On the heels of his first big break in the 1966 western Django, playing the coffin-dragging drifter of the title, and a part as Sir Lancelot in Joshua Logan's Camelot (where he met future wife Vanessa Redgrave), Franco Nero took a dip in giallo waters with spaghetti western director Luigi Bazzoni and Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for 1971's The Fifth Cord. Boozy writer Andrea Bild (Nero) is assigned to cover a series of murders, but winds up launching his own investigation to get to the bottom of the grisly crimes, then gets pulled deeper into the case when the killer frames him as a suspect. The only clue left at the scene of each murder is a single black glove with a missing finger.
The Fifth Cord is a hybrid of sorts: Nero's character may be a reporter, but he's no average newshound. Instead, the Italian actor plays a hard-drinking brute — making him closer to a character out of a poliziottesco (Italian crime thriller). An element of gothic melodrama enters the picture during a stalk-and-slash sequence in a mansion, and there's also a bleakness in the concrete/apartment setting that provides an urban twist. It's the perfect backdrop for our characters who are beset with all of modern life's problems: alcoholism, single-parent struggles, estranged relationships, and ex-lover drama... and it wouldn't be a giallo without a little sleaze. The Fifth Cord isn't the raunchiest or even the most violent of the gialli, but a little flesh here and there adds to the atmosphere; we stumble across several amorous couples beneath a bridge and off the beaten path as part of a live sex show subplot. The nudity doesn't stop there, though — this time provided by Pamela Tiffin as Bild's free-spirited lover.
The mystery builds from the first frame as a sinister voiceover confesses the desire to commit murder, while the camera focuses on several party guests at a New Year's Eve shindig. A bloodcurdling scream rings out and a dissonant tune from legendary composer Ennio Morricone kicks in. From there, character connections and plot devices become somewhat convoluted, but style trumps story — which is the case with most gialli anyway. Storaro's camera goes for maximum suspense and drama, with unusual angles, creative lighting effects, and interesting point-of-view shots. (The Fifth Cord might be the king of all "reflections-in-a-pair-of-sunglasses" movies, too.) Everyday spaces — an underground parking garage, elevator, staircase, and bedroom — are captured with striking artistry.
This wasn't Bazzoni or Storaro's first time working in the genre; the director also helmed murder mystery tale The Possessed (aka The Lady of the Lake) in 1965, which is now considered a proto-giallo. Previously, Storaro worked with Dario Argento on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He had achieved some success as Bernardo Bertolucci's cinematographer for The Conformist before Fifth Cord, and would continue to make a name for himself with work on Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and The Last Emperor.
Storaro's work is impressive, but credit for elevating Cord's slower moments also belongs to Nero. He makes what could have been a cookie-cutter role memorable with his crude, jaded reporter who thinks nothing of beating people to a pulp and swigging the prerequisite bottle of J&B while racing around in his car. Nero's final chase scene really ratchets up the tension, too. The Fifth Cord isn't really concerned with the horror side of giallo cinema, and focuses instead on the crime angle — making Bazzoni's film a refreshing take on the genre.