Color, 1971, 88m. / Directed by Luigi Bazzoni / Starring Franco Nero, Silvia Monti, Wolfgang Preiss, Ira von Fürstenberg, Rosella Falk / Blue Underground (US R0 NTSC), King Records (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Remember that classic scene in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage where a female victim-to-be ascends a dark staircase in her apartment building, lit only by a flickering candle in her hand? Ever want to see an entire movie shot that way? Well, The Fifth Cord is about the closest thing possible thanks to the same cinematographer, the great Vittorio Storaro (1900, Apocalypse Now), who drenches this eccentric, often fascinating giallo in which the actors are always on the verge of being swallowed up by inky seas of darkness. Very loosely based on the Scottish mystery novel of the same title by David McDonald Devine, the story places tortured, alcoholic reporter Andrea Bild (Nero) at the center of a possible murder attack at a nightclub when he's assigned to cover the story. The victim, whom he knows, sends him on the trail of a killer whose trademark involves leaving leather gloves at the scene of the crime, each one with a different finger sheared off. Determined that the culprit must be one of the party guests -- or even himself -- Andrea races to expose the truth, possibly at the cost of his own life.

Though not terribly prolific, director Luigi Bazzoni made a promising entry into giallo territory with this worthy effort, which comes packed with plenty of talent both in front of and behind the camera. One of the most reliable leading men of the '70s, Nero brings plenty of gravity to his role and uses his trademark piercing stare to convey his character's turmoil, with Storaro's savvy use of the color blue in most of his solitary scenes nicely enhancing the effect. Ennio Morricone also provides a haunting score whose brief groovy punctuations offer a brief reprieve from the generally somber tone. Plenty of familiar Eurocult faces pop up including Sleepless' Rosella Falk (who gets the most suspenseful sequence as a imperiled invalid), Five Dolls for an August Moon's Ira von Fürstenberg, and of course, German crime film regular Wolfgang Preiss. However, the real star here is Storaro, who conjures up a creepy visual universe unlike any seen before and which undoubtedly influenced such later directors as Borowczyk and Jaeckin, whose Dr. Jekyll and His Women and Story of O quote liberally from this film's palette and lighting trickery. The narrative itself might not quite be up to par compared to the rest of the film, but Bazzoni managed to remedy that balance with his next film, the outstanding and criminally underrated Footprints.

Never previously released on video in any form in America, The Fifth Cord makes a smashing debut courtesy of Blue Underground. This presentation easily outdoes the prior Japanese DVD, which looked nice but suffered from one of the muddiest, noisiest, and most muffled English soundtracks ever committed to a little silver disc. Image and audio quality here are excellent throughout, and the English soundtrack is fortunately the preferable one as it matches the lip movements of most of the performers, with Nero typically providing his own post-synch dialogue. Extras include a striking theatrical trailer which nicely captures the dark look of the feature itself, plus a very nice new 16-minute featurette, "Giornata Nera" ("Black Day"), which lifts its name from this film's original (and puzzling) Italian title, Giornata nera per l'ariete ("Black Day for an Aries"). Nero and Storaro offer their contemporary memories of making the film, with the former talking more technically about the shooting conditions while the latter focuses on the aesthetic objectives for himself and the director. Though this might not be the most accessible title for giallo neophytes, seasoned veterans should find plenty of worthwhile chills and stylish flourishes to make this an essential purchase.

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