‘Shadows in an Empty Room’ (1976): You ready for this un-PC craziness? We don’t think you are

Dirty Harry goes giallo…in The Great White North, no less!

By Paul Mavis

As you know, January is giallo month here at the Movies and Drinks offices (you didn’t know that? You know why? Cause it ain’t). So, what better way to close the door on Janus, and get a head start on atoning for our sins in Februalia, than by reviewing the hybrid giallo/poliziottesco thriller, Shadows in an Empty Room (a.k.a: Blazing Magnum), from 1976? It’s a perfect bridge title for us, because hey! February is crime month here at Movies and Drinks (you didn’t know that? You know why…oh forget it).

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A couple years back, Scorpion Releasing, along with Kino Lorber and M-G-M, released on Blu-ray Shadows in an Empty Room, the 1976 poliziottesco/murder mystery Italian/Canadian co-production, originally distributed in the States by American International Pictures, directed by Alberto De Martino (“Martin Herbert” in the credits), and starring Stuart Whitman, John Saxon, Martin Landau, Tisa Farrow, Carole Laure, Jean LeClerc, and Gayle Hunnicutt.

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If you grew up watching movies on TV in the ‘70s, those first indicators of a dreaded “Canadian co-production”—the sudden appearance of a lot of French names in the opening credits; the obligatory maple leaf flag logo and a shout-out to the “Government du Canada” for all that dough—was often a groan-inducing moment that necessitated a fast switch of the TV dial (if you were stuck at the drive-in, then it was time to hit the playground or the can). De Martino’s magnum opus (couldn’t resist), however, is a happy exception to the “Nyquil Rule” of 70s Canadian fare, thanks in no small part to its Italian partners responsible for outrages like The Antichrist, Cannibal Holocaust, and The New York Ripper. Shadows in an Empty Room is mean-spirited, equally (and thankfully) offensive and ridiculous, and mostly action-packed, with good location work and a solid cast of remarkably straight-faced Hollywood pros.

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After a heated exchange with her married lover, Dr. George Tracer (Martin Landau), hot-as-hell University of Montreal student Louise Saitta (Carole Laure) gets on the horn to Ottawa to talk to her brother, police captain Tony Saitta (Stuart Whitman). Unfortunately, Tony is busy blowing away some bank-robbing punks, so he misses his sister’s call.

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Ex-lover Fred (Jean LeClerc) spots Louise’s distress and suggests a practical joke as payback for Dr. Tracer’s ungallant behavior. That night, at a student function, Louise is taken seriously ill; professor Margie Cohn (Gayle Hunnicutt) calls Dr. Tracer, who drops plans with his wife to rush over and aid Louise. Giving her a stimulant, he’s humiliated when she instantly recovers; it was all a joke, and everyone is laughing at the good doctor. However, no one is laughing when, after drinks, Louise keels over dead from a heart attack.

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That’s when big bad Tony from Ottawa swings into action. Choppering into the city, he’s met by detective Ned Matthews (John Saxon), who doesn’t say “boo” to Tony’s vow to track down Louise’s killers, no matter what the cost to Montreal life and property. A key witness to the crime ironically turns out to be blind university music teacher Julie Foster (Tisa Farrow), who is in turn stalked for what she might know. Assorted beatings, car and foot chases, and knife mutilations follow before Tony realizes Louise’s murder is far more complicated than he ever imagined.

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As the proud owner of an original AIP one-sheet for Shadows in an Empty Room, I can assure you its giallo-like comic book image of a blind woman entering a darkened room…where someone is hanging—is quite striking in that large print format. It certainly works in grabbing your attention on the reversible Blu cover, too. That U.S. poster art was apparently chosen by Scorpion as the default cover, probably because it’s fairly iconic among 70s exploitation fans. The flipside artwork, showing multiple grimacing Stuart Whitmans turning to fire that big Smith & Wesson Model 29 amid crashing cars and helicopters and trains, is better suited, though, to capturing most of the movie’s screen time. The same can be said, really, for the alternate title, Blazing Magnum, being a more accurate description of this nasty actioner. Shadows in an Empty Room is way more Dirty Harry than it is A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

RELATED | More 1970s film reviews

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And for a 70s cop thriller/Italian poliziottesco, Shadows in an Empty Room opens just right, with a bluesy sax riff (courtesy of composer Armando Trovajoli) playing over aerial shots of overcast, gritty Montreal (the unfamiliar Canadian locales are a big plus here) as director De Martino keeps the suspenseful noir vibe going as we see but don’t hear Landau’s and Laure’s nasty argument. Not wasting any time—an exploitation essential—screenwriters Gianfranco Clerici (the classic giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling, Nazi Love Camp 27) and Vincenzo Mannino (Violent City, Syndicate Sadists) quickly switch to Ottawa, where cop Whitman, in response to a bank robbery, guns his car into action, almost plastering a diving-for-cover pedestrian in the bargain as he chases down the hoods, complete with some nifty car flipping and Whitman’s drilling of the perps with his smoking .44 Magnum. Within the first minutes of Shadows in an Empty Room, we’re hooked on the mystery angle (largely thanks to Landau’s gravitas as a heavy-hitting Hollywood supporting player), while we’re pleasantly surprised by the adroitly-handled gunplay and pyrotechnics (former A minus-lister Whitman looks fit and tough here, too…but those eyebrows need a weed whacker).

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The rest of Shadows in an Empty Room alternates—haphazardly—between Whitman’s Dirty Harry Meets Death Wish urban cop actioner, and the central murder mystery, with giallo highlights occasionally dropped in for flavor (Farrow’s stalking and Hunnicutt’s gutting is right out of Bava). Whenever plotting or construction become a little awkward—Laure’s poisoning at the indeterminate “school function” is quite clumsily structured, for example—De Martino and his writers quickly throw in a violent confrontation or action set piece to distract us from the fact that the main mystery isn’t really all that mysterious.

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Most of the supporting characters aren’t developed in any meaningful way…but frankly who cares? Sexy Gayle Hunnicutt’s nympho professor seems interesting (to say the least…) but she functions merely as a red herring (she was always underutilized in movies), while stone-faced, not at all amused John Saxon has even less to do (his strongest expression seems to convey a mental preparation of the week’s grocery list).

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And absurd situations and goofiness in dialogue abound…as we would expect from a Canadian/Italian co-production. Why does Whitman ask for an exhumation of his sister’s body…at the funeral? How does Saxon know that Hunnicutt is a voracious tramp (those are some police files in Montreal!)? And how about Whitman’s horrendous one-liner when he catches her in a hotel room with Landau’s son: “I didn’t mean to interrupt your penetrating experience,” (deliciously awful)? How is Whitman, a visiting policeman in a city unknown to him, so familiar with people he shouldn’t know, like the little crime boss, or the hotel owner where his sister met her lovers? And when those cops start beating on Whitman at the bus locker, why doesn’t he just say he’s another cop?

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Shadows in an Empty Room’s most notorious scene isn’t that so-called “celebrated” car chase (it isn’t nearly as good as everyone says it is—too much flashy, phony “show” with all that pointless fishtailing and wheel spinning—but it’s still pretty cool for such a low-budget offering), but rather the sublime head-scratcher of Whitman’s assault on three transvestites. Never mind trying to understand why a sex shop owner would willingly give out-of-province cop Whitman the address of Montreal’s three transvestites. And forget the fact that they all live together in a swank high-rise penthouse and dress like Totie Fields and say things like, “Cinderella, answer the door!”

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What’s completely inexplicable is how Whitman busts his way in without asking, beating one of the men to the ground…before he innocently asks everyone to take it easy (a laugh-out-loud moment). A battle royale ensues, with Whitman almost getting thrown off the building and slashed with a straight razor (those transvestites don’t fool around), before Whitman, nearly skewered with a hot curling iron, takes the weapon and shoves it up his attacker’s rear end…before he casually makes up with the last guy standing, as if nothing happened.

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Now today, such a scene would demand outrage from the p.o.c. (“perpetually offended critics”) p.o.s. (figure it out…), and there would be calls for the moviemakers’ heads. That is, unless of course, the victims were say…Christian soccer moms, or white male conservatives (the rank ranks at the Online Film Critics Society would love that!), or if that hack video store clerk Tarantino was directing (his P.C. transgressions are okay, because they’re so, you know, like… “ironic” and um…“smart”). Shadows in an Empty Room’s action scene logarithms aren’t calculated off today’s P.C. goon squad dictates, and that’s why they’re so bracing (and unapologetically entertaining). No politics, no agenda: just frequently outrageous, decidedly wrong moments of crude, blunt violence, without expectations of judgment or guilt…and to hell with the offended. They’re not wanted at this midnight grindhouse showing (god you don’t even know what true freedom used to be, do you, millennial and Gen Z readers?).

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Shadows in an Empty Room may not be much more than a souped-up, hyperviolent episode of Canada’s Police Surgeon (a Maumee, Ohio shout-out to Channel 9 Windsor, where we saw PS, Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant, SCTV, and a moose for the first time), punctuated by frequent bursts of R-rated action. However, when an actioner ends up with a cop pumping 9 bullets from his Magnum revolver (before reloading) into a helicopter that’s lurching sickeningly off a hospital roof to potentially crash to the streets below, just so he can exact blind revenge against his sister’s killer—a killer, by the way, that just held a switchblade knife to a newborn baby’s throat…well, that’s just the type of ridiculous old school movie exploitation we crave here at Movies and Drinks.

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