Monday, February 20, 2012

Mirror, Mirror - The Reflective Gaze of Umberto Lenzi

Looking at some of Umberto Lenzi’s early movies, the pre-gialli specifically - Orgasmo 1969, Cosi Dolce... Cosi Perversa (So Sweet… So Perverse) 1969 and Paranoia (aka A Quite Place to Kill ) 1970), I have come to find a recurrent use of mirrors… seriously mate, it’s not possible to miss them. They are a huge part of early Lenzi cinema, and are an effective way to send signals to the audience. Perhaps this was an influence of Lenzi on set, possibly somewhere jotted down in the scripts, may be a little notes of how to use mirrors in the shot. Maybe it was a set designer who had an ingenious moment… on several occasions, or perhaps it is all the work of cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori who shot at least eight movies for Lenzi. Well for whatever reason there’s a clear mirror fetish going on in the films of Umberto Lenzi.

Watching these movies I’ve noticed how key moments in several of Lenzis’ films have an intriguing use of mirrors. Sometimes they merely deepen the composition, open up the room and show the orientation of other characters. At times it’s to create a shock moment, or similar effect, other times it’s pure symbolic value, but almost every time a mirror figures, it marks an important moment. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Starting off on an easy foot, the mirrors open up the room. They give a depth to the shots, establish the location, and rather frequently a reflected character will be out of frame. It creates an excitement when we are allowed a peek into the off-screen space and see stuff outside of the frame.

Other times characters are placed with their backs towards the camera. The mirror reflection shows us their face – where we can read their emotions - and brings them into the piece, and at the same time their true feelings can be projected.

Lurking in the background is a clear favorite composition of Umberto Lenzi’s. It’s featured in a majority of his movies, and I can’t help but think of the Medusa, who with her fatal stare, kills her victims as they turn to stone. The only way to avoid death was to look upon her reflection, which disarmed her lethal stare. One could see these mirror compositions as metaphors for the deadly gaze, as the people staring at each others reflections frequently have sinister motifs in their game of deception. Instead of talking directly to each other they talk via the mirror, or in the worst case not at all, it’s the all said through mimicry and body language reflected through the mirror.

Nudity is rarely shot straight on when not in scenes of intimacy. For a voyeuristic – exploitative – approach, the camera merely pulls back, and shows us nudity through reflection instead. It works, and the nudity becomes more tantalizing, as if we the audience where seeing something we weren’t supposed to, sneaking a peak instead of staring at the naked flesh.

Take a look at these two scenes from Paranoia and Orgasmo. Both of them feature Carroll Baker’s character taking a shower, and in both scenes her love interest watches her safely hidden away in the off-screen space. We can only see him through the mirror. With the story plot in mind, it’s fair to say that the mirror in these cases acts as a metaphor for deception. Unlike the lurker who stands in the background, this is more of a threatening use, as this time only we know what’s lurking outside the frame. It’s a perfect metaphor and one Lenzi used on several occasions.

Ironically, there is no reflection in the mirror of the blind Martha Caldwell [Carroll Baker again] in Il cotello di ghiaccio (Knife of Ice) 1972.

After the pre-gilli thrillers, Lenzi worked with D.P. Alfio Contini – know for his work on Lilliana Cavani on Il portiere di note (The Night Porter) 1974, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point 1970, and awarded for his cinematography on the Antonioni/Wim Wenders co-production Beyond the Clouds 1995. Un posto ideale per uccidere (aka Oasis of Fear) 1971, tells the story of two youths, Dick Butler [Ray Lovelock] and Ingrid Sjöman [Ornella Mutti] who scam their was across the country peddling dirty photographs and sordid materials. By chance they come across the seemingly wealthy Barbara Slater [Irene Papas] who lives all alone in her huge mansion… a potential gold mine the two conartist can’t walk away from. With the theme of pornographic images and selling smut as one of the image systems of the movie, Lenzi uses the mirrors as a confirmation of the leading characters vanity. Almost every mirror is used for the lead characters to gaze upon themselves. The Greek myth of Narcissus comes to mind. Blinded by his own beauty he was completely unaware of his own pending doom, and walks right into his own demise. Just like Dick and Ingrid do in Oasis of Fear.

A cherished moment can be found in the 1975 Gialli Gatti rossi in un labirinto di ventro (Eyeball), where Lisa Sanders [Mirta Miller] stands smoking in her bathroom/makeshift darkroom. With the mirrors position declared, one to the left of the screen, and one in front of her, this makes for a haunting insight when she has her throat slashed moments later. Although the camera never takes position so that we see what she sees reflected in the mirror – instead we are treated to Mario Di Salvio and Alfredo Tiberi’s violent neck gash effect – we understand that what Sanders sees is her own death reflected in the mirror. A moment that definitely resonates Michael Powell’s influential Peeping Tom 1960.

Perhaps the finest example of this mirror fetish can be found in the masterpiece Paranoia (aka A Quiet Place to Kill) 1970. This movie bookends the pre-gialli thriller series, which all have strong influences of Boileau-Narcejac’s novel Celle qui n’était plus (The Woman who Was), Henri-George Clouzot’s Les Diabolique 1955 and Hitchcock’s Vertigo 1958 – stories that all focus on trickery, deception and foul play between a complex constellation of characters.
Introductions of Characters.

An unnerving moment when reflection and reality don't match up

Unfaithfulness is revealed... and confronted via mirrors.

Almost every lie, or moment of deception is introduced, or revealed through a mirror. The mirrors almost work as portals into an alternative universe where the truth is projected for the audience to see.

Off-screen secrets, nudity, tension builders and shocking reveals, almost every one of the areas discussed above come into play in Paranoia, and at times in several layers.

So there you have it, the mirror fetish of Umberto Lenzi, finally revealed and exposed … now it’s up to you to find the cracks that reflect his mind in the mirrors of his movies. I promise you that you will look and reflect upon Lenzi’s movies in a whole new way from now on.


Ninja Dixon said...

When you put everything together like this it's very clear! Brilliant post! Need to watch myself some old Lenzi's again!

forestofthedead said...

Excellent post. Lots to think about.

Johan Melle said...

Wow! Excellent stuff! And also a great reminder of how much I love Lenzi's gialli. I need to sit down and rewatch them all sometime soon.

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