After graduating from the Italian National Film School in the immediate postwar period Flavio Mogherini became one of the most esteemed and sought-after production designers and art directors of the reborn Italian film industry. For a quarter-century he worked on the design of almost 100 films, ranging from the austere black-and-white neo-realism of Roberto Rossellini’s Dov’è la libertà (Where is Freedom?, 1954) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) to the stylised and brightly-coloured excesses of Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1967) and Gian Luigi Polidoro’s Satyricon (1968). By the early 1970s he was ready to write and direct his own films and scored an early success with the quirky provincial comedy Anche se volessi lavorare, che faccio? (Even If I Wanted to Work, What Do I Do?, 1972). Similarly well-received was his second feature, Per amare Ofelia (To Love Ophelia, 1974), a slightly outlandish but sophisticated comedy about a rich young man sexually obsessed with his own mother, which launched what would become the meteoric film career of till-then popular cabaret performer Renato Pozzetto. Making full-use of Pozzetto’s newly-discovered talents for the screen, Mogherini then scored his greatest critical and box office success with Paolo Barca maestro elementare praticamente nudista (Paolo Barca, Schoolteacher and Weekend Nudist, 1975), a wry comedy of manners that managed to place itself fifth in Italian box office earnings for that year, demonstrating that Mogherini had become a force to be reckoned with in the industry. In the end, this early success proved to be relatively short-lived and none of the ten or so films that Mogherini subsequently produced, which included several made specifically for television, succeeded in attracting similarly strong critical or popular appreciation. Among these later works, however, one film does stand out as intensely interesting, especially for Australian audiences: La ragazza dal pigiama giallo (The Girl in the Yellow Pyjamas, also known as The Pyjama Girl Case, 1977) (1).
While perhaps doing little, even posthumously, to enhance Mogherini’s reputation as a serious director, La ragazza has nevertheless consistently found a place in histories of the Italian giallo, one of the several long critically underrated but extremely popular genres which flourished in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.
As most writers on the giallo have noted, its generic formula, both in literature and in cinema, was almost impossibly broad, allowing it to embrace the widest range of variation. So, as Mikel J. Koven suggests, “at its most basic level, any murder-mystery narrative could be classed as a giallo” (2). Nevertheless, it’s generally agreed that the giallo film did achieve something of a “classic” formulation in a series of key films which, from Mario Bava’s La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1962) and Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) to Dario Argento’s L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970) and Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975), managed to lay down what would remain the genre’s most characteristic narrative and visual tropes. These included: an innocent witness to a horrific murder unwittingly drawn into playing the amateur detective in order to bring the culprit to justice; multiple murders (usually of beautiful women) shown in gory detail; a masked, black-gloved killer with almost superhuman capabilities; forces of law and order largely incompetent or inefficient until the end; and the killer’s inevitable death as an orchestrated set piece of spectacular violence (3).
Against this backdrop and ranged within the giallo spectrum, La ragazza inevitably appears to veer more towards the classic gumshoe detective and police procedural and less towards the spectacular goriness of the classic giallo (4). Moreover, even if sometimes indulging in spectacular violence, Mogherini’s film also departs notably from the classic giallo and its highly-improbable fantastic plots by choosing to found itself explicitly on a true case; indeed, even if with a great deal of creative licence, basing itself on perhaps the most famous murder case in Australian criminal history, the so-called “Pyjama Girl Mystery” (5).
In 1934 the badly burned body of a young woman, head wrapped in a hessian bag and clad only in light pyjamas, was discovered by a local farmer along the Howlong Road near Albury, New South Wales. The autopsy suggested that, in spite of a bullet wound beneath the eye, death had in all likelihood been caused by a series of heavy blows to the head with a blunt instrument, which had broken the cranium in several places and disfigured much of the face beyond recognition. Unable to identify the woman as anyone from the surrounding district, the police preserved the body in ice and launched a nationwide campaign for missing persons, going as far afield as New Zealand and England with their inquiries. A huge number of responses poured in, many from individuals who claimed to know for certain the identity of the woman, but after due investigation all were discounted. Unable to close the case, the police decided to move the body to Sydney where it was preserved in a formalin bath and put on show to the public at Sydney University, in the hope that someone might eventually identify the dead woman. For almost a decade thousands of people were able to inspect the body and the police investigated numerous presumed identifications but all to no avail. It was not until early 1944, with the Second World War still raging, that police were able to identify the body as that of Linda Platt, a 29-year-old English woman who had been living in Melbourne with her husband, an Italian migrant named Antonio Agostini, before disappearing just prior to the discovery of the body that had by now become known simply as “the Pyjama Girl”.
In one of the oddest coincidences in this case strewn with oddities and anomalies, Agostini, who had been interned as an enemy alien during the war but subsequently released when Italy had joined the Allies, was at the time working as a waiter at the famous Sydney restaurant Romanos, a place much frequented by the NSW Commissioner of Police, William MacKay. Mackay had in fact been acquainted with Agostini before his marriage to Platt and the couple’s move to inner Melbourne. Agostini, having recently arrived from Italy in 1929, managed the cloakroom at Romanos and MacKay had already been a frequent patron of the prestigious venue at that time. The Commissioner was thus able to simply call Agostini into his office and accuse him of the murder. The mild-mannered Agostini immediately confessed to having killed his wife accidentally one morning when he had awoken to find her holding a pistol to his head and the gun had gone off in the ensuing struggle. Distraught and feeling unable to go to the police for fear of not being believed, Agostini claimed to have subsequently wrapped the body in a hessian bag from his garage and in the middle of the night driven into the countryside near Albury where he had dumped it in a culvert beneath the road and set it alight with petrol. Then he had driven home.
According to Agostini the couple’s marriage had been in crisis for some time due to his wife’s propensity to drink heavily and frequently accuse him of infidelity. She had thus disappeared from home a number of times before, not least because, as a hairdresser by profession, she sometimes accepted periods of work on a cruise liner. Consequently, although the police had questioned Agostini at home in their original efforts to identify the body, he had claimed that his wife had left him, as she had previously often done, and he had no knowledge of her present whereabouts; and he had been believed. This had been aided by what turned out to be an inaccurate dental examination of the corpse in the first instance by a dentist inexperienced in such matters, providing police with no specific reason to connect the corpse with Linda. It was in part a redress of this inaccurate dental reading by the Sydney dentist who had originally treated Agostini’s wife which had now allowed the police to make their identification.
Agostini did sign a written confession but it included no admission of battering his wife to death and, moreover, he would never acknowledge that the body he had seen in the formalin bath was actually his wife. The situation became even more complicated at the very long coronial inquest that followed, during which doubt continued to be cast on the identification of the Pyjama Girl with Linda Agostini.
For in 1939 the continuing publicity surrounding the case had prompted a respected Sydney physician and aspiring amateur sleuth by the name of Dr Palmer Benbow to undertake his own investigation. Motivated solely, he always claimed, by a desire to solve the crime as a public service, Benbow conducted his own inquiries in Albury, and after questioning an old woman living in a dilapidated hut on Albury Common, known locally as Quinn’s Shack, came to believe that the Pyjama Girl had been murdered there. Over the years a number of people had suggested that the body could have been that of a young woman by the name of Anna Philomena Morgan. Although the girl’s mother had already been shown the body by the police and had discounted the identification, Dr Benbow persuaded the mother to examine the body again and this time the mother declared unequivocally that the dead girl was her daughter. Never able to persuade the police, Benbow nevertheless continued to build his case and eventually was able to have Anna’s mother and a number of other witnesses appear officially at the coronial inquest in 1944. Consequently, in spite of Agostini’s signed confession and his presence at the inquest, it was the identity of the Pyjama Girl that continued to be in question. Eventually, after the longest and most complex inquest in the history of Victoria, the coroner ruled that the body was that of Linda Platt and consequently committed Agostini to stand trial for the murder of his wife.
The trial also reserved a number of surprises. Agostini had confessed on paper to being involved in the shooting of his wife but his belated explanation of the victim’s massive head wounds having resulted from a fall down the stairs when he was moving the body appeared singularly unconvincing, especially because there had been no mention of it in his original confession. It had all the signs of being prompted ex post facto to Agostini, possibly by Commissioner MacKay himself. Oddest of all, and in spite of the corroborating evidence, Agostini continued to maintain that he did not recognise the woman in the formalin bath at Sydney University as his wife. But perhaps the greatest surprise of all was the jury’s verdict. Asked to rule on a charge of murder the jury returned a verdict of not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. The judge himself expressed astonishment, telling Agostini that he thought the jury had been merciful to him, believing him to have been tried beyond endurance by her drinking and accusations of jealousy. He would consequently impose a term of imprisonment of six years with hard labour (6). In the event, in part due to good behaviour and in part to a general amnesty granted at the end of the war, Agostini only served three years and nine months and upon release was deported to Italy and not heard from again. Never acknowledged by Agostini as the body of his wife, the remains of the Pyjama Girl were buried in July 1944 in an unmarked grave at the state’s expense, with only a small number of the public in attendance and four journalists acting as pallbearers.
As an episode in Australian cultural history, the fascination of the Pyjama Girl case for an Australian audience must be obvious enough, but one wonders what aspects of it would have drawn the interest of an Italian director like Mogherini. The migrant dimension must have functioned as one drawcard for, although Agostini’s Italianness never appears to have been raised as a major issue in the case as it unfolded historically, the immigrant status of the equivalent character in the film, Antonio Attolini (Michele Placido), and his struggle to adapt to life in Australia, are continually highlighted and arguably responsible for the death of both Linda/Glenda (Dalila Di Lazzaro) and Antonio himself. It must thus seem significant that, prior to beginning to direct his own films, Mogherini had collaborated on the production design of the only other Italian feature set and filmed in Australia, Luigi Zampa’s Bello, onesto, emigrato Australia sposerebbe compaesana illibata (Girl in Australia, 1971), a film made unashamedly as a vehicle for Italian comic actor Alberto Sordi, but which, for all its comedy, was clearly an attempt to give voice to the almost insurmountable difficulties faced by male Italian migrants in finding a marriage partner in Australia. It’s unclear how long Mogherini spent in Australia during this earlier film but it is tempting to speculate that it may indeed have been during this time that he became acquainted with the Pyjama Girl case and possibly even scouted the locations he would later use for his own film (7).
But perhaps the aspect of the Pyjama Girl case most likely to have attracted an Italian director intending to make a giallo in Australia would have been the morbid and quasi-erotic fascination with the spectacle of death which seemed to lie at the very heart of the saga, arguably the very same attraction furnished by the spectacularisation of death at the heart of the classic giallo itself. Indeed, where Italian giallo aficionados might have needed to go to the cinema in order to watch death being put on show as an erotic spectacle, here the Australian public had been offered an almost equivalent spectacle for free for almost a decade. In reality, of course, the body had been badly burned and mutilated and must have been a horrific sight to behold, but the notion that on the point of death she had been wearing (was still wearing?) pyjamas must have persisted, at least in the imagination, to generate an erotic frisson.
That this may indeed have been the major attraction for Mogherini appears to be borne out by the fact that the death of Linda/Glenda in the film, when we eventually get to it, is almost perfunctory and unspectacular, whereas the obvious centrepiece and high point of the film remains the sequence where the public is brought in to view the body. Accompanied by Riz Ortolani’s non-diegetic but suggestively throbbing and hypnotic electronic score, a throng of curious visitors mill past and around the beautiful naked female body in the glass case. Among them, significantly, is the unsavoury Quint, whom the police will soon wrongly charge with Glenda’s murder and who earlier in the film we have seen masturbating while spying through the blinds on the woman next door (8). Lying on its side, as in the provocative pose of a Playboy model, the body clearly and blatantly invites the onlooker’s erotic gaze. Several short, sharp inserts of a horribly blackened and scarified face serve to momentarily remind us of the figure of death but the camera nevertheless quickly returns to linger over the beautiful, model-perfect female body which thus continues to captivate our gaze. At the same time, the placement of the case in the middle of the room not only makes possible, but also positively encourages, an exhaustive inspection of the body from every possible angle. As the camera itself shifts around to get other views of it, we see several men crawl under the glass case to look upward, aspiring perhaps to look even inside this body, to grasp its ultimate mystery (perhaps the mystery of death itself?). And, in a cheekily ironic touch, for a second or two, in the midst of this veritable orgy of looks, a policeman is shown raising his hand in order to stop a Japanese tourist from taking a souvenir photograph of the body on show. Ironic, because as we learn after the room has completely emptied, the entire process has been recorded on closed-circuit TV.
A stunning scene, then, that succeeds brilliantly in visually emblematising the erotic voyeurism at the very centre of the Pyjama Girl saga, but whose full import does not become apparent – as in all good gialli – until the very end. For we have, of course, already seen this female body displayed for us in all its voluptuousness earlier on in the film, admittedly first seen clothed in the early post-coital scene with Professor Douglas (Mel Ferrer) (but creating a mental picture of her nakedness by volunteering the fact that she doesn’t wear panties beneath her jeans), but then completely naked in her first post-coital session with Roy (Howard Ross) when, fully on display, Glenda asks him (and us): “Enjoying the show?” And yet, by the genial stratagem of the parallel narrative structure of the film, whose duplicity – again as in the best gialli – we do not realise until the very end, we look on this body, now again on show, but continue to be uncertain about its actual identity (9).
It’s unfortunate that the extraordinary expressive capacities demonstrated by Mogherini in this sequence seldom emerge in the rest of the film. And despite the undoubted efficacy of the parallel narrative in generating a certain amount of much-needed tension and suspense, it also foments a lack of focus as it drifts between retired Detective Thompson’s (Ray Milland) Chandleresque search for the killer and Glenda and Antonio’s family melodrama. Moreover, as more than one Italian reviewer pointed out at the time, the inclusion of the migrant theme may be laudable in theory but in practice the film’s straining towards social commentary weakens its giallo credentials, recasting it less as a crime thriller and more as social drama (10). And, even so, Antonio’s outburst just before he’s killed rings singularly unconvincing, and in what appears to be an exhaustion of ideas, Mogherini restages his death almost frame by frame, as an imitation of the death of Girasole (Enzo Cerusico), the head of the group of young petty criminals in Mogherini’s debut film, Anche se volessi. A true giallo in the classic mould might have engineered a more gruesome death for its killer but then Antonio is hardly a killer in the classic mould (11).
Whatever its deficiencies as a classic giallo, however, Mogherini’s film perhaps remains most interesting for the way in which it manages, wittingly or unwittingly, to translate one deeper dimension of the whole Pyjama Girl saga. In his book on the case, Richard Evans has carefully sifted through all the anomalies surfacing in the available evidence and come to the most surprising conclusion of all: that Antonio probably did accidentally kill his wife, as he admitted, but that she was not the girl whose body was put on show for all those years, as he also consistently maintained. As bizarre as it may seem, Evans suggests a close examination of the evidence leads logically to the inescapable conclusion that there must indeed have been two bodies, one of which, that of Linda Agostini, was simply never found (12). It is highly doubtful whether Mogherini’s own limited knowledge of the case would have led him to such a paradoxical conclusion but the parallel narrative structure of the film effectively leaves the viewer with a similar feeling of slippage and duplicity, even after the narrative comes together at the end. Indeed, even with the threads tied up neatly, almost glibly, we remain shrouded in a cloud of unknowing. Just like those members of the audience whom Mogherini’s son, Daniele, remembers coming out of the cinema when the film was first released in Italy, saying to each other: “It was great, but I didn’t understand a thing”(13).
The Pyjama Girl Case is screening at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival on Saturday 3 August and Tuesday 6 August.
- For a complete overview of Mogherini and his work see Andrea Pergolari’s Flavio Mogherini scenografo praticamente regista, Arachne, Rome, 2009.
- Mikel J. Koven, La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2006, p. 3 (emphasis in the original). But for a characterisation of the genre see also Gary Needham, “Playing with Genre: Defining the Italian giallo”, Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, ed. Steven Jay Schneider, Godalming, FAB, 2003. After long being dismissed as unworthy of consideration, the genre and its key films have now been given pride of place in Louis Bayman’s Directory of World Cinema: Italy, Intellect, Bristol, 2011, pp. 132-153. Italians themselves have also in more recent times come to acknowledge the importance of the genre with the publication of, among others, Gialli, polizieschi, thriller: tutti i film italiani dal 1930 al 2000, ed. Enrico Lancia and Roberto Poppi, Gremese Editore, Rome, 2004, and Antonio Bruschini and Antonio Tentori, Guida al cinema giallo e thrilling made in Italy, Profondo Rosso, Rome, 2010. The Internet, of course, has long bristled with websites in many languages, all celebrating the giallo.
- For a more extensive characterisation of the classic giallo tropes see Koven, p. 6 ff.
- This point is highlighted by Koven, p. 7.
- The Pyjama Girl case has been written about ad infinitum, as well as being the subject of a documentary, Australia Today – The Pyjama Girl Murder Case, made in 1939 by the maverick Australian filmmaker Rupert Kathner (now available on the Australian Screen Online website). The best overall account and critical evaluation of both the case and the literature surrounding it is Richard Evans’ The Pyjama Girl Mystery: A True Story of Murder, Obsession and Lies, Scribe, Carlton North, 2004. An informative half-hour interview with Evans summarising his book is included on the DVD release of Mogherini’s film in English by Blue Underground, The Pyjama Girl Case, 2006.
- The fullest blow-by-blow account of the trial is provided by Robert Coleman in his The Pyjama Girl, Hawthorn Press, Melbourne, 1978. For the judge’s comment see also Evans, p. 186.
- There is no indication, even from Pergolari’s remarkably thorough study, as to how Mogherini may have become acquainted with the Pyjama Girl saga. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary one can imagine that, while in Australia, he may have chanced upon a copy of the anonymously-published The Pyjama Girl and Other Bizarre Australian Crimes, Horwitz, Sydney, 1962. With a cover in lurid colours depicting a shadowy ape-like male figure lumbering across a stormy field carrying an unconscious buxom blonde in his arms, it may have suggested itself as the Australian equivalent of the Mondadori gialli series from which the Italian genre borrowed its name. Its brief (13 pages) and surprisingly sober account of the murder does contain all the major factual elements of the case that are included in the film, so that would certainly make it a possible contender. The case subsequently fell out of sight for a time but was brought back into the public spotlight at the beginning of 1976 when Robert Coleman published a series of articles in the Sydney Sun newspaper contextualising an unfinished letter by Linda Agostini to her mother in England, which had recently come to light in Melbourne. In fact, even as Mogherini’s crew were filming in Sydney in mid 1977 Coleman must have been putting the finishing touches on his attempt at a definitive account of the case which would be published the following year – but there is no indication that he was ever consulted. Coleman was certainly aware that a film on the Pyjama Girl was being made – he mentions it in his foreword – but oddly credits it as the work of “the famous film producer, Gino Milozza” (p. v). The film was actually produced by Giorgio Salvioni who had already produced Mogherini’s extremely successful Per amare Ofelia.
- The lecherous but ultimately harmless figure of Quint (Giacomo Assandri) is, of course, Mogherini’s own invention but the name itself may indicate that Mogherini was also remembering, and trying to include reference in the film to, Dr Benbow’s contention that the Pyjama Girl had been Anna Philomena Morgan and she had been battered to death in Quinn’s Shack by the owner of the hut, Ginger Quinn, and her body later removed and dumped with the help of his family. (Benbow claimed he had been told this by the old woman living in the shack, Lucy Collins). Mogherini would have been aware of the allegation if his source for the Pyjama Girl saga had been the anonymous publication mentioned above since it figures quite prominently in that account. Unlike poor Quint in the film, Ginger Quinn was never charged by the police but he was so severely and persistently tarred with the allegation that the coroner at the 1944 coronial inquiry felt obliged to specifically and publicly exonerate him from any involvement. See Coleman, pp. 60-61.
- It is interesting to note that the film’s “dual structure” – essentially a series of unsignposted flashbacks – was an expedient devised completely as an afterthought in the editing room. See Pergolari, p. 326.
- For reviews of the film see Pergolari, pp. 329-340.
- Indeed, in the film, almost as a translation of the fact that in the historical case Antonio had never admitted to battering his wife to death, it is not Antonio but his friend, and Glenda/Linda’s other lover, Roy, who actually delivers the coup de grâce with the blunt instrument. He is arrested but remains alive at the end.
- Evans, p. 228 ff. Evens also stresses this point in his interview on the Blue Underground DVD of Mogherini’s film and in his ABC radio interview, now available online: http://www.abc.net.au/tv/rewind/txt/s1161693.htm
- “Bello, ma non c’ho capito niente”. Daniele Mogherini, in an interview in Pergolari, p. 326.