"A very effective thriller (or 'giallo') in which Django western star Franco Nero plays a journalist with a drink problem. Caught up in a series of savage murders, he desperately tries to trap the killer. Remastered from the original negative, this is a must see - I won't touch another drop."
THE FIFTH CORD by D.M Devine is no masterpiece, at best a lacklustre noir, a slightly above average pulp, tarted up by the inclusion of dubious diary notes by the story's deranged murderer. Nevertheless it's got it's redeeming traits, the atmosphere boasts an entertaining mix of the hard boiled American crime novels by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and the more homespun and rural charms of Agatha Christie. And if the pastiche characters and recycled intrigue makes the whole thing dance on the edge of parody at times, that very fact is actually one of the things that make the 1967 book, perhaps not captivating, but at least a pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon. Furthermore, and this I guess is why it was picked up by Bazzoni, at a few passages the prose holds a rather peculiar cinematic flair. And it's those few moments, rather than the book as a whole which serves as a departure for Bazzoni's film GIORNATA NERA PER L'ARIETE (which, if I'm not mistaken, rather than 'THE FIFTH CORD' translates into something like THE BLACK NIGHT OF THE RAM).
The first half of the film stays fairly faithful to it's literary original, although worlds apart in tone and relocated from it's Scottish middle class setting to a more stylised Italian upper class milieu. We meet Andrea Bild (Franco Nero) a down and out journalist with a taste for cheap girls and bourbon. After a colourful new years party, pumping to the tunes of Ennio Morricone (no less!), one of the guests is mugged and hospitalised. The victim is convinced it was in fact a murder attempt. It turns out he might be right for the attack seem to trigger a series of vicious murders among the guests of the ill-fated new years bash. Between quite generous helpings of whiskey Andrea tries his best to cover the story, but can only watch as one guest after another turn up murdered. The unknown assassin meanwhile promises contingency by leaving calling card black gloves behind, the first with one finger cut off, the second with two. But the tables turn on poor Andrea and he finds himself the main suspect. As he struggles to rebuild an undefined past relationship, half-heartedly hold on to his job and behave generally ambivalent towards his soon to be married (not to him) girl friend, he takes on the task of clearing his name and catching the real murderer. The assassin meanwhile, confident enough to make repeated taped confessions on the subject of the joys of killing, carries on seemingly to kill all the people who attended the party. But is a jolly good time at new years really enough motive for murder? Well in some films it actually is, but not here, and our anti-hero finally stumbles upon the actual motive and set out to save the day (or fifth cord, finger, ram or whatnot).
Really that's all there is to the film version, which leaves the story line of the novel somewhere mid-plot only to tag on it's ending after venturing through a whirlpool of vice, prolonged stalking and astrology into complete incoherence. Initially it all seems to come down to clumsy storytelling. But leaving the very structure of the book turns out a blessing and a well as a curse. The dramatically abstruse detour holds some of the best passages of the film as well as being utterly confusing. In any case it's clear that Bazzoni got bored out of his head with Devine's book and thus he spares no effort in turning the would be run-of-the-mill mechanical thriller into a fragmented kaleidoscope of images, impressive set pieces and stunning visual details. Granted, he does allow the always suave cool Franco Nero to wander through the film, on the stark backdrop of glass and concrete that is modernist architecture, collecting a minimum of information to keep the thriller element going. But Bazzoni only seems really interested in it as a vehicle for trying to break the consistency of every possible continuos action and creating memorable visuals in the style of Dario Argento and Michelangelo Antonioni.
There is no way around it, ultimately THE FIFTH CORD fails dismally as a thriller. To really get into it and fully understand the motives of the characters seemingly haphazard behaviour you have to be familiar with the book, which it at times actually illustrates beautifully. But having said that the film still stands out among many of it's peers as an interesting step in experimenting with the giallo themes. An experimentation that Bazzoni was to refine into perfection four years later in what I like to hail as one of the finest films of the era; FOOT PRINTS ON THE MOON (1975).
female:3 / male:1
1) Female strangled
2) Male dead by assassin-induced heart attack
3) Female found drowned
4) Female gets throat slit