During the 1950s and ’60s, when Rome was the glamorous center of the world, there was a healthy exchange program between the Italian and American film industries that became known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.” Hollywood, keen to take advantage of lower costs for skilled labor (and circumvent the various craftsmen’s unions in the United States), would take advantage of the abundance of facilities, striking locations, costumes, sets, and legions of willing extras (the Italian economy was only just beginning to recover from the war) and laborers available to the in Italy. Italian productions were then able to recycle sets and costumes for their own films that had been paid for with Hollywood money as well as hire American (and British) stars who were in town anyway, either for an American production or simply because they wanted to make the Via Veneto scene, the be-all end-all of chic “see and be seen” location, immortalized (for better and worse) in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita.
When Hollywood was in town, they usually brought their own crew, refusing to trust camera work and other important tasks to the locals, though this changed as Italians proved themselves adept and dependable (and producers watching the bottom line realized how much money could be saved by not flying over an entire crew) as more than set and costume makers. It was common for an Italian director to be assigned to one of these productions as a second to the American (or British) director, usually fulfilling the role of glorified translator and go-between for the core English speaking cast and crew and the Italian speaking crew, supporting cast, and extras. It was in this capacity that Vittorio Sala found himself assigned to shadow American director George Marshall during the making of Dark Purpose, a film very much in the vein of Mario Bava’s 1963 “an American in peril” thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
Marshall was about as old a hand as cinema could have. He directed his first short in 1916 and worked with Fatty Arbuckle and Laurel and Hardy, among others. During the talkie era, he made both B-picture programmers and high-profile features, including Destry Rides Again starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, Ghost Breakers with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard, and the noir classic The Blue Dahlia featuring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. By the time he found himself in Italy making Dark Purpose, he’d made hundreds of films and shorts (and would go on to work extensively in television before retiring in 1972 with an estimated 400 directing jobs to his credit). By contrast Vittorio Sala, despite getting his start in the 1930s, had directed mostly documentary shorts. His debut feature film was 1956’s A Woman Alone (Donne sole). He dipped his toe into the world of genre filmmaking in 1960, when he directed the reasonably fun sword and sandal comedy Colossus and the Amazon Queen starring American bodybuilder Ed Fury and square-jawed Australian idol Rod Taylor.
Unlike many Italian directors though, Sala didn’t commit himself to genre pictures. In fact, he barely committed himself to directing. At a time when Italian filmmakers would often make a couple films a year, Sala would drop off the scene for a year or so, or return to documentaries. In 1962, he directed eventual James Bond villain Curd Jürgens and Mrs. Roger Vadim Annette Stroyberg in I don giovanni della Costa Azzurra (Beach Casanova). Shortly thereafter, he joined Dark Purpose, presumably to bridge the language gap between director George Marshall and stars George Sanders (British) and Shirley Jones (American, and before she became a household name for her role on The Partridge Family), and the rest of the cast, which included Italian leading man Rossano Brazzi, supporting actress Giorgia Moll, and the largely Italian crew.
George Sanders (who seems to just be playing Noel Coward) and Shirley Jones are an art assessor and his assistant who have come to the villa of Italian nobleman Count Paolo Barbarelli (Rossano Brazzi, whose long list of credits includes Hollywood-on-the-Tiber productions Three Coins in the Fountain and The Barefoot Contessa) to take stock of his art collection. While at his secluded estate outside of Salerno, they discover that aside from the count and his housekeeper, who speaks no English, there’s an excessively aggressive German Shepard and a damaged young woman named Cora (Giorgina Moll, whose dark good looks saw her often cast as an Asian, Arab, or some manner of wild warrior woman). Cora, Jones’ Karen Williams discovers, is Paolo’s daughter, suffering from amnesia, anxiety, and a host of other disorders since suffering a skiing accident. Cora doesn’t take kindly to the pretty young foreigner who has suddenly attracted so much of Paolo’s attention. Karen also discovers that Paolo lives an odd life, mostly secluded, disinterested in people who know him (including denying they’ve ever even met), and prone to fits of fiery temperament. But he’s also kind and interesting, so Karen chalks up his peculiarities to his Italian-ness and decides to fall in love. This being a thriller, the romance goes poorly.
So, too, does much of the film go rather poorly, though at least a portion of these can probably be chalked up to the dreadful condition of most existing prints, which are ragged, discolored, and severely cropped, rendering the gorgeous location work and Gábor Pogány’s potentially interesting cinematography less effective than they actually are. The audio is also often so muddled that it’s extremely difficult to make out what’s being said, especially when George Sanders is slinging rapid-fire bon mots and charming insults. This makes the film’s middle third something of a slog, but even if it was in pristine condition, there’s still be an awful lot of time spent meandering in circles and wasting time. It’s never offensively boring, but a film that relies this much on scenery and travelogue filler should be more adept at presenting that filler. I’m more than happy to go on a tour provided it’s well-conducted, but George Marshall’s direction isn’t snappy enough to keep the eye entertained when the brain isn’t. It spends too much time in Paolo’s mansion, lingering in just a couple sets that become overly familiar. It’s more like a middle-of-the-road Gothic soap opera that a jet-setty murder mystery a la The Girl Who Knew Too Much, rarely taking advantage of the surrounding city or exploiting the fashionable glamor of Italy. Even when they do venture into town, the film is mostly shot in close-ups that crop everything but Paolo, Karen, and the ass of the carriage driver.
Shirley Jones is charming enough and attired in a colorful array of gorgeous dresses (costume designer Tina Grani worked almost exclusively on Mario Bava films, including his fashion house giallo Blood and Black Lace as well as The Girl Who Knew Too Much), but for much of the film she’s given little to do but putter around some well-decorated living rooms and make a concerned face when Cora shows up from time to time to rant at her. Much like scenery, nice mid-century attire can go a long way in distracting me from the fact that a film is otherwise a tad on the tedious side. But even cocktail dresses and ascots only go so far before I start checking my pocket watch. Neither George Marshall nor Vittorio Sala are Mario Bava, after all, who could film a boring man sitting in an empty room and somehow make it visually dynamic and exciting. Veteran George Sanders, ever the trooper, tries to liven things up with his “snooty Brit” shtick, but he leaves the film partway through, not to return again until the end, leaving the viewer with little with which to occupy one’s attention.
As the film enters its final half-hour, things pick up considerably and the aspects of the story that get Dark Purpose loosely classified as giallo or “giallo-lite” finally kick in. There’s a murder, madness, secret passages, desperate flights, and a really mean dog. Jones makes for a capable and fun “damsel in distress” of the variety that has no one to swoop in and save her and so much make due with her own wits and wiles. Rossano Brazzi is an equally engaging counter as his shifts between gregarious and secretive, kind and menacing, become less and less subtle. The script by David P. Harmon is fairly straight-forward in a genre that, provided you accept Dark Purpose as a giallo (and it is, at least in the broader definition of the style) would become known for mind-bending convolution. Harmon worked almost entirely in television (including writing that episode of Star Trek where they travel to the “see here wise guy, mnyeh” planet of 1920s gangsters, as well as the one where Kirk turns into an old man). His inability to develop a consistently engaging story for a feature-length film is obvious here.
Had Dark Purpose been an hour long episode of a TV show, he would have delivered. But forced to come up with, roughly, three half-hour acts, Harmon can’t sustain the momentum and Shirley Jones, while perfectly acceptable, just isn’t dynamic enough to make us forget nothing much is going on. Looking back from a vantage point decades later, there’s little in Dark Purpose that is surprising. Actually, based on reviews from 1964, there’s little from the vantage point of 1964 that was surprising. The world was well into Hitchcock’s career revival by then, and like The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Dark Purpose is little more than attempt to mimic the tone of Hitch’s breezier output from the era. We know who the villain is going to be. We know why the villain is up to his villainy. The trick, in these cases, is to execute the formula well, and Dark Purposes doesn’t quite do that despite becoming a much better movie right about the point someone takes a mysterious tumble off a cliff.