CAPSULE: THE FIFTH CORD (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Luigi Bazzoni

FEATURING: , Silvia Monti, Wolfgang Preiss, Renato Romano

PLOT: A newspaper investigative reporter is obligated to turn full detective as a series of murders seemingly tie together everybody in his life in a labyrinthine web of intrigue.

Still from The Fifth Cord (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only remotely possible way you could call this movie weird is if you had never seen a giallo before. It’s not just a giallo, it’s a stereotypical giallo just short of a scathing parody of the genre. It wouldn’t even make the list of the 366 mildly quirkiest movies.

COMMENTS: I have to break my usual mold with this one, because The Fifth Cord is just a special case. On the one hand, make no mistake, this is a good movie overall. It’s breathtakingly shot, handsomely mounted, beautifully scored, and is in fact a stand-out example of its genre. But when it comes to the plot… Italian giallo is a genre known for soap opera plotting that stretches credibility, but The Fifth Cord just takes that sucker to another level. It’s like twenty seasons of “Days of Our Lives” packed into a clown car. Giallo also has a reputation for being derivative, but this movie goes straight to the movie cliché Dollar Store and maxes out its credit card. This gives you two choices: try, in spite of the pumpernickel fruitcake structure, to follow the story (bring a notepad and a bottle of adderall), or ignore the yammering yarn and resign yourself to oohing and aahing at the pretty pictures and atmospheric scenes. Let us start down the first path and see how far we get into The Hyperthyroid Yarn From Hell:

Through the opening credits we witness a New Year’s Eve party at an Italian watering hole. Normally that’s movie-talk for “go ahead and get your drink, nothing important is happening yet.” But no, this is actually the most important New Year’s Eve party in film history, because everybody here is interconnected, and most of them are going to end up dead. At the party is one Julia, who takes her date under a bridge the next day, and Walter, a teacher who happens to be walking through a nearby tunnel at the same time. Walter is clubbed by a shadowy attacker, and Julia is first on the scene as the assailant flees. Walter ends up in the hospital. The main character, Andrea Bild (Franco Nero), is a newspaper reporter dispatched to cover this crime, although Bild is in fact more of a hardboiled detective straight out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. At the hospital Bild meets Dr. Riccardo Bini (Renato Romano), who stonewalls him, and the more helpful police inspector (Wolfgang Preiss), who directs him to Julia, who slams a door in his face.

Bild goes back to the home he shares with his cheesecake mistress Lu, but she checks out, so he visits his old flame Helene (Silvia Monti), who knows Walter, since they teach at the same school. While he’s following up on her leads, Dr. Bini is at home with his crippled wife Sofia. The doctor gets called out on an emergency that turns out to be a ruse so a shadowy figure can murder Sofia. Bild is called to investigate this case as well, and Dr. Bimi scoffs at the idea that he should mourn his late wife, playing the “she was released from her suffering” card. Suspicious of the doctor, Andrea tails him to discover the doctor dealing with a racecar driver, who turns out to be the brother of his own mistress, Lu. And Walter (the guy who got clubbed in the tunnel, forgot him already, didn’t you?) pops up from his coma sporting a neck brace to confide to Andrea that the attack on him was no mere mugging, but a murder attempt. So long story short, ha ha ha, there’s more murders, and they’re all connected in circles around Andrea, and oh by the way everybody in this movie has a secret and acts suspicious. We’re about thirty minutes in here, wanna go on? This thing makes “Hamlet” look like an “iCarly” episode.

Tropes: Andrea is an alcoholic, so he stone cold chugs from a bottle of J&B with one hand on the steering wheel. Giallo movies like black-gloved murderers, so this killer’s M.O. is to leave a black glove at the scene with one finger cut off for each hit to keep a running score. Andrea is in the role of nosy detective, and by God he actually utters the famous “Columbo” line “Oh, and one more thing…” to a fleeing interviewee. His newspaper office boss is in the role of buddy-cop-movie police chief, so he yells at Andrea angrily and takes him off the case, at which point Andrea becomes a vigilante loose-cannon reporter who threatens his now-ex-boss who promptly gets murdered next scene so now Andrea is a suspect too. It’s a whodunit mystery, so the killer is a batty psycho who makes random phone calls to every cast member so he can make creepy whispering speeches in purple poetry (without spoiling his ultimate motive, I will say “revenge” and “astrology”). Everybody—EVERYBODY!—is connected in some secret way: be it an affair, shady business dealings, dark past secrets, concealed family trees, whatever. There’s a cat at the doctor’s house and for the rest of the movie you’re sweating the possibility of the cat becoming a major subplot as an uncooperative witness with a conspiracy who becomes a suspect just before he turns up dead.

All this amounts to a dumpster fire of a murder mystery. Yes, it does make sense in a Giallo Zone way, but you’ve already run away screaming before you get to the big Scooby-Doo reveal. However, if you ignore all that, you have a delightful brew. A shooting location in Rome, Italy, every frame a Renaissance master painting. A bouncy Yamaha synthesizer theme, scored by legendary composer Ennio Morricone. Sets where everybody lives in a huge Frank-Lloyd-Wright mansion. And holy DNA-symbolism, does this flick ever love its free-standing spiral staircases! Peak artistic direction courtesy of Luigi Bazzoni, who makes every millimeter of film count. The story was even adapted from a novel originally set in Scotland, of all places, and to Bazzoni’s credit, he himself seems to say “the hell with this plot, I’m just filming great art now” as the movie wears on. The cast is a full deck of great names in giallo. What the heck, a couple of the death scenes try to reach a little bit into originality. Not as arty as Argento, but also not as sloppy as Franco. And it’s not so much a bad giallo plot as a Zardoz giallo plot: infinite characters and endless yakkety-yak dialog that all should have been cut to one-twentieth its current bulk. All of this is played dead straight, smothered in its own self-importance. The main problem with The Fifth Cord is actually that we’re reviewing it on a site allegedly about weird movies, because this is without a doubt the least-weird giallo movie I’ve ever seen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…while all the international architecture and light through Venetian blinds, the roving camera, crisp sets, scopophilic perversion red herring and good dubbing all elevate this to the top of the giallo food chain, there’s also a sense of phoniness inside the souls of the characters that not only excuses phoniness in the film but resembles Antonioni-esque fatalism as much as it does Argento diabolism.”–Erich Kursten, Acidemic (DVD)

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