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Isolation, Intrigue, and Murder: The Sleuthing Secretary

by Tony Nash

(A Part of The Cycle of the Melodic Gialli)

(Mild to Spoiler Free)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

(This review is of the Italian language version of the tilm)

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Alla Ricerca del Placere (In Search of Pleasure/Amuck) R (1972) ****

Farley Granger: Richard Stuart

Barbara Bouchet: Greta Franklin

Rosalba Neri: Eleanora Stuart

Nino Segurini: Commissario Antonelli

Umberto Raho: Giovanni, the Stuart Butler

Patrizia Viotti: Sally Reece

Petar Martinovitch: Rocco

Dino Mele: Sandro

Written & Directed by: Silvio Amadio

Synopsis: Certain her friend and lover Sally Reece didn’t just disappear, Greta Franklin accepts a position as replacement secretary/stenographer to Sally’s former employers Richard and Eleanora Stuart. The couple live in near isolation on an island off the coast of Italy, where Richard dictates his mystery novels on tape. When Greta discovers the Stuart’s secret lives as kinky swingers, she begins to wonder what Sally saw that may have contributed to her demise.

Alla ricerca del piacere (1972)

One of the last early to mid-period Giallos to be set in Italy before the genre started having its stories take place in exotic locales, Alla Ricerca del Placere sports an intriguing storyline involving deceit, lies, sex, and pornography. Against the wishes of a local police inspector, a young woman decides to find out what her close friend’s ex-employers know about her vanishing without a trace. As she digs deeper, she finds herself coming in contact with the secret world of spouse-swapping, private orgies, bizarre fetishes, date-rape drugs, and dirty films to set the mood. Realizing the couple is catching on that she knows the truth, the woman must find a way to alert the authorities before her own “disappearance” is staged. Filmmaker Silvio Amadio’s use of an island of the Italian coast proves a very interesting choice as it harkens back to Agatha Christie’s classic story And Then There Were None, as the story takes place almost entirely on the island, save for a few scenes, gives the viewer a claustrophobic feeling as the plot thickens and it becomes more apparent the protagonist’s life is now in danger. The use of frequent indoor spaces adds to the mystery aspect of the film as the audience begins to feel the entirety of the plot is only concerned with those in the primary cast, that nobody else in the rooms appear to be interested and are totally oblivious to what’s taking place not too far from them.

Barbara Bouchet and Patrizia Viotti in Alla ricerca del piacere (1972)

A very rare (even for early 70’s Europe) subplot, known only to Greta and the audience, was the sexual relationship between herself and Sally. While same-sex relationships in Europe were more excepted at this period than in the States, it was still quite rare to see it portrayed frankly and honestly within the plot of any film. In a flashback to a holiday Greta and Sally were enjoying, the two share a very passionate kiss as they stand nude under a waterfall. Surprisingly, Greta never tells anyone, not even the police inspector she’s confiding in regarding Sally’s possible murder, that the two had shared a very devoted, deep, and intimate relationship. Whether she didn’t see a reason to tell anyone as it had no bearing on Sally’s vanishing or maybe was worried Italy’s very Catholic roots would find her and Sally’s relationship blasphemous is anybody’s guess, but it’s important in the audience knowing as it reveals the driving force behind Greta’s determination to avenge Sally.

Farley Granger in Alla ricerca del piacere (1972)

Farley Granger, an American actor most famous for his brooding hero roles in Strangers on a Train and They Live by Night, is uniquely different in the role of Richard Stuart. Richard is a mystery writer who prefers isolation for the thought process and a tape recorder for dictation to writing on paper. Granger plays Richard as a playboy, who clearly loves seducing his wife’s friends and their lady employees, but a playboy who prefers the anonymity of his home to entertain guests. When Greta makes it clear she’s certain his previous secretary Sally didn’t just vanish from his employ, the character is shown as conflicted about whether coming clean or doing something desperate. The revelation that Richard and his wife are in fact swingers with very perverse tastes that have gone wrong in the past begins a descent into doing whatever it takes to avoid destroying his reputation as a popular, though reclusive, writer.  The character’s passiveness with occasional signs of emotion was the result of Granger’s horrid experience during the filming of Senso for Luchino Visconti (one can only surmise Visconti’s less then subtle seduction of Granger, who himself was homosexual, appalled the actor). He was also not keen on having to heavily romance both Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri on camera, further adding to his distance from the other cast members. In spite of this, Granger still gives a good performance.

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Barbara Bouchet, a German-Naturalized Italian actress who became one of Italy’s most popular cult icons, offers up a fine performance as Greta Franklin. An average woman, Greta’s travels and relationship with Sally Reece has her certain that the woman she cared deeply for didn’t just leave without an explanation. Bouchet’s Greta is a much better detective than most investigator protagonists in that her seeming naivety allows her to get close to the people she suspects without initially setting off red flags that she’s dangerous. She doesn’t cave in to overt heroics and knows going in that that something could go wrong, but the loss of someone so close to her gives her the resolve and the will to see the whole thing to the end, regardless of what happens to herself, though even she feels the sense of self-preservation. While in scenes where she’s in peril she behaves like any frightened woman, Bouchet never gives the impression Greta is anyway foolish and weak, but simply giving the common reaction to fear. When she finds herself going into the realm of kink, she wonders how far the Stuart’s have gone down the rabbit hole, and how long before she must decide whether to risk the plunge.

Rosalba Neri, a versatile Italian actress having appeared in nearly every known genre of film, exudes her usual exoticness in the role of Eleanora Stuart, Richard’s wife. Less subtle in her appetites, both in culture, and in the bedroom, Eleanora is played up as a woman who knows what she wants, and doesn’t seem to care who she does it in front of, including her own husband. Neri gives a good contradiction to Farley Granger’s character in that she seems more willing, and even taking initiative, to giving Greta a good scare when it becomes apparent Greta is linking the couple into her friend’s disappearance. This character trait leads the audience into believing Eleanora borders on being something of a sadist, and that this behavior might also extend into her and Richard’s sexual games and foreplay. That she lives two distinctly different lives as the quiet, devoted wife of her reclusive writer husband, and a BDSM dominatrix preferring mind game torture to physical acts on her prospective partners/victims. Her true nature towards the end of the film makes her quite the vicious femme-fatale/vixen on the Italian screen.

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A popular, often mentioned, scene when this film is talked about is the slow-motion love scene between Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri. After Greta gets a fright from a brutish and hulking, but otherwise gentle handyman, Eleanora offers to give Greta a sedative to help her rest and even stay with her until she falls asleep. What follows is the revelation that Greta has been drugged and Eleanora strips them both nude, proceeding to have her way with Greta. While the scene itself isn’t overtly long, the unique camera work, the editing, and use of slow motion captivates the viewer into a bizarre, but interesting situation. What kills this scene’s power and its adding to the plot is that Greta never makes any mention of what might have transpired during the night, especially since it’s clear from the get-go Eleanora has practically raped her, adding to Eleanora’s devious and perverse nature. Whether filmmaker Silvio Amadio added this scene as an afterthought or at the insistence of the producer to cash in on Bouchet and Neri’s curvaceous figures is unknown. It’s also possible Amadio had something else in mind, but either didn’t have to act on it, or merely leaves the audience to wonder if the whole scene was a dream is pretty much up to the viewer, even if certain elements make it clear something did indeed happen.

Relying heavily on the physcological aspects of the Thriller and the tension resulting from a certainty that a wealthy couple is involved in what could be the murder of their secretary/companion. With Greta not being sure of who to trust, other than the police detective who informed her of Sally’s going missing, who could’ve had the most damning motive is anyone’s guess. Bouchet and Granger engaging in a game of cat and mouse over what the elusive gentleman knows about the whole thing is a very interesting character/plot engagement by director Amadio, as it leaves the viewer wondering what the truth really is. Interesting locales in the country of Italy, fine acting from the cast, and very unique cinematography all add up to one of the more interesting and less talked about Giallos of the genre’s early golden period.

(I highly recommend this one as I feel it’s a Giallo that doesn’t get much credit, and has such an interesting plot, full of twists and a couple of curious red-herrings. All the actors, even Farley Granger, with early bitter memories, give excellent performances, the beauty of Italy is on full display.The 88 Films Blu Ray offers a fine transfer and audio, both Italian and English. the Italian of course is the preferable one as it follows Amadio’s plot a little more closely.)

All images courtesy of images and their respective owners, and the IMDB

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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