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Paranoia (1969)
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by Jay Seaver

"It's not paranoia if they are out to get you."
4 stars

"Paranoia" (or "Orgasmo", its original Italian name) could almost be a play, so tightly does it focus on its core set of characters. This allows it to be single-minded in slowly turning the screw on its main character, working the audience's nerves without distraction.

Kathryn West (Carroll Baker) arrives in Italy a recent widow, remembered in New York more as a gold-digger than a once-promising artist. She's not quite welcomed to her new villa with open arms by longtime housekeeper Teresa (Lilla Brignone), and defying her is part of the reason she opens the house to Peter Donovan (Lou Castel), a handsome expatriot American. Sparks quickly fly, but threaten to fizzle when she sees him with sultry Eva (Colette Descombes). Not to worry, though - she's his sister. Yeah, that's it. His sister.

Kathryn's an interesting character, and Carroll Baker is interesting casting, because the temptation might be to go with someone younger, more obviously a trophy wife. If that's what Kathryn is, she's at least put some time in for her inheritance. Yeah, she's connecting with with Peter kind of fast, but even with as little as Kathryn begrudgingly says about her marriage, it doesn't seem unreasonable that she's ready for somebody to see her that way. She may have genuinely loved her husband, but she spent her youth on him and maybe it was a while since they'd been intimate. You can read a lot into her words and actions, even when she's saying that the details of her marriage are no-one's business but her own.

So Kathryn's vulnerable and kind of sympathetic, with Peter and Eva doing a good job of becoming more threatening as the film goes on. There's a dangerous chemistry to them in whatever configuration they use - either one with Baker, the pair with each other, or them working off Caroll Baker as a unit. The dynamic between them is tantalizingly uncertain - we're never sure quite how perverse their relationship is, or whether they can be turned against each other. They're both sexy enough to provide plenty of raw titilation, both before and after their more sinister side makes an appearance.

The performances are somewhat on the theatrical side, especially Castel's and Descombes's. It may come off as fake to those used to a more naturalistic style of acting. Of course, since the print shown was dubbed into English, I might be getting a bad read on the performances. The main triangle works well off each other, at least. The various minor characters are fairly standard types - Tino Carraro as the courtly lawyer, Lilla Bringnone and Franco Pesce as the long-time servants, the old biddies of aunts - but they're well-realized.

For the most part, execution is quite good, especially when it's just Kathryn, Peter, and Eva going at each other. It's far from perfect, though - as much as Carroll Baker makes us believe in Kathryn, she is frequently the victim of the idiot plot (the movie would end a lot sooner if she acted in some way other than pathetic at almost any point other than when the pacing requires an escape attempt). There is, I think exactly one song on the soundtrack, repeated over and over again. Sure, it's supposed to drive Kathryn nuts, but it gets on the audience's nerves pretty well, too. And I'm not sure which ending is more ridiculous - the one that seems to imply that the characters have gone through far more trouble than they had to or the one which almost literally comes out of nowhere.

Ah, well. For all its faults, "Paranoia" is still a quite enjoyable, titilating thriller for the late 1960s.

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originally posted: 06/17/07 13:14:49
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