Released under the more exotic title Giornata nera per l'ariete (Black Night for the Aries), this early giallo thriller can boast a fine cast and top creative names. The plot is a tangled string of murders committed for an almost incomprehensible motive, but it stays on its feet thanks to Luigi Bazzoni's stylish direction and Vittorio Storaro's atmospheric cinematography.
Top Italo star Franco Nero is Andre Bild, an alcoholic reporter obsessed with the murder of a doctor's crippled wife (Rossella Falk, Modesty Blaise) and the near-fatal clubbing of an Australian English teacher (Maurizio Bonuglia). They may be only peripheral characters in a tangle of suspects involved in adultery, blackmail and a secret sex club. Andre is particularly interested in solving the case because he's already a lead suspect in the eyes of the police inspector (Wolfgang Preiss). Worse, Andre's mistress Lu Auer (Pamela Tiffin of One, Two, Three) also knows some secrets about people relating to the killings. Another of her boyfriends, a racing car driver, is seen taking money from the husband of the first victim. Andre's editor pulls him off the story but he presses on despite warnings from a psychotic voice on the telephone. He even begins to suspect Helene (Silvia Monti), a married woman he could date, if he'd only stop drinking.
In story terms, The Fifth Cord is difficult to follow. It starts with a disembodied voice telling us of the killer's joy in indiscriminate slaughter, but the subsequent deaths seem arranged expressly to incriminate our blue-eyed, hard-drinking hero. We're given an attractive group of suspects and victims that range from an important doctor to a prostitute (Agostina Belli) who plies her trade under bridges. Victims are strangled, slashed and clubbed but the film's emphasis is not on gruesome set pieces. Director Bazzoni makes an early use of fisheye lenses to represent the killer's floating point of view. This is the kind of story in which the chief detective character turns his prime suspect loose to solve the crime on his own. Franco Nero's reporter has gathered a lot of crucial information on the killings but the police don't insist that he share it with them.
The English dubbing is one factor that keeps us from investing heavily in the suspense. The actors appear to be speaking in phonetic English and the looping is technically good, but the voices don't fit the characters well and the mix makes everyone sound artificial. The film works best in sequences of characters prowling or being stalked in atmospheric locales, where Ennio Morricone's lush score can play off of Vittorio Storaro's textured images. The Fifth Cord is always interesting from a visual standpoint, even when the storyline sags.
In typical Italian style, the suspects inhabit architecturally stunning houses and offices, and most of the city exteriors emphasize modern glass buildings with clean lines. Silvia Monti's stylish house comes complete with electric security shutters that resemble the science fiction house in Forbidden Planet. With the rest of the cast driving luxury cars, it's amusing to see our hero speeding between the fancy settings in tiny Volkswagens and Fiats. The frightening conclusion puts Monti's little son (terribly dubbed, unfortunately) in jeopardy. Franco Nero then corners the killer in a rather exciting fight in an old factory.
After a confusing beginning the movie uses a helpful technique to help us remember the many characters. When somebody mentions an absent person, the film often obliges by cutting to an identifying close-up for us. A lengthy wrap-up voiceover doesn't quite explain the killer's overall motive, and the mystery remains a little vague. At least the solution doesn't involve a meek female character in black leather, disguised as a man!
Blue Underground's handsome DVD of The Fifth Cord will please devotées of Italian slashers. The film transfer is excellent, enabling a full appreciation of Vittorio Storaro's images. Ennio Morricone's pleasing score includes vocals by the instantly recognizable Edda Dell'Orso. An original 1971 trailer is a complicated optical job presenting images from the film in an almost impressionistic blur.
David Gregory's Giornata Nera featurettes are a pair of finely crafted interview segments. Vittorio Storaro talks about his early career and how he came to make The Fifth Cord amid his more famous pictures, like Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist. He also elaborates on his psychological approach to movie visuals. Blue-eyed Franco Nero discusses a couple of his fellow actors: Edmund Purdom barely appears in the film and young Agostina Belli became a big star. Nero also tells us that while making The Fifth Cord he flew to London on weekends to shoot a second picture concurrently. He mentions his relationship to Vanessa Redgrave being a big help to his career. Sir Laurence Olivier advised Nero to vary his roles and not always play the hero. Nero took the advice: He wore facial hair in some movies, but not in others!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fifth Cord rates: