Giallo (Italian thrillers popularized in the seventies) can be a difficult genre. Inconsistency, plot holes and general loopiness are found in even the best, and are something of a hallmark of the films. There are a huge number of them that are simply too out there and incomprehensible to be called great. Some few rise above the genre, such as the entries of Mario Bava or Dario Argento, to become something unique and interesting in its own right. Enzo Castellari's Cold Eyes of Fear is one such film.
Peter (Gianni Garko) is a playboy British solicitor, living it up and indulging with call girls and strippers, and generally living the wild bachelor life. He lives with his uncle, Judge Biddle (Fernando Rey), a high profile magistrate. One evening, Peter brings home beautiful Italian prostitute Anna (Giovanna Ralli), intent on a frolicsome evening of fun. Unfortunately, at home they find common thug Quill (Julian Mateos), who along with his compatriot Welt (Frank Wolff) hold them hostage, while Welt searches for some of the judge's papers, which have been hidden in the house. At first we think we have a good grip on who the good guys and the bad guys are, but as the film progresses, and we learn more about everyone involved, those clear cut lines begin to fade and blur.
This may sound like your standard issue caper / home invasion movie, and in a lot of superficial ways it is, but Castellari manages to make it visually, aurally and thematically interesting. He's is a little more over the top in his directorial style than we are used to today, and even perhaps by the standards of giallo, but he gets his point across, and sets the mood admirably. His use of smash zooms is particularly artful, if such a thing can be said. Subtlety won't be found here (at least not in the how the film looks), but visual melodrama certainly will. Lurid colors and odd angles only add to the hallucinatory effect, along with the actual hallucinations. Ennio Morricone's schizophrenic score is constantly jangling away, keeping us keyed up and on the edge of our seats. It's an audio / visual feast.
However, diverging somewhat from the normal giallo path, Castellari's characters bear some resemblance to actual people. They're nuanced and interesting, and even when they're obsessed, we can understand why and sympathize. No one of them is all good or all bad. These aren't cardboard cutouts, they're fleshed out human beings. Even in the finer examples of the genre, this is a rarity. And it makes the viewer much more invested in the story, even while appreciating the normal outrageous spectacle. The actors are all professionals, and turn in solid performances, typical of films of the time and less naturalistic than what would be expected in a modern film, but still more subtle and genuine than in most of this type.
Cold Eyes of Fear has a lot in common with other gialli, but it separates itself from the common herd quite well. The addition of the vital ingredient of realistic and effective characterizations pushes it to the top of the genre. This is definitely one to see, especially for fans of Italian thrillers. Highly recommended.