Thursday, 30 November 2006

Revisiting the Monthly Film Bulletin reviews of Argento

One of the most useful sources of information on the reception of and discourses around Italian genre cinema in the UK - and, perhaps by extension, other English-speaking territories - is the Monthly Film Bulletin, published by the British Film Institute. This is on account of the magazine's editorial policy of reviewing everything released theatrically, regardless of its origins, qualities or lack thereof (although some films received longer reviews than others and were flagged up as being of likely interest to the magazine's assumed serious-minded reader).

By coincidence, the MFB review of Argento's debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, was preceded by one of Ferdinando Baldi's spaghetti western Texas Addio - all the more remarkable insofar as Baldi was the man producer Goffredo Lombardo wanted to take over the director reins on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage - and followed, as the next but one review, by future giallo director Sergio Martino's self-explanatory exploitation documentary Mondo Sex.

What we find is that whereas Baldi's and Martino's films could be immediately placed within a generic context and summarily dismissed, the former being an "adequately staged western, with none of the style of Leone and co., but also none of the pretensions," and the latter "yet another contribution to the Mondo Cane cycle," Argento was both less familiar and more welcome:

"Apart from one or two concessions to contemporary fashions in violence in the shape of some gory stabbings, this murder mystery (something of a novelty from the Italian studios) is developed more or less in the classic Hollywood tradition and is all the better for it. Repeated flashbacks to the crucial scene provide ample opportunity for audience participation in true Hitchcock manner, and Dario Argento's direction is well paced throughout, if occasionally a little overwrought. Fluid camerawork, capable performances, and an effective score by Ennio Morricone all help to mask a few holes in the otherwise tidily written plot. Altogether an eminently watchable film from a director of some promise."

This promise, however, was not fulfilled as far as the reviewer of The Cat o' Nine Tails was concerned, evaluating the film as:

"The sort of thriller where professional expertise and a certain visual elegance struggle to give 'tone' and 'style' to blandly undistinguished material. Dario Argento, who last year attracted critical attention with The Gallery Murders, directs with an insistent hand on the mechanics of terror and suspense: the murderer is shown in the early stages with only a large close up of a winking brown eye; and blood oozes and drips from a skylight to reveal his presence. But beneath all the muscle-flexing, the plot develops roughly and incoherently, with a plethora of the kind of two-dimensional characters who make for confusion rather than complexity - an international gallery of faces and types amongst whom only Karl Malden, as the blind Arno, carries any weight or conviction."

What is also evident here is the emerging sense of what Argento's strengths and weaknesses are, with these seeming to break down along fairly straightforward and self evident form over content, style over substance and image over reality fault lines. This is a pattern largely repeated, albeit with some shifts in emphasis, in David Pirie's significantly longer evaluation of Four Flies on Grey Velvet:

"Full of slick visual conceits and glossy set-pieces, this is clearly Argento's most expensive and ambitious thriller yet. It's the more surprising, therefore, to find that - apart from the ingenious idea of the retinal image which gives the film its title - the script remains as flat and predictable as that of the most meagre Italian 'B' feature. The twist at the climax must be obvious, even to non-specialists in detective fiction, after about the first ten minutes, and it's the makers' apparent unawareness of this which makes much of the action so irritating, since the repeated use of subjective shots, shadows, oblique angles and other assorted devices to cover up the killer's identity slows the proceedings down to a snail's pace. There is also some rather clumsy comic characterisation which, in the English version at least, seems both incongruous and strained. But when the film is on its own ground - a series of elaborate murders in well chosen Rome locations - there are still enough effectively eerie moments to confirm Argento's promise as a director. The last murder scene is particularly well handled, with the girl victim shivering tensely in a cupboard as the murderer walks past, then creeping out into the darkness only to meet with a vicious attack from the shadows. The climax, considering how long it has been expected, is also surprisigly effective, with Mimsy Farmer working herself into a fine homicidal frenzy against the husband whom she apparently selected on the basis of his resemblance to her detested father. The power of the scene confirms that Argento's thriller would have worked much better if he had abandoned his painstaking attempts to disguise the obvious, and concentrated instead on heightening the atmosphere of hysteria and menace which he is clearly quite capable of sustaining."

It is also apparent here that the Italian thriller was now something of a known quantity, a number of other gialli having been released in the UK in the period over this period, with Argento also being singled out in a manner reminiscent of Leone in the western. (Further evidence for this can be seen in the magazine's review of The Case of the Bloody Iris the following month: "Anthony Ascott directs the cheap and nasty plot like a poor man's Dario Argento".)

While not mentioning Hitchcock explicitly, as the reviewer of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage did, Pirie's argument is also of note for its implicit deployment of a suspense versus surprise or shock dialectic. Part of the problem with Four Flies on Grey Velvet, he seems to be saying, is that Argento is trying for a surprise revelation, that it is Nina Tobias who has been persecuting her husband all along, when he would have been better announcing this fact to the spectator in the manner of something like Vertigo.

It is a shame, then, that Deep Red was never released theatrically in the UK, as it would have been very interesting to know whether a reviewer like Pirie was sufficiently keen-eyed enough to noticed its visual sleight of hand in revealing the killers identity early on. But even as it is, we can again note a possible difference between the critic who watches attentively and is on the look out for anything of potential significance as compared to the ordinary viewer for whom the identity of Roberto Tobias's persecutor may not have been so, well, obvious.

By the time of Suspiria, the formulation of "Argento" as a recognisable authorial identity looks to have been more or less complete, with Scott Meek's review - again, significantly longer than those for the director's first two films - once more placing the emphasis upon his technical abilities:

"Ever since The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, Dario Argento's thrillers have been moving away from conventional narrative into plots of increasing absurdity, often full of red herrings that gratify the director's delight in stylistic excess. Similarly, his endings have necessarily become more and more arbitrary, climaxing a series of elaborate set-pieces rather than resolving plot and character. Suspiria is Argento's contribution to The Exorcist genre, and from the opening of Jessica Harper's arrival at the airport - as doors open automatically and passengers disappear into the storm outside as though into some infernal limbo - there is no doubt that the film is constructed with great technical skill, nor that this will simply be expended in pure display. The two murders which quickly ensue - and the concomitant gore and special effects - are interchangeable with all that follows, until the delivery of some peremptory exposition in the middle: Udo Kier as a psychiatrist stops the film for five minutes to suggest that there may be a single explanation for all the disturbing occurrences. The ending is equally arbitrary, as the academy is consumed by fire and Susy flees - but not, notably enough, into the arms of a romantic lead, since most males have been relegated to the status of walk-ons. Unhappily, Argento never summons the courage to abandon narrative completely, so the script is continually acting as a brake while the visuals are driving forward to the next set-piece (every frame is crammed with colour and action in an appealingly vulgar display). Given that the style of the film precludes the possibility of real acting, with characters representing a single vice or virtue, the cast cope bravely, and Alida Valli lends exactly the right sort of overblown presence."

Given Meek's suggestion that Suspiria would have been better had it abandoned narrative completely there is an irony to Tim Pulleine's review of its successor, Inferno, wherein he considers its narrative weaknesses as outweighing its hit-and-miss stylistic achievements:

"It is hard to see that Inferno will do much to burnish Dario Argento's critical reputation, which has gained strength since Suspiria. The film boasts some striking moments of sheer technical display: the pouring rain used as impressionist detail in the Rome sequence; the inserts in enormous close-ups of locks fastening which punctuate Elise's frantic flight upstairs. But the film's bravura would need to be much more sustained than it is to create the kind of nightmare dimension that would have made up for narrative looseness. As it is, the horror set-pieces are variously mistimed [...] childishly repulsive [...] or unwittingly comic [...] Plot deficiencies are thus nakely exposed: whole segments of the action [...] have no recognisable link with the business in hand, and the denouement is wholly unsatisfying, not to say largely incomprehensible."

What is missing here, however, is the possibility that the increasing absurdity of Inferno's (anti-)narrative might be considered an intentional device, as a way of indicating the inability of the rational / scientific mind to comprehend its irrational / magical Other, as represented by the Three Mothers witches. Or, as Kim Newman once suggested, that the film is all set pieces, and thereby all of a piece.


Anonymous said...

interesting stuff, i hope you can include some capital letters for future posts though, otherwise looking forward to reading more.

K H Brown said...

Capital letters - I don't understand

Anonymous said...

how weird, on my browser i don't get any capital letters at the start of a sentence! can that be a browser problem??

K H Brown said...

What browser and operating system are you using? It looks okay on mine (Firefox on Windows, Linux and Mac)