Saturday, 23 June 2012
The Sound of Violence: Audio-visual combination and disjunction in six films by Dario Argento
[This is a draft of a paper; any comments or feedback would be welcome. Italics etc. are in the original, while the numbers refer to footnotes.]
Abstract: In this paper I use the theories of film sound advocated by Michel Chion (1994, 1999) and Gilles Deleuze (2005a, 2005b) to examine the use of sound made by director Dario Argento in six films made between 1970 and 1982: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebrae. My central contentions are that Chion and Deleuze's theories have a clear applicability to many areas of Argento's sound practice and that this in turn demonstrates the usefulness of these theories in relation to films that Chion and Deleuze did not themselves discuss.
Sound Theories: Michel Chion and Gilles Deleuze
It is now a commonplace that silent cinema was not actually silent. Given almost continuous musical accompaniment by a pianist or organist, it is better understood as “voiceless”. What has been less acknowledged is that the arrival of sound (or “spoken”) cinema paradoxically enabled the emergence of truly silent cinema. With no need for continuous musical accompaniment there was scope for silence to be deployed as a structural device. Speech, music and noise could each be present or absent at any given instant.
Robert Spadoni (2007) illustrates some of the ways this new creative potential was realised by examining Tod Browning and James Whale’s use of sound and silence in their seminal horror adaptations Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931). In the latter case Spadoni notes, for instance, that the monster played by Boris Karloff monster makes no sound when walking. This is despite his size, lumbering movements and heavy boots. Whether we realise this absence of sound consciously or subliminally it produces an uncanny effect, one based upon the discrepancy between what we expect to hear and what we actually hear (or, in this case, do not). Such an approach was impossible in silent cinema, such as J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel.
In his studies Audio-Vision (1994) and The Voice in Cinema (1999) Michel Chion explores a variety of audio-visual tropes and figures. The former work is concerned primarily with audio-visual combination, especially the “added-value” with which sound supplements and enriches the visual to together also convey the other senses of touch, taste, smell and proprioception (i.e. awareness of one’s body in space). An illustration of such an audio-visual combination is how punches in films make a loud noise whereas their real-world counterparts are almost silent.
Chion also draws a distinction between “empathetic” and “anempathetic” sounds, or those aligned with or against a character, typically the protagonist. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), for instance, the shower’s continuing to function after Marion (Janet Leigh) has been stabbed to death in it has an anempathetic effect, conveying the ‘indifference’ of the machine to what has just happened.
The latter work is concerned more with audio-visual disjunctions, especially those associated with “acousmatic” listening. Acousmatic, as Chion explains, is a term which composer Pierre Schaeffer, writing in the early 20th century, drew from Ancient Greece. It refers to a sound which is heard without its source being seen; in the Ancient Greek context it related to a religious sect whose ceremonies entailed the congregation hearing the voice of their priest without seeing him, as he was concealed behind a curtain.
While acousmatic listening experiences have always existed in nature, as with song from birds in trees and chirping from crickets in the grass, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were characterised by the emergence of new acousmatic technologies, such as the telephone, gramophone and radio. While these devices sometimes initially seemed frightening and uncanny1, they were also readily explicated and made visible, or “de-acousmatised”. For instance, it could be explained scientifically how the gramophone cylinder contained a recording of speech or music, which was picked up by the player’s needle and amplified by its horn. These acousmatic technologies thus quickly became taken for granted as part of everyday life.
A major theoretical distinction which emerged in sound cinema was the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, or those that are situated internally, within the world of the film, and those situated externally, not within this world. In some ways this distinction may be compared to that between non-acousmatic and acousmatic sounds. For example, the words or dialogue (apparently) emanating from the characters’ mouths, are internally situated and stem from a visible source. Conversely musical scores and explanatory voice-overs are situated as external.
Chion complicates these binary diegetic/non-diegetic, internal/external pairings by bringing the “out-of-frame” or “out-of-field” into consideration. These refer to the bounded nature of the film image on the screen and our concomitant awareness of other spaces above, below, left, right, or before it. They also help remind us of a pivotal distinction between how sight and hearing work. We can only see what is in front of us, but can hear all around. The out-of-frame establishes a littoral zone around the framed image, where something may be heard but not seen or is present to one sense (hearing) but absent to another (sight).
Chion’s key figure of audio-visual disjunction in relation to the out-of-frame is the acousmêtre. This is the acousmatic being (être in French) who is heard but not seen. The acousmêtre characteristically has three or four2 god-like powers, those of being potentially all-seeing, all-knowing, all-present and all-powerful. However, the acousmêtre is neither a god nor the figure who, in Chion’s psychoanalytically influenced formulation, stands even further back: the primal mother. Rather, as the acousmêtre is progressively de-acousmatised, to ultimately be revealed as a voice located in a specific physical body, their powers are lost.
An obvious example of this process of de-acousmatisation from the classical Hollywood cinema is the Wizard of Oz in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1939 film of the same name. So long as the Wizard is unseen behind the curtain and represented by the booming voice of his apparatus, he seems incredibly powerful: “You people should consider yourselves lucky that I’m granting you an audience tomorrow instead of 20 years from now.” But, as he then is revealed to be a normal man, the limits of his powers are evident: “Oh –You’re a very bad man!” “Oh, no my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Wizard.”
Chion’s paradigmatic example of the acousmêtre is, however, a European production, namely The Testament of Dr Mabuse. Chion suggests Fritz Lang’s 1932 film presents a multiplicity of self-contradictory Mabuse figures and voices, without ever identifying any as the real, definitive one. The apparent incoherence of this facet of the film’s narrative is not a reflection of poor filmmaking but rather produces a “Mabuse effect” upon the audience paralleling that of the investigators within the film.
Another way The Testament of Dr Mabuse epitomises the acousmêtre is through the presence of the mute, or the one who is seen but not heard. Despite being an inversion of the acousmêtre, the mute is often characterised as having the same uncanny powers. These may, however, be lost if the mute can be made to speak.
A further acousmatic figure is the speaker on the telephone. Many scenes involving the telephone do identify both caller and recipient, whether by cross-cutting, split screen, or the visible party in a conversation repeating what the unseen party says.3 Accordingly Chion is here more interested in what he terms the “phone-story”, or a narrative trope that draws upon the acousmatic properties of the telephone by failing to show the caller or recipient or denying us one or both their voices.
Whereas the acousmêtre, mute and phone-story emphasise audio-visual disjunction, the final one of Chion’s figures that I wish to consider depends upon audio-visual combination. This is the “screaming point,” or that specific moment in a film where a woman screams. Chion’s key example here is Blow Out.4 Brian De Palma’s 1981 film sees soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) realise he does not have a satisfactory scream to dub in for that of a female character in the low-budget slasher movie he is working on. Whilst recording some sound atmospheres, Jack captures a road accident in which a prominent politician dies. Listening to the tape, Jack thinks he hears the sound of a tire being shot out, suggesting foul play. His investigations bring him into contact with a prostitute, who is then murdered by the conspirators. Jack records her dying scream, using it on the film. For Chion such a “screaming point” indicates a collapse of received meanings and a temporal disruption: “[the screaming point] occupies a point in time, but has no duration within. It suspends the time of its possible duration; it’s a rip in the fabric of time.” (1999: 77).
This awareness of time leads on to the second theorist whose ideas around film sound I wish to consider, Gilles Deleuze. Whereas Chion presents various figures and tropes around film sound, Deleuze (2005a, 2005b) provides a broader theory. Deleuze argues the cinema may be divided into two main approaches, namely the “movement-image” and the “time-image”. The fundamental difference between these lies in the relationships between movement and time. In the movement-image time is subordinate with movement, only manifesting indirectly through movement. In the time-image time breaks free and manifests directly. Read in these terms the screaming point could be seen as a time-image.
The two image regimes also indicate different relationships between the visual and the aural. In the movement-image the two senses combine to present unitary images.5 These give a stimulus to action. In the time-image visual “opsigns” and aural “sonsigns” may be found. These present a “description” which does not extend into action.
The significance of Deleuze’s theories in relation to Argento’s films lies in the way they can be seen to exhibit a possible combination of movement-images and time-images. On the one hand they are genre films, suggesting affinities with classical Hollywood movement-image cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. On the other they are Italian films, produced in a post-war context where the Italian filmmakers Deleuze discusses, such as the Neo-Realists and Antonioni, are identified as modern time-image figures.
Sound practices: Dario Argento
The credits to Dario Argento’s debut film, 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, play out over an exterior scene of the killer stalking a victim and an interior scene of the killer arming themselves, foregrounding the contrast between open and brightly lit exterior and enclosed poorly illuminated interior. Curiously, however, Argento does not present the scenes sequentially, instead intercutting between them. As such, temporal and spatial unity become confused. Some semblance of continuity is, however, provided by the non-diegetic score, a gentle lullaby theme, which plays over both scenes and seems at odds with the clearly impending violence. Indeed, when the murder occurs, the music abruptly stops. Belying the reputation he was soon to get as a maker of excessively violent films6, Argento presents the murder via a completely black screen and a single female scream or, in Deleuze’s terms, opsign, sonsign and description. A reason for this soon becomes apparent: There was no-one who could have intervened. This contrasts with the next attack, to which protagonist Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a witness: Walking past an open-plan art gallery, Sam glimpses a man and a woman in a struggle. The woman is clad entirely in white, the man in black and in an ensemble of hat, coat and gloves conventionally associated with the giallo7 film killer. Sam’s response to this image is predictable: He runs to the woman’s aid. While this causes the man to flee, Sam proves unable to attend to the injured woman. For as he flees the man triggers the outer and inner gallery doors, trapping Sam in the space between them. After managing to alert a passer-by Sam can do nothing but wait for the emergency services to arrive. When questioned by Inspector Morisini (Enrico Maria Salerno) Sam becomes convinced some vital detail is eluding him: “Something was wrong with that scene”. This is ultimately revealed to be that the woman, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), was in fact attacking the man, her husband Alberto (Umberto Raho).
The design of the gallery is such that it privileges sight at the expense of sound. While Sam sees the couple’s struggle, he does not hear any dialogue that might have accompanied it, most obviously Alberto telling his wife to “give [him] the knife”. Indeed, this is what happens when the investigators later burst in on the couple’s apartment. Crucially, however, Argento cuts away from the investigators to the Ranieris’ just before this moment, such that we hear Alberto’s demand but Sam and the others do not.
Besides presenting Sam with an opsign rather than a unitary image, Argento also draws attention to the audio-visual as the gallery scene develops by repeatedly moving the camera between the gallery’s interior, the street outside, and the littoral space between the double doors. As the camera moves between these three zones, the sound does not always follow. For example, sometimes the camera is positioned between the double doors, approximating Sam’s position, but his voice is muffled, as if we were positioned in the street.
Another important aspect of the scene is Argento’s use of the lullaby theme. This time, however, the female voice moans rather than sings melismatically. The moaning is ambiguously positioned, in that it could be read diegetically as emanating from the injured and distressed Monica. It is also ambiguous in meaning, by potentially connoting pain and/or orgasmic pleasure. This in turn may relate to the origins of Monica’s psychosis, as revealed in the denouement: Several years earlier she was attacked by a black-clad maniac. Recently she encountered a painting of this scene, which triggered her to recollect that traumatic experience. Rather than identifying with herself as victim Monica instead identified with her attacker.
As the investigation continues, two threatening telephone calls are made, to Sam and Morisini. These are analysed by forensics, with their wave-forms presented on an oscilloscope. This indicates the calls were made by different people. This fact was not evident from the sound of the voices alone, or as sonsigns. Rather, these sounds had to be visualised to show their distinctiveness: This sound makes this image, that sound makes that image.
An enigma, however, still remains: One of the calls features an unusual clicking noise, one forensics have been unable to identify despite having an exhaustive banks of sounds to compare it to. The breakthrough comes when Sam’s friend Carlo (Raf Valenti) uses his ornithological knowledge to identify the sound as the call of a rare bird species native to Siberia. The only examples of it in captivity in Italy are found in the city zoo. Going there, the investigators discover the Ranieri apartment is above the cage holding the birds. In sum, if Argento here uses Chion’s “phone story”, he does so in a complex way that draws attention to possible structural relationships between visuals and sound.
If anything, sound is even more important in the director’s second film, 1971’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails. The primary reason for this is that the investigator protagonist, Franco Arno (Karl Malden), is blind and must thereby rely more upon his other senses, along with a kind of insight. The narrative begins with Arno and his ward, Lori (Cinzea de Carolis), passing a parked car as they head home. Arno hears sotto voce remarks suggesting blackmail and asks Lori to take a surreptitious look at the men in the car while he pretends to tie his shoelace. Lori can see the driver, the blackmailer, but not the passenger, who also remains silent.
Soon afterwards, Arno hears a commotion at the Terzi Institute opposite his apartment. The next morning he learns the place was broken into. Curiously, however, nothing is missing. Knowing that his victim had substituted one document for another, the blackmailer makes a call to arrange a meeting with his victim, Dr Casoni (Aldo Reggiani). Argento’s mise-en-scène here identifies the blackmailer, Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), but not Casoni.
When the two men meet at the station, Argento continues to obfuscate Casoni’s identity. There are point-of-view shots from Casoni’s position, but are no reverse-angle shots showing him. Instead he is represented by an extreme close-up of an eye. This suggests Casoni has affinities with the acousmêtre, albeit one who is silent. As a train approaches, Casoni advances towards Calabresi and pushes him in front of it, with fatal consequences. The moment of Calabresi’s fall is captured by photographer Righetto (Vittorio Congia).
The death is presumed an accident. However, when Arno learns of it from Lori as she reads him the newspaper, he immediately has the insight of determining whether the photograph might have been cropped.8 It was, with the uncropped version revealing a hand pushing Calabresi. Put another way, something previously out-of-frame is now incorporated into it; Casoni’s de-acousmatisation has begun.
Subsequent scenes, in which Casoni murders Righetto and Calabresi’s co-conspirator, Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov), again foreground the acousmêtre. Casoni is again represented by an eye, with his victims appearing to be garrotted and slashed by the weapons themselves. That this was intentional on Argento’s part is evident by comparing these murder scenes to their counterparts in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, where the hands of their murderers wielding their weapons are visible.
Potentially distinct opsigns and sonsigns are brought together as the investigation continues. For example, when Arno and Lori go to visit Bianca, she plays with her necklace. After Bianca’s murder, Arno asks Lori the origin of the sound he heard. Argento then presents a curious shot of Bianca. On the one hand it is associated with Arno, in that he realises the locket Bianca was wearing contains a clue as to the killer’s identity. On the other it cannot be an accurate representation of what Arno sees in his head, since he has no knowledge of Bianca’s appearance or attire.
Casoni’s de-acousmatisation continues after he is stabbed by Arno with his sword cane whilst he and journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) search for the locket in the Merusi family tomb. Arno’s sense of touch tells him that he “got him [Casoni] good”.9 Casoni’s wound means he now leaves a trail of blood, one which leads to the Terzi Institute.
The denouement sees Arno and Casoni confront one another again. Driven to the edge of madness by Casoni’s assertion that he has killed Lori, Arno unwittingly pushes Casoni through a cupola and down a lift shaft, with predictably fatal consequences.10
Casoni’s becoming visible and identifiable through a trail of blood may be compared with another of Chion’s key examples of the acousmêtre, namely The Invisible Man of James Whale’s 1933 film adaptation of H. G Wells’s novel. Like Wells’s Griffin, Casoni may be viewed as a scientific over-reacher. He is the “baby” of the institute’s research team and is described as “brilliant”. Yet whereas Griffin’s madness may be a consequence of the drug that makes him invisible11, Casoni’s madness stems from the career-threatening revelation he has a rare genetic condition that predisposes him to violence. While it is unclear if Casoni is affected more by this condition or his beliefs around it (McDonagh, XX:XX) it again seems to have influenced Argento’s representations of him: In terms of the traditional Cartesian dualism of mind and body, Casoni may be seen as one who would like not to have a body and instead exist in the god-like or acousmêtre position of observing without being observed.
The final audio-visual disjunction in the film occurs after the de-acousmatised Casoni has died, as Lori’s voice calls out to Arno. For Argento does not provide a corresponding opsign to indicate Lori has indeed survived.12 Instead we are left unsure whether the voice exists in actuality or only within Arno’s head.
Deep Red continues its predecessors’ structural experiments with sound and vision. This begins with the enigmatic scene interrupting the credits: A nursery-rhyme plays, its gentleness contrasting with the propulsive score that plays over the rest of the credits. The visuals show one shadowy figure stabbing another, then a knife falling at the feet of an unidentified child.
Following this Argento presents a series of fragments whose relationships to one another only become apparent in retrospect: First jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings13) admonishes his students for their overly precise approach, this drawing attention to an otherwise unmotivated camera movement, one not identifiable with anyone visible within the scene. Then at a parapsychology conference psychic Helga Ullmann (Macha Méril) senses a murderer in her audience and warns they will kill again. Later, as Helga and her associates Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) and Bardi (Piero Mazzinghi) are leaving the theatre, Helga indicates she knows the killer’s identity. The trio are observed from the side. Curiously, however, they seem unawares of this, even though the position of the observer means that they should in turn be visible.
Having returned to her apartment, Helga prepares to write about her experiences. The nursery rhyme theme that played over the fragment in the credits is heard. As the killer bursts into the apartment and strikes Helga with a hatchet, a kinetic non-diegetic theme takes its place; if this theme has empathetic qualities they seem more for the killer than their victim.
Unexpectedly Argento then cuts away to a plaza as Marc notices his friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), who is drunk. The temporal and spatial relationships between the scenes become apparent a few minutes later as a scream is heard and Helga’s body crashes through a window: The plaza and the apartment are contiguous, while the build up to the attack and the conversation between Marc and Carlo occurred more or less simultaneously. The out-of-field is thus brought into play. The tight framing isolating Marc and Carlo may mean the killer snuck past them, unseen. The final revelation the killer is Carlo’s mother, Martha (Clara Calamai) also encourages a retrospective re-reading of the scene, that Carlo may be acting as look out for her.14 Spurred into action, Marc races to Helga’s aid, but is too late. He inadvertently walks past Martha, glimpsing her face reflected into a painting for a split-second.
Much like Sam, Marc realises he has missed some vital detail and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. This leads to his being threatened by Martha, from the opposite side of the door to his study. The lullaby theme plays, but is now diegetically situated as coming from Martha’s tape recorder. This encourages a recontextualisation of the earlier manifestations of the theme as diegetic rather than non-diegetic.
Marc is working on a composition at this time, with Argento again highlighting the audio-visual through extreme close-ups of Marc’s hands playing the keys, the effects of this on the mechanism of the piano’s wires and hammers, and the notes being written on the stave. Like the visualisations of the callers’ voices on the oscilloscope, we are again presented with opsigns and a sonsigns combining to create unitary images: This sound corresponds to this note.
The diegetic nature of the lullaby theme is further apparent in the next scene, as Marc buys a copy of a record, ‘Songs for Little Children’, and plays it to Giordani and Bardi. Bardi speculates the theme may be “the leitmotif of the crime,” as one the killer fetishistically plays as prelude to murder, and that the modern legend of “The House of the Screaming Child” may also be of relevance to the case.
Music that is aligned with the antagonists rather than the protagonist is also evident in Argento’s first fantasy-horror film, 1977’s Suspiria. What is also notable is how the music is sometimes in advance of the visuals: When protagonist Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) exits the airport into a storm and tries to flag down a cab, the whispered lyrics mention the name of the eventual antagonist, Helena Markos, that “she is witch, witch, witch” and indicates the teachers at the dance academy Suzy has come to study at are “of a different race”. The secondary or supplemental quality of the soundtrack as supporting the images is thereby challenged.15
Suspiria also again sees Argento use an aural rather than a visual clue. As Suzy arrives at the academy another student, Pat (Eva Axén), flees from it. Amidst the thunder and lightning, Suzy only hears fragments of what Pat is saying: “hidden irises... turn the blue one”; the reference to irises also relates to how the pupils at the academy are often observed without their awareness by otherwise unseen, silent figures. Argento then switches attention to Pat, as she and fellow student Sonia (Susanna Javicoli) are murdered by one of Markos’s agents.
Strange occurrences at the academy continue as maggots rain down from the attic level. Consequently the students and teachers take up temporary accommodation in one of the dance halls. Suzy’s new friend Sara (Stefania Cassini) identifies that Helena is on the other side of the curtain by her distinctive wheezing. Though neither young woman dares to look behind them, the camera is placed to let us see Helena’s silhouetted form behind them.
The next day blind pianist Daniel (Flavio Bucci) has an argument with one of the teachers, Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), and storms out after suggesting he is aware of the witches: “I’m blind, not dumb.” Later, Daniel is killed when his guide dog, whose earlier behaviour suggested a hostility towards the witches, unexpectedly turns on him and tears his throat open.
As Suzy and Sara continue to investigate, Suzy realises the teachers do not leave the academy at night as claimed. Their footsteps instead go away from the exit before suddenly becoming inaudible. Unfortunately Suzy then succumbs to the drugged food she has been prescribed by Professor Verdegast (Renato Scarpa), leaving Sara to explore alone. She is stalked and killed by one of Helena’s agents, the effectively mute Pavlos (Guiseppe Transocchi). Although Pavlos is said to “speak only Romanian” by Miss Tanner he is never heard talking, even though the ogre-like kitchen staff are also identified as Romanian.
Suzy’s own explorations are more successful. She realises the teachers’ footsteps lead to their office and that they abruptly end because its floor is carpeted. Inside, Suzy notices three stylised iris flowers on the wall, one of which is blue.16 Turning it reveals a passage leading to Helena’s chamber. Initially Helena is visible behind the curtain surrounding her bed. Then, as Helena sends Sara’s corpse to attack Suzy, she vanishes. Suzy picks out a long needle from a statue of a bird and stabs at where Helena was, causing the withered crone to become visible and to die. This also causes the demise of Helena’s minions, including Miss Tanner and Pavlos.
The commercial success of Suspiria led Argento to rework it into the first part of a trilogy concerning the Mothers of Sighs, Darkness and Tears.17 With Suspiria having dealt with the Mother of Sighs, 1980’s Inferno introduced the Mothers of Darkness and Tears. The film presents two curiously mute characters, a wheelchair bound old man and a beautiful student hinted to be the Mother of Tears. Eventually the man is revealed to be the architect of the Mothers’ dwellings, as described in the opening voice-off:
I don't know what price I shall have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium. The life experience of our colleague should teach us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them. I, Varelli, an architect living in London, met the Three Mothers and designed and built for them three dwelling places.
Inferno also sees Argento again experiment with diegetic and non-diegetic sound. One example of this is his use of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from the opera Nabucco (1842) which is heard three times. The first time it is positioned as diegetic, being played on a record by the lecturer in the Rome conservatory where Mark Eliot (Leigh McCloskey) and Sara (Eleonora Giorgio) are students. The second time it is positioned as non-diegetic as Sara (Eleonora Giorgio) takes a taxi to alibrary. This version, adapted by the composer of the film’s score, Keith Emerson, is played at double tempo, in 5/4 rather than 4/4 time, and with different orchestration. Having read about the Three Mothers and escaped from a mysterious clawed figure, Sara heads home. Unnerved, she persuades sports journalist Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) to stay with her until Mark arrives. Sara puts on a record of Nabucco, remarking “you’ve probably heard this before”. A storm causes the electricity to the flat to rapidly switch on and off. As a result the lighting and sound repeatedly cut in and out. There is an element of Chion’s notion of trompe l’oreille or “deceiving the ear” here18, in that the pitch of the music should rise and fall as the record player slows down and speeds up. Put another way, whereas the visuals are binary, either on or off, the sound is analogue, continually varying.
As Carlo goes to check the fuse, the frightened Sara tells him to keep talking. He does, but then falls silent. Sara goes to investigate and finds Carlo with a knife through his neck. He falls on top of her and both are then stabbed to death by an unidentified attacker. Soon afterwards Mark arrives. Inexplicably Sara’s body falls through a curtain as he enters. Mark then phones his sister Rose (Irene Miracle) in New York, but their call is also cut off.
Returning to New York, Mark finds Rose has disappeared. He makes the acquaintance of Rose’s friend, the Countess Elise (Daria Nicolodi), who tells him about Rose’s interest in the Three Mothers. As they talk, a laugh is heard on the soundtrack and by Mark, but not Elise. Insofar as she has no reason to lie we are left unsure where to place the sound. Argento does however then supply visuals suggestive of the acousmêtre, via an otherwise unmotivated shot following a stylised duct running up the wall.
Later, Mark makes his way by a hidden passage to the hidden interior of the apartment block, where he encounters the old man and his nurse. Using an electronic apparatus, the man identifies himself as Varelli. The nurse, meanwhile, is revealed to be the Mother of Darkness, or Death itself, as she crashes through a mirror. This calls to mind Chion’s notion that the ultimate figure of the acousmêtre is the primal mother, particularly in light of the Mother of Darkness’s assumed role/occupation as a nurse/carer. It also, however, perhaps invokes death as a further acousmêtre, one invisible, inevitable and all powerful.
Like Inferno, 1982’s Tenebrae begins with a voice-off reading a passage from a book, the visuals showing an extreme close-up of the words being spoken:
The impulse had become irresistible. There was only one answer to the fury that tortured him. And so he committed his first act of murder. He had broken the most deep-rooted taboo, and found not guilt, not anxiety or fear, but freedom. Any humiliation which stood in his way could be swept aside by the simple act of annihilation: Murder.
While the title suggests the film presented the conclusion to the Three Mothers trilogy, the film instead marked Argento’s return to the giallo thriller. The narrative sees giallo author Peter Neale (Anthony Franciosa) travel from New York to Rome19 in order to promote his latest thriller, Tenebre20. Arriving in Rome, Peter is informed there is a killer at large who appears to be using his novel as an inspiration. Soon thereafter Peter is also threatened. This spurs him to investigate the killings.
The murderer’s next victims are a lesbian couple, one of whom was a former student of Peter’s. Prior to their murders Argento presents a bravura scene in which a Louma-crane camera climbs up and over the building they live in. His use of music is again unusual. As the camera begins its peregrinations the music starts, apparently being non-diegetic. Then, part of the way through the scene, Argento cuts to one of the women, Tilda (Mirella D’Angelo), who yells for her partner to “turn it [the music] down”, thus recontextualising the music as diegetic when this request is complied with. Then, however, as Argento cuts back to the Louma-crane camera the volume of the music rises. Curiously Tilda does not comment on this by remarking “I thought I told you to turn it down” or suchlike. As such, the music again appears to have become non-diegetic.
Peter comes to suspect television presenter Christiano Berti (John Steiner) is responsible for the murders and, accompanied by personal assistant Gianni (Christian Borromeo), sneaks into Berti’s garden. Gianni sees someone split Berti’s skull with an axe, while Peter is knocked unconscious by the fleeing killer. After Berti’s murder, the killings continue, perplexing the investigators. At the denouement it is revealed Peter killed Berti and embarked upon his own campaign of revenge murders. Having killed his ex-wife, her lover and Gianni (who had realised something about the scene of Berti’s murder was ‘wrong’ much like Sam and Marc) Peter turns his attentions to his secretary, Anne (Daria Nicolodi). As Peter rushes at Anne, axe in hand, a precariously balanced jagged metal statue falls and impales him. Anne screams uncontrollably as the credits roll. Unlike the earlier screams of the killers’ victims in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red, this can be identified as an instance of Chion’s “screaming point” due to its position at the end of narrative and its deeper resonances: Up until this point Argento’s films had always made the distinction between the protagonist and the antagonist clear. While 1972’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet had presented a protagonist who believed he was guilty of accidental murder, we knew otherwise. Here, by contrast, both spectator and Anne are deceived. Anne realises she never really knew Neale, while we realise we have been identifying with a psychotic killer. The ‘rules of the game’ that pertained in Argento’s earlier films are broken, confronting us with an even more random, chaotic and meaningless universe.