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One on Top of the Other

One on Top of the Other(1972)

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When movie time rolls around would you want to watch Perversion Story or One on Top of the Other? Well, they're actually the same 1969 film from Italian man-about-genres Lucio Fulci but it's easy to see why the new DVD release went with Perversion Story (from the Spanish title Una Historia Perversa) rather than the bland and not particularly informative One on Top of the Other (a fairly close translation of the Italian Una Sulla'Altra). But enough checklisting. Perversion Story may have few if any perversions and its story is a bit on the odd side but if you have a taste for those wild and wooly films of the 60s/70s-you know, the ones with blaring jazz, no-holds-barred camera work, unexpected plot twists-then this certainly deserves a place on your "to see" list.

The story is more or less a riff on Vertigo. George (B-movie busybody Jean Sorel) is a doctor who's more concerned about profits from his clinic and romancing his photographer mistress than doctoring. His wife (Danger: Diabolik's Marisa Mell) is sickly and housebound. So once upon a time George heads off to Reno with his mistress only to find that his wife died during the trip and an unexpected insurance policy makes the police suspicious. If that wasn't enough, a mysterious phone call leads George, like all mysterious phones calls must, to a nearby strip club where the star attraction (Mell again) is a near double for his dead wife! Let's just add more exclaimation: a near double!! Except she's blonde instead of brunette, has different color eyes and is, well, an ecdysiast and part-time hooker. So naturally George is hooked. Did his wife have a twin? Is this some elaborate con? Mysterious, magical fate? Or just the gods of cinematic oh-too-cleverness?

Director Fulci is best known for splatter films such as Zombie (aka Zombie 2 but that's a story for another time), Tarantino fave The Beyond and House by the Cemetery. Still, like so many of his peers in the Italian genre world he'd work in anything. Perversion Story was his 21st film after a series of mobster films, spy spoofs (starring Agent 002), sex comedies, caper outings and, of course, spaghetti Westerns. With such experience in stretching a low budget and the able assistance of Spanish cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa, Fulci brings imaginative visuals and a cool moodiness to Perversion Story that's welcome as the film increasingly starts to fall apart. (Vertigo built up to surrealist delerium; Perversion Story simply collapses at the end.) The San Francisco exteriors are impressive, filled with the mist of approaching rain, the grandeur of high class houses, even the institutional starkness of San Quentin prison. (The trailer on the DVD claims this was the first production to film inside San Quentin but we should take that with a couple of grains of salt.) Fulci has a better eye for framing than many of his contemporaries but isn't beyond using Welles-inspired deep focus shots where, for instance, a man's face in close up fills the left side of the screen while on the right is a distant view of woman.

Bringing this together is Austrian model-turned-actress Marisa Mell who was basically window dressing as the girlfriend in Danger: Diabolik but here consistently holds the screen. In fact, it's not hard to imagine that Fulci (who also co-wrote the screenplay) built the film around her. Don't imagine that she gives any kind of stunning example of the actor's art but her sharp beauty and sly glances provide more than ample idea why the film's various male characters go crazy, something that's tougher than many devotees of the actor's art might imagine. Not that Mell is really getting much competition. Sorel as the once-alpha-male, now-befuddled George seems confused while his mistress Elsa Martinelli is also equally drawn into the mystery while becoming no more enlightened. Appearances by John Ireland and Faith Domergue make no impact and might as well have been played by anybody. But this isn't a Cassavetes film. With its emphasis on atmosphere and a progressively more and more outrageous plot, Perversion Story makes as good use of its actors as needed.

There was a bit of a deception earlier in claiming that Perversion Story and One on Top of the Other are the same film. That's more or less true but like so many films of the time (and this was an Italian-French-Spanish co-production) there were different versions made for different markets. So despite Italian opening credits and an English "The End", there are reports that what we're seeing on the DVD is the French edit (otherwise titled La Machination) while the back of the case claims it's from a lost-for-35-years negative. (It's certainly a fine transfer to DVD, with only small moments of damage and color fading.) Both could be true but in any case, this version substitutes several minutes of supposedly erotic hanky panky for several minutes of probably not erotic dialogue scenes and story information available in the more familiar One on Top of the Other. Whether you consider these substitutions a bonus or a loss will probably be down to personal preference but more plot likely makes little difference in the long run. And who's watching this for plot anyway?

Two audio tracks are included, Italian and English. The English track has noticably muffled music but also several differences from the Italian, some quite radical. For instance, at a train station when the doctor is dropping off his mistress, the Italian is translated as "I hate long good-byes; they are ridiculous" but the English audio track is "I hate these tearful farewells on railway platforms". The English audio has very little ambient sound but the Italian unleashes full station noises in the background. Or during a photo shoot in the film there is a long dialogue in Italian but absolutely nothing at all in English! Still, the English dialogue is a bit more relaxed and the cast appears to have mostly been speaking English. Which audio is the viewer's choice but for many the decision will be made by the fact that the Italian track offers superior sound for the wonderful music by Riz Ortolani (a two-time Oscar® nominee, once for co-writing "More"). The DVD comes with a extra audio CD of the score but no other bonuses beyond the trailer.

To order Perversion Story, go to TCM Shopping.

by Lang Thompson