I ask you, is THIS the face of a killer?


LA MORTE RISALE A IERA SERA (DEATH OCCURRED LAST NIGHT) is a strange and unsavory crime thriller that seems midway between the genres of gialli (sex, murder, mystery) and poliziotteschi (cops, detection, procedural).


Raf Vallone is a lower-middle-class working stiff with a bum knee whose daughter is kidnapped. She’s a very tall girl (why does the script insist on this? No idea) with a mental age of three. Because she has an innocent tendency to promiscuity, Vallone keeps her shut in the apartment while he’s at work. One day she’s gone.


Detectives Frank Wolff and Gabriele Tinti take the case — the girl has vanished into Milan’s brothels, where her passive, childlike nature would seem to make her an object of fantasy for the clientele. This is all very, very uncomfortable stuff, and the movie is not above regarding Gillian Bray’s character with a lecherous eye.

Things are already dark and they just get darker. Shadowplayer Andre Ferreira identifies a theme in director Duccio Tessari‘s giallo-type films, where the victims are unusually sympathetic. Most gialli make the murders easier to enjoy without guilt by making the victims fairly unappealing except sexually, and the detectives/investigators are often grumpy, low-charisma types (Cameron Mitchell’s Inspector Morlacchi in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is both prototype and paragon here).

So Vallone is treated with respect by the movie and by Wolff’s character, who gains our respect for his attitude. Then things unfold in an odd and gradual way. Wolff and Tinti plunge into the sexual underworld, visiting whorehouses undercover as johns with the state paying the bills. Lots of montages with the inexplicably jaunty pop soundtrack by Gianni Ferrio bouncing away as if this was all a big romp. Some of the cutting gets quite M-like.

Then the victim is found dead and half-burned, and then Vallone gets a clue which he keeps to himself so he can get revenge. It all bends genre norms out of shape, not always in the best of ways, but it’s interesting. I’d never seen a man killed with a washing machine, for instance.

Two things are typically poliziotteschi: (1) there’s widespread anomie with a bunch of people who know stuff about this unbelievably heinous crime who don’t share it with the cops because society is rotten and nobody cares and (2) there’s a somewhat fascistic DIRTY HARRY attitude that the cops will sometimes need to break rules and noses in order to get the job done, damnit.

As a procedural, the film is daft. We don’t see our heroes fucking their way through the sex industry, which seems to be threatened at first: they just use their undercover guises to open doors. But there’s a hilarious bit where a witness is made to draw a suspect, even though he can’t draw. He produces a smiley face with no upper head, and then this is passed on to a police artist to be transformed into a better drawing, with no contact whatsoever between witness and sketcher. The result is as you might predict, ludicrous, but all the later witnesses agree that it captures the essence of the guilty party.



You have now.

There are some nice human touches, though: Wolff plays the whole thing with sinus trouble, sticking a decongestant stick up a nostril at inopportune moments. Donald Pleasence would surely nod his approval.

20 Responses to “I ask you, is THIS the face of a killer?”

  1. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Semi spoilers for Death Occurred Last Night in this comment

    Hey, thanks for checking it out and for the shout out! This would be one of my favourite thrillers of the 70’s if it weren’t for the atrocious score, which really gives the wrong idea about what the tone of those scenes should be. Otherwise, it’s a pretty strong emotional thriller, credibility aside (two cops appear to be the entirety of the Milan police force, and what you mentioned, plus the elderly Vallone taking everyone down at the end). That said, I still think its a weirdly touching and hard-hitting anomaly – for a politzitessci, the action is oddly muted (the Dirty Harry stuff is very brief, and I liked how broken Gabriele Tinti appeared at the end), and admired how willing it was to implicate the lecherous johns in the sex industry, though it does seem unduly harsh on the prostitutes, who are victims too. Then again, even bothering to humanize them is a major win in an exploitation film, and the little human touches aren’t limited to the leads. It’s a rare giallo where (to me at least) people seem to have lives outside the movie.

    Someone once said the murderers in gialli tend to be arbitrary (it’s that guy because the movie needs to end here), but here and in The Bloodstained Butterfly it adds to the tragedy of the whole thing. Like you said, the reveal of the murder and its motives are gradual (I was shocked by how opportunistic and small scale the whole affair was). I like that he kept it within the neighborhood too – with Tessari, horror lives at home.

    I hope you got something out of this movie, and I’ll be on the lookout for a Butterfly post, should you wish to continue. Thank you so much for watching and writing about this movie.

  2. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Oh, and one more thing: The short story it’s based on was titled “The Milanese Kill on Saturday”, which in light of Vallone’s final line, would make it a more powerful title than Death Occurred Last Night. It was written by Giorgio Scerbanenco, who appears to have been the king of Italian noir

  3. Jeff Gee Says:

    My eye turned “…there’s widespread anomie with a bunch of people who know stuff about this unbelievably heinous crime…” into “…there’s widespread ANIME…” which I found inexplicable but intriguing. Oh well.

  4. Howard Curtis Says:

    A correction. “The Milanese Kill on Saturday” isn’t a short story, but a novel, the last (and possibly the best ) in a quartet of novels by Giorgio Scerbanenco about an ex-doctor turned investigator (not a police detective like the Frank Wolff character in Tessari’s film) named Duca Lamberti. For all its compromises, the film does capture some of the feel of the novel. In particular, the sympathy shown to Raf Vallone’s character reflects the emotional depth typical of Scerbanenco, who was a very considerable writer, widely considered the father of modern Italian crime fiction. Several of his novels and stories were adapted as poliziotteschi, notably those directed by Tarantiino-favourite Fernando di Leo. (If I may be allowed to blow my own trumpet, I translated the first two novels in the Duca Lamberti quartet a few years ago, published in the USA by Melville House as A PRIVATE VENUS and TRAITORS TO ALL.)

  5. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Thanks for info, and sorry for the error. The only other Scerbanenco inspired movie I’ve seen is Milan Caliber 9, and while that one does have a great ending which hints at an interesting relationship, and Moschin is really interesting as Ugo Piazza, it didn’t quite prepare me for the punch of this one.

    If I may bother you, where does Death Occurred Last Night differ from Milanese? And how do di Leo’s stack up to Scerbanenco on the page?

  6. This is all great, keep it coming!

    I found the movie icky but compelling, and even can find some merit in the music, which adds to the disorientation and weirdness. Gialli, after all, frequently have sort of romantic music (or erotic gasps mixed in with anxiety) to create tonal discordance and add to the anxiety. I’d say half the cues in this one are excusable, half not.

  7. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Be prepared for Tchaikovsky and funk fusion next ;)The title song is actually pretty great, in an ironic, distanced sort of way, and if I remember there were some very effective organ drones later on. For the inexcusable stuff, I think what makes it worse is that there’s quite a few times when it only lasts only for the length of a single shot flashback, which makes it comical (kinda like the infamous single shot Richards in Incense for the Damned). But yeah, that’s my only major major qualm with the movie.

    Weirdly enough, some scenes (by the stadium, some of the apartment scenes) remind me of the later (and pretty exploitation proof) Friends of Eddie Coyle, and I’m wondering exactly how early this movie falls in the Orphic crime movie cycle (Taxi Driver, Hardcore, Mona Lisa etc). There’s obviously The Searchers before it, but what’s the earliest specifically urban crime movie that uses that particular plot?

  8. These feels closer in places to Bunny Lake is Missing than to The Searchers and its urban offspring. And it’s a bit like Panic in the Streets, with the paired cops traversing different milieus.

  9. Howard Curtis Says:

    Can’t really help you, Andre, as I read the book and saw the film too many years ago. The main difference that struck me at the time was that the main character was turned into a policeman. As for the di Leos, I haven’t seen any of them all the way through. From what I have seen (extracts on YouTube) they’re probably a good deal more hyped-up and sensationalistic than the literary equivalents.

  10. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Never made the Bunny Lake link before, but now that you say it I should kick myself for not seeing it. Panic in the Streets was in my mind now, but different reasons…

    I quite like Wolff’s relationship with his journalist girlfriend too – feels very lived in, and I like how she’s given her own independent interests. I haven’t seen Puzzle yet, but a friend mentioned that Senta Berger was one of the better developed female giallo characters. I haven’t seen The Ringo movies yet, but apparently Gemmima’s vulnerability is a distinguishing feature, and that’s popped up in the two gialli I’ve seen from him too-there’s macho protagonists, but they’re very fallible

    I kinda wish there was more information on Tessari, because it seems like he had a definite viewpoint about a lot of things that were important to him that made it through in his movies.

  11. Jeff Gee Says:

    “The Big Sleep” comes perilously close. Carmen is half a plot twist away from vanishing into the world of pornography and Marlowe descends into it and retrieves her (sort of), although the focus of the film is mostly elsewhere.

  12. Andre Ferreira Says:

    @Jeff: Oh, that’s a good point. It does get lost among the others things, but it’s definitely there

  13. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Policemen disguising themselves as Johns to break into a murderous prostitution ring is a frequent feature of my favorite TV show “Law and order SVU.” Starring Jayne Mansfield’s daughter Mariska Hargitay (who is quite a brilliant actress) it frequently features such top-talent guest stars as Isabelle Huppert and Sharon Stone

  14. chris schneider Says:

    Forgive, please, a rudimentary question from someone not well-versed in these areas. How would you define “Orphic crime movie cycle”? A juvenile, Mad Magazine-style definition comes to mind … but I’m far too modest and tasteful to repeat it.

  15. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Basically a crime movie where someone has to enter a criminal underworld to “save” (it’s often morally murky) someone else – normally a young woman. They’re often either amateurs or out of their depth. Like Travis Bickle trying to save Iris, Bob Hoskins desperately looking for Cathy Tyson’s friend, Ethan Edwards obsessively hunting Debbie, George C Scott entering the pornographic industry to find his daughter, etc.(I think Blue Velvet has certain elements, and it pops in Taken, Man on Fire as well) I don’t know where I’ve seen the phrase Orphic crime film before, but reviews always mention the Orpheus myth (where a poet enters the underworld of the dead to rescue a lover), so I use it.

  16. Andre Ferreira Says:

    The Searchers is obviously a western,but a lot of crime movies have used it as a model

  17. Schrader acknowledged The Searchers as a big influence on Taxi Driver, I think, but then denied Hardcore was built on the same plan, which seems absurd (recent events show Schrader is still capable of folly).

    Schrader is also a big fan of Cocteau’s Orphee and drops the walk-on glazier into The Comfort of Strangers. Pinter had included a line about being on the other side of the mirror, intending it as a reference to Alice through the Looking Glass, but Schrader’s mind immediately leapt to Cocteau.

  18. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Such a weird denial on his part.

    I love Cocteau’s Orpheus, but Eurydice is such an afterthought in it that it barely feels like an Orpheus type story sometimes.

  19. chris schneider Says:

    Thank you, AFS. T-MEN is the early example that usually occurs to me of that sort of “enters a criminal underworld” tale. When I saw CRUISING, years ago, it struck me as a quasi T-MEN. The bad joke which occurred to me, the Mad Magazine one, was of criminals who forced their humiliated victims to crawl and go “Orf! Orf!” Unlikely, but not impossible in s Fulci context.

  20. Andre Ferreira Says:

    Now I’ll be on the lookout for “Orfic” crime movies ;)

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