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April 09, 2019

The Iguana with a Tongue on Fire


L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco
Riccardo Freda - 1971
Arrow Films BD Region A

This may well be the first time where some of the people commissioned by Arrow Films are virtually reduced to back-handed compliments. To put it another way, The Iguana with a Tongue on Fire a film will be appreciated primarily by genre enthusiasts, Freda completists and a few film scholars. The more casual viewer may be left wondering what the fuss is about with this relatively obscure work, from an Italian filmmaker best known for a handful of horror films.

The film could well be retitled, "Fish market full of red herrings". The camera zooms in on a pair of sunglasses worn by several characters, as well as a straight razor that shows up unexpectedly, accompanied by a metallic sounding musical queue. And yet, neither of these supposed clues lead to the identity of the killer. The title refers to a police inspector's convoluted description of the killer as an animal that can camouflage himself in his surroundings, seemingly harmless, but with a "tongue of fire", although that would more accurately refer to a chameleon. Riccardo Freda co-wrote and co-edited the film, and disappointed with the results, credited himself with the pseudonym of Willy Pareto. Beyond his wishing that Roger Moore had starred as a rogue detective, I have no idea what Freda was hoping to achieve. What we have is a maddening mix of craftsmanship and slapdash.

Did Freda, with writer Sandro Continenzo, simply make things up as they went along? We know that the alleged literary source, a novel called A Room without a Door, does not exist. The basic story about a serial killer who tosses acid in women's faces before slashing their throats, did not have to take place in Dublin. It could well be that the entire production was just a pretext for Freda to indulge in some international travel. The problem with Iguana is that there are just so many moments that even for a genre film do not make sense. A schoolboy opens the trunk of a car, revealing the maimed corpse of a woman. His response is to look blankly at the body, and then glance a crow flying near the roof of his house. A doctor offers help when a second victim is found murdered in a nightclub. The nightclub proprietor tells the doctor his help is not needed, only to immediately invite the doctor to investigate. A woman is lying in a bathtub with her throat cut, but no one is in a rush to get her out of the tub or call a doctor. That the film can be accused of casual misogyny, racism and homophobia is the least of this film's problems. The unnecessary reference to Swastika Laundry seems especially thoughtless.

Freda seems to care more about what he's doing with the brief scenes featuring Valentina Cortese. Expressively using her eyes and hands, Cortese is able to tell us all that's needed about her character, the lonely wife of ambassador Anton Diffring. Freda frames the shots to Cortese's advantage, the best of which is a two-shot of Cortese with Diffring seen as the reflection on a mirror, with the camera moving away from Cortese to a close-up of Diffring. There are lyrical shots along a rocky coast, with Luigi Pistelli, the rogue detective, and Dagmar Lassander, the ambassador's daughter. Pistelli has his hands around Lassander's throat as if to choke her, right before kissing her, somewhat suggestive of Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock's Suspicion. A later moment of Lassander holding on to the edge of a drawbridge recalls James Stewart in Vertigo. Freda also included several Irish actors in the cast, notably the frog-like Arthur O'Sullivan as the police inspector, Niall Toibin as a creepy doctor, and Ruth Durley as Pistelli's mother, hard of hearing, with failing eyesight, who turns out to be a better detective than her son.

Of the blu-ray extras, the commentary track by Adrian Smith and David Flint, described by Arrow as "giallo connoisseurs" is essentially amusing banter between friends. More informative is the discussion of the film by the estimable film scholar Richard Dyer. One little bit of information that Dyer brings is that it is singer/composer Nora Orlandi who provides the vocal work during the opening credits. Musicologist Lovely Jon goes into detail regarding the career of composer Stelvio Cipriani, whose score for this film provides much of the heavy lifting. Film editor Bruno Micheli discusses his career, mentioning that there were versions of Iguana that included pornographic inserts. Dagmar Lassander talks about her career with several minutes devoted to the production of Iguana. The source 35mm negative appears to have been preserved in perfect condition.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 9, 2019 08:22 AM