Movies: Death Walks on High Heels (1971)

Italian director Luciano Ercoli certainly isn’t a household name within the giallo genre in the way that, say, Mario Bava, Dario Argento, or Sergio Martino are, but he did helm at least three fairly well-regarded gialli, including The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, Death Walks at Midnight, and the film we’re talking about today, Death Walks on High Heels (aka La morte cammina con i tacchi alti).

Released in 1971, the movie is one of several collaborations that Ercoli undertook with his wife, Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (credited here as Susan Scott). It’s also one of the final film appearances of American actor Frank Wolff, who sadly took his own life later the same year of this film’s release.

While Death Walks on High Heels has a fairly low body count for a giallo (numbering only three victims, though at least one of the kills is pretty gruesome), and plays out a bit more like a heist or espionage flick than a murder mystery, it still retains enough of that giallo charm to make it an entertaining watch for fans of the form.

The movie starts out with a bang…or rather a stab, as an eyepatch-wearing man acting shifty on a train is handily ventilated by an even shiftier man with bright blue eyes peering through the slit in his black balaclava.

The slain man, we learn, is an international jewel thief named Ernest Rochard, and the man who killed him was looking for some diamonds he liberated during a recent robbery; the murderer came up empty-handed, however. We then cut to Paris, where Rochard’s daughter Nicole, a French exotic dancer, is being hassled by the cops, who think she might have an idea where the stolen diamonds have got off to. She tells them she hasn’t heard from her father in ages and has no clue where the loot is, and also seems completely indifferent to the fact that her dad has been murdered.

Nicole has a live-in boyfriend named Michel, who appears to have some insecurities about not having a job and relying on Nicole’s stripper income in order to pay for his excessive drinking. She tells him she doesn’t mind, but it’s clear he feels emasculated and takes it out on Nicole by being kind of a dick.

We get to see Nicole shaking her moneymaker at a couple of different performances, the first being a cringe-inducing number where she’s covered in very dark spray tan and wearing a short, Afro-style wig (and Michel even tells her in the dressing room afterward, “I love when you’re all black” as he sensuously removes the blackface with cold cream), and a second, much less problematic one where she’s wearing a gold sparkly headdress and shimmying like her life depended on it.

At both shows, we see that Nicole evidently has a superfan/stalker, a distinguished-looking older fellow who lets himself into her dressing room, buys her bouquets of roses, and gets all up in her face, being overbearing and awkward. She handles it pretty well, all things considered. Also, while all of this is going on, Nicole gets a couple of ostensibly prank phone calls in which a guy using a voice synthesizer threatens her. Being a stripper, she’s clearly used to this bullshit, and again, handles it like a pro.

That night, Michel gets drunk (again) and starts an argument (again) about how Nicole’s ass-wiggling is paying his way in the world. He flounces off to do lord knows what, and after he leaves, the blue-eyed, ski-mask-wearing dude from earlier crawls in her window and tells her he’s gonna cut her to ribbons with a straight razor if she doesn’t tell him where the diamonds are. She insists she doesn’t know, but the guy counters that she absolutely does know, and she’s going to tell him or next time he shows up, he’s gonna chop her into mincemeat.

Terrified, Nicole flees to wherever Michel holed up after his tantrum, and even though he doesn’t believe her about the potential murderer after her, telling her she must have dreamed it (thanks for your support, ya chucklefuck), the couple kiss and make up.

However, things are looking a little less rosy the following morning, when Nicole discovers a pair of ice-blue contact lenses in Michel’s medicine cabinet. Convinced he’s the one who’s been threatening her about the diamonds, she decides to get the hell out of Paris immediately, and utilizes the seemingly convenient sucker who’s been mooning after her at her strip shows. Turns out he’s a British surgeon by the name of Dr. Robert Matthews, and when Nicole confronts him with, “Hey, I need to get outta town; Calgon, take me away,” he happily obliges, jetting her off to London with him and buying her a bunch of sexy outfits and wigs in a fun shopping montage.

Dr. Matthews then installs her in a somewhat remote seaside cottage near a small fishing village in a place that is supposed to be rural England but actually looks more like Italy. He tells her he’s married, that his wife won’t divorce him, and that his wife is the one with all the money (seems to be something of a theme in this movie), but reassures her that his wife—whose name is Vanessa—doesn’t know anything about this cottage. The place seems nice enough, but everyone in town is really weird and shady, and stares at Nicole suspiciously every time she’s in the pub or whatever. The shadiest of these is a man named Hallory, who has a wooden hand and looks after the cottage when Dr. Matthews is away. Also, somebody is watching Nicole get naked through a telescope, so there’s that, though honestly women in giallo movies really do need to learn to close their blinds.

Elsewhere, Dr. Matthews has had to travel back to London to do some eye surgery on a guy named Smith, in a pretty squirmy scene that made me REALLY nervous for the actor on the receiving end. After the surgery is complete and Smith is all bandaged up, an unknown individual in black, high-heeled boots pops into the room and shoots Dr. Matthews in the chest, though he ends up surviving. Smith, who obviously heard the shot but couldn’t see dick because his eyes were bandaged, tells police that he thought the killer was either a “determined woman” or a man treading heavily but wearing women’s shoes.

Back at the fake English cottage, whoever has been spying on Nicole sees a woman dressed in black talking to her; Nicole appears to know this person, but the voyeur can’t see who it is. The mysterious woman throws some money at Nicole and leaves, Nicole appears to become upset, and shortly afterward, Nicole actually disappears.

From this point forward, the plot thickens big time. A couple people turn up dead, and everyone seems to know more about the murders (and the diamonds) than they’re letting on. Inexplicably, Michel shows up in town out of the blue, drinks a shitload in the pub, then throws up on a cop; he is immediately a suspect in the murders. There is a very odd scene in which the police question the owner of a commercial ice house who is so gay that he can’t even answer a single question without holding a flower and sniffing it the entire time; he even openly hits on the younger cop, at which point the older cop is all, “Yeah, that’ll happen,” and calls the guy “Signora.” Oh, seventies, you so crazy.

As I mentioned, this movie is less on the horror end of the giallo spectrum and more on the crime and espionage end, with lots of double-crosses and back-handed dealings and sneaky maneuvering. There are a handful of deaths, but really only one of them is all that brutal; the first is just a simple slit throat and the second largely takes place offscreen and we only see the (non-bloody) aftermath. There is a lot of nudity and stripper-esque writhing, though, so if that’s your bag, then you’ll probably get your money’s worth.

It isn’t the best giallo I’ve ever seen, but it’s still a pretty solid one; not as hyper-stylized or violent as some of the more beloved genre staples, but an enjoyable mystery with lots of twists and turns that never wears out its welcome.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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