Carroll Baker: The Giallo Years

Born May 28, 1931 is a retired American actress of film, stage, and television. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Baker’s range of roles from young ingénues to brash and flamboyant women established her as both a pin-up and serious dramatic actress. After studying under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, Baker began performing on Broadway in 1954. From there she was recruited by director Elia Kazan to play the lead in the adaptation of two Tennessee Williams plays into the film Baby Doll in 1956. Her role in the film as a coquettish but sexually naïve Southern bride earned her BAFTA and Oscar nominations for Best Actress, as well as a Golden Globe award for Most Promising Newcomer that year.

Her Harem (1967)

Her other early film roles included George Stevens’ Giant (1956), playing the love interest of James Dean, and in the romantic comedy But Not for Me (1959). In 1961, Baker appeared in the controversial independent film Something Wild, directed by her then-husband Jack Garfein, playing a traumatized rape victim. She went on to star in several critically acclaimed Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, such as The Big Country (1958), How the West Was Won (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)

In the mid-1960s, as a contract player for Paramount Pictures, Baker became a sex symbol after appearing as a hedonistic widow in The Carpetbaggers (1964). The film’s producer, Joseph E. Levine, cast her in the potboiler Sylvia before giving her the role of Jean Harlow in the biopic Harlow (1965). Despite significant prepublicity, Harlow was a critical failure. Eventually settling in Rome, Baker became fluent in Italian and spent the next several years starring in hard-edged Italian thrillers, exploitation, and horror films. In 1966, Baker had been invited to the Venice International Film Festival, where she met director Marco Ferreri, who asked her to play the lead role in Her Harem (1967). This was followed with the horror films The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968) and The Devil Has Seven Faces (1971). Baker also starred in So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), Orgasmo (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970), and Il coltello di ghiaccio (Knife of Ice) (1972), all giallo films directed by Italian filmmaker Umberto Lenzi.

The Devil Has Seven Faces (1971)

Many of these films feature her in roles as distressed women, and often showed Baker in nude scenes, which few major Hollywood actors were willing to do at the time. Baker became a favorite of Umberto Lenzi, with her best-known role being in the aforementioned Paranoia, where she played a wealthy widow tormented by two sadistic siblings. In his review of Paranoia, Roger Ebert said: “Carroll Baker, who was a Hollywood sex symbol (for some, it is said) until she sued Joe Levine and got blacklisted, has been around. She may not be an actress, but she can act. In The Carpetbaggers, there was a nice wholesome vulgarity to her performance. She is not intrinsically as bad as she appears in Paranoia. I think maybe she was saying ‘the hell with it’, and having a good time.” As with Paranoia, the majority of the films she made in Italy received poor critical reception in the United States, though they afforded Baker—who had left Hollywood in debt and with two children to support— an income, as well as fame abroad. In retrospect, Baker commented on her career in Italy and on her exploitation film roles, saying: “I think I made more films [there] than I made in Hollywood, but the mentality is different. What they think is wonderful is not what we might … it was marvelous for me because it really brought me back to life, and it gave me a whole new outlook. It’s wonderful to know about a different world.”

Baba Yaga (1973)

She followed her roles in Lenzi’s films with a leading role in Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga (1973) as the titular witch, alongside Isabelle De Funès and George Eastman. TV Guide referred to the film as an “exceptionally handsome example of 1970s Italian pop-exploitation filmmaking sweetened by Piero Umilani’s lounge-jazz score”, and praised Baker’s performance, but noted that she was “physically wrong for the role; her elaborate lace-and-beribboned costumes sometimes make her look more like a fleshy Miss Havisham than a sleekly predatory sorceress”.

The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968)

Deborah (Carroll Baker) and Marcel (Jean Sorel) return to Geneva from their honeymoon. Marcel learns of his former fiancée Susan’s suicide, and is confronted by a man named Philip (Luigi Pistilli) who accuses him of murdering her. Marcel begins to receive threats from someone who holds him responsible for Susan’s death. His new bride Deborah also becomes the target of these threats, and a weird neighbor named Robert with voyeuristic tendencies (George Hilton) begins fixating on her as well.

The Sweet Body of Deborah was released in Italy in 1968 as Il dolce corpo di Deborah. The film later opened in Paris in February 1969 as L’adorable corps de Deborah. In the United States, where the film was distributed by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, it opened in Detroit on March 12, 1969. The film was a box office hit in Italy, inspiring a number of similar thrillers starring Carroll Baker, but was not as successful in the United Kingdom and United States, and marked the beginning of actress Carroll Baker’s career in Europe starring in giallo and horror films.

The Fourth Victim (1971)

A wealthy Englishman finds his third wife dead. After the police discover that his first two wives had also died suddenly, an investigation is launched. Meanwhile, a new neighbor moves in and she seems to become very interested in Arthur.

The Devil Has Seven Faces (1971)

Carroll Baker plays a dual role in this film, two identical twins named Julie and Mary. While in Holland, Julie begins receiving threats from some mysterious men who attempt to kidnap her, and one of them menaces her while wearing a gorilla mask. They are confusing her with her twin sister Mary in London, who apparently stole a massive diamond from a Maheraja and even betrayed her own husband Craig who was in on the heist. A race car driver named Tony (George Hilton) saves Julie from being kidnapped and hides her out in an apartment owned by an old blind woman, who is later found murdered. Luciano Pigozzi plays an insurance investigator who is searching for the diamond.

Baba Yaga (1973)

Valentina Rosselli (Isabelle De Funès) is a Milanese photographer with a knack for controversial shoots. Her friend and lover, Arno (George Eastman), is a director. One night, on her way home, Valentina gets struck by a car driven by a middle-aged blonde (Carroll Baker). She introduces herself as “Baba Yaga” and tells Valentina their meeting was pre-ordained. After she drives Valentina home, she snatches the clip from her garter belt, saying she needs a personal object from her and that she will return it tomorrow. Intrigued and disturbed, Valentina crashes for the night and has a series of strange and vivid dreams. As promised, Baba Yaga returns Valentina’s garter clip the next day. She fondles a camera Valentina uses and invites her to her old home to take some photographs. Valentina visits the woman’s house where she is given a doll dressed in bondage gear. Valentina’s life suddenly becomes full of strange occurrences. After discovering Baba Yaga is somehow responsible for that, Valentina decides to go back to her house and confront her.

The Flower with the Petals of Steel (1973)

Andrea, a renowned surgeon, is in a complicated sentimental situation: his wife is hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic while Daniela, his lover, shows a difficult and often distant character. For this reason, the man decides to end his relationship with Daniela. One evening Andrea receives a visit from a woman, whose face remains hidden. After an argument, the mysterious woman attacks the man and tries to strangle him: Andrea, trying to defend himself, pushes the woman to the ground who falls against a large steel sculpture, a flower with long sharp petals. In falling, the woman injures herself with some of the petals of the sculpture and dies. Man is therefore forced to free himself from the body.

A few days later Andrea is contacted by Evelyn, Daniela’s sister, who complains about the inexplicable disappearance of her sister. Everything suggests that the woman who died at the doctor’s house is none other than Daniela who, for several days now, hasn’t given news of herself. In a crescendo of tortuous events, a mysterious maniac kills Evelyn, brandishing a sharp razor. Professor Andrea, for his part, is the victim of a series of blackmails, which end up draining all his wealth. Only at the end will the mystery be revealed: on the night of the quarrel Andrea had not had a fight with Daniela but with his wife, who had escaped from the asylum where she was hospitalized. Daniela, in collusion with Andrea’s secretary, Lena, had organized the escape of his mad wife from the asylum, after which, he had accompanied her to the doctor’s home.

After the fight and the fall to the ground of the man’s wife, Daniela, without being seen, had approached the body and, brandishing a petal of the heavy sculpture, she had cut the woman’s throat, making the man believe that he was the only one responsible of the death of his wife. From that moment, Daniela had remained hidden, making her sister Evelyn suspect her death. After Evelyn’s pressing requests for an explanation to Andrea, Daniela had proceeded to kill Evelyn, making every suspicion fall on the man who, if nothing else, once arrested, was forced to confess to the murder of his wife (del which he felt responsible). Always with the complicity of Lena, Daniela had progressively blackmailed Andrea, coming into possession of all her possessions, including a luxurious boat on board which Daniela and Lena leave. The doctor, arrested, finds himself alone but perhaps the police have discovered something.

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