Arrow Video: The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975) - Reviewed

With renewed interest among horror fans in the work of Dario Argento, particularly his giallo offerings The Cat o’ Nine Tails and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as well as Arrow Video’s own resurrection of long forgotten or previously unavailable giallo fare including Death Walks at Midnight and The Bloodstained Butterfly, it was only a matter of time before equally prolific if not sleazier director Sergio Martino’s gialli would start resurfacing.  After having directed five giallo films between 1971 and 1973, including but not limited to the notorious Torso and his riff on The Black Cat entitled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, Martino would bring his contributions to an end with the sixth and final giallo offering known as The Suspicious Death of a Minor. 

Part undercover cop/witness protection thriller, part sex-trafficking expose (and sexploitation to some degree), The Suspicious Death of a Minor stands out among typical giallo fare for not only mixing a stylish concoction of suspense and the hard-boiled detective noir, but for bearing an unusually sharp if not looney sense of humor about itself.  Starring Claudio Cassinelli as undercover cop Paolo Germi in the midst of a sting operation intended to expose a Milanese drug and underage prostitution ring tied to a wealthy banker, the film is at once a classic detective story and a traditional giallo involving damsels in distress fleeing or dying at the hands of an incognito assailant.  What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the film’s frequently sharp sense of humor including a car chase sequence that veers so far into Buster Keaton screwball comedy it feels like a detour only Ken Russell could have dreamed up.

Visually this is some stunning fare, exploiting the Italian cityscape of skyscrapers amid sleazy back alleyways often shot with wide-angled lenses in 2.35:1 panoramic widescreen.  Much like the affiliated giallo fare coming out in droves at the time, Martino and his cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando make frequent use of extreme close-ups and carefully composed shots of the actors’ faces and/or eyes on opposite ends of the frame.  There’s also a wealth of handheld sequences which ratchet up the tension during a chase sequence or, in one startling moment, a roller coaster shootout between cop vs. assassin.  Written by the aforementioned Death Walks at Midnight screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, The Suspicious Death of a Minor fulfills all the expectations fans of the genre have while clearly having some fun with the proceedings along the way.

Aiding the film’s shifty tone skirting between suspense thriller and goofball comedy is the original score provided by Luciano Michelini, offering up the usual progressive rock instrumentation akin to giallo before shifting to a cheerful piano tune during one of the film’s many intentionally silly detours.  In an aforementioned car chase sequence, the film dives head over heels into slapstick as passerby narrowly miss the speeding vehicles including one pedestrian who hilariously twirls on the pavement on his head like a top spinner as cars sideswipe him.  Much like the introduction of ED-209 in Robocop at an executive board meeting which goes absurdly awry or the ape escape detour in Altered States, moments like these put the viewer off guard and one of the film’s wonders is the ability to skirt freely back and forth between comedy and thriller. 

Having seen an increasing amount of 70s giallo fare with many being restored and re-released after decades of obscurity and/or unavailability altogether, The Suspicious Death of a Minor was a splendid and often delightful surprise for the keen balance between subgenres you wouldn’t ordinarily stick together.  Far smarter and more self-aware (one murder attempt takes place in a theater happening to play a giallo film) than what you usually get from the typical giallo, The Suspicious Death of a Minor is an excellent entry into one of Italy’s most celebrated and frequently overlooked brands of the genre thriller currently available!  While some die-hards may consider this final giallo from Martino to be lesser than his previous gialli, this one was really a lot of fun which is more than one can usually say about the Italian thriller subgenre!

- Andrew Kotwicki