Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (The) AKA L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (29th April 2019).
The Film

Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (L’iguana dalla lingua di fuoco; Riccardo Freda, 1971)

Synopsis: Dublin. The corpse of a young woman is found in the car of Sobiesky (Anton Diffring), the Swiss ambassador to Ireland. The woman has been murdered cruelly: acid was thrown into her face before her throat was cut with a razor. The body is discovered by Bernard, the young son of Sobiesky and his wife (Valentina Cortese). The corpse is examined by Dr Johnson (Niall Toibin), and the police, represented by Inspector Lawrence (Arthur O’Sullivan), question the Sobieskys, including their daughter Helen (Dagmar Lassander) and chauffeur Mandel (Renato Romano).

In a nightclub, Helen is eyed up by John Norton (Luigi Pistilli). Outside the club, Norton offers Helen a lift home on his motorcycle; Helen accepts, and the pair end up sleeping together. Meanwhile, Sobiesky visits a nightclub singer who is blackmailing him over an affair Sobiesky conducted with her previously. The singer is soon found dead; the discovery of the body causes Dr Johnson, who is also in the nightclub, to offer his services in examining the corpse.

In the morning, Norton returns home to the modest home in which he lives with his elderly mother (Ruth Durley) and adolescent daughter. (Norton is a widower.) Norton’s mother has been following the murders in the newspaper and, something of an amateur sleuth, she claims to have deduced the identity of the killer. Norton dismisses her claims, however. Norton, we later discover, is a disgraced former police detective, haunted by the last case of his career: he interrogated a suspect brutally, subjecting him to a severe beating, before the suspect managed to grab a gun and blow his own brains out.

At night, Norton returns to the embassy and breaks in, hoping to find evidence. However, he is accosted by two detectives. A fight ensues, the detectives believing Norton to be a criminal; they take Norton to Lawrence, who reveals that Norton is in fact working for him: Lawrence has tasked Norton with investigating the murders through getting close to the ambassador’s family.

Norton’s fling with Helen provokes the ire of Helen’s love Walter (Sergio Doria). However, Walter soon turns up dead, a distinctive lighter belonging to Mrs Sobiesky being discovered at the scene. When the body of Norton’s mother’s cat is discovered, its head having been severed from its body, it is clear that Norton’s family will not remain untainted by the violence that surrounds the Sobieskys.

Critique: There was a time, during the 1980s, when for English-speaking fans of the thrilling all’italiana or giallo all’italiana (Italian-style thriller), the Italian thriller was defined by the unholy trinity of Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti and Riccardo Freda, whose pictures were valourised in publications such as Alan Frank’s Horror Movies (1977) and The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror (1988). However, in the age of digital home video, whilst Mario Bava’s films found reasonable enough releases through the likes of Image Entertainment and Anchor Bay, owing to a variety of reasons Freda and Margheriti’s thrillers were for a number of years not served as well as those of other practitioners of the form (such as Sergio Martino, for example, whose work was previously dismissed as pedestrian-like). To some extent, this led to Freda and Margheriti’s work being sidelined in discussions of the Italian thriller amongst English-speaking fans of the thrilling, especially those for whom DVD releases of such films were their first exposure to the form.

Danny Shipka has noted that though Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) established a template that many later examples of the giallo all’italiana would follow fairly closely – among them the thrillers of Dario Argento, beginning with L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) in 1970 – the Italian-style thriller didn’t find its proverbial feet until the very end of the 1960s (Shipka, 2011: 80). The rise in popularity amongst Italian audiences of homegrown thrillers coincided with a decline in the popularity of the western all’italiana (Italian-style Western/Spaghetti Western), the filone that had ruled previously. It also coincided with the period of social and cultural unrest that followed the Piazza Fontana bombing in 1969, leading into the anni di piombo (‘Years of Lead’) in which the threat of violence, politically-motivated but often seemingly random in its targets, acquired an almost tangible presence in Italian culture; the increasingly graphic nature of the Italian thrillers made during the 1970s mirrored the graphic images of the acts of terrorism and gangland violence that populated the Italian media (through the work of photojournalists such as Letizia Battaglia, for example). As Shipka notes, globalisation was an issue that was also foregrounded in the gialli all’italiana of the 1970s, with ‘[i]ssues such as tourism, exoticism, hybridity and foreignness […] all incorporated into the giallo’ during this period (ibid.). A significant number of these Italian-style thrillers ‘point up the problems that Italians had with their national identities’, featuring protagonists (often amateur sleuths) who were either foreigners in Italy (such as Sam Dalmas in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), or Italians in foreign countries.

Freda’s Iguana with the Tongue of Fire examines the internationalism of the 1970s through its setting in Dublin, its plot centring around the discovery of a woman’s corpse in the car of a Swiss diplomat. The film opens with travelogue-style footage of the city, largely focusing on the area around the O’Connell Monument. Where a number of examples of the thrilling all’italiana had been set in London, Iguana with the Tongue of Fire is unique in setting its narrative in Dublin. With the exception of Dagmar Lassander, who is given perhaps surprisingly scant screen time, the film’s cast are also predominantly in their late middle age; this, again, is fairly unusual for a giallo all’italiana which focuses on the theme of internationalism. More typically, Iguana with the Tongue of Fire is one of a notable number of Italian thrillers made during the early 1970s which, following the lead set by The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, featured an animal in its title; as with the Argento picture, Iguana with the Tongue of Fire attempts to crowbar into its dialogue a spurious explanation for the obscurity of its title. Reflecting on some time he spent in Brazil, where he accidentally stepped on an iguana hidden in the foliage, Lawrence notes that the iguana, like the killer, is adept at camouflage; however, the iguana is harmless, whereas the killer ‘cuts throats and uses vitriol. It’s his tongue of fire, you might say’.

Iguana with the Tongue of Fire also nods towards the anni di piombo through the flashbacks which show the reason for John’s departure from the police service. In these flashbacks, we see Norton beating a confession out of a suspect in a bare, almost abstract, room, before the suspect acquires a gun and blows his own brains out. (In one of the flashbacks, Norton is shown attempting to stop this act of self-destruction, charging towards the suspect in slow motion; this is achieved not by overcranking the camera, however, but by Pistilli moving towards the camera v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-ly, much like the infamous ‘slow motion’ footage in Jess Franco’s 1975 picture Fraungefangnis/Barbed Wire Dolls, unfortunately rendering the moment unintentionally humorous.) These flashbacks, of course, allude to the death of Giuseppe Pinelli, a founding member of the anarchist group Ponte della Ghisolfa, in 1969; whilst being interrogated as a suspect in the aforementioned Piazza Fontana bombing, Pinelli fell from a fourth floor window of the police station in Milan. Whilst Pinelli was subsequently exonerated of any involvement in the Piazza Fontana bombing, one of the police officers in charge of the investigation, Luigi Calabresi, was accused of murdering Pinelli, an accusation that was repeated by leftist groups and in the press; in 1972, Calabresi was murdered by members of the far left group Lotta Continua, in an act motivated by Calabresi’s suggested involvement in Pinelli’s death. (In 1975, however, Calabresi was, posthumously, proven not to have been in the room at the time that Pinelli fell from the window.) Pinelli’s death opened a cultural wound that was explored in numerous examples of Italian literature, film, television and theatre during the 1970s: for example, the incident formed the basis for Dario Fo’s 1970 play Accidental Death of an Anarchist and was explored in Elio Petri and Gian Maria Volonte’s 1970 teleplay Tre ipotesi sulla morte di Giuseppe Pinelli (‘Three Hypotheses on the death of Giuseppe Pinelli’). In Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, Pistilli plays a former policeman who, like the real Calabresi, is haunted by his involvement in the death of a suspect. As if to reinforce the similarity between Calabresi and the character of Norton, Pistilli is made to wear a turtleneck sweater of the kind the Calabresi was often photographed wearing.

Its narrative punctuated with moments of outrageous though not entirely convincing violence (in the film’s opening sequence, a scene of the murder of the first victim features a closeup of an all-too-obvious dummy head into which the ‘acid’ is thrown, melting the dummy’s apparently wax visage), Iguana… builds into its story numerous red herrings which are expressed via protracted scenes that throw suspicion onto specific characters, but which are ultimately handled very clumsily. When Norton is injured after becoming involved in a fight with Lawrence’s detectives, who are unaware of the fact that Norton is working for Lawrence, Norton visits the hospital and is treated by Dr Johnson. Johnson stitches the nasty-looking gash on the crown of Norton’s head, Freda cutting in to closeups of an uneasy – nay, utterly shifty-looking – Johnson as he stands behind Norton with a variety of sharp surgical instruments at hand. As Johnson begins to stitch the wound together, Freda cuts in to a gruesome closeup of Johnson’s handiwork, establishing a visual connection between this moment and the film’s scenes of murder – as if to consolidate the viewer’s impression that Johnson may be the killer. (An earlier comment by Johnson, as he inspects the first victim’s corpse, also hints at this: ‘The murderer has done a perfect job’, he observes approvingly, ‘A specialist, I would say, like me’.) In another scene, Norton’s mother approaches Norton’s bloodied cutthroat razor in the bathroom, clearly suspecting her son. Elsewhere these red herrings take the form of observations made by Inspector Lawrence: in one scene, in a remarkable moment of dialogue that seems more like the kind of assertion Alf Garnett might have made – rather than a hypothesis put forwards by a detective in an Italian thriller – Lawrence tells his subordinate that ‘The use of vitriol may suggest a woman’s hand, or a coloured person’s. They’re expert at such things’.

Iguana with the Tongue of Fire returns to a theme of Freda’s work more generally – a theme that Freda inherited from the paradigms of Gothic fiction – of the emptiness, ennui and anomie that characterise the lives of the wealthy. The film juxtaposes Norton’s down-to-earth family – which, Norton being a widower, consists of Norton’s adolescent daughter and elderly mother – with the arrogant and wealthy family of Sobiesky. As Sobiesky himself dryly reminds Lawrence early in the film, one should not ‘put too much faith in the words of a diplomat, Inspector. Remember we’re professional liars’. The Sobiesky family are shown to be highly dysfunctional, intimations of abuse and neglect surfacing within the revelation that two of what we initially presume to be Sobiesky’s children are in fact his wife’s by another marriage; Sobiesky’s daughter, Helen, is promiscuous, and Sobiesky’s profoundly dissatisfied wife makes a half-hearted and drunken attempt to seduce Norton – who at that point she believes to be Helen’s lover. ‘Behind the façade that you’re looking at’, she tells Norton, ‘there is the most terrible, unbelievable emptiness. Between me and my children between me and my husband’. By contrast, though Norton’s family is ‘broken’, Norton’s wife being deceased, they display a solidarity that is lacking within the Sobiesky group. Norton, his mother and his daughter support one another emotionally; Norton’s elderly mother is something of an amateur sleuth, attempting to solve the murder via newspaper clippings. In a slightly Hitchcockian touch, though she is presented as something of a doddery old fool and Norton takes little heed of her claims to have solved the crimes being committed, Norton’s mother ironically comes to the correct conclusion vis-à-vis the identity of the killer (or rather, one of the killers). ‘You remember that old woman in the Agatha Christie books?’, Norton’s mother asks her son, telling him that she has been collecting newspaper clippings about the murderer and is convinced she knows who the killer is. ‘You know I don’t like detective stories’, Norton responds. ‘That’s another of your problems’, his mother tells him, ‘You read too little’.


Video

Filling a little over 26Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc, Iguana with the Tongue of Fire is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Uncut and running for 95:38 mins, the film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Some of the compositions seem a little tight along the vertical axis but this is most likely intentional: the framing is commensurate with previous home video releases of the picture, including the German DVD release from New Entertainment World.

Shot on 35mm colour stock, Iguana with the Tongue of Fire is here based on a 2k restoration from the original negative. There is a pleasing level of detail within the presentation though some shots have an inherent softness; these tend to be low-light scenes in which the lenses would presumably be shot wide open or close to, and the ‘softness’ of these shots may very well reflect the characteristics of the lenses. (Most lenses are at their best when stopped down from their maximum aperture.) The photography in the picture (by Silvano Ippolito) is strangely inconsistent: much of the film seems to have been shot quickly, using uninspiring mid shots with a clumsy approach to composition, though there are some incredible landscape shots towards the end of the picture (when Norton visits Switzerland, for example). Ippolito’s later work with Tinto Brass (including Salon Kitty, Caligula, Miranda and All Ladies Do It) has a similar quality, however – mixing some staid photography with some outstanding visual moments moments. Contrast levels are very pleasing, with low light scenes faring well and containing depth in the shadows where required, whilst scenes with heavy highlights (eg, the Swiss-set scenes which feature much snow and cloud in the background) are also nicely-balanced. Midtones are rich and defined. The encode to disc is fine, with no issues being presented, and the presentation as a whole has a pleasingly filmlike appearance. In all, it’s a big improvement over the film’s previous home video presentations. (Some large screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review, including some comparing Arrow’s new HD presentation with the DVD presentation from German company New Entertainment World.)


Audio

There are two audio options on the disc: i) a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English language track with optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing; and ii) a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Italian language track with optional English subtitles translating the Italian dialogue. Both tracks demonstrate good range and depth and the subtitles in each instance are easy to read and grammatically correct.

Most of the cast appear to have been speaking English on set, the English language dialogue for the most part matching the actors’ mouth movements. Interestingly, the dialogue, in the English language version, features a couple of notable uses of ‘fucking’ as an adjective, the use of this taboo word being atypical an Italian thriller of this vintage.

There are some substantial differences between the dialogue in the English and Italian versions of the film. Tail ends of scenes which feature no dialogue in the English version contain brief conversations in the Italian version of the film. When, in the English version, Norton picks up Helen after visiting the nightclub, he jokes with her: ‘Well now, you flat-footed filly. Are we going to have it off in the bushes or on the bike?’ In the Italian version, he simply asks, ‘Are you going to sleep with me?’ In the English version, in response to Helen’s query as to what he does for a living, Norton tells her, ‘Well now, I’ve washed dishes, scrubbed the streets and done a little gun-running. If he [Helen’s father] waits long enough, he can read the book I’m writing about me [sic] life’. In the Italian version, he simply tells Helen that he’s a ‘racehorse driver’.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with critics Adrian J Smith and David Flint. Smith and Flint talk about the film’s setting and the manner in which the filmmakers exploit it; they talk about the false suggestion in the film’s credits that is based on a novel. They also reflect on Freda’s position within the pantheon of Italian genre cinema, suggesting that his approach was ‘workmanlike’; and they consider the contributions of the performers. Smith and Flint are in good humour throughout, clearly enjoying one another’s company. The track isn’t particularly informative but is certainly entertaining, with some interesting opinions delivered by the two contributors.

- ‘Of Chameleons and Iguanas’ (21:55). Academic Richard Dyer reflects on Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, considering its position within the filmography of Riccardo Freda. He suggests that the film is interesting for its examination of the issue of family but ‘doesn’t quite know how to do it [explore this theme] and so is terribly confusing’. Dyer talks about the film’s setting in Ireland, suggesting that unlike some other gialli set outside Italy, Iguana… seems to have been in part photographed in the country in which the story takes place (Ireland). Dyer also considers some of the ambiguities within the plot, which he suggests ‘in certain kinds of films […] can be quite exciting’, but Iguana… is ‘somehow not fascinating enough for that’.

- ‘Considering Cipriani’ (25:58). DJ Lovely Jon discusses Stelvio Cipriani’s score for Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, reflecting on Cipriani’s career before considering the specific elements of the soundtrack for this picture.

- ‘The Cutting Game’ (20:58)
. Bruno Micheli, who was the assistant editor on the picture, talks about his involvement in Iguana with the Tongue of Fire. He discusses his career and how he came to be involved in filmmaking before reflecting specifically on his work with Freda. Micheli speaks in Italian; optional English subtitles are provided.

- ‘The Red Queen of Hearts’ (20:38)
. Dagmar Lassander discusses her career in Italian films, talking about shooting nude scenes and the diversity of her roles during the early 1970s. She talks about her relationship with her then-husband, who wanted Lassander to continue working so that she had a life of her own. Lassander reflects on how she came to be an actress, a career into which she essentially fell. Lassander speaks in Italian; optional English subtitles are provided.

- Trailers
: International Trailer (2:54); Italian Trailer (2:54).

- Galleries
: Stills, lobby cards, posters, press and home video sleeves (23 images); Cinesex fotoromanzo photo novel (31 images).

Overall

Packed to the brim with oddball red herrings and diversions from the central narrative, Iguana with the Tongue of Fire contains some bizarre moments. These include but are not limited to: the clumsily-inserted and utterly unconvincing closeups of violence being done to mannequins; the slow-motion flashback of Norton lunging at the suspect which is achieved simply by making the actors move incredibly slowly; Lawrence’s outrageously un-PC assertions about the kind of person who might be tempted to throw acid into someone’s face; and an oddball moment in which the ambassador’s seated wife is filmed in mid-shot before the ambassador enters and walks towards her, his lit cigar held in front of his crotch in mockery of an erect penis. Whilst some have seen these moments, and the film’s insistent approach to the red herrings in its plot, as indexical of Freda’s lack of interest in the material, on the other hand it might be suggested that with the making of this picture Freda had his tongue firmly in his cheek. Nevertheless, the film’s insistent attempt at working references to the Pinelli-Calabresi situation into a fairly mundane thriller plot speaks of the cultural impact of the death of Pinelli. Certainly, though the mechanics of the thriller plot may not be ‘up to snuff’, so to speak, the film’s examination of one of Freda’s major themes – the juxtaposition of a nurturing family with a perverse one – makes it a worthwhile experience, as does the setting in Ireland (though this is hammered home, in the English language version at least, by Pistilli’s character’s comically broad accent and dialect).

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation of Iguana with the Tongue of Fire is strong enough, and certainly a big improvement over the film’s previous home video releases. The main feature is supported on the disc by some very good contextual material.

References:
Shipka, Danny, 2011: Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960-1980. London: McFarland

Below are some screengrabs comparing Arrow’s new Blu-ray release with the DVD presentation from the German company New Entertainment World. In each instance the New Entertainment World screengrabs are on top. Please click the screengrabs to enlarge them.

New Entertainment World DVD
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Arrow Blu-ray
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New Entertainment World DVD
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Arrow Blu-ray
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New Entertainment World DVD
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Arrow Blu-ray
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More screengrabs from Arrow’s Blu-ray release. (Please click to enlarge.)
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