Quante Volte....quella Notte

(Four Times that Night, Italy - 1969)

by Vanes Naldi

Cast: Daniela Giordano, Brett Halsey, Dick Randall, Valeria Sabel, Michael Hinz, Calisto Calisti
Genre: Comedy
Director: Mario Bava
Screenplay: Mario Moroni, Charles Ross
Cinematography: Mario Bava, Antonio Rinaldi
Composer: Coriolano Gori
Runtime: 90 minutes

Truth [noun] - 1 sincerity in action, character, and utterance
2 the state of being the case: the body of real things, events, and facts
3 the property (as of a statement) of being in accord with fact or reality

What is really truth for us? How do we perceive it? Some associate what they perceive as truth to be FACT because they don't consider how the human character can "stain" objectivity with personal biases, prejudice and preconceptions. Real TRUTH is impossible to achieve from a single, subjective opinion, even if we believe it's the truth.

Remember in your childhood when you did something you weren't supposed to do, maybe like fight with your brother (or sister), and got hurt? When explaining what happened, most of the time two different people would tell a different story. They would try to work around it by presenting the case that was the least "harmful" to them to demonstrate the truth in a way that proves their innocence or at least diminishes their guilt. Sometimes we even change truth because we need to: we lie, we fabricate half-truths because the situation requires it. Look at Mario Bava's unusual delve into sexual comedy, and the way each one of the characters presents his own version of the truth, changed like a sculpture in clay based on what they were trying to achieve by telling the story.

Your average moviegoer might consider this another of the many Italian sex trash movies realized in the '60s and '70s that made "stars" out of Lino Banfi, Alvaro Vitali, & Edwige Fenech. If you try to pay attention though, you'll see a much broader view, a much bigger message. You'll find a study on how human character can change the truth, manipulate facts if that serves their purposes. Bava obviously took what he learned from Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon and focused his attention on various themes other than truth and the many ways in which it manifests itself. He focused on the man-woman relationship and the role of each in society. He also focused on issues like homophobia and the differences between classes. Yes, at first glance it might come off as a B-movie like countless others, but it's so much deeper and more intelligent than that tag would suggest.

In Rashomon we saw four versions of the alleged truth. The bandit admitted the rape he was accused of, but never admitted being the killer. The woman stated that the bandit attacked her, but she might actually have been the one who killed the third man. The third "tale" focused on a medium asking the dead man to speak the truth, and finally in the forth act a woodcutter pieced together some of the elements of the first three stories. What we're left wondering is not the identity of the killer and rapist or generally what happened, rather we want to know whose story is the truth. We're given four versions, each one with the character's own POV and changed to fit his perspective. Even though the woodcutter looks to be impartial and his story might be the only plausible one, it never completely satisfies you because the message Kurosawa tried to portray was that truth is not something we can rationalize. It's not absolute and can not be defined by only one perspective. Every truth you hear is altered by the man who tells it, by his motives, by the fact he might be hiding clues to protect himself or someone he cares about.

When there's not a reason to hide the truth, like the woodcutter the man telling the story probably have enough elements to piece it together, and yet prejudice, preconceptions and his opinions might slightly alter what type of truth he's supposed to tell. Like in Kurosawa's film, even at the end of the fourth story - seemingly the most plausible one which connects the dots and takes elements from the previous three flawed, subjective stories - we never really know if what we're seeing is the truth. A gigantic hand takes the car and places it off screen, and we see the hands of the psychologist asking us the big question, if we really think what we saw was the actual truth. The image of the psychologist taking the miniature car in his hands represents a puppeteer manipulating his puppets to present his story. Even the director has told a story, manipulated the truth and changed the facts to fool us. At the end, the message is clear, that you never really know what the truth is.

The biggest connection the four stories have is Tina's ruined dress and John's nail wound in his forehead. Each of the stories gives us a different explanation of these two elements to try to make sense out of them and to make us believe that was really what happened. As the film starts, we first meet Tina (1967's Miss Italy Daniela Giordano) looking at her behind, and we see playboy John arriving with his sports car staring at her. Tina sneaks in her house without making noise and tries to hide her dress from her overly worried mother. She begins fabricating her story to explain to her what happened and why she came home so late.

The film story centers on Tina's "truth." She tells her worried mother the story of this meeting with a handsome, charming playboy who lured her in his trap, bringing her home and trying everything possible to seduce her. When he realized she wouldn't succumb, he tried to rape her and ruined her dress. Trying to defend herself, she used her nails on his forehead and ran home. The perspective here is clearly on Tina's attempts to save face, but we'd never believe the reason why she lied and fabricated the story, or so we believe, since even the last story is not really the truth (or is it?)

In this "episode," Tina plays the role of the insecure, shy young woman who doesn't know what will happen to her. She is afraid of the new and scared of what this evil man can do to her. She even compares him to the devil when describing him to her mother, creating the mental picture of this despicable pervert who tried to force himself on her. We see the first subtheme, homophobia, in the way Bava showcases John's way of seduction. He's the perfect cliché for the Italian playboy, the macho man trying to hunt chicks. He does everything you'd expect, and Brett Halsey's performance helps deliver this message. The way the man is portrayed in this story not only helps Bava look at the cinema in Italy during that period where just about everybody came out with sex comedies, but also with the need to paint himself as a man! Bava himself joked that he made this film because he didn't want to be considered gay. The way John is portrayed helps Tina make her story believable: her mother, with a strict catholic and conservative upbringing still believes all men are like the pictured John, interested in nothing but sex. Thus, Tina achieves her goal of deceiving her mother into thinking it wasn't her fault because she ran home scared after nearly being raped. Another smartly "disguised" subplot touches on the materialism of that mentality, and the hypocrisy of the middle class trying to look like they are more affluent (I don't think it's changed much, but that's just me). If you pay attention, as soon as Tina comes in her mother isn't worried about what happened to her or the reason why she didn't want her to see her; she's worried about why her precious, expensive little blue dress was ruined.

The second story is obviously from John's POV. He sits at a bar talking with his friends, and explains where he got the wound. The friends drink his Kool-Aid and follow his story, which is total opposite of the first one. In this story, Bava portrays the fantasies of men, wanting to be seduced by a woman, to for once be the object of advances. John is shy. He tries to mask his sentiments and is afraid to follow through, afraid of exposing himself. He's scared of Tina's initiative to the point that his only way of escaping Tina's madness is his friends Giorgio and Esmeralda coming to visit. In this story, Tina is the perfect nymphomaniac, constantly and exclusively interested in sex. She's the hunter this time, and John is the hunted. This is the scene with the most explicit sexual content, something Bava has always tried to avoid. Unlike many of the sex comedies of the era, banking on toilet humor and gratuitous sex, in this film it was effectively used to portray John's story. I never expected John's story to be told this way because I've been trained by the portrayal of men's fantasies in other films. I expected him to act like he was the unbeatable playboy who lured the insecure girl into his trap, maybe adding some of his touches to Tina's previous truth. One of the reasons this film is successful is Bava goes deeper and shows what men really want is to have a nymph in their bed asking for more because it goes against the way things normally work.

The third story, undoubtedly the most interesting one, centers on the doorman giving his recollection of the events to the milkman the day after. The man not so subtly represents the average "pervert" who quenched his thirst for voyeurism with the new pornography craze (around that time porno films started to become "famous"), with Bava also offering this story as a way to portray the sense of disconnection from the truth these people have. The doorman uses binoculars to follow the actions of the two characters because he can't participate in the scene; he isn't involved even if he'd like to be. It also portrays how a man's hidden fantasies can be perverted. The man imagines this story where John is this homosexual in disguise who lures Tina into his trap just to offer her as a gift to his friend Esmeralda. Esmeralda is a really eccentric lesbian who tells Tina of the first time she met John, and the fact he wasn't the right man for her, but Tina is too naïve to understand what was going on. This is the section with the most comic relief, with Benny Hill-esque speeded up shots like the doorman frantically running up and down the stairs to get the binoculars. It's also a great study on the fantasies of the man, homophobia, and the fear of being considered gay that would certainly shatter their machismo. The doorman is free to put everything he's interested in, all his most obscure fantasies, in his story even if it's not the truth. Ironically, Bava cast softcore flick extraordinaire Dick Randall, who produced Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks and The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield, among other films. He's got the perfect look of the hypocritical pervert who bashes the young generation for the fact they have no values, don't want even to serve their country anymore, and have long hair and beards, yet he does something way "worse" himself, disguising it as a story.

The final story is what is supposed to be the truth, connecting the dots and presenting a believable, at least seemingly, interpretation of how things went. This shows that the truth is often not as interesting as lies and half-truths are. It is the most conventional of the stories, with the two lovers having a little difficulty with Tina's dress and proposing what would be the first story while Giorgio and Esmeralda, previously present in all three stories and meaning something in one way or another, are just two people coming in without any relation to John. As I said before, the story ends with a gigantic hand taking John's car and putting it off screen, while the camera pans to a toy car held by the psychologist who shatters our belief that THIS was the TRUTH.

Director Mario Bava was a great cinematographer before becoming the master of Italian gothic horror, working for many of the pioneers of the genre including Riccardo Freda. Ironically, in the mid 1950's, an argument between the two resulted in Bava getting the chance to complete Freda's "I Vampiri" (The Devil's Commandment). After that film, Bava's career skyrocketed thanks to another argument with Freda on the film Caltiki, and Bava finally got the chance to express his vision in featured films, showcasing his visual talent and masterful storytelling. His first feature was Black Sunday, one of his best. In a way, Freda attempted revenge against him when this film was censored in Italy. Freda was conservative toward nudity, and the film was considered so offensive that it wasn't shown for years, also thanks to Freda, who was one of the "inspectors." Bava always tried to showcase how human character can change things, how destructive it can be. This was one of his many forays into different genres (he even directed a spaghetti western), but he kept his messages alive and his visual style intact. He was an inspiration for directors like Dario Argento and John Carpenter, especially Argento who was responsible for making the "giallo" genre famous even in Italy where Bava never got the respected he deserved (it's not like he got it elsewhere either).

While not on par visually with some of his horror films, there's a great attention to detail, and some virtuous examples of filmmaking. Two things that particularly interested me were the scene where Tina sits on a swing in John's home and every time she talks the focus moves on her and we see the camera moving like a swing, up and down, cutting between the normal static scene of Esmeralda and Tina. The other was Tina trying to seduce John, using a red glass and putting it in front of her face. Every now and then, the camera would take her POV and show 3/4 of the screen with a red filter. There are other great scenes, like the club, giving a great atmosphere. While the lighthearted tone of the film might suggest a minor work, visually and thematically Four Times That Night is one of Bava's best non-horror films.

The acting is nothing amazing, but it's effective enough to portray the different stories. Daniela Giordano was a big surprise for me, stealing quite a few scenes with her charm and showing at least a bit of range changing character, or better yet personality. Brett Halsey is wonderfully macho in the first story, showing all the possible clichés of the "category," and shining as well as the shy lover. Like Argento, most of the times Bava films focus more on visual style, message, and a great plot instead of acting, even if here it was effective.

If you don't pay attention to the plot, to the messages that are subtly intertwined between the campy stories, you'll lose much of this film because except a few examples of Bava's visual bravura there's not enough to separate it from the rest of the films of this genre. Using those subtle messages though, Bava is able to create a film of deeper meaning, exploring the way truth is perceived and manipulated by human mind. It's also a study on Italian society, machismo and the biggest problem that can shatter it, homophobia. The nudity is never gratuitous, always conveying one fantasy or one facet of the story. It might be campy and lighthearted, but that doesn't mean it isn't as interesting as most of Bava's works. Sadly, few ever talk about him when considering the people who were the most influential in creating a genre, in using visuals to enhance plots. This is one example of his bravura. Even if not as fascinating as his horror works, it's rich in subtext and also pretty ironic.

Gift Set DVD
Gift Set DVD
Gift Set DVD

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