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Retro Review: The Complete Lenzi/Baker Giallo Collection: ORGASMO (1969), SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE (1969), A QUIET PLACE TO KILL (1970) and KNIFE OF ICE (1972)

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ORGASMO
aka PARANOIA
(Italy/France - 1969)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Ugo Moretti, Umberto Lenzi and Marie Claire Solleville. Cast: Carroll Baker, Lou Castel, Colette Descombes, Tino Carraro, Lilla Brignone, Franco Pesce, Tina Lattanzi, Jacques Stany, Gaetano Imbro, Sara Simoni, Calisto Calisti. (X, 91 mins/European version, 97 mins)

Born in 1931, Carroll Baker had a couple of film and television credits to her name (most notably a supporting turn in the gargantuan epic GIANT) when she became an overnight sensation in the title role as Karl Malden's thumbsucking child bride in 1956's controversial BABY DOLL, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Tennessee Williams. It earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination (Ingrid Bergman won for ANASTASIA) and made her one of the most sought-after young talents in Hollywood. But she almost instantly earned a reputation as a troublemaker when, under contract to Warner Bros., she refused to star in TOO MUCH, TOO SOON and voiced her disapproval about the quality of the projects she was being offered. The studio "suspended" her as punishment, which kept her offscreen for nearly two years after BABY DOLL, during which time she bought out her contract--an antiquated system that had been on its way out for years--thus allowing her to choose her own roles. Baker ended up in several big-budget blockbusters like 1958's THE BIG COUNTRY, 1962's HOW THE WEST WAS WON, 1964's CHEYENNE AUTUMN, and 1965's THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, and enjoyed the freedom of experimenting with small indies like the 1961 cult film SOMETHING WILD. But she then found a niche filling the void left by the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962. Shepherded by producer Joseph E. Levine, Baker became a major sex symbol in films like 1964's THE CARPETBAGGERS, 1965's SYLVIA, and in HARLOW, one of two identically-titled Jean Harlow biopics that opened in the summer of 1965 (Carol Lynley starred in the other one). Baker signed a contract with Levine following THE CARPETBAGGERS and after HARLOW's lukewarm response from critics and moviegoers, she decided she wanted out. Their rocky professional relationship and subsequent legal battle became tabloid fodder as Baker found herself persona non grata in Hollywood, with the powerful Levine essentially blackballing her out of the industry.


With no job offers on the table and having just gone through a divorce, Baker took her two children (including future actress Blanche Baker, best known as Molly Ringwald's center-of-attention older sister in SIXTEEN CANDLES) and moved to Italy to test the waters of the European film industry. She starred in Marco Ferrari's 1967 comedy HER HAREM and followed it with Romolo Guerrieri's 1968 thriller THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH, the latter leading to a string of erotic Italian thrillers that kept Baker very busy for several years. She ended up living and working exclusively in Europe until the late '70s, most notably in four collaborations with journeyman Italian genre specialist Umberto Lenzi (1931-2017), later to make his mark with a series of poliziotteschi classics like 1974's ALMOST HUMAN and 1976's ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH, and 1981's infamous cannibal gut-muncher CANNIBAL FEROX, aka MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY. The four Lenzi/Baker gialli, filled with shagadelic sex, suspense, and a plethora of Eurolounge jams, have just been restored and compiled in a comprehensive Blu-ray box set from Severin Films, because physical media is dead.







The wonderfully-titled ORGASMO, released with an X rating in the US by Commonwealth United as PARANOIA, was the first of Baker's four gialli with Lenzi. It's luridly trashy and, at least in its oddly more explicit American cut, almost qualifies as softcore porn, with Baker one of the first big-name American actresses to unabashedly embrace the changing times and go all-in on gratuitous nude scenes. In ORGASMO, she stars as Kathryn West, a trophy wife-turned-wealthy widow taking up residence in an expansive Italian villa as her late husband's attorney Brian (Tino Carraro) begins liquidating his holdings--which include their estate in America, two oil companies, two TV stations, and a chain of department stores--which will net her at least a $200 million payday. At the villa, it's just Kathryn, sneering housekeeper Teresa (Lilla Brignone), and deaf, doddering handyman Martino (Franco Pesce), but that changes when stranger Peter's (Lou Castel) car breaks down outside the entrance gate. It doesn't take much for sex-starved Kathryn to turn into broke-ass Peter's nympho sugar mama with a thing for degradation games, and when he moves in, his sister Eva (Colette Descombes) suddenly turns up to crash there as well. This begins a whirlwind of booze, pills, and sex, with seductive Eva unleashing Kathryn's unexplored lesbian side and a willingness to partake in threesomes with a brother and sister. But when she catches Peter and Eva in bed without her, things quickly go south and the party's over. Peter and Eva start manipulating her, forcing her to fire Teresa and Martino, psychologically torture her with head games and blaring loud music into her room, and are soon controlling every aspect of her life--usually by keeping her drugged--in a plot to take control of her fortune, with some backup photos of their various sexcapades just in case blackmail become necessary.






The longer ORGASMO goes on, the darker and more nihilistic it gets on its way to a ruthlessly fatalistic finale that offers a one-two punch of ball-crushing twists. Lenzi's preferred Italian cut, ORGASMO, runs 97 minutes and tones down a good amount of the sex, while the more explicit PARANOIA is actually six minutes shorter, removing mostly minor details except in the case of almost the entirety of Jacques Stany's performance as a mystery man tailing Kathryn. He's only fleetingly scene in the PARANOIA cut and even that's probably unintentional. Both endings reach the same conclusion, and ORGASMO's explains a bit more, but I think I prefer the more impactful abruptness of the PARANOIA finale. Both versions are included in on the Blu-ray, and either way, this is a twisted bit of occasionally psychedelic 1969 nastiness that still plays surprisingly well in the era of obligatory insane twist endings. Of interest to French cinephiles is the involvement of 28-year-old future filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier (DEATH WATCH, COUP DE TORCHON, ROUND MIDNIGHT), credited here as assistant director.



ORGASMO, under its US title PARANOIA,
opening in Toledo, OH on 12/12/1969





SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE
(Italy/France/West Germany - 1969)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Ernesto Gastaldi. Cast: Carroll Baker, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Erika Blanc, Horst Frank, Helga Line, Beryl Cunningham, Ermelnida De Felice, Gianni Di Benedetto, Dario Michaelis, Renato Pinciroli, Lucio Rama, Paola Scalzi, Luigi Sportelli. (Unrated, 93 mins)

Lenzi and Baker immediately followed ORGASMO with the equally tantalizingly-titled SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE, but the resulting film--neither sweet nor perverse--paled in comparison despite the involvement of genre luminaries like producer Sergio Martino and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. A Paris-set giallo variation on DIABOLIQUE, SO SWEET stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as Jean Reynaud, a wealthy French businessman and serial philanderer already running around on Danielle (Erika Blanc), his wife of three years who's apparently been withholding ("What do you expect when I can't get my slice of cake in my own home?" he asks after telling her "You're not jealous...you're just bitchy"). He's intrigued by Nicole (Baker), who's just moved into the penthouse above theirs with her abusive, control-freak boyfriend Klaus (Horst Frank). Jean hears Klaus beating Nicole regularly, and his hero complex kicks in when the two quickly fall in love after Jean promises to get her away from Klaus and run away with her. Danielle has been tolerant of Jean's comparatively discreet dalliances so far--most recently with Helene (Helga Line), the bored wife of a hunting club acquaintance (Gianni Di Benedetto)--but his carrying on with Nicole, in full view of their fellow tenants and others in their upper-class social circle, is too much for her to handle. Plus, an enraged Klaus is also following the cheating couple around, even to a weekend island getaway where he torments them by driving his speedboat along the shore and glaring at them.






Never released theatrically in the US, SO SWEET is pretty tedious for its first half before things finally rev up, but once you recognize it following the DIABOLIQUE template, you'll know almost exactly where it's going. The now-90-year-old Trintignant, then becoming an international superstar with films like 1966's A MAN AND A WOMAN, Costa-Gavras' 1969 Oscar-winner Z, and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1970 breakthrough THE CONFORMIST, has apparently said in that past that SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE is his worst film. I haven't seen enough Trintignant films to know for sure, and even then, I don't think I'd quite go that far, but it is a disappointingly lukewarm affair for Lenzi and Baker after the lewd excesses of the gonzo ORGASMO. Baker switches gears by not playing the victim here, and leaves most of the gratuitous nudity to Blanc (Baker does get one slo-mo topless run along a beach in a dream sequence, but some existing stills indicate more Baker and Line nudity that Lenzi opted to not use), but the execution of the familiar narrative just doesn't really have a spark despite the talent involved. It does have an undeniably catchy score by Riz Ortolani that includes the theme song "Why," belted out in an almost Tom Jones fashion by J. Vincent Edwards, who would later make a fortune co-writing Maxine Nightingale's 1975 radio hit "Right Back Where We Started From." Lenzi liked "Why" so much that he recycled it in his 1972 Baker-less giallo SEVEN BLOODSTAINED ORCHIDS.





A QUIET PLACE TO KILL
aka PARANOIA
(Italy/Spain/France - 1970; US release 1973)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Marcello Coscia, Bruno Di Geronimo, Rafael Romero Marchent, Marie Claire Solleville. Cast: Carroll Baker, Jean Sorel, Anna Proclemer, Luis Davila, Marina Coffa, Liz Halvorsen, Alberto Dalbes, Hugo Blanco, Jacques Stany, Rossana Rovere, Calisto Calisti, Manuel Diaz Velasco. (Unrated, 96 mins).

"I couldn't help myself. I had to make love with you one more time." 


"Whore." 


That dialogue exchange gives you a pretty good idea of what A QUIET PLACE TO KILL is all about. The third Lenzi/Baker teaming is a big improvement over SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE and has more in common with the trashy histrionics of ORGASMO. A QUIET PLACE TO KILL has always been a point of confusion for some giallo fans, since its original European title was PARANOIA, which was also the American title of ORGASMO. Thus, this PARANOIA is now most commonly known by its export title, A QUIET PLACE TO KILL. Here, Baker plays Helen, an American expat and professional racing driver whose career comes to an abrupt end after a fiery crash during a test drive. Barely making it out alive, she's ordered to relax and recuperate, and is summoned by her conceited ex-husband Maurice (Jean Sorel, Baker's co-star in THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH) to his vacation home on Mallorca. They haven't spoken since their divorce three years ago--and it's mentioned in possibly joking fashion that she tried to kill him--but when she arrives, she's shocked to find he's now married to the older Constance (Anna Proclemer). Helen has barely had time to settle in when Constance offers her $100,000 to help her kill Maurice, giving her the weekend to think it over while she goes off to visit her college-age daughter Susan (Marina Coffa). Instead, Helen decides to spend the weekend indulging in carnal sexcapades with Maurice, and upon Constance's return, the three go out on Maurice's boat but Helen is unable to go through with Constance's plan. A scuffle ensues, Constance is stabbed to death, and as they're tying an anchor around her legs before tossing her corpse in the sea, they're spotted by Maurice's buddy Harry (frequent Jess Franco actor Alberto Dalbes) and his wife Solange (Liz Halvorsen) who are approaching on their yacht. Maurice capsizes the boat on purpose, letting Constance's corpse fall overboard, then telling everyone she got hit in the head by the boon and went under. Maurice's period of mourning is short-lived, as he's back in the sack with Helen that night, but then things get really awkward when Susan turns up and, seeing her stepfather and his ex-wife barely even attempting to hide their sexual shenanigans, makes it clear that she's on to them and isn't buying what happened to her mother.






Lenzi and the team of writers have quite a few tricks up their sleeve and A QUIET PLACE TO KILL is a very lively and thoroughly misanthropic thriller where alliances constantly shift, everyone has something to hide, and everyone is desperately scrambling and failing to keep those secrets hidden. It's not as over-the-top and X-worthy as ORGASMO, but something unexpectedly wild or downright sleazy happens every few minutes--Maurice and Constance on opposite sides of Helen at dinner, and both unknowingly playing footsie with her, Maurice complaining in a crowded restaurant that Helen was too frigid in bed when they were married, Susan's jaw-dropping reveal of how her mother ended up hooking up with Maurice--and you can't help but marvel at the utterly awful characters making up this ensemble of sociopaths. It's pretty clear early on that Helen is a self-absorbed bitch when her loyal assistant (Jacques Stany) picks her up at the hospital and stops for beverages at a carryout, only to have Helen slide over in the driver's seat and take off, leaving him stranded. This one is a lot of fun, plus it's got a brief appearance by Wess and the Airedales "Just Tell Me" during a nightclub scene, and it's the same song used to drive Baker's character crazy in ORGASMO. A QUIET PLACE TO KILL never made it to American theaters, but did turn up in an Avco-Embassy TV syndication package in 1973.


KNIFE OF ICE
(Italy/Spain - 1972)

Directed by Umberto Lenzi. Written by Umberto Lenzi and Antonio Troiso. Cast: Carroll Baker, Alan Scott, Evelyn Stewart (Ida Galli), Eduardo Fajardo, Silvia Monelli, George Rigaud, Franco Fantasia, Rosa M. Rodriguez, Dada Gallotti, Lorenzo Robledo, Mario Pardo, Olga Gherardi, Consalvo Dell'Arti, Jose Marco, Luca Sportelli. (Unrated, 92 mins)

Lenzi and Baker's fourth and final collaboration was the 1972 giallo KNIFE OF ICE, which opens with gory footage of a bullfight and a bullshit Poe quote and then spends much of its duration setting up a third act bait-and-switch leading to its twist ending. Of course, it might not be that much of a surprise considering that the deck is stacked with so many obvious red herrings, but it's still a solid second-tier entry in the cycle. It's also the only one of these that keeps Baker clothed the entire time, casting her against type as Martha, a shy, demure woman who's been mute since her parents died in a tragic train accident when she was a teenager. She was raised by her Uncle Ralph (George Rigaud) and still lives with him at his estate near the Pyrenees. She's visited by her cousin Jenny (Ida Galli, using her "Evelyn Stewart" pseudonym), a famous singer who's stabbed to death in the garage the morning after she arrives. There's any number of possible suspects, including sinister chauffeur Marcos (Eduardo Fajardo), who's always lurking somewhere; housekeeper Mrs. Britton (Silvia Monelli); Dr. Laurent (Alan Scott), who shows up the next day with drops of blood on his pants; and local priest Father Martin (Jose Marco), who's raising his orphaned pre-teen niece Christina (Rosa M. Rodriguez). Bizarre Satanic symbols start appearing around town, including a goat's head painted on a tree that catches the attention of Mrs. Britton just before she's murdered while out running errands. This immediately makes a loud-and-proud area Satanist with creepy eyes (Mario Pardo) the main suspect, especially with the discovery of another body outside of town that may be tied into the current string of murders.






Lenzi gets a good amount of suspense going once helpless Martha is alone in the house, and as goofy as the out-of-nowhere twist ending is, it's effective. Baker is very good in Audrey Hepburn/WAIT UNTIL DARK mode, and KNIFE OF ICE gets a nice Italian horror vibe going with an electronic score by Marcello Giombini--with some help from the inimitable wordless vocals of Edda dell'Orso--that prefigures some of Goblin's work for Dario Argento. The appearance of a walking, quacking Donald Duck is an unnerving image at a pivotal moment, and in having the priest among the suspects, KNIFE OF ICE flirts with the recurring "distrust of the clergy" motif important to so many gialli, including Lucio Fulci's DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, Aldo Lado's WHO SAW HER DIE? and Antonio Bido's THE BLOODSTAINED SHADOW.


Umberto Lenzi with Carroll Baker and
Jean-Louis Trintignant on the set of
SO SWEET...SO PERVERSE
KNIFE OF ICE might've been the end of the line for the Lenzi/Baker collaborations, but she appeared in other European genre titles over the next several years, including long-forgotten gialli like Eugenio Martin's THE FOURTH VICTIM (1971), Osvaldo Civirani's THE DEVIL WITH SEVEN FACES (1971), Gianfranco Piccioli's THE FLOWER WITH THE DEADLY STING (1973), and Luigi Scattini's THE BODY (1974). While it was ignored at the time, BABA YAGA, a 1973 live-action version of the erotic comics of Guido Crepax, found a new audience in the early days of DVD and, with the exception of these Lenzi gialli, has probably become the most well-known title from Baker's Euro sojourn. Most of these films never had US theatrical distribution and only a few of them surfaced on video in the '80s. By the mid '70s, there was a marked decline in the quality of work Baker was being offered in Europe. She started appearing in softcore Italian sex comedies with titles like AT LAST, AT LAST (1975) and the "Hot for Teacher" prototypes THE PRIVATE LESSON (1975) and MY FATHER'S WIFE (1976), while the scuzzy Spanish thriller BLOODBATH--shot in 1975 but unreleased until 1979--paired her with her GIANT co-star Dennis Hopper, just entering his barely employable coke years as a junkie poet named "Chicken." She made a brief return to America for the deranged 1977 black comedy ANDY WARHOL'S BAD, but by 1978, with her name misspelled "Carrol Baker" in the credits, she was reduced to appearing in the grimy CYCLONE, where Mexican exploitation auteur Rene Cardona Jr. combined the cannibalism of his 1976 hit SURVIVE with the shark attacks of his 1977 JAWS ripoff TINTORERA and wrapped them an in Irwin Allen-inspired disaster scenario.


Carroll Baker doing a Q&A at an event in 2019
Baker returned to America by 1980, appeared with Bette Davis in the Disney movie THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, and then entered the character actor phase of her career, with solid supporting turns throughout the decade in Bob Fosse's harrowing STAR 80 (1983), the Jack Nicholson/Meryl Streep drama IRONWEED (1987), and the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy KINDERGARTEN COP (1990). She had guest spots on TV shows like MURDER, SHE WROTE and L.A. LAW, and had her most prominent late-career role as Michael Douglas' housekeeper in David Fincher's THE GAME (1997). Now 89, Baker seems to have retired from acting, her last role to date being a guest spot as Rob Lowe's mother on his short-lived 2003 NBC series THE LYON'S DEN. She still makes occasional public appearances and as recently as late 2019, was still giving interviews, some of which can be found on YouTube. Unfortunately, she doesn't take part in any of the extras on Severin's Lenzi/Baker collection, though in the past and in two memoirs, she has spoken very favorably of her experiences in the Italian film industry and didn't view the giallo period of her career with any sense of disdain or dismissal.





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