Movie Matters #33 supplement 1 - The Fifth Cord novel/film comparison

Wednesday, 2 September, 2015

As an addendum to our Luigi Bazzoni double bill episode, we present this comparison between the film version of THE FIFTH CORD and its source novel, kindly provided to us by Peter (a.k.a. SignorWardh) and reproduced here with his permission.

THE FIFTH CORD has been a favourite giallo of mine ever since I first saw it. There are a number of reasons for this; the stunning cinematography, the great set pieces, the excellent cast and one of Morricone finest giallo soundtracks. The script however has always felt a bit confusing to me. I’ve had the feeling that important bits of information have been left out and found myself struggling to keep up with some of the plot developments. Having read the source novel, a lot has fallen into place and given me information that doesn’t really come across in the film. It really made me enjoy the film even more when I revisited it the other night.

D.M. Devine’s book is hardly great literature, but it’s an enjoyable classical detective story. It didn’t necessarily strike me as something that cried out to be filmed, but Bazzoni, Mario Fanelli and Mario de Nardo obviously saw something in it and I’m glad they did. A number of things have been changed in the film of course. The story’s setting has been moved from the smaller town of Kenburgh, somewhere in northern Britain, to an urban Italian setting.

Franco Nero’s character Andrea Bild is called Jeremey Beald in the book and his portrayal is fairly close to how the character is written in the book. He is described as a gifted reporter with a big heart, but who is disillusioned with his career and life in general and is on the verge of full-blown alcoholism. A lot of his problems seem to hark back to a wrong-doing from a former colleague (who also appears in the book). This wrong-doing is alluded to numerous times in the book, but the nature of it is never fully-explained.

The character played by Pamela Tiffin, Lù Auer, is called Kathleen Ryan in the book and her brother Ryan (Walter in the film) is a witness to the first attack.

Helene is called Helen in the book and is widowed (rather than being married and in the process of divorce). She is an old school friend of Jeremy’s and it’s fairly clear from the beginning that she’ll develop into a love interest. She is very protective of Jeremy and wants to help him pull himself together, but he keeps pushing her away. She comes off a bit more harsh and fed up with Nero in the film, but I think she is well portrayed by Silvia Monti. Her son Tony is called Peter in the book and is 11 years old, considerably older than in the film.

Richard Bini and his disabled wife Sophia are called Dick and Alice Binnie. They’re portrayed in much the same way in the book as in the film. The doctor resents his wife (the bedridden victim of a stroke and former bridge partner of Jeremy’s) and is cheating on her with his receptionist.

Edmund Purdom and Ira von Fürstenberg and characters Edouard and Isabel are called Duncan and Isabel and are featured a lot more in the book. Edmund’s father also plays an important role in the book.

The character of Lubbock is the one who differs to most. In the book it’s a woman called Jean Lubbock. A teacher at the school, who is described as a “pathetic creature, unattractive in looks and in personality.”

The introduction of the main characters is made at a parent-teachers association meeting rather than the swanky nightclub setting of a New years eve party. I really like the opening in the film, but I think it somewhat misses the mark from a narrative point of view. You can hear the guests congratulating Isabel and Edouard, but I think the introduction of the characters and their relationships could have been made a bit clearer from the beginning.

The film continues to follow the plot of the book fairly well for the first couple of murders. The initial attack in the tunnel and the murder of Dr Binis’s wife are very alike, but the third murder of the newspaper editor is an amalgamation of two murders in the book; the murder of the editor (who is a senior reporter in the book) and the attempted murder of Edouard’s father, where he succumbs to a heart attack before he is killed.

After this murder the script deviates quite a bit from the book. A lot of time is spent at the news desk in the book, but that has been left out in favour of scenes that presumably worked better on-screen. These include the visit to Lu’s brother Walter at the race track and the whole sex party sub-plot.

The attempted murder of Tony is changed as well. In the book it happens during the daytime when Helen has popped out to the hairdressers. The change-up up to the empty and stylish villa obviously works a lot better on-screen and is one of my favourite sequences in the film. The denouement is changed as well. The lengthy final chase sequence is added.

One of the biggest mysteries has always been why it’s called The Fifth Cord. The title makes a lot more sense in the book though. A card from firm of undertakers is found at the site where Lubbock is attacked (see attached picture of the books cover). The card is handed to near relatives and friends of the deceased to indicate which cord they are to hold at the interment. At the subsequent murders scenes, a card with a “No. 2 Cord” etc are found pinned to the victims (as opposed to the gloves found with fingers cut off in the film). All the victims are strangled with a piece of cord, unlike in the film where they are dispatched of in numerous ways.

The motive for the killing in the book is revenge. Jean was in love with Duncan and thought the feelings were being reciprocated. The humiliation of being present when Duncan announced his engagement to Isabel brought on lust for revenge, so she hatched a plan to commit a string of murders and pin them on Duncan. The attack she was subjected to on the way home from the school function gave her the idea. She’d been attacked, but had survived. The undertakers business card would link the attack with the subsequent murders and she limited herself to defenceless people so she didn’t have the strength to deal with a healthy adult. In the book the killers confessions are written in a way as to subtly incriminate Duncan when they were found. There are no anonymous phone calls and theirs is nothing relating to dates or zodiac signs.

Although I can see why some change was made to the book (and some for the better), I find it difficult to see why the script dropped the Cord angle. They worked better than the star signs. Especially since the film doesn’t do a very good job of conveying the passing of time. It’s only when the film is wrapped up that you realize that quite a few months have passed during the film. But I suppose logic and a clear narrative is not always something that can be expected from the genre. Regardless of its faults, THE FIFTH CORD remains a great giallo that I happily return to and I wish that Franco’s character would have returned in further films.

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