Ernesto Gastaldi: Ace Giallo Scribe

Ernesto Gastaldi was born on 10 September 1934 in Graglia in the province of Province of Biella, Piedmont. Gastaldi left his job as a clerk at the Sella bank in Biella to move to Rome where he was admitted into Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. After graduating, Gastaldi had trouble finding work. In 1957, Gastaldi wrote his first science fiction novel which the publishers requested an English-language name for the cover. Gastaldi was sharing an apartment at the time with an Anglo-Italian man named Julian Birri, who he adapted his name for his alias Julian Berry. Gastaldi would write more crime and science fiction novels during this period such as Sangue intasca (1957) as James Duffy, Brivido sulla schiena (1957) as Freddy Foster and Tempo zero (1960) as Berry.

Gastaldi’s debut as a screenwriter and assistant director was with the film The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) by Renato Polselli. Gastaldi reflected on writing the film by stating that his working hours were from 8 in the morning until midnight, stating that “if someone had told me I was making a Gothic film I would have laughed.” Other works in gothic horror included Gastaldi writing for Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory (1961), The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) and The Whip and the Body (1963).

The heterogeneous yellow by Sergio Martino and the famous triptych by Luciano Ercoli come from his pen : The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972) . This is the man, whose imprint in the history of the genre is at least as clear as that of Argento, although not in the same way revolutionary. Gastaldi architects the “yellow” in a traditional, Anglo-Saxon way, according to the criteria of whodunit, but the roots of his scripts almost always sink into a substratum of morbidly overtoned eroticism, which at the end of the 1960s represented the genuinely Mediterranean doorway to the genre. After having prefigured the Argentinian topos of childhood trauma as a fomite of murderous madness with Libido(1965), which he directs as well as writing it, Gastaldi applies himself to the thriller of pure intrigue under the productive aegis of his friend Luciano Martino : the synergy is immediately fruitful with two important titles such as Il dolce corpo di Deborah/The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), by Romolo Guerrieri and Così dolce… così perversa/ So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), by Umberto Lenzi, cornerstones of the then erecting building of the sexy Italian thriller, which will soon falter under the blows of the cyclone Argento.

Still homogeneous to these films of the old course is the first of Gastaldi’s films for Luciano Ercoli: The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), which would be those with which Dagmar Lassander is sexually blackmailed by an individual able to prove that her husband she is a murderer. Behind the catch is the spouse – it is obvious – and the motive is a rich life insurance that the greedy will not pocket. One wonders where this thematic line would have led without the vivifying breath of the Bird; and to answer the question just look at the scattered remnants of the hereditary thriller that survived in the 1970s: monotonous and tiring films like ‎The Silkworm (1973) or The Devil with Seven Faces (1971); or Spanish co-productions, such as At the bottom of the pool, by Eugenio Martin or tastier like The Fox with a Velvet Tail/In the Eye of the Hurricane (1971) and Alta tensión/Double Couple (1972), both well-designed Mephistophelian quadrilaterals that also put first-rate female meat on the fire, Marisa Mell, Rossana Yanni, Analia Gadé , Patrizia Adiutori, Helga Liné. Then, however, Gastaldi writes The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), by Sergio Martino, who now has the first Argento behind him and, with cunning, keeps his lesson well, however focusing on a strong identity as an erotic thriller, in which an element of tip are the explosive graces of Edwige Fenech. The scheme of the film, admitted several times by both screenwriter and director, is reminiscent of that Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955) who had cast his long shadow on most of the Italian thrillers of the late 1960s, but with a variant: the ambiguous couple of women who plot the intrigue in the French film now correspond to a masculine triangulation in the smell of “gayezza ”, Which aims to get rid of the wife of one of them to grab her life insurance.

Given the success of the film, the Martino brothers beat the iron while it is hot and start producing in this direction, while for his part Luciano Ercoli also chases the screenwriter and gets him to write, and then direct it, a dyad of thrillers of the “new corso ”: Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972). Susan Scott , wife of Ercoli, is the protagonist in both films; only that in the first, with a twist that reminds some of Psycho, the actress disappears, killed, halfway through the film and all the cards on the table are shuffled. Below there is a story of jewel thieves, so motive and solution remain in the tradition of the “Gastaldian” scripts, but Luciano Ercoli must be acknowledged for having shot a thriller with all the trimmings, with an excellent balance of the erotic elements and those of voltage. And it seems impossible not to say – perhaps invoking the collective unconscious – that a scene of voyeurism with a telescope was shot on a par by Brian De Palma in Red Light Murder . The second, Death Walks at Midnight, is instead a screenplay based on a pseudoscientific gimmick, according to the best tradition of Argento’s zoological trilogy: in this case, an experiment with a hallucinogenic substance during which the model who served as a guinea pig has the perception of a heinous crime . We think of the paranormal but, for the avoidance of all logic, the girl has actually seen the murder, whose perpetrator is her boyfriend, a pawn in a shady drug trade, as will be revealed. The film is full of ideas, including that of the killer walking around wearing a clawed glove, and even if today he looks all the years he is, it flows away smoothly and with some good jolts, between the rich forms of Scott and the beauties. donkey of the drums Simon Andreu and Pietro Martellanzaway from westerns. The thrillers with Susan are almost a story unto themselves: she is found in a sort of apocryphal third chapter of the two films by Ercoli, Death Carries A Cane (1973) – which has already been mentioned – and she is also in the cast of Revelations by So Sweet, So Dead (1972) by Roberto Bianchi Montero, rather fascinating and engaging due to the excess of both the bloody situations, which gravitate around a maniac defender of adultery – and betrayed by a background noise during a phone call, like the Bird -, both the erotic ones, pertinence of an anthology of the most beautiful divas of the genre: in addition to Scott, Sylva Koscina, Annabella Incontrera, Femi Benussi and Krista Nell . And what about Commissioner Farley Granger who, before stopping the killer, lets him kill his cheating wife?

Meanwhile Gastaldi wrote for Sergio Martino The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972) , two other highly diversified yellows; in the first case (from a subject by Eduardo Maria Brochero ) a classic trick is preferred (and boring instead of, even if Martino’s execution is good and at least in the sequence of Janine Reynaud ‘s death excellent), where there is a greedy life insurance policy that many struggle to collect: a cheating wife, a gangster mistress and an unsuspected insurance investigator – George Hiltonhe is the “diabolical” – who passes through the streets and scatters corpses in Athens, but is eventually discovered by a beautiful reporter and killed by the police. Some critics felt the odor of plagiarism in Alfonso Brescia’s next detective story ‎Naked Girl Killed in the Park (1972) as the killer there too is an insurance investigator; others were even more daring, suspecting that even the Chinese Chang Tung Man, director of Killer in the Dark (in Italy: Bruce Lee’s Emulus ) (1975), had in mind Martino’s film. All the colors of the dark- beautiful title taken from that of a “Urania” of that period – has the structure of a suggestive gothic-conspiracy film and works magnificently as long as it remains on the register, (whose main model is Polanski), suffering instead of being saved in a corner in the rationale that trivializes everything with a hereditary thriller finish. As we have already said. However, the nightmares that haunt Edwige Fenech are a perfect example of that tension towards surrealism which is a specific and inimitable quality of the Italian thriller. Also of Your Vice is a Locked Room and only I have the key , written by Gastaldi and Sauro Scovolini starting from The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe, we talked about the “goths” and here it should only be added that our yellow has rarely had such splendidly acidulous and crepuscular tones: only A white dressed for Marialé comes to mind for a similar sense of consumption and death.

It is interesting to note, at this point, how the detachment from Argentinian modules has now been accomplished in the Dania productions, which point to an increasingly morbid erotic and decadent atmospheres like the temperatures of their yellow and thus obtain the best results. Torso (1973) is at the same time Martino’s best film and the best thriller of the erotic industry we are considering. No more complex criminal logic and Luciferian plans to seize inheritance, but a very linear plot, in which a university professor, traumatized by an accident that occurred to his brother and became impotent, dedicates himself to the massacre of his students to whom he is connected by a tour of porn photos. The plot practically ends here, because from the middle of the film the maniac, invisible and bloodthirsty beyond words, starts to besiege five girls who have tried to escape the massacres in an isolated villa, and the situation, highly claustrophobic, becomes the beating heart of the tale. The omnipotence of the murderer is theorized by all the Italian crime fiction, but in the Corpi- who abroad know with the more than ever appropriate title Torso – its ubiquitous and panic presence, almost as if it were a supernatural entity, is already that of the great protagonists, with a halo of demons, of the US slasher. The monster’s hunting ground is made up of very well-chosen actresses: there is Suzy Kendall escaping from the Bird who must witness the dismemberment of her friends’ bodies, there is the murky Tina Aumont and Angela Covello and Carla Brait spied on while they lesbian , by a handicapped person who the murderer massacres soon after; and there is the splendid debutante Barbara Marzano dancing naked in a “commune”, outside of which Cristina Airoldi ends up in a surreal swamp bathed in moonlight.

Ernesto Gastaldi interview

Your most successful thrillers of the 1970s were directed by Sergio Martino, the brother of Luciano Martino. You were there first, but I suppose the success of Dario Argento’s L’uccello dalle piume del cristallo [US: THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, 1970] helped to make the Martino thrillers possible.
Ernesto Gastaldi: Of course.

Argento’s thrillers are very different from yours, because your scripts are always so ironical and well-planned. You never include lapses of logic or false information. It’s a pity that you never wrote for Argento—what a great thriller that would have been!
Ernesto Gastaldi: I’ve never met Dario Argento. When Goffredo Lombardo of Titanus produced Argento’s first film, he told me: “Look, this movie opens with a great idea of mine!,” and he proceeded to act out two hands writing a note on an old typewriter: “I must remember to kill someone… at 9:00 pm.” I laughed—but Lombardo was dead serious! When I saw the film, I thought it was well-made, but I dislike thrillers when they are based on tricks. In THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, there is a witness who says for a hour, “It seems to me that I forgot an important detail…” At the end, he remembers what he has forgotten: he saw a woman trying to kill a man, not a man trying to kill a woman, as he’s been testifying through the whole film! So I never really cared too much for Argento’s movies.

One of the most striking things about the Martino thrillers was their titles: Tutti i colori del buio [“All the Colors of Darkness,” THEY’RE COMING TO GET YOU!], I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale [“The Corpses Bear Traces of Carnal Violence,” TORSO], etc. I once read somewhere that you took the title of Tutti i colori nel buio from a story in the Italian science fiction magazine URANIA, written by “Lloyd Biggle.” You aren’t “Lloyd Biggle,” are you?
Ernesto Gastaldi: No, I didn’t write that story; I just took the title. However, I did once write a story for URANIA called “Iperbole infinità” [“Infinite Hyperbole”], which I signed as “Julian Berry.”

Are there any interesting stories behind any of the other Martino titles?
Ernesto Gastaldi: I don’t know; the other titles were all chosen by Luciano Martino or Carlo Ponti. It was the style of the time to use long titles exploiting beautiful women, because sex and violence were the key ingredients: Libido, Il dolce corpo di Deborah, Cosi’ dolce… cosi’ perversa [SO SWEET, SO PERVERSE], etc. This sort of title attracted people, and still does.

On Italian prints of Tutti i colore nel buio, you share screenplay credit with Santiago Moncada. Moncada wrote some wonderful thrillers, including Bava’s Il rosso segno della follia [HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON, 1969] and Juan Antonio Bardem’s THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER (1971). Did you really write with Moncada, or is this another instance of co-production quota appeasement?
Ernesto Gastaldi: All of the thrillers I wrote, I wrote alone. The other names you find among the credits were put there only for co-production reasons. Sometimes, producers had a few pages of a story, written by people whom they had asked for ideas. It was always a weak idea, so I usually changed it completely while writing the treatment and script. The producers often asked me if I had a problem with these first collaborators also being credited, and I always answered “No.” In those days, contracts were by “forfeit” without any percentage, so I accepted. Now I know I was wrong, because many television stations are starting to pay for the use of films.

Almost all of the Martino thrillers starred Edwige Fenech, who was, and still is, a very beautiful woman. She made quite an impression in these movies. It was rumored that she had a romantic relationship with Luciano Martino.
Ernesto Gastaldi: There was a deep and long relationship between them. Luciano was married at the time, but his marriage was unhappy. He had an affair with Edwige for ten years. Edwige wanted to marry Luciano, but he didn’t want to marry her. Luciano was, and is, a Southerner (from Naples) and he liked being Edwige’s lover—most Italian people envied him!—but he didn’t want to be her husband, because then most Italian people would have regarded him as a cuckold. When their relationship ended, Luciano suffered a lot. Edwige fell in love almost immediately with a young doctor, and some months later with the Duke Luca di Montezemolo, who was related to the Agnelli family. Of course, Italian people gossiped that Edwige had become the lover of Gianni Agnelli—the owner of Fiat! I don’t know Edwige very well. She’s great, but somehow unattractive to me; I never understood why. She’s played roles in a lot of my scripts, but I’ve spoken with her maybe three times. On these thrillers, my work was only with Luciano, and sometimes with Sergio, when he asked for little changes. But when the script was good for Luciano and me, it was good for everybody.

George Hilton was usually the male lead in these films, but he’s not a very interesting leading man. Why did he appear in them so often? Was there an attempt to use the same actors again and again, to identify the films as a series?
Ernesto Gastaldi: George Hilton is a cousin of Luciano Martino. At that time, if a film made money, Roman producers liked to make the same type of picture again with the same cast. There is a saying: “Squadra che vince non si tocca!”—in other words, “If the team wins, don’t change it!” This is the principal reason; nobody was regarding the films as a series.

Is George Hilton his real name, or is it Giorgio Martino or something like that?
Ernesto Gastaldi: I think George Hilton is his real name, because he always introduces himself that way.

One of the Martino thrillers that you wrote The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971) stars George Hilton, but not Fenech. Why wasn’t she cast in the film?
Ernesto Gastaldi: I think Edwige was acting in a sex-comedy at the time it was being made.

How would you rate the Martino thrillers?
Ernesto Gastaldi: I haven’t seen them in twenty years, but I remember that I was never quite satisfied by them, because I didn’t like the actors very much and the production level was often inadequate. But I knew that Martino had to obey the market laws and couldn’t spend too much money. More to my liking was The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Carroll Baker, maybe because it was my first thriller after the very small Libido; I also liked the two actors. At the time that film was made, I was teaching the art of screenwriting to Sergio Martino, but he eventually became a production manager, and finally a director.

When I was watching The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971) the other night, I couldn’t help wondering if the part of Edwige’s girlfriend was written with your wife Mara in mind, because the actress played the role like a dizzy blonde, much like the character Mara created in Libido. Was this your intention?
Ernesto Gastaldi: I don’t really remember. Mara and I made a deal when we married: she would act only if I was the director, and I would direct only if she was the female lead. I have turned down a lot of offers because of that pact, and Mara once refused an offer from Roger Vadim to star in one of his films, after Brigitte Bardot left him. DeLaurentiis even offered Mara a signed contract that left her free to write-in the amount of the money she wished. But Mara said “No.” A month later, Vadim cast Catherine Deneuve!

Tell me about another thriller you wrote for Sergio Martino called The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975). It was never released in America, and took a different direction than your earlier Martino thrillers—more plot and dialogue, less violence and nudity. Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to “tame” the more extreme elements of the earlier thrillers?
Ernesto Gastaldi: No. Carlo Ponti, the producer, trusted me and accepted the script as I wished to write it. I’m more interested in plot than in the extreme elements. Usually, producers asked for extreme elements, hoping they would make a film more profitable, and as a screenwriter, I did as I was asked.

Do you have any anecdotes about the Martino thrillers?
Ernesto Gastaldi: I once saw one of these movies as it was being edited. I saw a villain jump into a car, point his gun against the belly of the driver, and say, “Drive, or I’ll blow your brains out!” I laughed, and Luciano told me that was the correct line. Of course it was—but the gun should have been pointed a little higher..! Another time, a script had an over complicated plot and Luciano asked to me to write a scene to clarify matters. I invented a character named “Martinez” and wrote a scene in which this Martinez was always asking for explanations. The other characters answered him by saying, “Martinez ma non capisci mai un cazzo, è così…” (“Martinez, you don’t understand anything, now read my lips….”)!

You wrote another thriller starring Fenech and Hilton— The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972) but it was unique in being directed by Anthony Ascott (Giuliano Carmineo) rather than Sergio Martino. Was Martino supposed to direct it?
Ernesto Gastaldi: No. After I had written La decima vittima for Ponti, he asked me to write this thriller.

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