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Sweet and Perverse: Carroll Baker and Umberto Lenzi’s Cinematic Partnership

If film fans in the U.S. know the Italian giallo cinematic movement at all, it’s probably through Dario Argento. His body count mysteries were by far the most popular, paving the way for the slasher movies of the ’80s. But the Argento variety were by no means the birth of the genre; in the mid-’60s, many Italian directors cut their teeth on sexy thrillers with that often had few onscreen murders. (I’ve written about these in the past.) One of the oft-forgotten but incredibly important directors in this type of giallo was Umberto Lenzi. The director made four such films with American ex-pat starlet Carroll Baker. Their unique cinematic partnership is the subject of Severin Films‘ new box set, The Lenzi/Baker Complete Giallo Collection.

Lenzi was a journeyman director whose career dated all the way back to the early ’60s. Never in danger of receiving the honorific “auteur,” he nevertheless maintained a style and panache to his films that set his work apart. Though most would probably know him from his later, violence-agog cannibal and zombie movies like Eaten Alive! and Cannibal Ferox, he directed all kinds of movies throughout his career. Like most Italian directors of the era, he made a few westerns; later he excelled at cop action movies. And, even though it was Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970s that kicked off the giallo boom, Lenzi had already directed some of the best in the genre.

Carroll Baker in Umberto Lenzi's A Quiet Place to Kill

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Of the eight gialli Lenzi directed, four of them starred Carroll Baker. She was an up-and-coming starlet in 1956 when she starred in both Giant and Baby Doll, the latter of which created a controversy for the actress’ portrayal of a barely legal Southern belle who drives two middle-aged men wild. Hollywood then type-cast her as a sexpot and producer Joseph E. Levine at Paramount began placing her in racier and racier films. After the flop of 1965’s Harlow, in which Baker portrayed 1930s screen vixen Jean Harlow, she decided to get away from Tinsel Town and hole up in Italy.

While she was tabloid gossip fodder in the U.S., Italians loved her and appreciated her as a true American star. At 37 years old, Baker found a new career in Italy; her first success was 1968’s The Sweet Body of Deborah with director Romolo Guerrieri. This twisty, psycho-sexual thriller set the template for the female-centric gialli that stood in contrast to Argento’s body count horrors, though they largely couldn’t compete after a fashion. It’s following Deborah that Baker first worked with Lenzi.

Orgasmo

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Of the four films Lenzi and Baker made together, three of them hew very closely to the formula of The Sweet Body of Deborah. Baker plays a wealthy socialite who falls in with dangerous, handsome men. Eventually a third party enters frame; a parade of sex, drink, gaslighting, and murder ensues until the guilty parties pay. The innocent often do as well.

Orgasmo (released in English-speaking countries as Paranoia) was the first Lenzi/Baker film and in a lot of ways it’s the simplest, most trimmed down. Baker plays Kathryn, an American widow who moves into an Italian villa after the death of her much older, extremely wealthy husband. Her kindly and faithful attorney seems to be her only friend. Not long after settling in though, a handsome and mysterious young man named Peter (Lou Castel) rings the doorbell, looking for tools to fix his broken sports car.

As you might expect, Peter and Kathryn begin a passionate affair. She begins to feel good and desirous again. And right when everything seems hunky dory, Peter’s sister Eva (Colette Descombes) shows up. She’s young, pretty, free-spirited, and flirty with everyone. Everyone, including Peter. Kathryn is obviously weirded out by this, and soon the “siblings” reveal they aren’t actually related. In fact, their plan is to drive Kathryn insane in order to have free reign on her wealth.

Carroll Baker on a bed in So Sweet So Perverse directed by Umberto Lenzi

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Orgasmo has quite a bit of sex and nudity, and it uses the sexuality of a woman pushing 40 (outre at the time) to propel its story. Yes, Kathryn probably knows that Peter isn’t a good energy to have around, but she’s so enthralled by his youth, his vitality, and perhaps most importantly his seeming lust for her, that she can’t help herself. He becomes another addictive substance, as the alcohol and pills are to her as the movie goes along. While it’s not as visually adventurous as the later films, Orgasmo perhaps remains the most hypnotic.

Later that same year, Lenzi and Baker re-teamed for the gloriously titled So Sweet… So Perverse. The screenplay for this one was from prolific scribe Ernesto Gastaldi who wrote dozens of gialli, including The Sweet Body of Deborah. This movie adds several more twists, this time putting Baker in the role of a woman running away from an abusive relationship directly into the arms of a wealthy, married philanderer (Jean-Louis Trintignant).  He tries to protect her from her boyfriend, but it turns out Baker and the boyfriend have a plan to bump off the rich man. And the man’s wife (Erika Blanc) is also in on it.

Carroll Baker tries to convince Erika Blanc.

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So Sweet, as I said, is much more complicated, but it also affords Lenzi a lot more license to show off some nifty cinematography and showcases more of the jet set, luxurious bourgeois lifestyle that permeated these late-60s gialli. This time, the action was in Paris, which looks especially gorgeous here.

With this film and the follow-up, A Quiet Place to Kill, Baker’s character added a strength and slyness to the persona of a woman on the edge of sanity. While she’s still the heroine, she’s duplicitous and not particularly virtuous. She is both playing the men in her life and beholden to her own sexual devotion to them. For his part Lenzi always photographed her as both an object of desire and as someone desiring the objectification of another. Unlike a lot of female-giallo protagonists,  Baker with Lenzi is never frail.

Carroll Baker reaches for liquor in Orgasmo.

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A Quiet Place to Kill is quite possibly the most accomplished film for the partnership. Baker plays a fancy race car driver whose life is on the rocks. Her ex-husband Maurice (Jean Sorel) still holds a lot of control over her psyche. This doesn’t help matters when Maurice’s new wife (Anna Proclemer) invites her to stay with them in their plush summer home. Soon, the women bond over Maurice’s hateful attitude and continued affairs and plot to kill him. But once again, Baker’s desire for the wrong man leads to tragedy. Now racked with guilt, she and Maurice continue their tryst, even as his teenage step-daughter (Marina Coffa) arrives and brings trouble with her.

Another gorgeous looking film, and one that prefigures many of Lenzi’s action movie techniques in later years. Baker feels especially believable in this film and gives the character the right amount of self-assurance and hesitance by turns. As the movies go on, her character’s culpability in the events grows ever more; she moves from victim, to willing pawn, to co-conspirator, and eventually to mastermind while never losing the audience’s sympathies.

Screaming in Knife of Ice

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With three movies in two years, the Lenzi and Baker partnership seemed set in stone. But, by many accounts, the pair never really liked each other. Despite the successes, they weren’t overly fond of the way the other worked. Lenzi found Baker to be a primadonna, while Baker thought Lenzi a boor. They each made three movies away from the other in 1971-72. Baker made two lackluster gialli and a very bad spaghetti western. Alternately, Lenzi made two more quite good gialli and his pioneering cannibal film The Man from Deep River.

But it would transpire that Lenzi and Baker would team up again for the final time. And it’s sad to say that 1972’s Knife of Ice is a major step backward. Ostensibly a remake of the Gothic thriller The Spiral Staircase, Baker plays a former singer who becomes non-verbal after witnessing a traumatic event. While living in the country, she becomes the target of a serial killer stalking the otherwise peaceful village.

The luscious and startling Lenzi-Baker giallo collection box set from Severin Films.

Severin

Knife of Ice is not a bad movie, and it showcases Lenzi’s knack at tackling different tones and moods even within the giallo. But gone is any of the sexy, jet-setting adventures for Baker; indeed there’s no sex at all in the movie and very minimal blood. And while Baker turns in a good performance, it was fairly clear neither her nor Lenzi’s hearts were much in it anymore.

The box set gives us a wonderful and complete picture of a fascinating and fruitful cinematic partnership. Even at its weaker end, the films Umberto Lenzi and Carroll Baker made together create one of the pillars of the Italian mystery genre which dominated the era. Lenzi made by far his best gialli with Baker, and Baker, for her part, got to play characters full of verve and depth, a facet she was unable to find in the States. They helped each other when they needed it the most, even if it wasn’t a very loving partnership.

The Complete Lenzi/Baker Giallo Collection is available now from Severin Films. In addition to the films—fascinating scholarly commentaries on three of them and interviews on all four—the set also includes two audio CDs; one contains the complete score to Orgasmo while the other collects music from the other three films. This set is a must-have for Euro-cult fans everywhere.

Featured Image: Severin

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!
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