Nero was always able to do a lot with his eyes, that sinister, low-burn intimidation or that big, wide-eyed fear and/or panic. The story was hard for me to follow at times, but Nero was excellent.

I can't say that for the rest of the cast. For me, it felt like I was seeing a rotation of similar characters with very little in the way of distinguishing features that sets them apart from each other. No doubt, part of that comes from my complete lack of familiarity with most of the Italian cast, but some of it has to be attributed to the script. Familiar WWII face Wolfgang Preiss plays the police inspector who works with Nero's Andrea but also starts to suspect him as the clues and evidence mount up. Here's a problem though. With an exception here and there, I can't remember a single other prominent character five days after watching this movie. Some people get killed, some are introduced (poorly), and then one is revealed as the killer. When it happens, I couldn't even place him, questioning if we'd even met him at some point. The reasoning is cool, something we've seen as an audience many times in Law and Order, but when the payoff alone isn't worth it, any twist and/or reveal lands with a thud.

So while the story is disappointing, the giallo qualities work well. As an underplayed, moody and downright unsettling murder mystery, it works because the murder scenes are so perfectly uncomfortable. Director Luigi Bazzoni uses some off-center, wide-angle camera angles, zoomed in and then zoomed out to extremes to build up the tension as to what's about to happen. A paralyzed woman (Ira von Furstenberg) is trapped in her home, unable to reach her wheelchair, the killer tracking her down in the spacious, poorly lit rooms and hallways. Later, a little boy desperately tries to lock all the doors to his home, his Mom on the phone willing him to go faster, the killer trying to get in. Why? Eh, not really explained why the little boy is a target. And there's your problem. I feel like I missed a whole lot of explanation, and the story falls short in the end.

The Fifth Cord (1971): **/****


  1. Well, if you go into giallos looking for story you'll be constantly disappointed. It's definitely a style-over-substance subgenre.

  2. Fair, but I would have settled for some story at all!