Dirty Harry goes giallo...in The Great White North, no less! Scorpion Releasing, along with Kino Lorber and MGM, has released on Blu-ray SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM (aka BLAZING MAGNUM), the 1976 Italian/Canadian poliziottesco/murder mystery co-production, originally distributed here in the States by American International Pictures, directed by Alberto De Martino (“Martin Herbert” in the credits), and starring Stuart Whitman, John Saxon, Martin Landau, Tisa Farrow, Carole Laure, Jean LeClerc, and Gayle Hunnicutt. If you grew up watching movies in the 1970s, those first indicators of a dreaded “Canadian co-production”—the sudden appearance of a lot of French names in the opening credits; the obligatory maple leaf flag logo and a shout out to the “Government du Canada” for the dough—was often a groan-inducing moment that necessitated a fast switch of the TV dial (...and if you were stuck at the drive-in, then time to hit the playground). De Martino’s magnum opus (couldn’t resist), however, is a happy exception to the "Nyquil Rule" of 1970s Canadian fare, thanks to its Italian partners responsible for outrages like THE ANTICHRIST, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, and THE NEW YORK RIPPER: SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM is mean-spirited, equally (and thankfully) offensive and ridiculous, and mostly action-packed, with good location work and a solid cast of remarkably straight-faced Hollywood pros. Not much in the way of extras here—just an original trailer—but the new 1080p HD widescreen 1.85:1 transfer is miles above the last time you saw SHADOWS on a bootleg VHS tape.
After a heated exchange with her married lover, Dr. George Tracer (Martin Landau, BLACK GUNN, TV’s THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND), hot-as-hell University of Montreal student Louise Saitta (Carole Laure, SWEET MOVIE, ESCAPE TO VICTORY) gets on the horn to Ottawa to talk to her brother, police captain Tony Saitta (Stuart Whitman, THE MARK, GUYANA: CULT OF THE DAMNED). Unfortunately, Tony is busy blowing away some bank-robbing punks, so he misses his sister’s call. Ex-lover Fred (Jean LeClerc, TV soaps ALL MY CHILDREN and LOVING) spots Louise’s distress and suggests a practical joke as payback for Dr. Tracer’s ungallant behavior. That night, at a student function, Louise is taken seriously ill; professor Margie Cohn (Gayle Hunnicutt, THE WILD ANGELS, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) calls Dr. Tracer, who drops plans with his wife to rush over and aid Louise. Giving her a stimulant, he’s humiliated when she instantly recovers; it was all a joke, and everyone is laughing at the good doctor. However, no one is laughing when, after drinks, Louise keels over dead from a heart attack. That’s when big bad Tony from Ottawa swings into action. Choppering into the city, he’s met by detective Ned Matthews (John Saxon, ENTER THE DRAGON, BLACK CHRISTMAS), who doesn’t say boo to Tony’s vow to track down Louise’s killers, no matter what the cost to Montreal life and property. A key witness to the crime ironically turns out to be blind university music teacher Julie Foster (Tisa Farrow, FINGERS, ZOMBIE), who is in turn stalked for what she might know. Assorted beatings, car and foot chases, and knife mutilations follow before Tony realizes Louise’s murder is far more complicated than he ever imagined.
As the owner of an original AIP one-sheet for SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM, I can assure you its giallo-like comic book image is quite striking in large format; it certainly works in grabbing your attention for this Blu-ray slipcase cover, too. That U.S. poster art was apparently chosen by Scorpion as the default for the Blu-ray slipcase cover, perhaps because it’s fairly iconic among 1970s exploitation fans. The flipside illustrated artwork for their reversible Blu-ray slipcover, showing multiple grimacing Stuart Whitmans turning to fire that big Magnum amid crashing cars and helicopters and trains (perhaps an international version?), is better suited, though, to capturing most of the movie’s screen time, just as alternate title BLAZING MAGNUM seems a more accurate description: SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM is way more DIRTY HARRY than it is THE COLD EYES OF FEAR.
And for a 1970s cop thriller/Italian poliziottesco, SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM opens just right, with a bluesy sax riff, courtesy of composer Armando Trovajoli, playing over aerial shots of overcast, gritty Montreal—the unfamiliar Canadian locales are a big plus here—as director De Martino keeps the suspenseful noir vibe going as we see but don’t hear Landau’s and Laure’s nasty argument. Not wasting any time in a bid to really grab our attention, screenwriters Gianfranco Clerici (DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING, NAZI LOVE CAMP 27) and Vincenzo Mannino (VIOLENT CITY, SYNDICATE SADISTS) quickly switch to Ottawa, where cop Whitman, in response to a bank robbery, guns his car into action (almost plastering a diving-for-cover pedestrian in the bargain) and chases down the hoods, complete with some nifty car flipping and Whitman’s drilling of the perps with his smoking .44 Magnum. Within the first minutes of SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM, we’re hooked on the mystery angle (largely thanks to Landau’s gravitas as a heavy hitting Hollywood supporting player—his presence at least elevates our expectations for the movie), while we’re pleasantly surprised by the adroitly-handled gunplay and pyrotechnics (former A minus-lister Whitman looks fit and tough here, too...but those brows need some trimming).
The rest of SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM alternates—haphazardly—between Whitman’s DIRTY HARRY MEETS DEATH WISH urban cop actioner, and the central murder mystery, with giallo highlights occasionally dropped in for flavor (Farrow’s stalking and Hunnicutt’s gutting is right out of Bava). Whenever plotting or construction become a little awkward—Laure’s poisoning at the indeterminate “school function” is quite clumsily structured, for example—De Martino and his writers quickly throw in a violent confrontation or action set piece to distract us from the fact that the main mystery isn’t really all that mysterious. Most of the supporting characters aren’t developed in any meaningful way; sexy Gayle Hunnicutt’s nympo professor seems interesting, to say the least, but she functions merely as a red herring (she was always underutilized in movies), while stone-faced, not at all amused John Saxon has even less to do (his strongest expression seems to convey a mental preparation of the week’s grocery list). And absurd situations and goofiness in dialogue abound, as we would expect from a Canadian/Italian co-production. Why does Whitman ask for an exhumation of his sister’s body...at the funeral? How does Saxon know that Hunnicutt is a voracious tramp (those are some police files in Montreal—and how about Whitman’s horrendous one-liner when he catches her in a hotel room with Landau’s son: “I didn’t mean to interrupt your penetrating experience.” Cosmically bad)? How is Whitman, a visiting policeman in a city unknown to him, so familiar with people he shouldn’t know, like the little crime boss, or the hotel owner where his sister met her lovers? When those cops start beating on Whitman at the bus locker, why doesn’t he just say he’s another cop?
Notoriously, SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM’s prime head scratcher is Whitman’s assault on three transvestites. Forget trying to understand why a sex shop owner would willingly give out-of-province cop Whitman the address of Montreal’s three transvestites. And forget the fact that they all live together in a swank high-rise penthouse and dress like Totie Fields and say things like, “Cinderella, answer the door.” What’s completely inexplicable is how Whitman busts his way in without asking, beating one of the men to the ground...before he innocently asks everyone to take it easy (a laugh out loud moment). A battle royale ensues, with Whitman almost getting thrown off the building and slashed with a straight razor (those transvestites don’t fool around), before Whitman, nearly skewered with a hot curling iron, takes the weapon and shoves it up his attacker’s rear end...before he casually makes up with the last guy standing, as if nothing happened. Now today, such a scene would demand outrage from the “P.O.C” (“perpetually offended critics”), and there would be calls for the filmmakers’ heads—unless of course the victim was say, a Christian minister, and the director one of their pet darlings, like that hack Tarantino (because his transgressions are “ironic” and “smart,” according to them).
SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM’s action scene logarithms aren’t calculated off today’s P.C. dictates, and that’s why they’re so bracing (and unapologetically entertaining). No politics, no agenda: just frequently outrageous, decidedly wrong moments of crude, blunt violence, without expectations of judgment or guilt...and to hell with the offended. They’re not wanted at this midnight grindhouse showing. SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM may not be much more than a souped-up, hyperviolent episode of Canada’s POLICE SURGEON, punctuated by frequent bursts of R-rated action (that celebrated car chase isn’t as good as everyone says it is—too much flashy, phony “show” with all that pointless fishtailing and wheel spinning—but it’s still pretty cool for such a low-budget offering). However, when an action movie ends up with a cop pumping 9 bullets from his Magnum revolver (before reloading) into a helicopter that’s lurching sickeningly off a hospital roof to potentially crash to the streets below, just so he can exact blind revenge against his sister’s killer—a killer, by the way, that just held a switchblade knife to a newborn baby’s throat...well, that’s just the type of ridiculous old school movie exploitation we crave.
The original elements used here for the new 1080p HD widescreen 1.85:1 transfer aren't perfect. There’s quite a bit of speckling and scratches, while the colors look a tad muddy. Still, image detail is vastly improved over previous VHS and bootleg DVD copies, with grain structure moderately tight, okay contrast (it frequently does have that intentional 1970s gauzy look to Joe D'Amato’s cinematography), and only moderate-at-best image depth. The English language DTS-HD split mono track is relatively clean, if a bit scratchy, but the re-recording level is nice and loud. No subtitles are available. I would have loved to hear some background info on the actual production of SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM, and with all four principle leads very much with us, it’s a shame one of them wasn’t wrangled for a commentary track (or at least a ten minute interview), but it’s certain that an attempt was made to do so. The only extras here are an original AIP trailer for SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM, along with trailers for THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE, BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW (or: “How I Almost Passed Out at the Drive-In Seeing Lynda Carter Partially Naked”), THE PASSAGE and KILLER FORCE. (Paul Mavis)
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