The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire.
Original Title: L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco
Directed by: Riccardo Freda
Italy/France/West Germany, 1971
Giallo, 92 min
Distributed by: New Entertainment [OOP]
Giallo time again! It’s been way to long since I sat down with a Giallo and why not get back into the groove with Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire that’s been mocking me from the middle of the pile of “must watch soon” stuff for quite some while now.
For some odd reason I’ve never really checked out much of a Riccardo Freda’s movies even tough he’s one of the pioneers of Italian Horror and Fantasy genres. My knowledge of this guy goes as far as knowing that he directed the classics L’orrible segreto del Dr. Hitchcock (The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock) 1962, I vampiri (Lust of the Vampire) 1956, Caltiki – il monstro immortale (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster) 1959 and that he supposedly abandoned the last two movies to let his cinematographer and protégé Mario Bava complete them so that he could get a head start in the directing game.
Being the man who helped lift forth the great Mario Bava, it’s odd to watch a movie which Freda tried to set in the realm of the genre his former protégé established. At the time the movie was made, 1971, Dario Argento had already started refining the genre with the impeccable The Bird with the Crystal Plumage 1970, and would release his follow up, The Cat o’Nine Tails the same year as this one. The likes of Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, Luciano Erccoli, Lucio Fulci and others also where in the process of making some terrific genre pieces, so in some ways it makes sense that the Grand old Man of Italian fantastic should present a piece within the Gialli spehre.
After an establishing opening title sequence that shows us that the movie is going to take place in Dublin, Ireland, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire get’s right in there from the start, and blasts off with an initial attack where we see a young woman preparing for bed. Subjective camera work shows us stalking her, and unnerved by the presence she moves to the phone to call for help – or something like that. But just as sure that cell phones won’t work in contemporary horror, the cord has been cut and she can’t call anyone. Instead the killer uses his leather gloved hand to fiddle with the fuses, steps in behind her and after tossing acid in her face produces the tool of the trade – a straight razor and slits that throat from side to side leavening a geyser of blood gushing out. It’s an effective opening as it presents many of the Giallo traits in one neat little package, there’s no doubt what kind of movie this is going to be after that opening.
So with the initial murder out of the way it’s time to start establishing characters, and start laying out the red herrings. The family of Swiss Ambassador Sobiesky prepare for a little ride only to have chauffeur Mandel [Renato Romano – who starred in Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage 1970 and Guilio Questi’s strange Giallo Death Laid an Egg 1968] discover the body of the woman killed in the opening sequence in the boot of their car! This sets off the series of events that introduces the gallery of main suspects to the plot. The Ambassador’s wife, Mrs. Sobiesky [Valentina Cortese – from Truffaut’s brilliant Day for Night 1973, Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits 1965 and Luigi Bazzoni’s The Possessed 1965] and is surprised to find her husband the Ambassador [Anton Diffring who we all know from Jess Franco’s masterful Faceless 1987 and Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun 1977] at home, as he’s supposed to be in Switzerland, and Doctor Johnson [Niall Toibin – who played Reverend Coot in George Pavlou’s Rawhead Rex 1986] who files his report on the disfigured victim and answers the Ambassadors question if he thinks anyone would ever be able to identify the victim with the sinister reply “The murderer has done a perfect Job. A specialist I would say, like me”.
It also get’s the detective work underway as Inspector Lawrence [Arthur O’Sullivan] is introduced into the plot and set’s up a key problem for the movie. The murder has taken place at the Ambassadors residence and his diplomatic immunity obtains the police from being able to question them about the killing. Although this first introduction of the Inspector is pretty darned shaky, and daft. He receives the passport of the dead woman, hence revealing her identity, and has an almost Monty Pythonesque exchange of dialogue with his assistant before they get in the car and head out to the Embassy.
Obviously the Ambassador avoids the few questions that he actually answers and the focus is shifted to the Chauffeur Mandel once again who obviously bring further question marks to the investigation. The Ambassadors daughter Helen Sobiesky [Dagmar Lassander] goes out for the night with her boyfriend and ends up in a weird lounge parlour/pub where a second murder is committed after a few shots of various suspicious characters. The murdered pub crooner and ambassador Sobiesky’s mistress is Dominique Boschero – who was in loads of genre pieces like Aldo Lado’s brilliant Who Saw Her Die? 1972 and Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark 1972 to name a two.
But this murder doesn’t stop her from going home with the bloke, John Norton [Luigi Pistilli – Leone’s epic The Good, the Bad, the Ugly 1966, Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood 1971 and Sergio Martino’s Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key 1972] who unashamedly picks her up outside the pub. After a motorbike ride home – which obviously isn’t though Dublin – they arrive at the embassy and being the easy girl that she is, Helen invites Norton in, and they end up in the sack. Cue Stelivo Cipriani’s romantic themed score as Pistilli and Lassander roll around in bed.
So, now we have the main cast established the movie can get going, and about time too as it’s just gone past the first half hour of play. Norton and his family are established, and his mother, an obvious amateur detective tells Norton all about her great theory and who she suspects killed the two women, but Norton just laughs it off and goes back to the Embassy to sneak around in the dark. Aha! So Norton is going to be the amateur detective of the piece we now understand. But after being beaten up and arrested by the coppers keeping an eye on the Sobiesky estate, Inspector Lawrence greets Norton as an old friend. Norton turns out to be a former detective who left the force due to some unfortunate events during an interrogation of a previous suspect. Lawrence brings him in to assist on the case as he, with his unorthodox methods can work outside the regulations of the force.
With the “detective” now taking on the investigation, the murder mystery can start to be puzzled together as Detective John Norton get’s on top of Helen and the case. The hunt for answers and a concrete suspect, because we are still being presented with many possible culprits, get’s deeper and darker leaving a trail of murders in its wake. What is the link between the Sobiesky family and the killings and why are Norton’s family being threatened? Well, it’s all revealed as The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire comes to a quite shocking climax proving once and for all that you should always listen to your mother!
I have some issues with the movie that never really make it take off in the mode, or evoke the interest that other great Gialli does, perhaps it’s because the movie lingers on for too long before bringing in the “amateur detective”, that important character who will take us along for the ride, and be the beacon of investigation for the audience. Or perhaps it’s the ludicrous constant indicators both visuals and audio, with that sharp “Aschwhiiinnggg” sound effect that indicates “this item is of importance” as the camera zooms in endlessly… which later didn’t proves to have no real importance at all… like the sunglasses or each time a straight razor is shown. There’s no need to write it so blatantly on the face of the audience as we know when we see a shot of a razor, like the on in Norton’s home, that it’s a red herring and automatically pose the question – could he be the killer – all by our self with out the silly sound cues. I also feel that the movie tries to hard to set up the suspects, each time the doctor in on screen it’s just quite too obvious that Freda wants’ to set us up and have us thinking that the doctor is the killer… a little more subtlety would have done nicely.
The movie sometimes gets lost in it’s desire to be complex and the pointing out certain key moments, the indication of certain elements. Sometimes it just pushes to hard and almost becomes insulting, as I know what to keep an eye open for and I know how to follow the leads and clues without being told that that’s what they are.
Acting is all right, apart from that early scene between Inspector Lawrence and his assistant, that still comes of as a bad Python sketch, but otherwise the actors get the job done, and Lassander get’s yet another opportunity to get out of her designer dresses.
The complexity of Pistilli's Norton’s character is by far the most interesting theme in the movie. It set’s up a great conflict that the man on the case get’s all cramped up as a former suspect took his own life, by Norton’s gun during an interrogation some time back. It’s given Norton notoriety as a hard-ass brute cop, but he still can’t really come to terms with violence, and has several flashbacks to that moment whilst in action… but for some odd reason Freda ignores this after establishing it and Norton easily beats the crap out of anyone who get’s in his way. Which is a shame, because that would have made a difference as a protagonist which personal restraints, has to overcome these obstacles first to save the day. Which would have made the rather creepy and disturbing finale even more effective. Only when his family is on the line would he cross the line and overcome his obstacle of resisting violence. But that’s not the case as said, and Norton just stays a cliché of genre cops.
And I’m actually surprised that the movie didn’t make a bigger impression on me – sure it has some fine moment’s but merely mediocre at that - because movies scripted, or co-written by Sandro Continenza [Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards 1978, Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue 1974, Lucio Fulci’s The Senator Likes Women 1972 and José Luis Madrid’s 7 Murders for Scotland Yard 1971] are usually pretty dammed fine pieces. Some things though do work in The Iguana with The Tongue of Fire, there’s a few great set ups that are paid off later on, one being Norton’s mothers constant neglect of her glasses and hearing aids, and her amateur detective suggestions after Norton has been introduced into the plot. But in the whole it’s not quite there.
I can’t quite grasp why Freda decided that he needed to hide behind a silly pseudonym like Willy Parento, and didn’t just go with his real name or the Robert Hampton that he’d used on previous works. Possibly it was something with the many co-producers that wanted an anonymous name to their film or perhaps Riccardo Freda wasn’t quite satisfied with the movie he’d made…
The Iguana with The Tongue of Fire has a great score by the masterful Stelvio Cipriani with some wonderfull vocals by Nora Orlandi this time. Orlandi is also a great composer who has Romolo Guerrieri’s The Sweet Body of Deborah 1968 and Sergio Martino’s The Strange Case of Mrs. Wardh 1971 on her resume. But here she sticks to playing the piano and crooning along to Cipriani’s tunes. Sticking close to a theme that constantly returns in various forms, it’s a neat album with nods at Bernard Herrman on a few occasions, but still staying true to that great loungy Italian style. Oddly though, Cipriani reuses a piece from Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood in two in new guises. But then again they are only used in short sequences, but I’m starting to see a pattern here where many a Cipriani soundtracks reuse previous pieces and reworking of former bits. But I dig Cipriani so it all works for me.
All in all, you could say that The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire is an all right little piece that follows Giallo conventions by the book, but unfortunately doesn’t really make that much of an impression on me. At it’s best I find it a decent one, but nothing that I’d set up amongst the greatest of the genre, it’s entertaining but one that I don’t feel that stands up to repeated viewing. Which is a shame because this is the sort of thing that Freda should have been able to nail completely with his extensive catalogue behind him and the importance that he held for the Italian Fantastic genres. But unfortunately he doesn’t and the movie just rolls on and at it’s best could be remembered for some nice shots of Dublin, cheap gore effects and a great soundtrack.
Anamorphic 16:9 Widescreen
Dolby digital 5.1 German dubbed dialogue, Dolby Digital 2.0 German and Dolby Digital 2.0 English dubbed versions. Optional German subtitles.
A German promo and a small photo gallery.