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Retro Review: THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (1971)

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THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE
(Italy/France/West Germany - 1971)

Directed by Willy Pareto (Riccardo Freda). Written by Willy Pareto (Riccardo Freda), Alessandro Continenza and Gunther Ebert. Cast: Luigi Pistilli, Dagmar Lassander, Anton Diffring, Valentina Cortese, Arthur O'Sullivan, Werner Pochat, Dominique Boschero, Renato Romano, Sergio Doria, Ruth Durley, Niall Toibin. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Journeyman director Riccardo Freda (1909-1999) remains a key figure in Italian horror, having mentored Mario Bava and encouraged his transition from cinematographer to director by letting him handle large chunks of 1957's I VAMPIRI and 1959's CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER. Bava soon made the groundbreaking 1960 Italian horror classic BLACK SUNDAY while Freda, who often used the Anglicized pseudonym "Robert Hampton" on his films, never seemed particularly beholden to the genre beyond 1962's THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK and its 1963 semi-sequel THE GHOST, with both in very high regard by connoisseurs of Italian horror. But Freda spent most of the decade making a string of HERCULES-inspired peplum epics like 1960's THE GIANTS OF THESSALY and 1961's MACISTE AT THE COURT OF GRAND KHAN and assorted spaghetti westerns and 007 Eurospy knockoffs. Following Dario Argento's trailblazing 1970 giallo THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and its followups, 1971's THE CAT O'NINE TAILS and 1972's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, Italian journeymen directors essentially formed a conga line to crank out a series of knockoff gialli with animals in the title, among them Lucio Fulci's A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971) and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), Sergio Martino's THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL (1971), Paolo Cavara's THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA (1971), Duccio Tessari's THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY (1971), Sergio Pastore's THE CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT (1972), and Antonio Margheriti's SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE (1973) just to name a few. Following his 1969 krimi-inspired DOUBLE FACE, Freda hopped on the animal giallo bandwagon with one of the genre's most nonsensically random titles, 1971's THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE.






The meaning of that title is shoehorned in almost as an aside and doesn't really make sense even in context, but it's probably the most memorable thing about the film, which suffers from erratic pacing, hilariously awful special effects, and Freda and his co-writers fighting a losing battle to keep track of all of their red herrings, at least two of whom completely disappear from the film. It does benefit from an unusual setting, a great cast of familiar Eurocult faces, an expectedly catchy lounge score by Stelvio Cipriani with the participation of Edda dell'Orso, whose wordless vocals were essentially legally mandated by this point, and an admirably off-the-rails climax that prefigures both Brian De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL and Dario Argento's TENEBRAE to a certain extent. In Dublin, a woman has acid thrown in her face and her throat slashed before being stuffed in the boot of a Rolls Royce belonging to Sobiesky (Anton Diffring), the Swiss ambassador to Ireland. Police inspector Lawrence (Arthur O'Sullivan) gets nowhere with the investigation since Sobiesky immediately plays the privileged asshole card by flaunting his diplomatic immunity and refusing to cooperate. It turns out the dead woman was his mistress, and when another Sobiesky mistress, a sultry nightclub chanteuse (Dominique Boschero), also turns up dead after trying to blackmail him over their affair, Lawrence sends rogue, plays-by-his-own-rules detective John Norton (Luigi Pistilli) undercover. Norton, who's persona non grata with the Dublin police after a suspect grabbed his gun and committed suicide during a brutal interrogation, and who's still plagued by the unsolved murder of his wife (a plot point that's mentioned and never revisited), lets himself get picked up at a bar by Sobiesky's promiscuous stepdaughter Helen (Dagmar Lassander), much to the chagrin of her arrogant boy-toy Walter (Sergio Doria), and manages to ingratiate himself into the Sobiesky household, also questioning the ambassador's alcoholic wife (Valentina Cortese, who would earn a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination three years later for Francois Truffaut's DAY FOR NIGHT) and generally not giving much of a shit about the ambassador's diplomatic immunity privileges. There's also suspicious, conjunctivitis-afflicted limo driver Mandel (Renato Romano), who's also blackmailing Sobiesky's weirdo stepson Marc (Werner Pochat) for his own indiscretions back home in Switzerland, a doctor (Niall Toibin) who's creepy for no reason whatsoever, and comic relief in the form of Norton's teenage daughter as well as his doddering, Agatha Christie superfan mother (Ruth Durley), an amateur sleuth whose annoying habit of misplacing her glasses with attached hearing aids leads to one of the dumbest contrivances in the entire giallo genre.





Never released theatrically in the US, THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE has been available only in bootleg format stateside, never even hitting home video and remaining one of the most obscure giallo offerings that, thanks to that title, was certainly read about more than it was actually seen. That is until now, thanks to Arrow's new extras-packed Blu-ray that gives it its first official US release, 48 years after it was made, because physical media is dead. That doesn't mean it's a classic waiting to be discovered. Structurally, THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE is a mess that's needlessly convoluted--is there anyone in it not involved in a clandestine blackmail scheme?--and goes to absurd lengths to make sure every character is a suspect at one point, usually in the form of an aggressive zoom into their faces, sporting expressions that land somewhere between suspicious and constipated. The best thing about the film is the unique Dublin setting, especially with some extensive location work done by Freda and his crew, particularly some breathtaking shots at the Cliffs of Moher. There's also a cringe-worthy shout-out to an iconic Dublin business--the Swastika Laundry and yes, that was its logo--which was in existence since 1912, well before the swastika was co-opted by Nazi Germany (it ultimately closed in 1987). And speaking of cringe-worthy, don't miss the scene where O'Sullivan's spectacularly unappealing Lawrence sneeringly hypothesizes that the first murder shows signs of "a woman's hand, or that of a colored person...they're experts at such things," which is the worst hunch by a cop this side of Jack Hedley's Lt. Williams in 1982's THE NEW YORK RIPPER expressing with certainty that "we know the killer has lived in New York his whole life."


Freda wasn't happy with much of anything about THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, starting with Pistilli (best known as the priest brother of Eli Wallach's Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY and in a rare lead here), who he felt was forced on him by the producers after they failed to secure his first choice--Roger Moore, of all people (Ivan Rassimov was also considered at some point). Displeased with the end result after post-production, Freda decided to take his name off the finished film, where he's credited as "Willy Pareto." It's not a top-shelf giallo, but it's hardly the worst ever made and it's definitely worth seeing for completists. And it's a masterpiece compared to Freda's next film, his 1972 career nadir TRAGIC CEREMONY, which was so bad that it would be nine years before he made another, 1981's MURDER OBSESSION, aka FEAR. MURDER OBSESSION is no great shakes, but it's a decent enough second-tier giallo that's marginally better than THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, if for no other reason than it co-stars Laura Gemser. Freda's comeback was short-lived, however, as he opted for retirement with MURDER OBSESSION proving to be his final film.









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