Assassination in Rome

Assassination in Rome (1963, Silvio Amadio)

aka Assassinio made in Italy

Beautiful, long-legged Hollywood dancer and actress Cyd Charisse is much celebrated for her sparkling onscreen pairings with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and enjoyed a successful career making appearances in films like SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952), THE BAND WAGON (1953) and BRIGADOON (1954). Though rarely mentioned, Charisse also made two trips to Italy, where she starred in the caper movie FIVE GOLDEN HOURS (1961) and two years later in the curious giallo/spy hybrid ASSASSINATION IN ROME. In light of Charisse’s death at age 86 in June 2008, it seems fitting to take a closer look at her European work, and, fortunately, Dark Sky Films have put out ASSASSINATION IN ROME on DVD for our viewing pleasure.

Charisse stars as Shelley North, a rich American heiress, whose husband, Bill, mysteriously vanishes while the two of them are holidaying in Rome. Upset and worried, Shelley goes to the American embassy to report the disappearance but is more or less brushed off by the embassy official, who suggests that Bill has probably gone off on an “adventure” with another woman. In the meantime, a man is found dead by the Trevi fountain. The police are unable to identify the corpse but discover drugs in his pockets. Dick Sherman (Hugh O’Brien), an American reporter and editor for a paper called the Rome American Daily, takes an immediate interest in the case – especially when he picks up on Shelley’s report on her missing husband during a news check at the embassy; as it just so happens that Shelley is an old flame of Dick’s, and he is quick to contact her and offer his assistance in finding out what has happened to Bill. Using his friendship with Police Inspector Baudi (Alberto Closas), Dick is able to get the police to look into the disappearance. At first, Baudi isn’t particularly interested, but that quickly changes when he learns the identity of the dead man by the Trevi fountain and tracks down his apartment. There, Bill’s name is found in the dead man’s contact list, and it looks as if Bill is involved in some really shady business. Dick and Shelley continue their search for her missing husband but their snooping puts both their lives in jeopardy…

Best remembered for AMUCK! (1971) and SMILE BEFORE DEATH (1972)–his two sexy gialli with Rosalba Neri–director Silvio Amadio’s first stab at the genre is an altogether different but interesting film. Made the same year as the first official giallo, Mario Bava’s THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963), ASSASSINATION IN ROME is, as such, one of the earliest examples of the genre. Categorizing the film as a giallo may be a bit of a stretch, however, seeing as it was made before the genre’s conventions had been established. Thus, it can’t really be seen as part of a film trend – it is actually modelled more like a typical Hitchcock-inspired thriller, plus it has some spy movie elements thrown into the mix. While too slowly paced and low on action to appeal to anyone expecting a flashy Argento-style thriller, ASSASSINATION IN ROME is nevertheless a pleasing little mystery film. Saving most of the thrills for its final third, it instead relies on the power of its gifted cast and the gradual unfolding of the central mystery to keep the audience interested. It works pretty well for most of the time; ending with a well-mounted climax at a hospital.

Surprisingly, the feel of the film is often similar to that of an old-fashioned American thriller. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, but it’s highly unusual for an Italian film to achieve this. Most of the Italian directors who tried to give their films an American style were nevertheless left with a typically European-flavoured end result. But if the feel of this film is somewhat American, the look certainly isn’t. The cinematography is top-notch and Amadio uses the gorgeous Roman locations for all they’re worth, making sure to shoot at such tourist traps as the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine and the Trevi fountain, as well as a trip to Venice to show off both the gondolas and the famous pigeons at Piazza San Marco. But the most exciting location is definitely a trip to the legendary Cinecittà studios, where we witness the shooting of a peplum. With such breathtaking backdrops, it is easier to forgive Amadio for throwing in at least one too many outside luncheons to pad-out the running time.

As is often the case with these European productions, Hollywood leads are brought in to add some international appeal – in this case Charisse and Hugh O’Brien, who at the time was famous for his starring turn as Wyatt Earp in the TV series THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF WYATT EARP (1955-61), and who later appeared in Harry Alan Towers’ first version of the Agatha Christie classic TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965). Of the two stars, it is O’Brien who is given the most to do here. The Dick character may be a typical leading man of the time–always seen with some pretty girl on his arm–but O’Brien is an experienced actor with just the right confidence and authority to nail the part of the suave but sympathetic lead. His rugged, good looks and charm certainly fit the role well. Charisse on the other hand isn’t exactly used to her fullest potential here. In her early forties at the time, she was perhaps a tad too old for the part, and does seem a bit wooden. Of course, that may be because she is mostly required to sit at home worrying about her missing hubby. In the scenes where Charisse actually does get to do something other than sit around and worry, it is usually to act the part of the damsel in distress; either locking herself in a cupboard to hide from a killer, or being attacked with a chloroform-soaked cloth. It’s too bad she wasn’t given more to do as there is some decent chemistry between her and O’Brien.

The supporting cast is uniformly good – with special notice going to Alberto Closas as the sympathetic and unusually sharp police inspector. Another notable cast member is the beautiful Eleonora Rossi-Drago, who was a considerable star in Italy in the 1950s and early 1960s but as her star gradually faded, she had to settle for supporting roles in less prestigious projects such as this. Some years later, Rossi-Drago would hit an absolute career-low with her starring role in Sergio Bergonzelli’s trashy giallo IN THE FOLDS OF THE FLESH (1970); prompting her to retire from films, which is ironic, considering how it is arguably her best known role among Euro cult fans. Here, a flashy-looking Rossi-Drago plays Dick’s colleague Erika, a flirtatious, three-time divorcee who tries to help solve the mystery, and she puts in a most enjoyable performance. We are also treated to a bit of mild comic relief – courtesy of amusing character actors Memmo Carotenuto and Franco Giacobini as a pair of petty thieves who by chance rob the dead man’s apartment and come across a small package hidden in the hollow heel of a shoe. Naturally, they decide to use the package as a blackmail ploy, foreshadowing a plot element that would become a regular giallo staple in the 1970s.

Made as a co-production between Italy, Spain and France, the producers seem to have been unsure about how to distribute the ASSASSINATION IN ROME. Though made in 1963, it was delayed for a few years before making its theatrical debut in Spain in 1965 but didn’t hit Italian movie screens until 1967. By this time, the producers had decided to sell the film as a spy flick – releasing it under the highly unsuitable title ASSASSINIO MADE IN ITALY, which makes it sound like a cheap spy comedy. The English title is equally inappropriate as the film is really more of a classic mystery thriller than an all-out spy flick. It’s too bad they didn’t keep the alternate Italian title, the considerably more giallo-esque IL SEGRETO DEL VESTITO ROSSO (‘The Secret of the Red Dress’), even though the red dress in question is an admittedly peripheral plot point that doesn’t come into play until late in the proceedings. The film saw a US theatrical release in 1967 but vanished into complete obscurity shortly afterwards. It remained elusive for years, so much so that when Adrian Luther Smith’s fabulous giallo book Blood & Black Lace was released in 1999, ASSASSINATION IN ROME was listed in the ‘hidden treasures’ section for hard-to-find movies that were unavailable for review. As such, Dark Sky Film’s 2007 DVD release is an amazing find; rescuing a completely forgotten film and bringing it out to a larger audience.

Dark Sky has released ASSASSINATION IN ROME as a so-called drive-in double feature and paired it with Greg C. Tallas’ Eurospy flick ESPIONAGE IN TANGIERS (1965), which I won’t be commenting on in this review. ASSASSINATION is presented correctly letterboxed at 2.35:1 but without anamorphic enhancement. The result is still satisfying, though, with a pretty clean image and solid colours. The only audio option is an English 2.0 mono track, which is both clean and clear, and accompanied by optional English subtitles (a most welcome addition). The English dubbing directed by Peter Fernandez is very well done and features the real voices of both Charisse and O’Brien. Unfortunately, there are no extras, though. All we get are trailers for other Dark Sky releases.

While this curious giallo/spy hybrid is hardly an essential title, it makes for a fairly enjoyable little thriller which benefits from its gorgeous scenery and talented cast. For giallo enthusiasts who are interested in early examples of the genre to see how it gradually evolved, ASSASSINATION IN ROME is a most worthy acquisition.

(Johan Melle)