Antonio (Silvano Tranquilli) drives his sports car down the motorway, reminiscing fondly about the day he proposed to Anna (Eva Czemerys). He arrives home to find the front gate wide open and a dead man on his lawn. Anna sits at the kitchen table, shaken and pale, with a gun nearby. She confesses she is responsible and tells her shocked spouse that the dead man was her lover. While Antonio conceals the body from prying eyes and proceeds to clean up all traces of the crime, Anna tells him her whole sad, sordid story.
La Gatto en calore (The Cat in Heat) is not a well-known giallo but features some notable names from the Italian exploitation scene amongst its crew. Assistant director Lamberto Bava and cinematographer Joe D’Amato a.k.a. Aristide Massaccessi both went on to carve significant directing careers whilst the man at the helm in this instance, Nello Rossati had an equally erratic output including spaghetti western sequel Django Strikes Again (1987), the Ursula Andress sex comedy The Sensuous Nurse (1975) and insane genre mash-up Top Line (1988). This obscure effort might be his strongest film. It is far from your usual giallo, being something of a chamber piece, a melancholy, intimate study of a failing marriage and a sad, frustrated housewife, almost a variation on Claude Chabrol’s seminal La Femme Infidèle (1969).
After a compelling set-up, multiple flashbacks sketch in the fine details of the central relationship. Abstaining from bloodshed and with only a modest amount, the tone is unusually sober with solid performances particularly from Eva Czemerys who segues from glamorous desire to haunted shell of a woman with great skill. As the title suggest it all comes down to a sexually unsatisfied woman or, as one character crudely puts it, “cat in heat.” Antonio comes home too tired to make love to his wife, driving Anna to develop an obsession with their neighbour, Massimo (Anthony Fontane), a boorish libertarian would-be artist who spends most of his time either violently abusing or seducing women to the strains of loud classical music. The implication that deep down every woman is gagging for a bit of rough to treat them like crap is undeniably misogynistic but D’Amato’s skilful, psychologically suggestive camerawork vividly conveys the sterile bourgeois lifestyle that either warps or suffocates natural passions. Or as Massimo puts it “middle class people don’t have feelings.”
Massimo embodies the establishment’s idea of a left-leaning twenty-something’s lifestyle: a drug-addicted, self-aggrandising, sexist hippie spouting stale counter-cultural profundities and an artist of no discernible talent. His initially fractious relationship with straight-laced middle class Anna mellows when she finds him beaten up by a couple of jealous boyfriends. Somehow he finds the strength to flirt and harangue Anna about her middle class mores before finally seducing her. As the relationship develops the film segues from maudlin romantic antics including beach-side frolics into increasingly over the top territory once Massimo turns nasty and lures Anna into a satanic menage-a-trois that Rossati films with gusto even though it seems more suited to a giallo like All the Colours of the Dark (1972).
Consistency proves a problem but Antonio’s ongoing efforts to prevent the nosy old doorman from discovering the body are suitably suspenseful and Czemerys’ compelling performance keeps Anna sympathetic. The resolution will strike some as a cop-out but is unusually benign for a genre too often guilty of being overly judgemental and is quietly effective. Gianfranco Plenizzio supplies a lovely main theme but the Wagnerian dirge played throughout Massimo’s midnight orgies induces headaches.