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das gesicht im dunkeln
double face

1969

 

German title: DAS GESICHT IM DUNKELN
English titles: DOUBLE FACE, PUZZLE OF HORRORS
Italian title: A DOPPIA FACCIA
French title: LIZ ET HELEN
French "porno" version: CHALEURS ET JOUISSANCES
Yugoslavian title: DVOSTRUKO LICE

D: Riccardo Freda; P: Preben Philipsen, Horst Wendlandt; S: Paul Hengge and Riccardo Freda from a story by Romano Migliorinii, Giovanbattista Mussetto and Lucio Fulci (based on the Edgar Wallace book THE FACE IN THE NIGHT); M: Joan Cristian (Carlo Rustichelli); C: Klaus Kinski (John Alexander), Margaret Lee (Helen Alexander), Christiane Kruger (Christine), Gunther Stoll (Inspector Stevens), Sidney Chaplin (Mr. Brown), Annabella Incontrera (Liz), Barbara Nelli (Alice). Filmed January - March 1969 in Tecnostampa color, 1:85:1. 80 minutes, German version.

 

When this rather predictably plotted murder mystery first appeared at the end of the Sixties, the Edgar Wallace "krimi" cycle had peaked, made somewhat obsolete by the sexier, more graphic horrors of Bava's seminal SEI DONNE PER L' ASSASSINO (1964) and Argento's L'UCCELLO DALLE PUIME DI CRISTALLO (1969). Bava's innovative efforts had already made him a well known commodity to the North American audience, traditionally hesitant in supporting films whose onscreen credits included too many names ending in vowels. Argento's name would become even more well known and his gialli would dominate both critical attention and box office coffers for the next decade and beyond.  Director Riccardo Freda, steadfast professional that he was, could not hope to compete with the flashier efforts of his two younger colleagues and their many imitators (although L'IGUANA DALLA LINGUA DI FUOCO, 1971, would prove to be a valiant effort in playing catch-up).  Still hiding behind increasingly transparent pseudonyms, Freda must have taken on this unpromising assignment in an effort to at least keep his hand in the game.

Freda co-adapted the Wallace story with Paul Hengge, but some continental prints and the English language video also list Lucio Fulci, Romano Migliorini and Giovanbattista Mussetto as writers on the project.  An educated guess here would be that Freda had little or no contact with Fulci and co., instead, acted with Rialto's go ahead as a sort of script doctor, putting a lot of his personal language and touches in at the last minute.  Kinski, Lee, Hengge, and some other minor players came along as part of Rialto's end of the deal, affording Freda the opportunity to work with first rate talent both in front of and behind the camera.

When DOUBLE FACE, the dubbed English language variant, was finally released after the original had completed an unsuccessful first-run in Europe, it was greeted by critics and audiences with an understandable mix of disappointment and apathy. Many English language critics and even long time Freda fans simply assumed that the director had either lost it or just showed up to collect his paycheck.  Nervous distributors even recut the film, to include hardcore sex scenes directed by Claude Sendron (the perverted Count in Jesus Franco's EXORCISME/THE SADIST OF NORTRE DAME -- 1974-79) and featuring the Perverse Countess herself, Alice Arno.

Most of the negative reviews which have appeared in US fanzines and other film genre publications during the intervening decades are usually based on the Unicorn Video version.  This version is incomplete, badly panned and scanned, with a dark and murky transfer job which obscures much of the film's finely detailed interior set design and makes the film noirish night exteriors seem like Jesus Franco style/cheap-looking day-for-night fudging. (Day-for-night photography may indeed have been employed during the original production, but the properly letterboxed French print minimizes the eyestrain which is almost constant throughout the US one.)

Those who care about Freda's work or even those hardy giallo completists who need to see everything should totally skip Unicorn's DOUBLE FACE and consider the French language LIZ ET HELEN instead.  This version is much more atmospheric, coherent and character driven than the US tape could ever suggest. The US full screen version blows up such technical flaws as obvious model work (for the pre-credit train-car conflagration), inept blue screening (the "vacation" at an Alpine resort), and the interfacing of stock shots with a particularly phony looking set (during the race track sequence).  The fact that these are also the film's opening scenes, wherein plot generation and character identification are supposed to take precedence, means that instead of being thrust into the action we are instead thrown out of it. The necessary suspension of disbelieve never gets a chance to click on, how could it when we are presented with a studio representation of race-track benches on which the two main characters are having a conversation about the deterioration of their marriage.  Even though the actors, especially Kinski, are very effective, and what is being said is important, one is left wondering how the performers could keep a straight face sitting in a sealed set, bundled up in expensive costumes, looking through binoculars at nothing!  

Freda admirers and detractors alike would have to admit that FR is working against the old MACISTE IN HELL curse, needing to maintain convincing "period" ambience and a detailed locale with extremely limited means.  The period is the height of the Hippie era and the locale is Swinging London and environs.  The detail is there (check out the clothes and Antonioni-style colorings of the psychedelic motorcycle bar/porno loop projection crash pad in which Kinski views the lesbian S&M film featuring his "dead" wife), but the atmosphere seems forced.  Freda's tentative presentation is hardly the work of an aging filmmaker desperately trying to go psychedelic, rather, it is indicative of his generation's understandable reservations about the Youth Revolution, and the sex, drugs and rock 'n roll atmosphere surrounding it.  The "flower children" on view here turn out to be hedonistic pawns of an older, corrupt order--pornographers and ruthless businessmen who are out to make a quick buck on a cultural fad.  As Kinski watches, eyes agog, the bikers ripping the blouses off of the pretty young girls, his confusion and disdain seem to reflect the director's attitude.  Unlike Antonioni in BLOW UP (1967) Freda was not about to rush off to London and enthusiastically embrace a movement which he neither understood nor endorsed.  Obviously, RF was not an innovator like Antonioni (or a Mario Bava in the exploitation genre) nor was he a visionary like Dario Argento, whose hallucinatory climaxes in SUSPIRIA (1976) and TENEBRAE (1982) seem to directly acknowledge, respectively, RF's I VAMPIRI (1956) and FEAR (1980).  Freda was there as an artisan to do the job, but in the way he saw fit.  As in his 1966 period giallo TRAPOLLA PER UN ASSASSINO (which seems to anticipate this film in both mood and plotline) Freda shifts the focus from the generic outlines of an Edgar Wallace potboiler to evoke the grief of a tormented man who must deal with both the loss of a loved one and the assumption that he is responsible of cold blooded murder for profit.  In this regard Freda was lucky enough to have the legendary Polish enfant terrible Klaus Kinski as his leading man.  At that time, Kinski was in the process of establishing a reputation as both an intensely creative portrayer of larger than life psychopaths (i.e: The Marquis de Sade in Jesus Franco's JUSTINE; Edgar Allan Poe in Margheriti's WEB OF THE SPIDER - 1969) and a difficult-to-work-with personality whose clashes with directors and off-screen antics made him a much sought after but dangerously volatile commodity.  One of Freda's most impressive achievements here was somehow getting this world class scenery eater to considerably town down this style and deliver a beautifully controlled performance, which is all the more effective because it is so understated.

Kinski had already made a name for himself in West Germany with hi appearances in many early Sixties Rialto and CCC Edgar Wallace adaptations.  Even though it was contractual obligations and a poor script which brought them together, this collaboration between Freda and Kinski seemed to bring out the best in both artists.  Just as Kinski allows himself to relax and deliver a more human portrayal, Freda makes a break from his usual emotionally detached, though visually extravagant style, choosing instead to work on a quieter, subtler level which resulted in one of his most moving and haunting films.  A good example of all this comes right in the first scene where John is shown driving home from work, entering his house, and then sneaking upstairs to spy on the erotic games of his wife and her lesbian lover.  This sequence begins with an establishing shot of John driving through his suburban upper class neighborhood and then pulling his expensive sports care into a double garage (a location which will provide a clue to the murderer's true identity).  Freda then abruptly cuts to close-up; Kinski's cold arrogant expression immediately defines John for us--smug, aloof, a rather dislikeable prig.  As soon as he enters the house, though, both the mood and our attitude toward the character undergo a gradual change.

As the melancholy, husky-voiced love ballad of Sylvie St. Laurent fills the room, John tightens up like a frightened animal.  Seeking the source of the music, he approaches the staircase.  His initial fear now seems to have turned into a tentative anticipation.  As he furtively makes his way upstairs, his movements suggest a man in a stranger's house rather than his own (this scene and these movements will be replayed in a later key scene, but in a different context).  When John reaches the top of the stairs, he slowly moves toward a door which is ajar at the end of the hallway.  Peering through the crack, he watches as his wife Helen lies nude in her bath as her not-so-secret lesbian lover caresses Helen's unattainable (for John) attributes. Instead of lingering on the erotic scene, though, Freda gives us a close-up of John's face--Kinski's angular features are suddenly transformed into the soft, vulnerable visage of a lost child, his piercing eyes are now filled with sadness and longing for a woman whose emotional and sexual evolution have left him far behind. This entire scene is presented without dialogue, but the look on John's face gives us the film's theme in a nutshell. Freda and Kinski establish this mood almost immediately and the remainder of the film never really strays far away from it.

Freda has once again managed to find this favorite theme of the deceptive nature of appearances in yet another pulpish scenario. The main attraction for Wallace fans is attempting to correctly guess the identity of the murderer. Here there are actually two criminals at work and both of their identities are easily predictable. Freda, following Hitchcock's stated preference, is more interested in suspense than surprise endings. Suspense, though, takes quite a bit of skill to maintain, and here is where Freda's practiced craftsmanship really pays off.  Although, as already explained, the director and leading man almost immediately get the audience to empathize with a rather complicated protagonist, there is still the matter of the demands of the giallo genre, and, in this case, the hardcore Wallacephiles.  John must remain a suspect until the very last moment.  Freda manages to create this necessary ambiguity by allowing Kinski to play against, rather than with, the other performers (who are quite good, especially Lee).  Almost every time John is in a scene with either one of Helen's friends, family, or Scotland Yard agents, he acts as if he was the killer, squirming in place and often physically turning away from the other characters as if he were trying to find a hole to crawl into. The above-the-waist female nudity involving a girl from the club, some patrons of the club and, most importantly, the players in the lesbian stag film, highlights John's sexual isolation from the taunting, desirable women who remind him of his lost wife. The fact hat all scenes of above-the-waist nudity are cut in the US video release make that version seem particularly absurd.  John appears to be overreacting to these situations rather than obsessively responding to a carefully baited sex-trap.

This nudity is far form superfluous, rather it eroticizes John's emotional trauma.  It is not only justified, but absolutely necessary to the basic understanding of the plot and the main character's state of mind that these scenes be viewed uncut, which is why the French version should be watch before final judgment is passed. This letterboxed version also leaves Freda's expressive composition intact, especially important here since he often places character at opposite sides of the wider format--as in the key scene where Liz and Helen are both seen preening in front of parallel mirrors, explicating both their individual character and the "double face" of their relationship. This kind of symbolic placement of actors and objects is totally lost in the Unicorn pan & scan version.  Seen in its proper format, sans the crudely written English dubbing script, LIZ ET HELEN could be considered Freda's all around best contribution to the giallo genre.

Robert Monell


This review first appeared in EUROPEAN TRASH CINEMA, SPECIAL #2: RICCARDO FREDA by Robert Monell; editor, publisher Craig Ledbetter; co-editor Robert Monell.

 

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