Warning: there will be spoilers
Hamburg’s drug scene is hit by a series of professional killings. All victims are enemies of drug kingpin Schürmann (that’s the way you’d actually spell it in German, not the way the film spells it), so the police seems to have their work cut out for them.
Unfortunately, whatever investigating Inspector Franz Bulon (John Mills) does leads him nowhere. Witnesses disappear, or are murdered just after Bulon first hears of them. Why, one could think there’s a mole in the police force very professionally delivering vital information about the investigation to Schürmann. But that’s not the only problem with Bulon and his investigation. The aged cop is driven to distraction by outbursts of insane jealousy for his much younger wife Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi), whom he met during a criminal investigation where she was suspected of being involved in the drug trade somehow. Lisa is understandably dissatisfied with the way her husband treats her. But then, she’s acting in ways to not only make a paranoid old cop wonder, so the way Bulon treats Lisa is still quite insane but also not very surprising. Later developments will even make it clear that Bulon isn’t actually wrong about Lisa. This doesn’t make the cop’s behaviour any more sane, though.
After many a false trace and despite all jealous fuming, Bulon – who must have been a ruthless yet effective cop once – finds the professional killer who does Schürmann’s dirty work. Max Lindt (Robert Hoffmann), as he is called, is just about to leave Hamburg forever when Bulon catches up to him, having his own troubles with his boss. And that would surely be that for the case, if Bulon didn’t see something that convinces him absolutely of Lisa’s cheating ways right when he is hauling Max in. Why not offer the killer freedom in exchange for murdering Lisa?
Bulon’s insane idea results in further complications. Lindt, beginning to enjoy himself, decides to first make contact with Lisa before killing him. Making contact with Lisa and falling madly in lust with her is (and I won’t say that I blame the man) a question of minutes. From here on out, things proceed rather a lot like anybody not one of the film’s characters would expect.
Massimo Dallamano’s A Black Veil For Lisa starts out as that most curious of things, a police procedural I actually enjoy watching, spiced up with at first little yet ever more frequent occurrences of giallo elements. Once Bulon decides – if you can call something based on pure irrational rage a decision – to have his wife killed and betray everything he must have believed in once in the process, the police procedural completely transforms into a very noir-ish giallo, the orderly, sober-minded world of the police procedural turns crazy and emotional.
I particularly love how Dallamano and his four co-writers decide not to use a sudden turn from police procedural to giallo here but show the film’s style slowly turning from police procedural to giallo, as Bulon’s state of mind and morals slowly deteriorate further (he’s already deeply compromised in the film’s beginning) until he reaches a breaking point that finishes the transformation. It’s not difficult to interpret this approach as a political statement that also tells the audience something about the central character (or the other way around): chaos and disorder are living especially under the veneer of pronounced orderliness and discipline, and are all the more explosive in the proponents of order because they repress and deny them. Even though order – such as it is – is restored in the end of the film, it’s an ending that comes with a heavy price, leaving questions unanswered and the world only set right again in the most superficial interpretation.
One of the most interesting questions is how calculating a woman Lisa truly is. The film never really makes clear if she only married Bulon to milk him for information from the very beginning, or if it was Bulon’s inability to have any faith in her that drove her to it. I’m glad the film leaves this aspect to open, because it also leaves room for Lisa being an actual human being instead of the mythical femme fatale. The film’s ending really suggests the more human interpretation, too, but it leaves enough of what happened between Lisa and Bulon in the past untold to make this question unanswerable for any outsider.
This might have something to do with the next interesting aspect of Dallamano’s film: unlike many mysteries – be it giallos, police procedurals, cozies – the film is not at all interested in judging its three central characters. Bulon, Lisa and Max are all three capable of committing – and are in fact committing – various amoral, illegal and horrible acts, yet the film just isn’t willing to judge them for these acts at all. Instead, there’s a feeling of unsentimental sympathy for all of them running through the film, as far from the cynical sneer the giallo often loves as it is from staunch moralizing or singing hymns to vigilantism. In that sense, this is as humanist a giallo as I can remember seeing, which might be what happens to a film that is as carefully concentrated on understanding its characters as A Black Veil is.
In his project of keeping his characters human, Dallamano is helped along by very strong performances from Mills, Paluzzi and Hoffmann. On one hand, the actors manage to fulfil the expectations an audience will have for the mystery archetypes they embody, yet on the other they give them a subtle and believable humanity and complexity that makes them more than mere archetypes.
Dallamano’s visual treatment of the film is often equally winning as the acting and the script are. The director gives even the rather talking head bound early phases of the film a high degree of dynamism, as if to demonstrate that yes, you can film even a brown and bland office that is quite believably German, and therefore particularly brown and bland, in interesting yet not distracting ways. Dallamano actually uses quite a few flashy techniques, but he puts them so organically in service of the film’s plot and characters you have to watch out for them to realize what he’s doing. It’s pretty fantastic.
Which also turns out to be a fitting description of the film as a whole. Where else will you find a humanist, elegant, and subtle noir-influenced giallo than here?