Death Walks on High Heels
1971, Italy. Directed by Luciano Ercoli
Few directors who plied their trade in the torrid world of the giallo were as adept as Luciano Ercoli at melding the sundry fetishes that defined the movement. Nudity, violence, overly elaborate striptease numbers, quirky camera work, exquisite living rooms, and dazzling outfits all hit their crescendo under the steady guidance of a man who seems to treat every film as a fashion shoot. Ercoli made the scene in 1970 with The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion and followed it up in 1971 with Death Walks On High Heels. These two films, along with Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight (1972), form a trilogy that, while unconnected narratively, share an overarching sense of style, set of obsessions, and an infatuation with Nieves Navarro (aka Susan Scott, one of the greats of the giallo) that binds them together in a way that is more important than a shared narrative. It’s likely that no matter how much you search, you’ll not find a film in the genre more adept than the aptly named Death Walks on High Heels (La morte cammina con i tacchi alti) at lingering lovingly over sexy go-go boots, nor will you find one that so sensuously films two people cramming oily hunks of fish into their mouths accompanied by sexy lounge music. Rarely has a giallo film taken “red herring” quite so literally.
The aforementioned fish-eating is indicative, it would seem, of what Ercoli is attempting to accomplish in general, which is a subversion of certain expectations. If one accepts that, despite tracing its roots back to the 1960s (and even further if you want to grant a more expansive definition of the genre), giallo comes into its own with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, then it’s remarkable that just a year later, dozens of films had been produced that fit beneath the giallo umbrella and, with them, a set of conventions had been established in a very short amount of time. Granted, many of these conventions were lifted from older formats: Edgar Wallace mysteries, “old dark house” films, Agatha Christie thrillers, and of course the works of Alfred Hitchcock. But just as “film noir” was a certain look, attitude, and style fitted onto the existing framework of gritty crime films, so giallo was a set of thematic and stylistic decisions that added a peculiar veneer to the genres upon which it was built.
That style, those thematic preoccupations, were abundant and codified only a year after giallo stepped into the limelight. Which means, by 1971, Ercoli already had a set of things with which he could toy in order to keep fans of such films off-balance. Red herrings, a plot that bounces unapologetically between genres, characters who bear a confusingly close resemblance to one another, and of course, filming the unattractive act of eating greasy fish as if you were filming a pornographic sex scene in loving close-up. This transformation of the beautiful into the grotesque and vice versa became one of the favorite tricks of many giallo directors, who would find a stunning number of ways to render sex between two attractive people sort of repulsive. I don’t even want to get into Malocchio‘s “French kissing while brushing our teeth in the shower” scene. We have strayed a long way from the fried chicken picnic between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.
Beneath Ercoli’s tweaks of the nose is a typically giallo approach to storytelling, which is to take a relatively straight-forward story and relay it in the most convoluted, difficult to follow fashion as one can muster. Navarro/Scott (who appeared in Ercoli’s two other giallo, as well as Sergio Martino’s superb All the Colors of the Dark) plays Nicole, a Parisian stripper being menaced by a mysterious assailant demanding the location of some diamonds. It turns out that Nicole is the daughter of a jewel thief murdered during the opening credits of the film. When the diamonds the killer expected to find aren’t there, the razor-wielding maniac with icy blue eyes assumes that the thief must have told Nicole their location. Alas for Nicole, she has no idea where the diamonds are nor possesses any knowledge pertaining to her deceased father’s career as a burglar. Of course that’s not going to deter the killer, who whiles away his time making threatening phone calls and, as often happens in giallo, sneaking into Nicole’s apartment to menace her and cut off her clothing with a straight razor.
Of very little help to Nicole is her deadbeat boyfriend Michel (Simón Andreu, who here plays a scummy boyfriend but played an even scummier husband in The Blood Spattered Bride, Spanish director Vicente Aranda’s grimy, hateful 1972 adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire novella Carmilla). Michel reacts to Nicole’s plight in the usual way giallo characters do: by ridiculing her, insulting her, and occasionally attempting to terrify her as a joke. When she discovers a pair of icy blue contact lenses in Michel’s apartment, the viewer knows such an obvious clue is there simply to act as misdirection. Still, one can’t help but look at the brilliant azure lenses and wish that Michel was indeed the killer so that we might see him get some sort of comeuppance for being such an oaf. Nicole, upon discovering what is, by her reckoning, confirmation that her own boyfriend is her stalker, does what any reasonable person would do: she neglects calling the police and instead runs into the arms of stranger Dr. Matthews (spaghetti western regular Frank Wolff), an obsessed fan from the strip club in which she performs, allowing the older man to whisk her off to his remote love shack somewhere along the English coast. Letting a guy she barely knows from the strip club spirit her to an isolated location goes about as well for her as anyone but, apparently, she could anticipate.
With this shift in location, the film begins to pile on one twist after another. Some of them make sense, others come totally out of left field, and some seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot but screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi figured what the hell. Gastaldi was one of the more talented screenwriters toiling away in the oft-thankless world of Italian cult cinema, where scripts were often treated as an afterthought. Even when he’s piling coincidence on top of improbability on top of shock, his writing and Ercoli’s direction manage to stay interesting even when things become difficult to follow. Gastaldi’s parade of screenwriting credits could serve as the basis for a book. Like pretty much everyone working at the time, he had a hand in crafting films for any genre that happened to be popular. What set him apart is how many of those films were good, or if not exactly good, at least interesting. Before entering the giallo arena, he wrote some solid sword and sandal adventures, a slew of pirate films, several James Bond-esque spy thrillers, and a number of horror movies, including a couple with some of the best titles ever: The Vampire and the Ballerina and Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory. He worked on several Gothic horrors, including Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body and Antonio Margheriti’s Horror Castle and Long Hair of Death.
In 1968, got his first taste of giallo as a screenwriter on The Sweet Body of Deborah, directed by Romolo Guerrieri, and a year later worked on the screenplay for Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet…So Perverse, a veritable who’s who of 1960s giallo icons, including Carroll Baker, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Erika Blanc, and Helga Liné. In 1970 and 1971 respectively, he entered into two of his most fruitful collaborations, first with Luciano Ercoli on The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, and then with Sergio Martino on The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. He continued his relationship with both directors, writing Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight for Ercoli and All the Colors of the Dark, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and Torso for Martino. A staggering number of popular exploitation pictures from the 1970s and ’80s engaged Gastaldi’s talents. While he has not attained the level of popularity or fan adoration as some the key stars and directors, it’s abundantly clear from his filmography that the wild world of Italian cult cinema would not have been what it was without Ernesto Gastaldi.
Death Walks on High Heels doesn’t find Gastaldi firing on all cylinders, but enough of them are chugging along that between his labyrinthine writing and Ercoli’s slick direction the result is an entertaining film that balances high glamor and elegance with crass sleaze, fetishism, and leering prurience. And really, isn’t that what we want and expect from giallo? Nieves Navarro/Susan Scott was one of the ablest and most willing stars of the genre, and since Ercoli was obsessed with her (the two married in 1972 and remained so until Ercoli’s death in 2015), he shoots her exquisitely, attiring her in an array of moddish miniskirts and tight thigh-high boots. She also gets several scenes that give her more to do than just stand around and look alluring and/or terrified (though she’s great at both of those things). She’s able to deliver emotional heft when it’s demanded of her, and though her character makes the usual dumb decisions everyone in giallo makes, she never becomes petty or unlikable… though her “African” striptease is ill-advised even for a film in 1971.
Joining her about halfway through the film (Ercoli pulls a Hitchcock a la Psycho in that regard, introducing a main character after half the film is finished) is Claudie Lange. Lange was never a major player in the Italian film business, though she did appear in a few high-profile roles, including one alongside Roger Moore in the 1969 British spy caper Crossplot and another in John Huston’s ill-fated disaster The Bible: In the Beginning…. She also appeared in a few spaghetti westerns and Eurospy films, but her only giallo work was with Ercoli and Navarro in Death Walks On High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, her penultimate film before retiring from the business. She’s good in Death Walks On High Heels as the endlessly put-upon wife of Frank Wolff’s philandering Dr. Matthews, who suddenly finds herself thrust into a twisted plot involving sex and stolen diamonds that, by the time she arrives in the film, everything is already good and tangled. That she lacks the presence of Nieves Navarro probably has less to do with Lange’s capabilities as an actress and more with the fact that Ercoli was in love with Navarro.
And indeed Navarro is a peach. She remained active throughout the 1970s, appearing in a number of genre films of varying repute, including a trio of “Emanuelle” films (Emanuelle e Lolita, Velluto nero, and the infamous Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals) and Joe D’Amato’s dull, tasteless Orgasmo Nero. Conversely, her husband Luciano Ercoli was not long for this cinematic coil. He directed only two more movies before inheriting a fortune and deciding that directing movies was less fun than just sitting around, being rich with his beautiful wife. His direction here is good, and despite moments in which the film loses focus (narratively, not technically, though amazingly the fish-eating scene ends up having sort of a point), he keeps things interesting and moving along. Cinematographer Fernando Arribas brings a polished, fashion show look to everything. The murders are neither graphic nor numerous but are stylishly mounted. The supporting cast is able, even Nicole’s creepy boyfriend Michel, who shows up in the back half of the film to try to redeem himself while in the position of most likely suspect. Stelvio Cipriani, who was one of the best composers working in Italian genre film, turns in an appropriately loungy score full of breathy wordless singing, tribal percussion, and baroque harpsichord. What it lacks in tension it makes up for by being jazzy and lush, the kind of soundtrack you want playing as you drive a convertible along the Amalfi Coast.
Ironically, for a movie that has so much to do with eyes, and features close-ups of eyes so prominently, this is one of the rare giallo that doesn’t dwell very long on the subjectiveness of human perception, though voyeurism is certainly one of the major fetishes explored in this film. But then, voyeurism is probably the go-to kink for just about all giallo, since it plays so well with the concept of being stalked and menaced. Clocking in at 105 minutes, Death Walks On High Heels is about ten minutes longer than it should be, and that extra ten minutes can test the patience of less determined fans of giallo, especially when it’s spent on filler and close-ups of people sex-eating fish while revelations important to the plot are crammed into shorter scenes and sprayed at the viewer out of a firehose. However, for those willing to forgive the film its meandering moments, there’s a lot to enjoy in this sordid, stylish tale, especially if you like sexy boots — or fried fish.