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DVD Review: The Pyjama Girl Case

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As one of the lesser-known giallo titles (gialli are a type of Italian thriller), soon to be released to DVD by those purveyors of delectable cinematic delights, Blue Underground, The Pyjama Girl Case is also an atypical entry in this most distinctive of genres. For example, the film is based (quite loosely) on an actual unsolved murder committed in the 1930s, that to this day is still enveloped in deception and mystery. Much of the film was also shot in Australia, where the murder took place, removing the film from the typical and familiar Euro locales for which gialli are so well known.

The film opens on a beach where a young girl clutching an umbrella and a doll wends her way up the sandy, picturesque shoreline. Nearby, motorbikes race through the crashing surf as the girl sits next to an abandoned wreck of a car. Suddenly the little girl screams as a charred, lifeless arm falls from the mangled wreck, and rests its twisted hand on the doll’s head. Once removed from the wreckage, it’s discovered that the corpse is that of a woman whose face is so disfigured that the yellow pyjamas which she is found wearing serve as the major clue to her identity.

While busy spritzing the orchids in his glorious greenhouse, a semi-retired Inspector named Thompson receives a phone call from one of his colleagues about the unidentified woman’s body, and the mystery surrounding it. Eager to trade in his flower mister for a flowering mystery, Thompson goes gum-shoeing once again in his search for both the identity of the woman, and her vicious killer(s).

This is a film that may leave those who possess a strict definition of what defines a giallo a little disappointed. In addition to the aforementioned departures, The Pyjama Girl Case does not feature a string of bloody, carnage-crazed murders and a faceless killer dispatching undressed damsels. Rather, there is only one murder, which serves as the catalyst for the film, and the ensuing investigation. Also, whereas the police are often on the periphery of gialli, in The Pyjama Girl Case they are on the forefront, the results of which are a film that is more police procedural than gore-gushing, mayhem-filled murder mystery.

In addition to familiar faces like the debonaire Mel Ferrer, and the fetching Dalila Di Lazzaro, the film features the acting talents of Academy Award-winner Ray Milland as the over-the-hill Inspector Thompson. Milland turns in a nice, and surprisingly spry performance as the curmudgeonly Inspector who everyone thinks is long past his prime, and whose unflagging desire to investigate is merely tolerated by his peers due to his decorated past. In part, the role Milland plays mirrors his own career as an actor whose best years, and most highly regarded roles, were far behind him.

In addition to Milland’s performance, Thompson’s storyline really anchors the film and his investigation is far more interesting, and substantially more bizarre, than that of his humdrum fellow investigators. Unfortunately, the storyline for Inspector Thompson, shopworn it may be, is mishandled quite badly as the film progresses, and as a result, The Pyjama Girl Case ultimately suffers for it.

The film was directed and co-written by Flavio Mogherini, a veteran production designer and art director who worked in that capacity on many films, including Mario Bava’s eye-candy spectacular Diabolik. Far less remarkable, The Pyjama Girl Case meanders a little too much — take for example a lengthy strolling sequence featuring lawn bowling, archery and lawn hockey — and is beset by a lot of cutaways that oft-times seem silly and unmotivated.

Not all is bleak, however, and for the most part the film looks nice, even if it isn’t always impressive. As part of this Spanish Italian co-production, both Carlo Carlini (The Big Gundown, Death Rides a Horse) and Raul Artigot (who worked with the likes of Jess Franco and Amando de Ossorio) are credited with the cinematography. There are some memorable images in the film, a favorite being Inspector Thompson inside his lush, brightly-lit greenhouse at night, which is set against a drab, decaying facade in the background.

Although there are problems with the film’s story and the characters, the actual narrative structure is easily one of The Pyjama Girl Case’s highlights. The plotting seems fairly standard and straightforward for the majority of the film, but its simplicity is indeed deceptive as it only serves to emphasize a great surprise narrative twist. To modern movie audiences it’s a somewhat familiar narrative subversion, but it still works and I imagine it will please and surprise a lot of viewers.

Unfortunately the film’s synthesized score and some odd musical cues tend to undermine the proceedings. The musical bungling continues as The Pyjama Girl Case also features two songs sung by Amanda Lear (the aptly titled “Yellow Pajama” and the somewhat befuddling “Look at Her Dancing”) whose Nico-esque vocal stylings are not nearly as interesting as the fact that she was once romantically linked to David Bowie and was a protege to Salvador Dali.

Though it is not a classic giallo, and despite its numerous shortcomings, The Pyjama Girl Case is a worthwhile diversion and is certainly worth a look for fans of the genre. Blue Underground does a wonderful job in restoring and bringing this little-seen film to DVD. The remastered print looks great, with vibrant, saturated colors in some scenes, and rest assured, you can now enjoy all of those swanky and skanky 70s interiors with almost nary a blemish. The film is presented with a mono English language track, and while I would usually complain and ask for the Italian track and English subs, in this case it’s preferable to be able to hear Milland’s voice.

The DVD, which isn’t exactly bursting with extras, does include a 30-minute documentary titled The Pyjama Girl Mystery: True Story of Murder, Obsession and Lies, in which the author of a book about the real pyjama girl murder mystery discusses the historical details and facts surrounding the case. It’s an interesting bonus feature that complements the film nicely. Further DVD extras include the original theatrical trailer, and an eight-page graphic novel, The Pyjama Girl by Eddie Campell – the comic artist best known for illustrating From Hell.

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