Who Saw Her Die?
1972, Italy. Directed by Aldo Lado
The violence in an average giallo film can evoke a host of reactions: a thrill, repulsion, disapproval, disbelief, incredulity, excitement, and even a sort of “oh, so it’s the straight razor again then, is it?” boredom, depending on your particular disposition. Rarely does the violence inspire anything approaching emotional sympathy or distress. This isn’t a failure of the genre, and in fact is often by design. This violence usually serves a little more than a visceral shock or as a way to move the plot along. Creating an emotional attachment to the characters, and thus a more sympathetic reaction to the violence done against them, just isn’t a priority. Thus, when one does encounter a giallo that not only tugs at the emotional heart strings, but actually succeeds in connecting with the viewer on a more affecting level, the effect can seem amplified. Aldo Lado’s moody 1972 thriller Who Saw Her Die? is the rare giallo that attempts this, and the rare one that succeeds, and it is thanks primarily to a committed performance from former James Bond George Lazenby in a role that puts him through an emotional ringer.
Lazenby, looking haggard and emaciated even before tragedy befalls his character, plays Franco Serpieri, a sculptor living in Venice apart from his, presumably, estranged wife Elizabeth (giallo royalty Anita Strindberg, who also stars in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), who lives in London. Together they have a young daughter Roberta, played by Nicoletta Elmi, who despite only being eight or so when she made this movie had already appeared in two other giallo (Giallo in Venice and Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, both 1971) and who would go on to appear in more Bava (Baron Blood), giallo (Dario Argento’s Deep Red), and general genre weirdness (Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein and Lamberto Bava’s Demons). In terms of little kids with impeccable Italian sleaze and gore records go, she’s matched only by Giovanni Frezza, a Lucio Fulci regular who gained fame as “little Bob” in House by the Cemetery and also appeared in Fulci’s Manhattan Baby, Enzo G. Castellari’s post-apocalyptic adventure Warriors of the Wasteland, and, once again, Lamberto Bava’s Demons. Roberta comes to visit her father and, for the first twenty minutes or so of this film, the two have a grand time in old Venice (there’s a great amount of father-daughter chemistry between Lazenby and young Elmi).
We, of course, know that these moments of bliss are inevitably going to be interrupted. As the rapport between father and daughter grows, the tension of the film is slowly ratcheted up because, first, there’s an expectation of danger in this sort of film and, second, the off-kilter score by Ennio Morricone is brilliant at creating a threatening, moody atmosphere. And sure enough, before too long someone is stalking Roberta, someone we know was involved in a previous child murder from the film’s prologue. Unaware of the evil following his daughter around, Franco is perfectly willing to leave her alone with her friends on the relatively safe streets of their neighborhood while he gets some sculpting done and engages in a tryst with a local flame.
When Roberta fails to return home that evening, Franco starts searching the neighborhood for her; casually, at first, reasonably assuming she’s at a friend’s house. But when she doesn’t turn up at any of the places he expects to find her, Franco’s search becomes increasingly frantic. It also introduces us to the bulk of the film’s potential suspects, including a sleazy art dealer (played by former Bond villain Adolfo Celi, making this the most James Bondy giallo ever), a shifty homosexual who might also be a pedophile, a steely eyed boy toy, and Franco’s closest friend, who also seems to pay an unsavory amount of attention to Roberta before she vanishes. Other suspects come and go as Franco prowls the fog-shrouded labyrinth of Venice in search of his missing daughter.
The bulk of this film rests on the shoulders of George Lazenby, who at the time of its release was still somewhere between a punchline and totally forgotten. Lazenby was catapulted to fame when he won the role of James Bond after Sean Connery’s departure from the series, a plum acting job that was also obviously fraught with peril given how beloved Connery was in the role. Lazenby, an Australian with no acting experience, basically bluffed his way into the role, but what made almost as many headlines was his swift departure from the series. After just one film, the phenomenal On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby announced he was turning down the offer to appear int he next Bond film. As far as he was concerned, Bond was over, a relic of the 1950s that had no place in the age of hippies, social revolution, and the Vietnam War. He grew his hair long and grew a mustache which he refused to shave while doing the press rounds for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service much to the consternation of Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who didn’t want some shaggy hippie parading around under the mantle of 007.
On top of all that, reports were (and he later confirmed them himself) that Lazenby conducted himself poorly on the set of his first film, assuming a degree of egotism and self-indulgence that made him a number of enemies, including his co-star Diana Rigg (“I can no longer cater for his obsession with himself,” she said. “He is utterly, unbelievably … bloody impossible”). Lazenby might actually have been correct about Bond being out of touch with the times, but his behavior made him more or less persona non grata in the British film industry. He quickly found himself unable to secure quality work. Or any work, for that matter. As Lazenby himself tells the story, Harry Salztman said to him, “If you don’t do another Bond you’ll wind up doing spaghetti westerns in Italy.” But even those were hard to come by. He put together what he described as a plotless anti-war comedy, 1971’s Universal Soldier, but really he spent more time indulging in the drugs and sex of the late-era counter-culture. Eventually, he drifted to Italy, where he secured his first real post-James Bond role in Who Saw Her Die? After wrapping, he took what money he earned from it, and whatever remained of his On Her Majesty’s Secret Service paycheck, and spent the next year and a few months sailing around the world with his girlfriend Chrissie Townsend. Honestly, if you have to fail, that’s not a bad way to do it.
The fact that it was an Italian horror film, and that Lazenby was Lazenby, meant that no one was really going to take it or him very seriously. But just as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has benefited from time and reconsideration, so too can one look at Who Saw Her Die? today unfettered by whatever baggage might have been strapped to George Lazenby’s reputation at the time. And what one finds is perhaps one of the best performances in the entire giallo genre. Whatever hard living gave Lazenby his wracked, hollowed-out appearance (he’s still muscular, but he also looks emaciated at the same time, like a body that’s been slightly misassembled), it works to his advantage here in the role of a father increasingly wracked with guilt, frustration, and grief. He has a few emotional explosions, but for much of the film he opts for a more reserved but still palpable quiet desperation that is much more effective than the histrionics in which one might be tempted to indulge. In their scenes together, he has an easy believable chemistry with his young co-star Nicoletta Elmi that makes her later disappearance truly effective in a way rarely experienced in giallo. He ha similarly powerful scenes with Anita Strindberg as his wife, who like him is wracked with guilt and determined to unravel the increasingly convoluted mystery revolving around the disappearance of their little girl.
It is a convoluted tangle of events surrounding Roberta’s disappearance, but no more so than in any other giallo. At times, it’s difficult to keep straight who is who and what they’re guilty of (just about everyone is guilty of something), and in classic giallo style, ultimately almost none of it has anything to do with the central plot. The eventual reveal of a killer and the connection to another case is hardly surprising, but the film has by then successfully disarmed the expectation that its finale hinges on this revelation. Most successful films in the genre accomplish their success by layering style (visual and sartorial) on top of their confusing plots, making logic and clarity less important.
Who Saw Her Die? doesn’t lack for style, but it succeeds mostly thanks to Lazenby (and somewhat because of Strindberg, who is a strong actress but doesn’t have nearly as much screen time) and for the way director Aldo Lado and cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo (fresh off working with Dario Argento on 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet) shoot Venice. This isn’t a film full of eye-popping visual trickery. Instead, it settles into a grim, colorless depiction of one of the most famous cities in the world. It avoids the big tourist attractions and wanders the back streets where actual Venetians live and work, getting lost among the city’s backstreets and twisting alleys, its tiny courtyards and cul-de-sacs and crumbling piles of rubble. When it takes to the iconic canals, they are often shrouded in a fog through which the characters drift like half-seen ghosts. At times, the only color that seems to exist is the red of blood.
The film’s most notable scene involves Lazenby pursuing then being pursued through the misty streets, a chase that culminates in a cat and mouse game inside and around an abandoned warehouse or factory. Di Giacomo and Lado stage the entire sequence in a disorienting fashion in which it quickly becomes unclear, other than Lazenby, who is who or what they want. Rotting floors, stairwells, and fire escapes are rendered like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing so that the viewer can never find firm footing. Similarly, the geography of Lazenby’s initial search for his daughter becomes increasingly confused as his panic mounts, at times seeming to double in on itself and lead nowhere (maybe the effect is less so if one knows the streets of Venice).
The following year, Nicolas Roeg and Anthony Richmond would shoot Venice in a similar fashion in Don’t Look Now, a film that shares many similarities with Who Saw Her Die? (grief over the loss of a child, location work that minimizes Venice’s most famous sights, and a lanky shaggy-haired protagonist with a mustache). Don’t Look Now is rightly considered a moody horror masterpiece, a level of prestige generally denied Who Saw Her Die? But that doesn’t stop Aldo Lado’s film from being pretty damn good in its own right. If Who Saw Her Die? is considered not quite the measure of Don’t Look Now, it still holds its own plenty well when measured against it.
Much like his character (though without the missing child), Lazenby found himself wandering aimlessly through the early 1970s. When he found himself broke and Chrissie Townsend pregnant with his child, he had to dock his endlessly questing boat and find real work. At first, luck seemed to be on his side. He washed up in Hong Kong and enjoyed an audience at Golden Harvest, a fresh-faced upstart studio that had collected dissatisfied young filmmakers from Hong Kong’s older studios (and would later become the home of people like Tsui Hark, John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung). At the time, though, one man ruled the roost at Golden Harvest: Bruce Lee.
Unconcerned with Lazenby’s reputation, Golden Harvest was overjoyed to have a former James Bond calling on them, and Lazenby was cast in Bruce Lee’s upcoming film, which Lee was determined to make the martial arts movie to end all martial arts movie. Lazenby was scheduled to meet with Bruce Lee for lunch, but Lee never showed up. He had, sadly and shockingly, passed away. The film he was shooting and in which Lazenby was cast, Game of Death, became a fiasco of legendary proportions, as Golden Harvest scrambled to recoup their losses and capitalize on the sensation of Lee’s death by pasting together Lee’s footage with a pastiche of nonsense, stand-ins, lookalikes, and perhaps most absurdly, scenes in which a still photograph of Bruce Lee’s face is simply pasted onto the film to obscure the face of a double.
George Lazenby did not appear in Game of Death, but he did get work in Hong Kong, starring in a reasonably fun martial arts adventure called Stoner, alongside martial arts superstar Angela Mao and, curiously, Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong mistress Betty Ting Pei. He went on to star in two more Golden Harvest productions, The Man from Hong Kong (1975) and A Queen’s Ransom (1976) before returning to Australia and, later, moving to the United States. Although he never achieved the fame that could have been his had he played his hand better, he still managed to build a steady career comprising of small film and television parts. In the 1990s, he kept busy alongside Sylvia Kristel in a television series based on her Emmanuelle films. He and Kristel appeared at the beginning of each episode, reminiscing about the erotic adventures of their younger selves.
He also had a recurring role on the cartoon Batman Beyond and became a regular on the convention circuit, where his frank honesty about his past made him a fan favorite. Of course, almost all of that talk revolves around his brief tenure as James Bond. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has, over the decades, gone from one of the most derided Bond films to one of the most beloved (even if people are still mixed on Lazenby’s performance — a man can only do so much in some of the outfits they made him wear). Similarly, horror and thriller fans are rediscovering and reassessing Who Saw Her Die? and discovering, as did I, the best performance in George Lazenby’s checkered, interesting career; and one of the very finest, most thoughtful, and most emotionally mature films of the giallo genre.