Blood, Police and Politics in 'What Have They Done to Your Daughters'
Massimo Dallamano continues to expose -- and puncture -- the underbelly of 1970s Italy.
What Have They Done to Your Daughters?
14 Aug 2018
With admirable dexterity, Massimo Dallamano's What Have They Done to Your Daughters (La polizia chiede aiuto) (1974) combines two key genres in Italian cinema of the early '70s. First, it's a police procedural or poliziattescho. While that includes the necessary chases and shoot-outs, the Italian strain was especially marked by ugliness and cynicism, reflecting the country's morass of terrorist activities, mafia violence, government corruption, student protests and civil unrest.
There was violence in the streets and violence on the screens, even among the art-house contingent like Marco Ferreri's Dillinger Is Dead (1969) and Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). Accordingly, Italian crime films of this period have more punch and grit than, say, The French Connection or Kojak, despite being often derivative of such sources.
In the case of this film, the Italian title signals its genre by having "police" in the name, as did so many of these movies. The original title is La Polizia Chiede Aiuto, meaning "the police call for help", and this places the film in a line with such recent efforts as La Polizia Ringrazia ("the police thank you"), known in English as Execution Squad (1972), and La Polizia Sta a Guardare ("the police are watching"), known as The Great Kidnapping (1973).
At the same time, the plot indulges the labyrinthine, baffling and violent type of horror-mystery known as the giallo. The English title emphasizes this genre by making the movie sound like a sequel to the director's earlier What Have You Done to Solange? (1972). An outright masterpiece, that film was among the genre's most aesthetically beautiful, thanks partly to Ennio Morricone's lilting music, and also one of its angriest and most sociopolitically astute, as the plot links the misogyny of a serial killer to Italy's larger corruption and malaise. The film conveys a sense of mournful desolation for society in general and youth in particular, and it argues, as much as Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo (1975) or Liliana Cavani's The Cannibals (1969), that the generation in power exploits and destroys its young.
What Have They Done to Your Daughters can be seen as a follow-up in which the investigations of hard-working police and district attorneys feel stymied by high-level corruption that's only interested in putting the lid on the case while exposing as few reputations as possible. Impotence is a theme on multiple levels and is presented as part of the cultural malaise. That's why faux-documentary footage of a street riot proves pivotal to the plot.
While mining a vein similar in some ways to Solange, this film boasts intriguing differences and surprises that keep viewers on their toes. Where Solange was full of dead women, the irony of a mystery with What Have They Done to Your Daughters in the title is that only one dead girl figures in the plot, and she's plenty. She's already dead before the film opens, while the bloody half-dozen deaths that occur before our eyes in the course of the story all happen to males. This implies, or perhaps comes out and declares, that the vicious impulses of patriarchal society result in men destroying each other and themselves. If that sounds far-fetched, we must consider a highly unusual casting choice.
The actor who gets star billing is Giovanna Ralli as a middle-aged if still glamorous district attorney who supervises the investigation. She's a model of intelligence, sensitivity and competence, and she's probably unique in this genre. I've seen a lot of these Italian police films and don't recall a woman in charge of any of them, nor expect it. When women started regularly running police procedurals, like Helen Mirren in ITV's Prime Suspect, they were usually a festival of personal problems to make them "three-dimensional", so it's a pleasure to see a professional woman who looks fully dimensional without all the baggage.
As D.A. Vittoria Stori, she's the one who figures out that the corpse of a girl found hanging in an apartment was not suicide but murder. It's a seedy crime in which the girl, "almost 15", was both sexually active and pregnant, and the revelations will get worse as investigations are made among her peers. One of the script's strengths is the way it keeps implying new and obvious solutions, only to forestall them until the viewer can only wander in a fog, like the police.
The initial cop is genre regular Mario Adorf as Valentini, a dumpy middle-aged flatfoot with a droopy mustache, and he'll drop out of the film for a long stretch as the plot suddenly hands off the investigation to tall, handsome, blunt Silvestri (Claudio Cassinelli). In another refreshing choice, there's no sexual tension between Stori and her male commissioners, not even the handsome one, and no indication that they'll inevitably go out for dinner sometime.
An example of the film's cleverness is how it telegraphs one of the genre's most howlingly obvious twists. A woman in a hospital "knows something she's not telling" until she finally decides to call Silvestri just as we see a leather-jacketed, cycle-helmeted killer running around the place with a meat cleaver. The woman gets Silvestri on the phone and asks him to come over right away because she has something to tell him, which of course she doesn't blurt over the phone, nor does he ask her to. He says he'll be there in ten minutes. At this point, everyone who's ever watched a movie is sure of what will happen -- but surprise, things don't turn out as expected, and a tired trope is made fresh while still delivering the goods.
Because Stori is a competent woman in charge, she too must be targeted by the desperate and frustrated killer in a suspenseful scene. Once again, the script reveals it's more intelligent than many of its brethren as we're refreshed by her courage and common sense in a tense situation.
As is par for the genre course, we have moments of bloody violence, not to mention glimpses of nudity from American model Cheryl Lee Buchanan as the supposedly underage victim (which the actress certainly wasn't). The sordid themes are presented grimly and with gravity, especially on the part of Stori and her cops. Also handled seriously are the appearances of Farley Granger and Marina Berti as the girl's confused parents. Franco Fabrizi plays a sleazy figure who represents what's wrong with society.
Franco Delli Colli's eye-catching widescreen photography occasionally bursts into vigorous handheld chases down fish-eyed corridors or queasy pans around the room. A particularly expressive highlight is the sinister sequence of identifying a body. The image presents a series of gazes behind louvered blinds, some faces impassive and some distraught, as the victim becomes a surreal objet d'art of death upon the silver table.
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Arrow's Blu-ray offers the film in Italian and English dubs, and it's important to note that the English subtitles are correct translations of the Italian dialogue, as opposed to transcriptions of the English dub-script. Troy Howarth's commentary is very informative and brisk, telling us not only about the film's background and the actors but even about the dubbers, which is going above and beyond.
Kat Ellinger offers a concise visual essay of Damiano's thematics of "slavery" and corruption in his short-lived body of work; he died in a 1976 car accident. Composer Stelvio Cipriani discusses his "lullabye" theme for this movie, among other works, in a 50-minute interview with distracting editing tricks for visual variety. Editor Antonio Siciliano is also interviewed, and there's five minutes of silent sexual footage that was shot in case the film needed it in some incarnation, but it never did. Thanks to Dallamano's choices, the story becomes disturbing and confrontational without it. While never as extreme as many other films of the '70s, and indeed quite polished, it's the sense of anguish and anger that lingers.