Redemption Films, getting an early start on that upcoming hype for the Inglorious Basterds remake, has released Cold Eyes of Fear (Gil occhi freddi della paura), also known as Desperate Moments, a 1971 suspenser from Inglorious Bastards director, Enzo G. Castellari. Crossing The Desperate Hours with elements of Hitchcock and giallo conventions, Cold Eyes of Fear is nothing new plot-wise (and that dub has some big problems), but it's stylishly and tautly directed by Castellari, and features a typically bizarre score by Ennio Morricone.
Welcome to The Carousel club in swinging London, where you can have a drink and watch gorgeous, cold-eyed Karin Schubert (Three Musketeers of the West, Black Emanuelle, Wiener Glut) stalked on a realistic apartment set, her sexy black underwear cut away bit by bit from her incredible body by her actor attacker, before she starts to make love to him...only to stick him with his own shiv at the moment of completion. Cue the waiter. And that's just what Peter Flower (Gianni Garko) does when he spots luscious brunette Anna (Giovanna Ralli) enjoying a drink with her drip of a date. Meeting cute (he deliberately spills his drink on her to secret her out of the club), the two enjoy the more seedy delights of London before coming to an "arrangement" about going back to Peter's uncle's house for the evening. Unfortunately, horny fun and games are interrupted by Quill (Julian Mateos), a vicious killer who is waiting for Peter's uncle, Judge Juez Flower (Fernando Rey), to return home. It seems that Quill has been clued into a wall safe at the Judge's home that contains quite a bit of money, and he's willing to slap, beat, pistol whip or shoot anyone who gets in his way. Peter and Anna are trapped by circumstances, but what exactly does policeman Arthur Welt (Frank Wolff) have to do with this set-up?
Apparently there's some debate as to whether or not Cold Eyes of Fear is a true giallo (whomever authored Castellari's official website states clearly it's not). I'm only familiar with the signpost titles in the genre that made it here to the States, and I do know that the term seems to be used more often to describe horror-based films (or at least thrillers that have extensive violence or gore or extreme sexuality - particularly in comparison to more tame thrillers from other countries during the genre's heyday). Perhaps Cold Eyes of Fear is closer in execution to the original pulp novels that started the literary giallo genre. Again, I'm no expert, but anyone looking for hard-core giallo elements certainly won't find them here. Only Schubert is very briefly nude (one breast), while sex is interrupted before it starts. And the violence, while potent at the very end of the film, is quite tame by comparison to what I would imagine typical giallo fans are looking for in their thrillers.
Cold Eyes of Fear actually feels much more like a cross between Hitchcock and Wyler's The Desperate Hours, where psychological tension is the main mechanism of suspense. Certainly the notion of a couple trapped in a house with armed criminals is as old as the hills. And the various strategies that the victims employ to stay alive, trying to outwit their captors, isn't surprising by this point in time, either. Castellari and his co-screenwriters Leo Anchoriz and Tito Carpi try to mix up audience expectations (although not as completely as Peckinpah would do with the similarly-themed Straw Dogs, which would be released later that same year) by making the Anna character a tough-cookie whore (Quill calls her one, and she doesn't deny it) who will gladly sell out Peter to save her life (as well as offer Quill a free show of her body as she showers, as further enticement before trying to escape) - only to have Peter show genuine feelings for Anna when she's mortally wounded at the end of the film. As well, it's suggested that the Peter character is a coward (which he proves otherwise in the finale) and a lay-about (on the phone, his uncle tells him to clear out the whores in his house) - hardly the "hero" type for this kind of traditional actioner had it been made in America. The introduction of the corruption element through Welt's half-crazed vendetta against the Judge is certainly a nice added twist to the standard home invasion plot (Wolff was unfairly sent to prison by corrupt Rey; now Wolff has planted plastique outside the judge's door); however, its implementation is a tad awkward, with Castellari failing to make the scenes of Rey almost blowing himself up in his office as he tries to decipher Peter's Latin clue, as suspenseful as the ones with Peter and Anna dodging the vicious Quill and insane Welt.
Indeed, the entire final sequence with Rey is poorly staged, with the police officer's indelicate efforts to defuse the bomb as silly as the poor cat being allowed to squeeze through the door, almost setting off the damned thing (you're telling me Rey wouldn't have punted that feline across the room?). Luckily, the rest of Cold Eyes of Fear, and particularly the bloody finale, is mounted with a stylish reliance on alternately extreme close-ups and zooms, creating a credible amount of claustrophobic space that immeasurably aids the film. Castellari throws in an expressionistic flashback showing Welt and the Judge enacting their courtroom encounter against a discordant rear-projection trucking shot of a never-ending, almost heavenly hallway. And when things look like they're slacking, he throws in a minute or two of a totally superfluous assault by a biker gang (and let's be honest: the opening may be cliched, but Schubert, with those creepy blank doll's eyes of hers, looks great as she moans her way through the fake, staged sexual assault). The finale, although tame by today's standards, does have a few nice touches, including the sound of the wine bottle "ponging" off Quill's skull as Peter beats him to death (Quill's close-up in death is about the closest Cold Eyes of Fear comes to the horror giallos). The cast is quite good, as well, although Rey has little to do but look puzzled as he paces his office. Giovanna Ralli is particularly sexy once she takes a shower (sorry; she's only shown from the back, waist-up) and slicks down her hair like Jane Fonda in Klute. And American actor Frank Wolff brings his usual mixture of calculating intelligence and unhinged imbalance in his soft-spoken/shouted performance (kind of like an Italian-channeled Richard Harris). Only Julian Mateos' performance suffers by comparison, but to be fair, the atrocious dubbing of his character, replacing this Spanish actor's voice with a ludicrous Cockney accent, is really the culprit.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.