One of the topics that Mikel Koven discusses in La Dolce Morte is whether the amateur detective of the giallo might also be considered as a flâneur. Koven suggests that in reading the flâneur as a detective its most influential 20th century theorist, Walter Benjamin, unfortunately tended to move from the metaphorical – the flâneur is like a detective – to the literal – the flaneur is a detective. Moreover, many of those who have subsequently taken up Benjamin's theories have failed to recognise this crucial distinction.
This got me thinking about another favourite – and perhaps more common – comparison, that between the detective and the psychoanalyst, or the detective-as-analyst and the analyst-as-detective, raised by Gary Needham in his giallo primer and deployed in a more thoroughgoing manner by Xavier Mendik in his monograph on Tenebre.
There, seeking to explain hostile critical reactions to Argento's film, Mendik posits that the problems with Dario Argento's film are not so much on the surface, such as its alleged misogyny and spectacular representations of “violence against women”, but more with its deeper structures. Specifically, the film embodies what he terms “deviant detection” by invoking the ratiocinative classical detective model in a giallo world where it ceases to apply, thereby misleading (mainstream) viewers and critics and incurring their hostility.
Mendik's argument is based heavily on psychoanalytic theory, particularly Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan, and the comparisons they have made between the role of the detective and their own as analyst, in their readings of Edgar Allan Poe's The Purloined Letter and Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes in relation to Freud's “Wolf Man” case respectively. As Mendik explains:
“[T]he analyst's adoption of the role of detective, scrutinising the clues that will reconstitute totality and meaning to a scene, is pertinent. Both the detective and the analyst are forced to piece together the truth from a series of fragments or clues which predate the investigation and point to a criminal or transgressive act that has been (unsuccessfully) concealed in the past.”
What seems, to me, to be lacking here is not just an adequate awareness of the recognition that we might be dealing with a metaphoric description rather than a reality, but also – ironically – how the specifics of giallo film detection complicate the detective-analyst analogy.
Though Tenebre foregrounds “deviant detection” to a greater extent than most gialli – although Renato Polselli's Delirium would certainly give it a run for its money, in having three murderers; one of whom, an analyst himself, is actually also aiding the police in their investigations – it is not an isolated case. As the paradigmatic giallo detective is an amateur who finds personally involved with a case that continues to develop as he investigates - i.e. further crimes are committed – Mendik's “deviant” seems more like “the norm”. Put another way, the giallo film seems to have more in common with the hard boiled world of film noir than it does that of classical Poe/Holmes style mysteries.
In the end, somehow one doubts that a figure like Four Flies on Grey Velvet's Roberto Tobias is an ideal self-portrait / mirror image for the detective-analyst. But, of course, in psychoanalytic theory any recognition of oneself in the mirror is also a misrecognition. I just think that's also what's happened with the detective-as-analyst in the Italian giallo...