European filmmakers were some of the first to take advantage of the relaxed standards of the MPAA's 1968 ratings system. In 1969 and 1970, otherwise ordinary genre films were suddenly awash in nudity and sexual situations. The English bank heist film Perfect Friday is a perfect example. The story is clever enough but audiences remembered its many casual nude scenes with Ursula Andress.
Lucio Fulci's Perversion Story (Una sull'altra) is an expensively produced murder thriller with an absurd plot and uneven direction. But it's the film to see for lovers of Marisa Mell, one of the more exotic European beauties of the late 1960s. Even when the story fumbles, Mell is a knockout -- and makes a fantastic character more than believable.
Italian filmmaking must have been at its height in 1969, as film crews came to America to shoot pictures as diverse as Once Upon a Time in the West and They Came To Rob Las Vegas (La Vegas, 500 millones). This twisted thriller benefits from beautiful location photography in New York and Paris, but mostly in San Francisco. American Zoetrope founding member and later big-time producer Gray Frederickson was the location manager, and cameras roam lovingly over the city. The promiscuous Doctor Dumurrier improbably parks his Corvette right on one of the narrow curves of Lombard Street.
Credited to the usual long list of Italian writers, the story for Una sull'altra mixes the least-likely elements of Vertigo with shaky ideas from a half-dozen other thrillers. Disappearing characters and unexplained relationships lead to an outrageously complicated frame-up. Even though all is eventually explained, we never find out why the victorious connivers show their hand when they do, or for that matter, where all the people fit into the plot. An almost unrecognizable Faith Domergue (This Island Earth) isn't even given a minimal reason to be in the movie.
All of those considerations fade when we examine the phenomenon of Marisa Mell, an Austrian beauty best known as Eva Kant, the paramour of the arch-criminal Diabolik. Mell is one of the few actresses that actually looks good in Mod fashions, as her face and eyes are a comic illustration come to life. Perversion Story works best when one takes it as an opportunity to simply admire a shockingly attractive actress and personality. As the haughty prostitute Monica Weston, Mell hides behind a series of obvious masks. She spends a lot of time looking beautifully bored. Yet when Marisa Mell bats her eyes or does a surprised double take, she dazzles. Monica Weston's male friends are killing each other and going into suicidal depression in accordance with Mell's slightest whim, and that's exactly as it should be.
This is one of those pictures where an actress plays a dual role, and it takes several detectives and upset lovers to determine which one is real. As Susan Dumurrrier, Marisa Mell has dark hair, brown eyes and an asthmatic cough. As the sultry Monica Weston, she's closer to Eva Kant -- blonde, with killer eye makeup and a wardrobe that says pampered EuroVixen. Monica's entrance as a stripper practically burns a hole in the screen. She then joins Jean Sorel and Elsa Martinelli on the club floor, wearing a revealing costume and winking at the half-dozen topless dancers. She also figures in steamy sex scenes and a teasingly tainted encounter in the photographer's studio with Elsa Martinelli -- shades of Vadim's Et mourir de plaisir. The film's conception of the Sinful high life in San Francisco is a voyeur's fantasy, but Ms. Mell looks deadly serious no matter what she's up to -- pawing Sorel, negotiating a possible three-way liaison or fending off the attentions of a discarded suitor played by Riccardo Cucciolla (Cani arrabbiati, Un flic, Grand Slam).
The almost nonsensical story involves a great deal of driving to and from attractive San Franciscan locations on streets familiar from Vertigo, Bullitt and The Lineup. The geography sometimes gets turned around, as when a reunion in San Luis Obispo suddenly switches to a casino interior in Las Vegas or Reno, or when a casual car trip has Sorel and Martinelli going the wrong way on the Golden Gate Bridge. John Ireland's colorless police detective is lost in the rather arbitrary investigation, the kind that negects the simple questions to concentrate on exotic clues. Director Fulci appears briefly as a police lab man; only one shot of a rotting corpse reminds us of Fulci's future in cinematic necromancy.
Perversion Story really stumbles in its final attempt to create suspense in the San Quentin death house, filmed on the real locations. An inexcusable cheat drags in a TV reporter to tell us how the movie ends. The handsome actor Jean Sorel is so uninteresting that we care little for his fate one way or the other, and the script's fancy footwork only reminds us of 1001 ways that the George Dumurrier character would see through the film's central identity swap idea. Perversion Story is best approached as a valentine to the allure of the intoxicating Marisa Mell.
Severin's DVD of Perversion Story is an outstanding enhanced transfer of excellent elements; the color is especially good. We're told that this original un-cut negative has gone missing for 35 years. The on-screen title is the original Una sull'altra, and a choice of audio tracks enables us to hear the film in Italian or English. The actors appear to have performed the show in English, and the dubbing is good. A trailer bearing the title One on Top of the Other is included. Making the package even more desirable, Severin has added a second Compact Disc with the film's entire Riz Ortolani score.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Perversion Story rates:
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