The Bloodstained Butterfly
1971, Italy. Directed by Duccio Tessari
Coming to prominence around the same time and often revolving around similar subject matter, there was frequent crossover between the giallo and poliziotteschi genres. Poliziotteschi were Eurocrime films focusing on determined cops struggling to make a difference in a corrupt system, and like giallo the formative examples of the genre emerged in the 1960s, but the formula was perfected in the early years of the 1970s. Both genres delved into the world of murder, prostitution, kidnapping, and the vices of the rich and powerful. The primary difference is that in giallo, the police are rarely the driving force behind an investigation. That work is left up to some determined or desperate amateur. If the police are on hand (and some giallo seem to occur in an alternate universe where they don’t exist at all), they are often portrayed as incompetent and openly hostile toward victims, suspects, and the innocent alike. This could very well be a reflection of public impressions of police work in Italy during the 1970s, when crime and terrorism were rampant, and the authorities seem unable or uninterested in doing much about it.
Duccio Tessari’s The Bloodstained Butterfly is the odd giallo where not only are the police present, but they seem dedicated to their job (Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage features sympathetic police characters, but they are never the focus of the film). Although it boasts the elaborate murders and cast of red herrings one expects from the genre, it also surprises by spending at least as much time on police procedure, forensic science, and courtroom maneuvering. Like most giallo, it begins with the murder of a young woman. While no one witnesses the murder itself, which happens in a wooded park near twilight, several people catch a glimpse of the killer making a getaway (though none of them know they’re watching a killer at the time).
Working with eye witnesses and known associates and friends of the luckless young victim, police led by the dogged Inspector Berardi (Silvano Tranquilli, who starred as Edgar Allan Poe in Antonio Margheriti’s excellent Gothic chiller Castle of Blood as well as a slew of giallo, including Black Belly of the Tarantula, and a few top notch Eurocrime action films, including High Crime and Manhunt, directed by Enzo G. Castellari and Umberto Lenzi respectively), follow a trail of clues that lead to popular television talk show host Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia). The evidence against Alessandro is daunting, and his case isn’t necessarily helped by the fact that his legal defender is romancing his wife and would just as soon see Alessandro sent to prison. Of course, this being a giallo, there is a messy tangle of other likely culprits, including the lawyer Giulio Cordaro (Günther Stoll) and a nervous young man named Giorgio (Helmut Berger), the identity of whom isn’t immediately clear. Sarah (Wendy D’Olive), Alessandro’s daughter and a friend of the victim, plays the role of amateur detective, but unlike most giallo, her investigation is a sideshow. The bulk of the film sticks to the efforts of the police, the lawyers, and a team of forensic investigators whoa re able to take advantage of a wealth of new scientific crime fighting gear.
Like many early-cycle giallo, the film’s title is a riff on the trend started by Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage of including animals that usually end up playing a minor role, at best, in the plot itself. The Bloodstained Butterfly also follows Argento’s lead in making the limits of human perception central to the plot. Eye witnesses and circumstantial evidence that seems to result in a slam dunk case for the prosecution are revealed via a non-linear narrative to be more deceptive than they might initially appear. In the case of the two main eye witnesses, it is literally their ability to see that is called into question.
For the forensic scientists, it’s not the results of their tests that are questionable, but rather the way those results are interpreted and the way the preconceptions of investigators lead them to certain conclusions that, while seeming reasonable and perhaps even likely, are not explicitly confirmed. Forensic investigation was nothing new in itself in 1971 — people had been using science in pursuit of criminals since the 1800s — but the use of computers and other advanced electronic gear was still novel and, as is often the case with emerging technology in such an important field, the source of much trepidation both within police departments as well as the general public. Could you trust a machine to do a human’s job? Will it put the police out of business? Can we trust technology? The Bloodstained Butterfly isn’t a criticism of this technology in and of itself, but just as the reliability of the human eye is called into question, so to is the reliability of the human brain when it comes to interpreting the raw data generated by science. In this approach, The Bloodstained Butterfly takes a central theme from Argento but explores a much different avenue.
In fact, other than the basic theme of the questionability of perception and the general structure of the title, The Bloodstained Butterfly is very much its own sort of beast, very different in tone, structure, and plot from the Argento film that inspired it. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is infused with a certain rambunctious energy, a zest for what’s going on. Even when its central characters are in danger, there’s a sense of playful adventure as well. Lurking under the murder mystery of Argento’s picture, there is also an action film, full of chases set to thumping Ennio Morricone jazz. In contrast, The Bloodstained Butterfly is a much moodier, melancholy affair. With only a couple exceptions, most of the characters have something unsavory about them. They’re not exactly evil or unsympathetic, but there’s the sense that they’ve brought this awful suffering upon themselves. They all have something to hide, something about which they are ashamed, and they are willing to let other suffer in order to prevent themselves undergoing hardship. There’s a sense of doom looming over everything in The Bloodstained Butterfly, a feeling that a glum, depressing outcome is unavoidable.
A slower, more melancholy pace does not translate into a dull film, however. Director Duccio Tessari made his name directing a couple films in the popular “Ringo” spaghetti western series, but first and foremost he was a screenwriter, with dozens of scripts across a variety of genres under his belt before he set about making his first (and only) foray into the world of giallo. As was the case with films by the directing/screenwriting team of Sergio Martino and Ernesto Gastaldi, Tessari puts more emphasis on writing than would become the norm in subsequent films in the genre. Although the plot is twisty, it never becomes overly outrageous or illogical. Characters don’t always make good decisions, but they rarely made decisions just because the script demand sit of them. They stay well within the realm of believability.
British mystery writer Edgar Wallace gets a screenwriting credit for the film, though that was purely marketing. Wallace, who wrote primarily in the 1930s and was perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for 1933’s King Kong) became a sensation in Germany, where is labyrinthine plots and outlandish characters struck a chord with Weimar Republic Germans. During the war, his books were inevitably denounced by the Nazis and banned, but in the 1950s, he enjoyed a resurgence in Germany that resulted in a whole slew of film adaptations. Where as pre-War adaptations of Wallace stories were generally low-key affairs made in Great Britain, the German films of the 1950s were wild, bizarre, over the top, and once they started getting made in color, positively psychedelic. They are often considered progenitors of the giallo, as much responsible for the genre as the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
Given the nature of the stories, it’s inevitable that actual giallo would turn to Edgar Wallace — or rather, that they would invoke his name, if not his actual stories. There are several giallo that claim to be based on the works of Edgar Wallace. That was rarely the case, but there was still a certain commonality between giallo scripts and Wallace books. Tessari, collaborating with Gianfranco Clerici (who worked on the screenplays for several Lucio Fulci films as well as some poliziotteschi and the bizarre cop-vs-monster by way of Michael Mann film Miami Golem), puts substantial work into The Bloodstained Butterfly‘s script, crafting a deliberately paced but consistently interesting potboiler that plays with the structure of its narrative in a way that heightens the mystery without seeming like a cheat to the audience. For much of the film, the viewer may find themselves a bit at a loss when it comes to interpreting certain scenes and details. The central plot remains straight-forward, but the branches manage to be confusing without being frustrating. As it reaches the finale, all those disparate bits are clarified, making for a satisfying (if not totally surprising) final revelation.
Film production being what it was in the 1970s, it was common for Italian films to get financial backing from other countries, most often neighbors in Germany, France, and Spain (and sometimes, the US and the UK). As a trade-off, Italian filmmakers would remain sensitive to what might be popular in those countries at the time. They’d also generally be willing to bring on talent from other countries, either to satisfy financiers or to increase the potential success of a film across Europe.
That certainly seems to have been the case with The Bloodstained Butterfly, which leverages Edgar Wallace’s name (though, again, not one of his stories) as well as several high-profile German and Austrian actors. Helmut Berger was an Austrian who rose to prominence in Italy, gaining notoriety for his appearances in films by neorealist pioneer Luchino Visconti during the 1960s. In the 1970s, he started making more genre fair, including Massimo Dallamano’s Dorian Gray and, most controversially, Tinto Brass’ grotesque and controversial 1976 Nazi sexploitation film Salon Kitty. He even became a regular on the American television series Dynasty and had a part in Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-advised The Godfather: Part III.
He’s joined in The Bloodstained Butterfly by German actors Günther Stoll, who appeared in an actual Edgar Wallace krimi movie (1966’s The Hunchback of Soho) as well as one of the best giallo-meets-poliziotteschi, 1972’s What Have You Done to Solange?; and most famously, Wolfgang Preiss, who starred as the titular criminal mastermind in Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse as well as many subsequent lesser Mabuse films (which were rushed out to capitalize on the success of the Edgar Wallace krimi). He also starred in the star-studded World War II epic The Longest Day, the German krimi The Mad Executioners, the Jean-Paul Belmondo/Jean Seberg thriller Backfire, and the WWII adventure Von Ryan’s Express starring Frank Sinatra. He was one of the most prolific and dependable actors in Europe, even if it seems like 90% of his roles were Nazis.
Preiss has a relatively minor (though not unimportant) role in The Bloodstained Butterfly as the chief prosecutor in the case against accused murderer Alessandro Marchi. Stoll has a much larger role as Alessandro’s seemingly dedicated though not-so-secretly sleazy defense attorney, just as Berger has a larger role as the would-be lover of Alessandro’s daughter and, quite possibly, poor murdered French exchange student Françoise (Carole André, whose fruitful career in genre cinema includes everything from Fellini’s Satyricon to Yor, The Hunter from the Future). The Bloodstained Butterfly doesn’t demand a lot from its cast beyond acting desperate, furtive, or melancholy, but within those confines, there’s no weak performances. At times, it can be a little difficult to remember who’s who as characters appear out of nowhere, disappear, and reappear as part of the film’s fractured timeline, but eventually one can sort it all out (this is a film that rewards repeat viewing).
The Bloodstained Butterfly, while certainly part of the giallo genre (or subgenre, or style, or whatever you might consider it; at times it’s as nebulous as “film noir”) as it was forming in the early years of the 1970s, is one of the more unique examples of the genre. Integrating aspects of the emerging poliziotteschi became more common as the decade and giallo developed, but this is one of the earliest examples of that oft-fruitful crossover. It would be done better in What Have You Done to Solange? and it’s quasi-sequel What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, both of which, like The Bloodstained Butterfly, claim a connection to Edgar Wallace that isn’t actually there. But saying The Bloodstained Butterfly isn’t as good as those other two films leaves a lot of room to still be pretty damn good, and Tessari’s “giallo meets police procedural plus courtroom drama” is a unique, entertaining (if sombre) addition to the giallo canon. It’s a shame Tessari didn’t stick around the genre for another film or two, but I suppose if you have to make just one film in the genre, you’ve done well if it’s as good as The Bloodstained Butterfly.