And the winner is: Veronica Lario for Tenebre (1982), directed by Dario Argento.
Tenebre is an Italian giallo, that genre of ultra-violent, sex-filled romps named after the yellow (giallo) wrappers that grace similar paperback novels on Italian newsstands. Gialli have only two set-in-stone genre conventions. Many women, either naked or barely clothed, must die brutal, bloody deaths, preferably involving sharp objects, and the plots must make no sense. No sense whatsoever. When I first saw some of these films I thought that maybe if I were Italian I would be able to follow them, but no. What passes for plot is a convoluted string of red herrings, cornball psychology, and confusing flashbacks to horrible childhood traumas.
To make these films viable for the international market, an American star was usually brought on board. In Tenebre, Argento was lucky enough to secure the services of Anthony Franciosa. (Remember how we all rushed to theaters to see the latest Anthony Franciosa film in the 1980's?) John Saxon is also on hand, but that is almost a given. Tony plays an author of violent mystery novels on a book tour in Italy, and some one is slashing up -- never mind, it doesn't make any sense.
I want to talk about Veronica Lario. She's gorgeous, a voluptuous, raven-haired beauty with pale skin and pouty, red, pre-collagen-era lips. Her character's name is Jane McKerrow, which implies that she is not Italian, and I never really understood what she was doing hanging around this crowd. In one scene she receives an anonymous gift of cherry red high heels. They mean something. Then, about 90 minutes in to the films, she makes two fundamental mistakes.
1) She phones a "trusted friend" and says that she has important information about the killer.
2) She makes this phone call while sitting fully exposed beside a plate-glass window. (Jane McKerrow obviously doesn't see many of the type of film she has found herself in.)
Sure enough, within seconds an axe crashes through the glass and severs her right arm just above the wrist. In a bravura performance that outclasses anything else in Tenebre, Lario clutches her severed arm, sprays blood across a white wall with the aplomb of a second-generation, New York School painter, staggers into the kitchen, takes one more axe blow to the back, falls face up onto the floor, and takes two more blows to the sternum. (Due more, I suspect, to budget than any sense of restraint, those final two blows occur off camera. But Ms. Lario's head and neck jerk convincingly like those of an almost dead human being taking two axe blows to the sternum.)
When I watched this scene with the director's commentary playing -- Wait. I guess I have just revealed that I have seen this film more than once...Oh, well.--But anyway, when Dario Argento discusses this scene he makes two interesting comments. Apparently every distributor who handled this film anywhere in the world felt compelled to cut most of this scene. (It was a more innocent time.) But what is most revealing are his comments on Veronica Lario.
"She was a beautiful girl," he says, "but her acting career was very short. She married a big media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi."
I cannot recreate the effects those words had when I was looking at Lario's dismembered body on the kitchen floor. Here, I realized, lies the future first lady of Italy.
Lario did not marry Berlusconi until 1990, and by that time already had three of his children. Since his entry into politics, she has been something of a thorn in his side, speaking out publicly about his dissolute behavior. Supposedly divorce proceeding are in the works, but Silvio could hardly endure the scandal of a divorce. If it were the Renaissance, one would have poisoned the other by now. As it is, the opera buffa continues to play itself out in the press and on DVD.