What Have They Done To Your Daughters? (1974)
(aka La Polizia Chiede Aiuto, or The Police Want Help)
Director: Massimo Dallamano
Seen via: Anthology Film Archives, NYC
Months-long silences on this site are nothing new and I've long given up on offering explanations or apologies when life gets in the way of writing. Still, it might be worth mentioning that over the past couple of months I've graduated, moved, and ended up with a job in New York City. While I've only been up here for a short time, one of the things that caught my eye pretty quickly was a the Anthology Film Archives' Italian Connection film series. The Archives were host to last year's Giallo Fever series, and The Italian Connection is sort of a thematic sequel centered around poliziotteschi - Italian crime films of the 60's and 70's. There's some significant overlap in the thematic content of gialli and poliziotteschi, and there are also names bouncing around in the genre that will be familiar to horror fans.
Massimo Dallamano is most commonly mentioned in the context of the cinematography he did for Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy and for his directorial work on the giallo What Have You Done to Solange? Solange is a film whose superb craft helped win me over despite its pretty massively unlikeable protagonist (a teacher who's having an affair with one of his students). Schoolgirls in peril are also the subject of What Have They Done to Your Daughters?
The film opens onto a crime scene: a teenage girl dead, hanging from the rafters in the attic of an old building. What initially appears to have been a suicide is called into question by the subsequent autopsy. The gruesome details continue to unfurl as the coroners reveal that the girl was sexually molested just hours before her death. Assigned to the case are Inspector Valentini (Mario Adorf) and Vittoria Story, the uncharacteristically female District Attorney (Giovanna Ralli). Despite a rocky start with the case in which the press publishes a full-page cover photo of the slain girl's nude body (to help determine her identity, of course), the two realize that there may be more to the crime than a simple homicide.
As in Dallamano's Solange, sex lies at the heart of this mystery. Once the victim's parents have been identified and interviewed, it becomes clear this family was under a bit of strain. Sylvia, the victim, had been caught taking birth control pills by her mother. When mom threatened to tell dad, Sylvia threatened suicide, and wore a razorblade in a pouch around her neck from then on as a reminder that she was willing to make good on the promise. Sound like a closed case? Maybe, except that the detective Sylvia's mom hired to investigate the girl's love life is the next one to turn up dead.
Nevertheless, the film has a lot to say about the systematic exploitation of women, and it manages to do so while mostly avoiding the misogyny inherent to a lot of genre film of its era. Vittoria Story is atypical as a strong female main character who isn't exploited, subject to undue violence, or used as eventual bait. She's a refreshing antidote to a lot of the sweaty machismo that can otherwise run rampant in a film like this. Still, the story as a whole walks the line between glorifying its more lurid subject matter, and criticizing those in society who are responsible for the crimes.
As in Solange, sex in this film is something to be feared - not because of its innate consequences, but for the reaction of those who are trying to actively suppress it. Sylvia isn't killed because she's a sexually active teenager, but because the culture of silence surrounding sex allows for those who would exploit her to operate covertly. Ironically, it's the power structures that should be protecting girls like her that are ultimately responsible for her abuse and death.
Despite a few weak scenes that seem to be obligatory nods to crime flick cliches, What Have They Done to Your Daughters? is a film that benefits immensely from Dallamano's skill behind the camera. Poliziotteschi films are host to soundtracks that rival those of the best gialli, and Stelvio Cipriani's score is no exception, whether it's pulsing underneath the suspenseful parts of the film or keeping the momentum up between action sequences. (The main theme also makes an appearance in Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet's more recent giallo mash-up Amer.)
The realm of the poliziotteschi is largely unexplored territory for me, but What Have They Done to Your Daughters? is motivation to explore it further, along with the rest of Dallamano's body of work.