Unless you are more than a casual fan of giallo, there is a good chance that Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? will have passed you by. While there could be many reasons for this, the most likely is that Dallamano is not one of the first few names necessarily associated with the genre. Notable directors such as Mario Bava and Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci and, especially, Dario Argento, who arguably turned giallo into a cultural phenomenon, are renowned and respected throughout the world, but Dallamano is notable more for his absence. Interesting, then, that he produced one of the most interesting films in the classic giallo era.
Beginning his career as a cinematographer under the name Jack Dalmas, Dallamano worked on Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More (1965), before directing his first spaghetti western Bandidos in 1967. Before his tragic death in a car accident in 1976, aged just 59, Dallamano only directed a dozen or so films but one, What Have You Done to Solange? is, without doubt, one of the most significant in the Golden Age of giallo. Although some consider it not to be a giallo in the truest sense, as it does not adhere to the unique conventions of the genre.
The debate over Solange (as we shall call it henceforth for ease) exists due to its comparison thematically and stylistically with another genre of Italian cinema, and essentially world cinema in the 1970’s: that of the action-crime thriller. While the base structure of a giallo film can be simplistically defined as a gruesome murder mystery, often with a sexual, paranoid or supernatural element, Solange follows much more of a standard format. While Italian teacher Enrico Rosseni (played with impeccable style by Fabio Testi) is seducing his young mistress (Cristina Galbó, best known for The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, 1974 – see Horror Obscura in STARBURST #401) she witnesses what she thinks may have been a sadistic murder. Complications ensue as they are student and teacher at an exclusive all-girls school, and as more murders occur, their relationship and involvement in the case comes under increased scrutiny. What’s more, Rosseni’s frosty German wife is also a teacher at the school and harbours justifiable doubts over her husband’s fidelity. As rumours of seedy covens and dark cults are revealed, the mystery deepens even further.
Within the more conventional story of Solange, there are several key elements that do establish it as a giallo film, but also several more that set Dallamano’s key work apart.
During the killings, which are typically sexual in nature, the mysterious antagonist wears black leather gloves, and the action is seen from a first-person point of view. This, perhaps more than any other trait, is what people remember from giallo films. Furthermore, heightened, vulnerable and at times innocent sexuality are prevalent throughout and the motive for the crimes is similar in theme to that often used giallo trope of insanity or madness; either inherent or temporary. The notable differences come in the style of direction and the inclusion of greater subtlety in the design. Many giallo films are often categorised by their brash and at times lurid style but Solange is considerably more subdued, plainer if you will, as there is a distinct lack of that ‘high fashion’ element. That is not to say this is a dull film; quite the contrary, but it is designed much more like a typical thriller than an excessively indulgent giallo.
Dallamano’s direction is perhaps the most interesting aspect. While encompassing many traditional giallo traits, he restrains the camera, resisting the sweeping visuals and disorientating movement that typifies many of the films of Argento and Bava. Here there is a more serious tone, specifically as the story moves towards its bleak revelation, and this gives Solange much more of a grounded feel, focussing on the performances rather than the surrounding visuals. Camille Keaton, most famous for rape-revenge horror I Spit on Your Grave recalls the filming process:
“We shot most of the film in England although it was a German-Italian co-production. I only had about three or four days’ work within two and a half weeks so I had plenty of time off and I got to explore London, which was really exciting. And it was on Solange that I learned how to do certain things because the director Massimo Dallamano works very closely with his actors. So I learned a lot about how to work in front of the camera from him.”
Keaton’s comments are interesting as they identify Dallamano as an actor’s director. In the film, Keaton has no dialogue whatsoever despite portraying the titular Solange, and the central figure in the mystery. That said, it is her otherworldly performance that engages the viewer through the final act when the revelations come to the fore. There are similarities in the depth of the performance given by Keaton, and by her fellow cast members, to those Dallamano will have observed while working with Leone on his spaghetti westerns, and this isn’t the latter’s only influence.
There are many memorable elements to Leone’s classic films, but music is what remains in audience’s minds long after the film is over. For Solange, Dallamano returned to what he knew best and brought Ennio Morricone in to compose the score. The sweeping, at times operatic, soundtrack contrasts with uncomfortably long periods of silence and adds further weight to the argument Solange is not just a standard giallo film. Less aggressive and involving an aural experience than more typical films of the genre, Solange is no less impactful as the stunning score is more innovatively cinematic than the electronic punctuation delivered by Goblin and the like. This is complemented by the masterful cinematography of Aristide Massaccesi – better known to cult movie fans as prolific filmmaker Joe D’Amato.
There is also a conscious nod to western audiences. To overcome the dubbing issue that was prevalent in many of his contemporary’s films, Dallamano had all his actors - regardless of their nationality - speak English. In doing so, he made it easier for later dubbing; allowing it to be more effortlessly matched to the lip movements and therefore instantly removed a barrier some audiences had always struggled with.
So is Solange a giallo film or not?
Well, in truth, yes.
Despite its origins in the German ‘krimi’ film movement (and being based on The Clue of the New Pin by legendary crime writer Edgar Wallace, who also wrote the first draft screenplay of the 1933 version of King Kong), and with the Berlin-based Rialto Film Company as a primary backer, Solange remains, fundamentally, an Italian film in spirit. The more expressive films from Argento and Fulci will always grab the attention what discussing giallo, and perhaps rightly so, but Solange offers something else. Not as wildly imaginative as Profondo Rosso (AKA Deep Red, which we covered in #419) perhaps, or as boldly convoluted as A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin certainly, Solange remains one of the most interesting of the period because of its differences rather than it similarities. If this is a film that has passed you by then now should be the time to rectify that.WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? is out on Blu-ray from ARROW VIDEO.