Flavio Mogherini's Italian/Spanish co-production, The Pyjama Girl Case, is one of the more underrated gialli to emerge from Europe in the late 1970s. Rather than play to audience expectations with a story of a black-gloved madman killing nubile young women in gruesome ways, Mogherini's film draws inspiration from a real-life crime and tells a rather melancholy tale of domestic discord and the quest to find a young woman's murderer. At times Pyjama Girl resembles a cross between a documentary and a Lifetime movie -- mainly due to its parallel narratives, one presented in a more traditional chronological order, the other also told chronologically but with large gaps between events. This, along with several other uncharacteristic elements combine to make a giallo that is palatable for wider audiences, but one that fans of the subgenre will flock to for its unique tone.
Ray Milland plays a retired detective who takes an interest in the case of a murdered young woman, whose body is found on a local beach. The unidentified corpse has been shot, bludgeoned to death, and then had her face burned beyond recognition -- and unraveling the mystery of her identity will lead the curmudgeonly cop head-long into a tangled web of love, deceit, and murder. When a gruesome, public display of the woman's body conjures a possible ID for the victim, the cops set out and make an arrest. Milland, however, is unconvinced that they've gotten the right man and sets off to capture the real killer -- but he may be too late.
Mogherini's drew inspiration for his story from a real-life murder case in 1930's Australia and the director certainly plays with the social and cultural tensions of Sydney's "immigrants" throughout the film -- casting a dark and sleazy shadow over several of the characters -- something that has been an earmark of the genre: exotic locations and themes of exoticism and alienation. Setting the film in Sydney gives Pyjama Girl Case a more modern and cosmopolitan feel than many of the gialli set in Rome -- something that only serves to drive home the film's subtextual commentary on displacement and being a foreigner in a strange land. Tension also mounts via the sexual/gender politics that surface through the female lead's interactions with her various lovers.
The film's events unfold mainly through Dalila Di Lazzaro's character, Glenda -- the ultimate object/subject. She's also a "foreigner" -- from The Netherlands -- but as a leading lady, she's not quite the passive, shrinking violet fans have come to identify with the subgenre. She's most likely the cinematic embodiment of the burgeoning Women's Liberation movement -- this was 1977 afterall. Regardless, her character is unlike the coiffed Italian scream queens that came before her, physically and otherwise. Glenda wears little to no makeup, has a mop of messy hair, is sexually liberated, and both fragile and forward when it suits her. She validates her happiness through the men she sleeps with -- yearning for love and passion more than a quick roll in the hay. And yet, when she thinks she finds that mutuality, she wants nothing more than to escape and ends up feeling lost and abandoned. She empowers herself in several ways throughout the film, most notably near the movie's end when she becomes both whore and pimp -- something that parallels the film's double edge of exploitation cinema mirroring the exploitation of its characters.
The film treats us to another great Riz Ortolani instrumental score, featuring two vocal tracks by French disco artist, Amanda Lear. At first the songs incite a few giggles, but upon closer listening Look at Her Dancing and Your Yellow Pyjama are filled with the same sadness as Pyjama Girl's melancholic tale, even though the song's lyrics are annoyingly and blatantly trying to illustrate the film's events. The rest of the tracks are pulsing, synth beats that are more reminiscent of a sci-fi adventure flick than a giallo movie.
On a lighter note, we're also treated to:
A masturbating, Peeping Tom.
Ray Milland making the universal "jerking off" sign.
Lots of amazing beards.
A midget in a sweater.
A sleazy, Italian cowboy.
And morbidly curious band girls.
It's unfortunate that more fans haven't experienced The Pyjama Girl Case. Boasting an engaging mystery, a hilarious performance from Ray Milland and a surprising amount of subtext -- this is certainly one of the finer examples of later giallo cinema. The maudlin atmosphere, lack of gore/violence and Australian setting is a break from the norm, but these things help Mogherini's film stand out from its many contemporaries in a positive way. Viewers looking for a thriller that distinguishes itself from the pack should definitely check out this underappreciated film.