What do film characters do when they’re not onscreen? I’m not talking about the sort of people that populate sensitive dramas. We can guess what they do, because it’s probably the same as us. I’m thinking of bad guys, mostly: gangsters, monsters, slashers, ad infinitum. When they’re not busy fitting the generic needs of a pick-me-up for the film they’re in, what are they doing? Are they bogged down in the minutiae of moment-to-moment life like we are? What did the Xenomorph in Alien do with his time when he wasn’t jamming his inner jaw through the skulls of the Nostromo’s crew? Sleep? Read a good book? Suffer bouts of existential dread? It’s the same with human baddies. We typically enter on a scene where they’re already set up in a quasi-tableau: Hanging around the boss’ office, standing menacingly behind the boss, and so on. Very rarely do we see them balancing their checkbook, washing their underwear, etcetera.
These characters are not intended to have lives outside of those specifically portrayed on the screen. Even when they talk about what they’ve been doing elsewhere, it doesn’t feel like anything touching reality. It’s the character speaking as the character. It doesn’t matter how colorful, or well-rounded, or logically motivated they are, these guys exist solely to function as antagonists. We’re not supposed to think about what they’re doing when we don’t see them. We’re meant to be involved with how the protagonists are engaged. But I can’t help it. I find myself thinking often of what banal tasks Jason Voorhees is getting up to offscreen. He can’t stare at his mother’s mummified head all the time, after all. This doesn’t mean that I want to see films based on this concept, per se (I think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon pretty much covered this base sufficiently). All that would mean is my wandering mind would instead focus on the good guys in the same capacity. It’s like going to the bathroom. How many movies have we seen where characters wake up somewhere and immediately spring out of bed and get moving without obeying nature’s call first? Yes, there are reasons for not showing us this. It’s just one of those things that occurs to me, the same, I’m sure, as the fact that most handguns don’t hold an infinite number of bullets occurs to gun enthusiasts. Maurizio Pradeaux’s Death Carries a Cane (aka Passi Di Danza Su Una Lama Di Rasoio aka Maniac at Large aka The Tormentor aka Trauma aka Devil Blade) partially satisfies this obsession of mine by not only giving its heroine a nervous bladder (“I’ve gotta go pee pee!”) but also using this to instigate the action of the finale (yes, really, kind of).
While waiting for her fiancée Alberto (Robert Hoffmann) to show up and see off her relatives, Kitty (Nieves Navarro aka Susan Scott) glimpses a woman being murdered through an observation telescope. Next thing she knows, witnesses are dropping like flies, and everyone takes a poke at playing red herring.
It’s no stretch to imagine that Death Carries a Cane is heavily concerned with The Gaze. Not just the Male Gaze, though that’s a large part of it, but also the simple act of looking and how this affects the characters. The opening titles are shot through an observation telescope as two horny guys completely miss the point of the instrument and wind up looking at just about everything except women (until the credits end, that is). Kitty gets involved with the plot by accident, but she was still eager to look through the telescope, so The Gaze’s influence is felt on her, as well. Similar to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Kitty follows her desire to see what’s going on around her, observing without being observed, playing voyeur and suffering the consequences. The Gaze has a price.
Kitty and Alberto make and photograph blank-faced dummies that they stab and tear apart as part of their art. The dummies replace real bodies, obviously, and the act of photographing them in “death” speaks to the loss of self and autonomy which comes from being the subject of The Gaze. Also playing into this idea, Alberto takes naked pics of Kitty while she sleeps. There is a focus on eyes with a great many closeups to drive the point home. These are usually done in tandem with POV shots. For example, when the killer visits the lowly chestnut vendor’s house, we watch through a cruddy window as the man eats his evening spaghetti (with a spoon!). The camera tracks in on the vendor’s eyes as he looks out at us in Direct Address (this is external to the POV shots as its not handheld, if memory serves, though it goes to The Gaze on both sides, as viewer and viewed). Of course, this wouldn’t be a giallo without a lot of female nudity, and the filmmakers serve it up often, playing to the prurient interest of the audience’s Gaze (as is often the case, the sex scenes don’t quite fit outside of being sex scenes for a movie; for example, Kitty has sex with Alberto immediately after he catches her trying to leave because he makes her nervous).
Every suspect in Death Carries a Cane has an infirmity. Alberto has a sprained ankle. Musician Marco (Simón Andreu) is impotent. Silvia (Anuska Borova), twin sister to Marco’s girlfriend Lidia (also Borova), uses a cane. Naturally, this is so that we have different characters on which to cast suspicion. It also points to the damaged psyche of the killer, as he/she is crippled inside and out.
Pradeaux’s film hues closely to the rules of gialli, with plenty of stylish, bloody murders (using more handheld camera than I’m used to with these types of films, although the set pieces are nicely orchestrated, by and large), some titillation (without somehow feeling totally sleazy), and an end reveal that comes so far out of left field you really have to consider if it was improvised on the day of shooting. The film doesn’t rise above the crowd, though it’s solid enough in its group. The thing that hurts it the most, in my opinion, is its choppy editing. Its cuts are jagged, not meshing and flowing, and there is always the possibility that this was intentional in the same way that its extensive use of handheld was. Maybe the two were meant to go hand in hand in an effort to create an off-kilter atmosphere. Unfortunately, the discordance is discursive. Not enough to make Death Carries a Cane a failure (as a giallo or otherwise), but enough to make it a lesser film with sparkles of greatness in it.
MVT: Pradeaux’s ambition is on display, and he is to be applauded for the attempt.
Make or Break: The witnessing of the initial murder does a nice job of inciting the plot and opening a proverbial can of worms.