Monday, July 14, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE (1977)

(Italy/Spain - 1977)

Written and directed by Flavio Mogherini. Cast: Ray Milland, Dalila Di Lazzaro, Mel Ferrer, Michele Placido, Howard Ross, Ramiro Oliveros, Rod Mullinar, Eugene Walter, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Vanessa Vitale, Giacomo Assandri, Luis Barboo. (Unrated, 102 mins)

The Italian giallo craze, popularized in the early 1970s by, among many others, Dario Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and DEEP RED and other films by Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Sergio Martino, was dying down by the latter part of the decade. Though gialli were still being produced (Antonio Bido's THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW is a solid offering from 1978) and would still be made into the 1980s (Argento's TENEBRE in 1982, Lamberto Bava's A BLADE IN THE DARK in 1983), the filmmakers were moving into other areas, as evidenced by the supernatural element woven into Argento's DEEP RED as early as 1975. He would soon go into the realm of the overtly supernatural with SUSPIRIA (1977) and INFERNO (1980), while Fulci would find his niche with his 1979 classic ZOMBIE. During this giallo downturn, some films were being produced that were classified as giallo, but didn't strictly adhere to all of the genre tropes and expectations, like Pupi Avati's dark, bleak THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS and Paolo Cavara's sordid giallo/polizia hybrid PLOT OF FEAR (both 1976). Flavio Mogherini's THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE (1977), despite sporting a title that sounds like a lost Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mystery, is one of the most unconventional offerings in the giallo subgenre for a variety of reasons, starting with it being set and shot in Australia even though it's an Italian/Spanish co-production. Basing his film on a 1934 murder case in Australia, where the pajama-clad body of 28-year-old Linda Agostini was found mutilated and partially burned beyond recognition, Mogherini wasn't interested in making a typical giallo, and by subverting the expectations that came with that label, he created a haunting and very unusual film that was ahead of its time in some ways. It never scored a US theatrical release and was probably a hard sell considering its unorthodox construction that's admittedly confusing and seems choppy and disorienting for a first-time viewer. I didn't like THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE the first time I saw it, but it's a rare mystery that actually plays better a second and third time through, once you know its trickery and its final revelation and can admire the sleight of hand of Mogherini and editor Adriano Tagliavia (Pieter Jan Brugge's little-seen 2004 thriller THE CLEARING, with Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe, plays out in a similar fashion). Mogherini, occasionally to the film's detriment, is so concerned with the how of his gimmick that he often glosses over or outright neglects the what and the why, sometimes cramming key plot points into place to force the twist to work. It's a flawed film with its share of stumbles along the way, and its structure was probably a lot more innovative in 1977 before fractured timelines and the ubiquity of twist endings became more commonplace, but THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE is one of the most ambitious gialli of its time. Even though it doesn't quite knock it out of the park, it constantly aims for the fences and has deservedly--and quietly--become a cult item after being rescued from decades of obscurity by Blue Underground's 2006 DVD.

After a woman's body is found on a Sydney beach, wearing yellow pajamas and with her face burned beyond recognition, the police are baffled. This prompts crotchety, retired Inspector Timpson (Ray Milland in one of his best late-career roles), who misses the action and has grown bored spending his days tending to his flower garden, to offer his services on his own time ("Don't expect to get paid!" the chief yells). Timpson is an old-school sleuth who follows his gut instinct and has no time for the psychological analyses of college-educated cops like Inspectors Taylor (Ramiro Oliveros) and Morris (Rod Mullinar), who have been put in charge of the case. They initially have no leads since they don't even know the victim's identity, resulting in the film's most memorable scene, a desperation decision to publicly display the woman's mutilated corpse in the hopes that someone might recognize her (this actually happened in the 1934 source case). After Taylor and Morris beat a confession out of local pervert Quint (Giacomo Assandri), the case is closed despite Timpson's protestations otherwise. Meanwhile, Linda (Dalila Di Lazzaro, best known as the "female zombie" in FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN) has recently been seduced by a bisexual female friend who wore yellow pajamas very similar to the murder victim. With the woman gone on a trip and temporarily out of the picture, Linda goes back to juggling the three men in her life: her Italian immigrant husband Antonio (Michele Placido), his buddy Roy (Howard Ross), and Prof. Douglas (Mel Ferrer), her elite, upper-class sugar daddy. The parallel narratives intersect on occasion until fusing in a way that should've landed with more oomph than Mogherini gives it, but once you rewatch it knowing how it all plays out, it's fascinating to observe the way he obfuscates and intentionally misdirects the audience. It's easy for a first-time viewer to leave THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE feeling gypped and disgruntled, but there's a lot more going on in it than just a simple murder mystery or a cookie-cutter giallo, and its rewards might only manifest on subsequent viewings. That's more work than most people might wish to devote to a movie, which is why this film has flown so under-the-radar for so many years, with its cult growing as those who are pulled back to it discover its intricacies and what Mogherini was really doing.

Though some interiors were shot in Rome, most of the film was done on location in Sydney, and the presence of future PATRICK and BREAKER MORANT co-star Mullinar gives it some legitimate Aussie/Ozploitation credentials. Mogherini uses the downtown, business district of Sydney in ways that make it seem as barren, desolate, and unwelcoming as the intimidating Outback of something like WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971). There's an unmistakable Antonioni chilliness to some of the location work as Mogherini frequently sets exterior shots in vast, empty spaces--often with the Sydney Opera House in the shot to establish scale--emphasizing the isolation and loneliness of the characters. Antonio's introduction is one of the film's most striking moments as Mogherini has Placido wandering through an empty downtown Sydney business district, surrounded by the concrete and steel of towering skyscrapers as he eats lunch alone on a bench without a soul in sight. It's a scene that, taken out of context, could easily be mistaken for a new version of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH or THE OMEGA MAN. That sense of isolation is a key theme for Mogherini:  Italian Antonio, German Roy, and Dutch Linda are all immigrants who have ended up in Sydney. They often complain that they're second-class citizens, intimating that Australians aren't particularly hospitable to outsiders. I don't see the film making this claim overtly as a knock on Australia specifically, as one could say that immigrants could feel that way anywhere.  Linda gets dealt even worse as she's constantly leered at and objectified by men, whether she's stopping at a bar or working her shift at a restaurant, where every male customer checks her out as she walks away and makes no effort to be subtle about it. Even the men who line up at the public viewing of the corpse seem to be doing it more for the chance to ogle another naked woman. With the exception of Timpson, the men in THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE are a sad and immature lot. Almost all of them have homes lined with nudie magazine pics on the walls, and Quint is introduced vigorously and openly masturbating to his neighbor as she hangs laundry in her yard, only to be rudely interrupted by Timpson and Taylor barging into his shack of a house (the sight of 70-year-old Oscar winner Milland making the "jerk off" motion in mockery of Quint is itself worth the price of admission). Roy claims Antonio is his friend but thinks nothing of sleeping with Linda. Even the seemingly mature Prof. Douglas is a self-centered bastard, wooing Linda with promises of a life together only to bail when she finally takes him up on his offer, almost as if he suddenly remembered they met while he was on a business trip to Amsterdam, where Linda was working as a prostitute before following him to Sydney (there's also another love triangle involving the professor, Linda, and her bisexual lover with the yellow pajamas). It's the rejection by Prof. Douglas that sends Linda on a self-loathing, self-destructive downward spiral that eventually starts bringing the dual narratives together.

Mogherini (1922-1994) didn't direct anything else of note other than the minor Marcello Mastroianni comedy LUNATICS AND LOVERS (1976).  He spent most of his career in art direction and production design on films like Mario Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968) and Federico Fellini's FELLINI SATYRICON (1969). With his unique depiction of Sydney as harsh and almost alien world (almost none of the Australian characters sound Australian, which effectively adds to the sense of detachment even if it's just a happy accident courtesy of a fast-working Nick Alexander-led dubbing crew), supplemented by a Riz Ortolani score that often sounds like a dry run for Giorgio Moroder disco (the songs croaked by Amanda Lear, however insidiously they burrow into your head, are an acquired taste regardless of how relevant their lyrics are), Mogherini created an uneven yet inventive and melancholy giallo like no other, offering a unique view of Australia through an Italian lens to tell a story of lost souls adrift, strangers in a strange land who left home out of a sense of not belonging only to arrive at a place that was even less welcoming. Perhaps THE PYJAMA GIRL CASE was ahead of its time in more ways than plot structure.

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