A sadomasochistic pervert is strangled to death by a transvestite hooker. The killer then murders a woman on an empty bus. Inspector Gaspare Lomenzo (Michele Placido) takes on the case but is baffled by an ongoing string of seemingly unconnected deaths. When Jeanne (Corinne Clery), a beautiful model and party girl, befriends Lomenzo she reveals the victims were all guests at a sleazy party thrown by Hoffmann (John Steiner), a wealthy children's author and closet degenerate. It seems the party got out of control resulting in the accidental death of a young prostitute named Rosa Catena (Sarah Crespi). Lomenzo suspects the killer is likely Rosa's vengeful pimp, Agostino. Yet his investigation unearths a more complex and unsettling conspiracy.
Former Mondo filmmaker Paolo Cavara made two offbeat, equally outstanding giallo thrillers: The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) and E Tanta Paura whose original Italian title translates as Too Much Fear although its more widespread English title is Plot of Fear. Except in Sweden where, for some reason, it was re-titled Bloody Peanuts. Those zany Swedes. Co-written by Bernardo Zapponi, then fresh off a groundbreaking collaboration with Dario Argento on Deep Red (1975), with input from comedy scribe Enrico Oldoini, has elements in common with the earlier giallo. Specifically the lurid children's book that provides a vital clue and the repeated flashbacks to a traumatic event that relay fresh information from shifting perspectives.
Around this time several gialli touched on the subject of rich and powerful middle-aged men exploiting vulnerable young women. Yet Cavara's film treads its own sociopolitically-charged path. Plot of Fear forgoes conventional moral outrage and paints a far more unnerving and ambiguous scenario where reactionary and progressive attitudes towards the permissive society of the Seventies are mere currencies manipulated by those playing a more elaborate game. The key figure here is Pietro Riccio played by the venerable Eli Wallach in one of his Italian cult film roles (a young Tom Skerritt also turns up as Lomenzo's superior and, like Wallach, is jarringly voiced by a different actor in the English dub). Riccio is the shady but well-connected head of an all-pervasive surveillance agency. He not only holds dirt on seemingly every rich and infamous player in town but, as Lomenzo comes to discover, the technological means to manipulate their sordid secrets to his ambiguous advantage. Along with a touch of post-Watergate techno-paranoia in common with Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), Plot of Fear's political themes and stylish mis-en-scene (both Franco Di Giacomo's cinematography and Franco Fumagalli's production design are exemplary) reflect the influence of more 'serious' sociopolitical satirists Francesco Rosi (especially Illustrious Corpses (1976)) and Bernardo Bertolucci. Cavara keeps one foot in the commercially sound arena of sleazy exploitation, sating fans with gory murders, gratuitous nudity and sleaze (including a pornographic cartoon created for the film by noted erotic animator Gibba, of King Dick (1973) infamy) but also gives viewers plenty of food for thought.
Unusually for genre that wallows in sensationalism while more often than not upholding a hypocritically conservative stance, Plot of Fear manages to denounce true amorality while adopting a relatively benign view of the freewheeling hedonistic Seventies. Oldoini's contribution is evident in the film's disarmingly light touch. It is a rare giallo where the comedy not only works but reinforces core themes, as when Lomenzo listens bemused while a conservative and progressive in police custody deliver their respective takes on the killer's motives. Michele Placido's affable cop is drawn as an educated man of progressive ideals able to empathize with criminals without condoning them. At one point he drives past a young couple making love in the park and remarks while the state considers that a crime he does not. The boyish, caring, vulnerable and funny Lorenzo and the sensual, morally compromised yet warm and playful Jeanne make an endearing crime-solving duo. Sort of a hip, swinging Nick and Nora Charles for the giallo set. Their fumbling romance injects a certain sweetness even while their steamy love scenes recreate illustrations from The Joy of Sex. Indeed the film is suffused in moments of disarming humanity as when police catch Rosa's pimp while laying flowers on her grave. If the film blunts its satire somewhat by drawing the degenerate rich as cartoonish grotesques it still succeeds in placing the leads' evolving relationship as the heart of a labyrinthine mystery where the self-righteous have their own morals turned against them.