During the early 1970s The Rank Organisation released a modest whodunit which contained some watered down aspects of Italy’s best-known murder thrillers. With the help of someone else’s observation, Mark Fraser argues that this film now has more social relevance than shock value.
Although there’s a case for Sidney Hayer’s 1971 British thriller Assault to be considered Giallo, there are a few fundamental aspects missing from the movie to make it a full-blown example of the genre.
While it’s usual to associate Giallo with Italian crime cinema, earlier this year the BFI’s Chris Gallant outlined some of the reasons why it was possible for works from other countries to be members of this club.
The format, he said, often drew from a list of common tropes, including (but not limited to) “stylised murders, amateur sleuths, black gloves, repressed memories” and “enigmatic titles”.
“Its parameters are vague,” Gallant noted, “leaving plenty of examples sitting ambiguously on the fence between this and other genres. And it’s a tradition that gleefully mixes high and low culture, where you’ll find flashes of artistic brilliance sharing the screen with moments of jaw-dropping squalor.”
Meanwhile, back in October 2011, AV Films’ Noel Murray made another pertinent point regarding Giallo: “Anyone who dives headfirst into the genre will have to be willing to accept that these shiny-looking mood-pieces can be exceptionally grim and misanthropic, treating human bodies – and naked female bodies especially – like meat, ripe for the carving.”
On the whole, both writers were referring to the Italian crime movies of the 1960s and 1970s, including the works of Mario Bava, the brutal Dario Argento and the even more vicious Lucio Fulci.
For traditional Giallo fans, it seems, these two decades were the golden era for this kind of cinema – yielding films that were, in Murray’s words, “as artful as the best of Alfred Hitchcock”, “merely exploitative schlock” and, in some cases, “highly entertaining exploitative schlock”.
Taking all this on board, it’s easy to see why Assault could be considered a weaker English cousin to its Italian counterparts.
Although there is only one murder in the movie, it does include the rape of two English schoolgirls (one twice) which are shot partly (and effectively) by Hayer from the predator’s point-of-view.
The story also involves a trio of amateur sleuths – school teacher Julie West (Suzy Kendall), psychiatrist Dr Greg Lomax (James Laurenson) and an obnoxious reporter called either Dinny or Denny (a ridiculous Freddie Jones) – who, with the help of Detective Chief Superintendent Veylan (Frank Finlay), try to trap the perpetrator before he can claim more scalps.
Then there’s the first victim Tessa Hurst (Lesley-Anne Down), whose violation in the wooded common of Devil’s End (where all of the sex crimes take place) launches a case of catatonia that harbours some seriously repressed memories. West also suffers from a not-so-similar mental affliction when she briefly sees the killer with the body of the murdered Susan (Anabel Littledale), but is only able to say he looked like “the Devil” when subsequently questioned about it in a coroner’s court.
The fact the two victims in the film aren’t full grown women, but innocent and naive virginal teenage schoolgirls, adds a kind of misanthropic slant to the proceedings, while the lack of onscreen violence (it really doesn’t have the same kind of teeth-gritting nastiness found in Italian Gialli) can’t hide the fact its exploitative intention is still to shock using whatever British means available.
And yes – a black pair of gloves do make an obligatory appearance, albeit not during the rape scenes.
Finally, in the US at least, Assault was released under the more metaphorical title In the Devil’s Garden, which may not exactly be enigmatic, but is still colourful enough to suggest the movie, or at least part of it, deals with pure evil.
Having said all this, one key factor missing from the film – and which truly differentiates it from the heyday works of Bava, Argento and, to a lesser extent, Fulci – is a proper appreciation for the gothic, even though it involves “some kind of patriarchal lineage, which attempts to force itself upon a young (virginal) female” (Farrell, 2014).
If the Italians understand anything, it is the effective use of composition, lighting, colour, costume and decor, as can be seen in a number of Giallo works – from Argento’s debut feature The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975) to Bava’s own 1970 murder opus Hatchet for the Honeymoon.
All incorporate a rich array of colours, shadows and textures, while the settings are usually dominated by older European architecture and ornate interiors, where deserted corridors, hidden rooms, deceptive mirrors and glistening knife blades roam.
Assault has none of this – its mise-en-scene, not to mention the sometimes standard lighting by cinematographer Ken Hodges, is more meat and potatoes, giving it the feel of a telemovie rather than a work of murderous grandeur.
Not helping this is the repetitive jazzy chase score by Eric Rogers, a definite mood killer that is inappropriately used throughout the film.
For hardcore television fans this should come as no surprise given director Hayer has worked on some of TV’s best known series, including The Avengers, The
Persuaders, The Greatest American Hero, the original Battlestar Galactica, TJ Hooker, Magnum PI, Knight Rider and Baywatch.
Momentarily putting any criticisms aside, revisiting Assault in the age of the Me Too movement is an interesting exercise as it does say something useful about patriarchal violence against women and “the unsavoury light that it casts upon its male audience” (Bitel, 2007).
In his 2007 review of the movie, Anton Bitel points to a piece of dialogue delivered near the start of the film by the sometimes creepy Dr Lomax when he verbally dismisses off one of Veylan’s suspects as a voyeur.
“A Peeping Tom wants sex without contact – now rape is at the other end of the scale,” the psychiatrist explains.
“He’s not going to rape a girl and then go back to peeping through keyholes.”
The message here is a grim one for blokes who enjoy ogling women as it suggests there is a real danger that this pastime could well be at the top of a slippery slope to something far worse.
“This certainly puts us in our place,” Bitel argues.
“For as we get our vicarious cinematic kicks from all that nubile flesh and feminine vulnerability flashed before us on screen, we may only be voyeurs, powerless to become involved more intimately in events.
“But according to the film’s troubling logic, we still inhabit the same sliding scale as a psychotic rapist, even if we have not yet reached the Devil’s end of that scale.”
It’s a fair observation given Assault’s male perpetrator (hopefully this gender revelation hasn’t given too much away – this isn’t, after all, an Argento movie) is a top-of-his-field professional who starts the film as a rapist, but pretty quickly graduates to murder.
Taken out of context, Bitel’s comment also reflects the deeply misogynistic nature of classic Gialli, in which the slaughter of women – some scantily-clad – is quite common place.
Make no bones about it – these films are not pseudo-feminist statements about male rage; nor are they shallow psychoanalytical warnings regarding the possible backlash from penile dysfunction. Rather, they are excessive exercises, aimed primarily at the men in the audience, in female objectification, exploitation and control.
By not going all the way vis-à-vis these Italian excesses, Assault may well be a better film for it.
Finally, as an aside, it was kind of funny, and perhaps a little ironic, to see actress Asia Argento become a prominent voice for Me Too.
After all, it’s arguable part of her success has been due to the fact her father is one of Giallo’s greatest cinematic proponents; a man whose career has been built upon the stylised (and bloody) murder of women.
While this kind of screen violence may be deemed artistic in the eyes of some, it surely can’t be helping the patriarchy’s collective psyche.
Chris Gallant: “Where to Begin with Giallo”, BFI, June 27, 2018
Noel Murray: “Giallo”, AV Film, November 20, 2011
Luke Farrell: “Deep Red (Profando Rosso)”, Academic Paper, March 4, 2014
Anton Bitel: “Assault”, Eye For Film, March 8, 2007
Assault was released on Blu-ray by Network on August 27, 2018.
Words by Mark Fraser
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