July 15, 2016


A wealthy woman with a missing husband, a dead body found at the Trevi Fountain, a suave reporter, a roll of microfilm… These are the essential elements in ASSASSINATION IN ROME. Looking at the title, you might think this would turn out to be a politically charged thriller, but alas, this film is a much more scattershot, plot-heavy potboiler (the original Italian title translates to THE SECRET OF THE RED DRESS, a much more typical, Edgar Wallace-styled title). Character introductions come fast and furious as the film builds steam, pouring attention into a revolving door of MacGuffins and dead ends, before finally settling down in the comfortable realm of murder mystery tropes. 

Here we see the Amateur Detective narrative come into play, the first time since Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. The mystery to be solved concerns a tie between the missing husband and the dead body found at the Fountain, a dead body which just so happened to be carrying a package of heroin. Our detective character throughout the film is Dick, a smooth talking ladies man in good with the local police inspector. Reporters are an obvious choice for the amateur detective role. By profession, they know every one and every thing in town. They're scamps and snoops, their pockets lined with other people's dirty laundry, all the better for prying information out of locals. Using a reporter eliminates the need for hefty exposition. We expect a reporter like Dick to know things. After all, that's his job.

As the film plays on, a few more key characters are introduced. A couple of bumbling thieves (aka The Comic Relief), a big bruiser prone to knocking Dick unconscious whenever he enters a dark room, Dick's nosy girlfriend Erika, an ex-crime boss from New York who used to have ties to the drug trade, and a short-lived helper character (all of the Amateur Detective films have a helper character, someone who discovers crucial information, only to wind up dead before passing it on). By mid-point, this is a veritable War and Peace, brimming with characters that add a bit of personality to the film, but do very little to actually move the plot along.

When the film finally decides to treat its mystery with a bit more finesse, it all culminates in a few fistfights, a deadly gunshot and a frantic race against time to keep Shelley (that's the wealthy woman I mentioned earlier; her past romantic feelings for Dick – no laughing at that – adds a touch of pathos to their otherwise bland chemistry) and her recently found, hospitalized husband from ending up dead. When the final reveal happens, the film simply decides to wrap it up and roll credits. Only the reveal, the point when the events of the film should all be explained, isn't handled well at all. I had to rewatch a third of the film to make sure I didn't miss some kind of explicit explanation for why the killer did what they did. I'm still a little fuzzy on that point. Maybe something was lost in translation.

I don't want to sound too negative about ASSASSINATION IN ROME. It's a perfectly serviceable thriller. But that's kind of the problem, isn't it? Sure, it might be self aware (the film points out that the Trevi Fountain was featured in Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA, cleverly juxtaposing Anita Ekberg's joyous, lively romp in the water with the discovery of a dead body) and carried by several strong performances (Hugh O'Brian, Alberto Closas and Eleonora Rossi Drago are all quite good here), but the running time is too long and the narrative is too unfocused for it to ever really transcend its populist cinema roots. This was yet another multi-country co-production featuring aging Hollywood actors and set primarily in popular postcard settings like Venice with a few briefs excursions to tourist trap locations.

It never really forms its own unique identity, trading subversiveness for pandering and playing it safe all through the running time. It tries to be too much, a film about drug trade one minute, government secrets the next, and finally a full-throated murder mystery. But despite all of that, it is a damn fine way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon. The film looks wonderful, has more than its fair share of clever, sometimes even thrilling, moments (even if they don't add up to much) and even has a sense of humor about the whole thing. It's a mixed bag for sure, but there are a few choice nuggets of goodness here, enough that I would recommend giving it a watch if you're into early gialli.

(Il segreto del vestito rosso)
Director: Silvio Amadio
Writer: Silvio Amadio, Giovanni Simonelli
Starring: Cyd Charisse, Hugh O'Brian, Alberto Closas, Eleonora Rossi Drago
Production Location ; Italy, France, Spain Production Co. Apo Film, Midega Film Dicifrance
1965, 110 minutes

Narrative Variety: Amateur Detective
Murderer(s): 1 Female
Murderer(s) Role: Love interest
Murderer(s) Motive: Money
Victims: 1 male (poisoned), 1 male (poisoned), 1 male (stabbed)
Murderer(s) Death: Falling

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