Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Death Knocks Twice (1969)

Edmund Kemper is, to my mind, one of the scariest serial killers in American history. Beginning with killing his grandparents in 1964 and ending with the murder of his mother in 1973, his list of victims is short, but they are all the more frightful for the dispassion Kemper displayed both during and after their committal. Compounding this was his proclivity for necrophilia, as well as the mutilations he performed on the corpses. After murdering his mother in her sleep, using her severed head for oral sex, and stuffing her vocal cords down the garbage disposal (he was quoted as saying, "That seemed appropriate, as much as she'd bitched, and screamed, and yelled at me over so many years"), he strangled his mother's best friend and then turned himself in after a brief flight from the law. This behavior is far removed from what we have been fed (mostly, but especially during the glory days of exploitation cinema) in popular narratives. There the killers are suave and charming, and when they kill, they typically do so with a bug-eyed mania. Yet the quiet force of will of someone like an Edmund Kemper makes him many times over more bloodcurdling than the majority of serial killers committed to film and certainly more so than Francisco Villaverde (Fabio Testi) in Harald Philipp's Death Knocks Twice (aka The Blonde Connection, aka Blonde Köder Für Den Mörder). 

After kibitzing in the surf with nubile blonde Lois Simmons (Femi Benussi) for a little while, Villaverde suddenly "goes nuts" and chokes the young woman. His crime is witnessed by both Riccardo (Mario Brega) and the unctuous Amato Locatelli (Riccardo Garrone), both of whom work at a beach hotel resort owned by Charlie (Werner Peters). Private dick and all-around physical specimen Bob Martin (Dean Reed) is hired by old pal and Continental Detective Agency owner Pepe(General Burkhalter himself, Leon Askin), and their first job (of course) is to find out what happened to the aforementioned Ms. Simmons and her bejeweled necklace. 

The no-bullshit private investigator is something that's been around for decades. Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and so on all cut to the chase immediately. They don't bother with niceties and their social graces would make a caveman blush. But we love them because they do two things; One, they smack lowlifes around until they uncover the truth, and two, they get the girl (usually, though number one is definite). Unhindered by the red tape and laws that restrict most police officers from bringing swift justice to the bad guys, the PI can go where he wants, bend or even break the law, and get physical with no one to stop him from doing so. Bob fits into this category, in as much as the film allows him to do so. He is rude to his client (asking what he figures are vital questions but really just being kind of a jerk) and immediately knows what to do to catch Lois's killer (go undercover, of course, using his fiancée Ellen [Ini Assmann] as bait). And here's the first misstep that the film takes. For two people who seem so attached and devoted at the outset, neither member of this couple seems to give a second thought to making out with other people (and bear in mind, Ellen is not a PI, or at least we are not told she is) to get the job done. It would be one thing if they were forced into this position. It would be one thing if one or the other had to make a choice, knowing that their loved one is remaining faithful. But this just comes off in the film like cheap hustling, and even that could be forgiven if it weren't for the films other problems.

Investigation movies and movies about murderers will generally fall into one of two categories. They are either about uncovering the identity of an unknown villain and bringing him/her to justice, or they are about the characters of both the chaser and the chased and why and how they do what they do. Philipp's film does away with any real mystery by showing us Villaverde losing it and strangling Lois from the outset. What could have been interesting (the witnessing of said action and the consequences of it) is never explored (or at least not explored to its fullest or even in a relatively compelling way). Instead, the entirety of the film is a series of scenes which play out exactly as we expect them to, with no revelations (unless the filmmakers honestly believed that what they state about any of the characters could in any way be misconstrued as revelatory) save one at the climax, which by that point is so shrug-inducing as to make you wonder why they even bothered. Admittedly, the introduction of Sophia and the Professor (Anita Ekberg and Adolfo Celi, respectively) do give the viewer a dash of hope, but said hope is soon dashed, when these two (admittedly more menacing) characters are as mishandled as the others. The filmmakers don't just underplay the murders or the crimes and machinations, they seemingly just don't care about them. They're there, they happened, we filmed them, and then put them in order and put credits on it. The end.

Villaverde's character could have been used to make a statement (or at least be developed as more than just a movie psycho) about sex, art, and death. He gets horny, he gets kill-happy, and he paints a portrait of his victim. At an art show, we see many portraits of women, and we assume they were all painted by Villaverde (they do have a similar style). We also assume, then, that he may have killed all these women. Do the filmmakers show us anything to back this up? No. Do they even treat this aspect as if it were something with some significance? No. The paintings are just there in the background. Truthfully, I am projecting my thoughts about the artworks in some desperate bid to give this film, its characters, and story a scintilla of weight, but I'm afraid that it just doesn't fly. Like every other character and subplot in the film, Villaverde's story comes off as capricious and trivial, a character here to give us some flavor but utterly failing to do so. And by the time you get to the offhanded ending, you finally realized where you've seen this before: on some crappy, television show about some hunky PI and completely interchangeable with same, except for some nudity (which is the one thing that will pep up the audience through the runtime). So death can knock twice, it can knock a hundred times. Wait for a good film to knock, instead.

MVT: Adolfo Celi as the Professor is everything a villain can be, and the man tries. The scenes with him in them are more effective than any others (slight praise, indeed), but even his stoic performance (and he's the only character in the film who should be acting aloof) just can't raise this film past a very low bar.

Make Or Break: The Break is not any one scene. Instead it's the overall arbitrariness and general bungling of just about everything in the film with the exception of the groovy lounge score by Piero Umiliani.

Score: 5/10 

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