Time Capsule Noir

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Tinto Brass is probably best remembered these days for “Madame Kitty” and his contributions to the once-notorious “Caligula.” I recently had the opportunity to see his 1967 film “Deadly Sweet,” an Italian-language giallo set in Swinging London. This genuine film oddity paired off French star Jean-Louis Trintignant, fresh from “A Man and a Woman,”  with the still-teenaged Ewa Aulin of “Candy” fame. This casting coup alone would make the film worth seeing, but it also serves as a marvelous time-capsule of state-of-the-art Sixties hip. You could go blind picking out all of the iconic film images plastered on the walls of various locations. Look there’s Bogart! Over there–Garbo! Oh wow, Clark Gable…. In addition to these constant still images from cinema past, Brass utilizes split-screens, abrupt changes from color to black-and-white film stock and a plot that’s enough of a corkscrew to give even Raymond Chandler a headache.

Once you set aside all of Brass’ stylistics–and I’m not saying that you should because, really, they are the point of the film–you are left with a plot that would not have been out of place in a film from Dane Clark’s “British Period.” Trintignant plays an out-of-work actor who finds that he’s been refused credit at this favorite night-spot. He goes upstairs to sort things out with the owner and finds him dead, with Aulin cowering in a corner in an apparent state of shock. He helps himself to some money, a gun and the dead man’s pocket notebook and flees the scene with Aulin in tow. Once she calms down, she gives him to believe that the dead man was blackmailing her wealthy family over some scandalous photograph of her stepmother. You can take it from here–now Trintignant is being pursued by the police as the probable murderer of the club owner (who of course had underworld ties–don’t all club owners in these films?) and by the surviving members of the man’s gang who want that notebook. Adding to his problems, the drop-dead gorgeous Aulin starts to seem like more and more of a slippery character herself–remember the title. (Actually the Italian title, translated as “With Heart in Mouth” is a bit more discreet.)

Now you are always free to ask–why did Trintignant flee if he clearly had nothing to do with the owner’s death? Why not just stay put and tell his tale to the police? Since Trintignant is being sought after as a killer, why do the police seem so slow to apprehend him? But of course to ask these questions is to miss the point entirely. This isn’t reality. You’re just supposed to immerse yourself in the world that Brass has created for you. Even in a film that constantly jumps from thrills to laughs there are scenes of undeniable power–an almost silly “Happening” ends with Trintignant’s discovery of the depths of the angel-faced Aulin’s corruption and when the elusive stepmother  fills in the blanks for him, the film finally does click as a traditional film noir–but one that moves to its own switched-on rhythms.

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