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So Good it Could’ve Stood on it’s Own as a Feature:

Mario Bava’s Il Telefono (The Telephone)

A First Rate Thriller

(Note: This piece may contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film, or just the segment, either find a way to see it and come back to read, or if Italian films don’t interest you at all, read on. You’ve been advised.)

(Note 2: This piece is primarily on the Italian version of the segment.)

(All opinions are of the reviewer alone)

By Tony Nash

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Il Telefono (The Telephone) (segment from Il Tre Volti della Paura [The Three Faces of Fear, aka Black Sabbath]) *****


Michéle Mercier: Rosy

Lidia Alfonsi: Mary (as Lydia Alfonsi)

Milo Quesada: Frank Rainer (uncredited in all versions)

Written by: Marcello Fondato, Alberto Bevilacqua, & Mario Bava, from a story by F.G. Snyder

Directed by: Mario Bava

Synopsis: Not long after returning home, escort Rosy begins receiving threatening phone calls from whom she believes is Frank Rainer, her ex-boyfriend/pimp. Frightened out of her wits, she turns to her estranged friend Mary, despite an apparent falling out. Mary agrees to help, but is it all on friendly terms? And is Frank really looking to kill Rosy?

Horror icon Mario Bava’s only foray into the Anthology film, and the 2nd of the three directors (the other two are Roger Corman and Sidney Salkow) to take sole directorial credit for all segments (in terms of horror) as many Anthology films had multiple directors is quite a success and is even on the top 100 Horror films list. While Tre Volti della Paura boasted two other fine segments in I Wurdalak (The Wurdalak) and La Goccia d’Acqua (The Drop of Water), it is Il Telefono (The Telephone) that will be the subject of this article.

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What makes this short segment an immediate standout is that it’s not a Horror story at all, but a unique Suspense/Thriller. Another interesting note is that Il Telefono was the first Italian Thriller to be shot in color, as all previous films were shot in black and white, no doubt to capitalize on the atmosphere such films boasted of. Most likely taking a cue from Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, Bava sets the piece almost entirely in one area, Rosy’s apartment, leaving the location only thrice, two for cuts to Mary’s living room, and once when Rosy peers out of a window to see a neighbor walking his dog. That Bava keeps his audience (and his cast) in such close quarters as it’s only a two room apartment adds to the suspense, paranoia, and claustrophobia of the short’s progress as Rosy goes deeper and deeper into fear. To relate this setting to an Independent one-act play isn’t a long shot as the very commonly decorated areas; bed, kitchen, couch, tables, etc, make it fairly reminiscent of an aspiring playwright. The colors are rich and vibrant, but hardly take away from the pulse pounding effect Bava was looking to convey, and in actuality add to what Bava wanted to do with the piece, make it feel realistic.

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Another interesting element is the same-sex romantic subtext, sub-plot between Rosy and Mary. Hardly explicit, by both today’s and the 60’s standards, Bava’s direction and script offer enough innuendo, movement, looks, and dialogues that something a little more than friendship developed between these two women. It’s never explained exactly what caused the break-up between the two, though it’s quite likely Frank didn’t like the idea of one of “his girls’” being attracted to both men and women, and Mary gives the impression she blamed Frank heavily for her heartbreak. While this element would, in today’s terms, be used to sell sex and create sensationalism, actually gives a lot to the final outcome of the segment and is a key element to the whole story. The whole dynamic of Rosy and Mary intimacy is what helps gives the finale the whopping punch it so richly is known and praised for. That the viewer doesn’t suspect what happens to happen shows the genius of Bava, both as a director and writer.

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Michéle Mercier’s performance is really excellent here, and the majority of the segment is really her in a one woman show. The ease with which she goes from being merely unnerved to panicked to scared to practically out of her mind with terror shows the great depth and ability she had as an actress that was sadly underscored by most producers and directors. To be by yourself for the majority on set and to relay emotions from a hearing an ominous voice added later in editing can be difficult, but Mercier makes it all look like child’s play. She has viewers hooked in the minute her facial expression becomes concerned and edgy after the first phone call and with each passing ring, becomes more and more consumed with terror and dread. The drops of sweat on her forehead as she reaches the point of hysteria and just before Mary’s arrival are a nice touch too and has the viewer wondering if it’s makeup, the hot lights on the set, or if Mercier got just a little too into the scene. Lidia Alfonsi is excellent as well as the mysterious Mary, and though her performance isn’t as nuanced as Mercier’s, her too cool manner does have the viewer constantly guessing what her really agenda may be.

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This little segment could’ve been extended into an entire feature on its own. The story itself is simple enough to easily expand upon, and create something even more intriguing and entertaining. What Bava created initially is fantastic and most likely would need little improving on, seeing something a little more extensive of it wouldn’t be a bad thing either. Certain questions are either answered vaguely or not answered at all in the original and to be able to expand the story and make it a little more in-depth would certainly be a nice addition. Granted the tight setting would have to be sacrificed in favor of flashbacks, extended and new scenes and character development, it still would’ve been interesting to see where the story could’ve been taken had the opportunity been present or possible.

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What kept this segment from receiving the acclaim in the States it received in Italy until the advent of DVD was the sloppy re-cutting of the film by AIP heads James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff. While it’s understandable that US audiences of the times weren’t ready to accept same-sex romances on film, that they took out the Thriller aspect of the piece and turned it into a run-of-the-mill ghost story was completely unnecessary and the loss is very keen and noticeable. By pretty much making an entirely new segment of  Il Telefono, the absence of Rosy and Mary’s off camera romance and the poor addition of Frank being a ghost heavily lessens the impact of the finale and turns a really excellent piece of Suspense into plain banal Horror that was certainly beneath what Bava’s standards were. Now while added footage that Bava intended for the original Rome premiere, but cut and put back for the US cut is nice, this too lessens the tight, almost boxed in atmosphere that made the Italian cut so much better , and just goes to show that producers shouldn’t meddle with a good thing. Granted AIP promoted itself as a producer of films for the Teenage crowd, Tre Volti della Paura shouldn’t have been revamped for teens and should’ve stayed as a piece for mature crowds. Bava’s biographer Tim Lucas stated himself in his audio commentary for the DVD and Blu ray releases of the film that the Italian version is the far superior and better film of the two cuts.

(This reviewer should also note that these are his views alone and doesn’t speak for anyone else, and that anyone who likes the AIP cut is entitled to that viewpoint.)

In the end, Il Telefono is an excellent little Thriller that is worth watching, either on its own or along with the other segments of Il Tre Volti della Paura.

(I highly recommend getting this film on Blu Ray. Arrow Video has a wonderful transfer of the film, and has both the original Italian cut and the AIP cut, and very nice special features, but is unfortunately Region B locked, so unless one has a region free Blu Ray player [I have one and highly recommend it for major film buffs] or have any way of playing import discs, anyone interested  There is an all right Region A release from Kino, but lacks even the audio commentary from the original, out of print Anchor Bay DVD, but is certainly all right for first time buyers who can choose to upgrade later. [Note – Kino released the Italian cut and the AIP cut separately as the AIP cut was in copyright limbo until recently]  For anyone who speaks and/or reads German, there is a nice German Mediabook and standard case release, but again is Region B locked [like the Arrow release, both the Italian and AIP cuts are available].)

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview