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.

The Three Mothers and the Three Fathers

Though Argento was labelled as "The Italian Hitchcock" early in his career, it is an identity he struggled against for a long time, often arguing that his work was more indebted to Lang than Hitchcock. While he made Do You Like Hitchcock recently, its influences and references are broader with - I would argue - a strong undercurrent of Lang against/alongside the more obvious Hitchcock. Much the same also can be said for The Card Player as a contemporary revisioning of Lang's Dr Mabuse der Spieler (note the silent cliffhanger style finale on the train tracks) for the virtual era.

Now, with the final Three Mothers film in production, we should soon be in a position to compare Lang's Three Fathers - his Mabuses - with Argento's Three Mothers (note the "pay no attention to the (wo)man behind the curtain" theme of Last Testatment of Dr Mabuse and Suspiria that Jean-Baptiste Thoret identifies in Magicien de la peur and the "thousand eyes" - and ears - of the witchhouses/bodies).

And of course Mabuse also fed into the krimi, when post-Lang he went up against Scotland Yard...

The electrocardiogram and the attraction

Another useful thing in Koven's study, which he quotes by way of Christopher Wagstaff's work on the Italian western, is Anthony Mann's critique of their “electrocardiogram” dynamics:

“The shoot-outs every five minute reveal the director's fear that the audience get bored because they do not have a character to follow. In a tale you may not put more than five or six minutes of 'suspense': the diagram of the emotions must be ascending and not a kind of electrocardiogram for a clinical case”

What Mann was perhaps not aware of, however, was the way in which Italian westerns would sometimes be re-edited by their international distributors. Thus, for instance, whereas the Italian La Resa dei conti runs 105 minutes, its English counterpart The Big Gundown runs only 84. This is also evident with many Italian thriller and horror films, with one of the most striking examples here actually being Argento's own Profondo Rosso. Alan Jones notes how Nick Alexander, the man responsible for preparing the English-language versions of countless genre films over the course of more than 30 years, argued with the director that his edit of the film, running over two hours, was too long for English audiences and markets. While the film was never releated theatrically in the UK, its US version, with the more exploitative and less enigmatic title of The Deep Red Hatchet Murders, only ran 98 minutes, suggestive of Alexander's commercial imperatives outweighing Argento's artistic ones. Perhaps tellingly, Argento's subsequent film Suspiria – still his greatest box-office success worldwide – runs around 98 minutes in all its versions, with only minor variations due to national censorship / classification standards.

What is also interesting here, beyond demonstrating that different vernacular audiences would often be given different films tailored to their specific tastes and interests, is that the Italian versions were also often the longer ones, perhaps implying more of a balance between action, spectacle and set pieces on the one hand and plot, character and conventional narrative on the other.

Perhaps more important for my own purposes, however, is the way in which this electrocardiogram approach might be related to the “cinema of attractions”, in which the experiential dimension of a pre-reflective Piercean “firstness“ or the phenomenological “natural attitude” that things are what they appear to be unless and until demonstrated otherwise, are paramount. Here is is also worth recalling what John Carpenter says about Halloween – a film he acknowledges as having been strongly influenced by Suspiria – functioning like a "rollercoaster" and the line of descent that this suggests from the early "cinema of attractions" through to the assaultive "attraction"/"repulsion" shock tactics of the Soviet montage filmmakers and the Surrealists (Eisenstein, for instance, wanting to glue spectators into their seats, while Artaud fantasised settings of bombs beneath them) all the way to something like the pins-over-the-eyes scenario within Opera.

Wednesday 29 November 2006

Not a giallo but a thriller

An Italian poster for Nonhosonno / Sleepless

Initial thoughts on La Dolce Morte

With most of the available English language work on the giallo genre, such as Adrian Luther-Smith's Blood and Black Lace and Craig Ledbetter's European Trash Cinema special issue having the function of consumer guide, Mikel J Koven's new book La Dolce Morte, subtitled Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, marks the first - but hopefully not last - serious book-length discussion of the form.

In the preface Koven helpfully identifies three key aims for his study:

"The first, obviously, is an exploration of the giallo, albeit from a synchronic, rather than diachronic, perspective, with particular attention to some of the thematic concerns that arise from a textual study of these films. This book is categorically not a review of the films, debating whether or not they are good or bad; nor does it fall into the "cult of the auteur," helping to establish a pantheon of "rediscovered" Italian horror cinema artistes, putting Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, and Aldo Lado into the same revered echelons as Dario Argento and Mario Bava.

Second, this book aims to refocus the discussion of genre (particularly "subgenre") into the Italian concept of the filone. Seeing the interrelationships between films, how one influences others, how certain filmmakers take ideas and build off them, and then how those ideas are further transformed by other filmmakers, is an underdeveloped aspect in genre study. [...]

Third, this book situates the discussion of the giallo within what I call "vernacular cinema" as a replacement for the term "popular cinema". To look at films from a vernacular perspective removes the a priori assumption about what constitutes a "good" film, how a particular film is, in some way, artistic. Vernacular cinema seeks to look at subaltern cinema not for how it might (or might not) conform to the precepts of high-art/modernist cinema, but for what it does in its own right." (v)

Taken in these terms, the book is a success. Koven convincingly demonstrates that the dominant theme of the giallo film is an ambivalence towards post-war modernity and all that comes with it - La Dolce Morte as counterpoint to La Dolce Vita - while his discussions of the filone and of vernacular cinema give them a broader applicability and should inspire future research into the area, not least for providing another alternative to overly analytic psychoanalytic readings of horror-related forms.

The main difficulties I have with its thesis is really where it leaves its most prominent and influential practitioner, Argento. (And here I have to acknowledge my own biases, as someone who is writing his thesis on Argento and for whom Argento's status as auteur thereby has a significance different from Koven's project here.)

The first problem is that Argento is, I would argue, a self-conscious auteur who, rather than simply deciding high-art/modernist cinema is irrelevant in the manner of Koven's vernacular cinema, instead engages with it within the framework of a popular genre. As such I think he probably managed to connect with both prima and terza visione audiences at some points early in his career, even if the ways they engaged with his films were likely rather different.

Another issue is the duration of Argento's engagement with the giallo, with more than thirty years between The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Sleepless is perhaps difficult to accommodate within the synchronic filone framework and needs more of a diachronic genre or auteur based analysis. Certainly, as far as the period from Tenebre, Phenomena or Opera onwards is concerned, I am not sure if there was such a thing as the vernacular terza visione audience any longer, and would speculate that Argento was only able to survive as a filmmaker precisely because he had earlier managed to establish himself as a brand in his own right with the giallo as his specific domain. Put another way, I suspect that many of those Italians who went to see Opera did so because it was an Argento film or they wanted to see a giallo and Argento was by this stage pretty much the only game in town.

In the end, I'm left with the feeling that in avoiding the kind of trap that befell the likes of Christopher Frayling's Spaghetti Westerns (with its tension between auteur and genre only resolved when Frayling later made clear, via his biography of Sergio Leone, where his true interest lay), and instead drawing upon Christopher Wagstaff's work, Koven has maybe swung a bit too far in an anti-auteurist, anti-aesthetic direction. Though I would not dispute his statement that "approaching the giallo as one would other kinds of Italian cinema, such as that of Fellini or Antonioni, is not productive, as this genre was never intended for the art house," (19) fits perfectly with films like Bay of Blood or Eyeball, his alternative itself feels like something of a square peg when faced with a Deep Red or - to introduce a thoroughly modernist giallo that, unfortunately, Koven does not discuss, Death Laid an Egg.

What is unquestionably valuable, however, is that in establishing a framework for taking the giallo seriously - even if I personally might be reacting against certain aspects of this framework - Koven has given us something new to think, talk and write about.

Tuesday 28 November 2006

Broken mirrors...

There's a moment in Argento's Opera where the understudy Betty, having gotten the chance to become a star in the avant-garde production of Macbeth through the unfortunate 'accident' befalling her diva predecessor, comments on the bad luck associated with 'The Scottish Play'. What is important, I think, is her framing in a mirror within this sequence and the relationship with the more fantastical Suspiria, wherein the bad luck and broken mirrors/minds relationship is deliberately ambiguous, thereby implied - all the moreso since in Suspiria's sequel, Inferno, the deaths of those who disturb the witches are prefigured by the breaking things and minor injuries - "by the pricking of my thumb, something this way wicked comes," as per Macbeth indeed...

Monday 27 November 2006


How does one go about uploading an image to blogspot? Or does the image get uploaded elsewhere and linked to from here? Any recommendations for good image storage space, other than using another existing site?

The Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set

The early 1970s were the boom time for the Italian thriller or giallo, the name coming from the yellow covers in which mystery and suspense novels were published. An important part of the giallo film phenomenon was the presence of a number of attractive female starlets such as Edwige Fenech, Barbara Bouchet and the star of these two Luciano Ercoli directed Italian-Spanish co-productions, his wife Nieves Navarro, appearing here under her Susan Scott pseudonym.

La Morte cammina con i tacchi alti / Death Walks on High Heels opens boldly, with a sequence that alerts the viewer to expect the unexpected: a one-eyed gunman on a train, the kind of figure who you believe to be an assassin, is himself murdered by a balaclava wearing, razor-wielding killer with distinctive blue eyes.

We soon learn that the victim was jewel thief Rochard. His ill-gotten gains remain missing. The police suspect his daughter Nicole, an exotic dancer, may know their whereabouts. But she professes ignorance.

Later, Nicole is threatened by the train murderer, who caresses her with a straight razor and warns her that the next time she had better tell him the location of the diamonds or he'll use the sharp side of his blade.

Finding bright blue contact lenses among her neer-do-well boyfriend/pimp Michel's accoutrements, Nicole believes he may be involves and thereby flees into the arms of Dr Robert Matthews, an Englishman who showed up at one of the strip clubs where she works shortly before and, wooing her with flowers, confessed to being wowed by her strip routine…

The pair leave Paris for London and thence to Matthews's cottage by the sea, empty but for a decidedly creepy looking groundsman with an artificial hand…

From here on in the plot gets complicated, with nothing quite what it seems, including the titular killer…

Coming across as a hybrid of Psycho, Rear Window and Il Diavolo a sette facce / The Devil Has Seven Faces – the two Hitchcock productions providing prolific genre screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi with themes of voyeurism and sexual deviancy and Osvaldo Civriani's giallo the missing diamonds McGuffin and narrative contortions – Death Walks in High Heels is a bit of a curate's egg of a production, with effective direction and a top-notch genre cast – besides Scott we have Frank Wolff (The Great Silence) and Simon Andreu (The Blood Spattered Bride), playing Matthews and Michel respectively, along with Claudie Lange, Luciano Rossi (The Stranger's Gundown) and George Rigaud (Knife of Ice) in supporting roles – outweighed by a marginally overlong and too-confusing narrative that pulls the rug out on the spectator rather too much to fully engage their attentions.

Less, then, an example of the giallo as art than as trash, the film's main selling points are undoubtedly Scott – one soon loses count of the number of different, but invariably revealing costumes (and wigs) she dons as Nicole – and some satisfyingly grisly murder scenes.

La Morte accarezza a mezzanotte / Death Walks at Midnight AKA Death Caresses at Midnight reunites more or less the same cast – Peter Martell/Pietro Martellanza (The Bogeyman and the French Murders) stepping into the Wolff type role, the American born actor having committed suicide barely weeks after the November 1971 Italian release of Death Walks in High Heels – with Ercoli once more working from an Ernesto Gastaldi penned-script.

This time Scott plays Valentina, a hot-tempered fashion model who is persuaded by her journalist boyfriend – again essayed by Andreu – to take an experimental drug for a story he is writing. Under its influence, she has a horrifying vision of a man smashing a woman's face in with a spiked glove, reminiscent of the one prominently featured in Mario Bava's seminal Blood and Black Lace.

It soon proves, however, to be no mere hallucination, with a woman having been murdered in the apartment opposite under near identical circumstances. Valentina's half-remembered memories thus plunge her into a nightmare world of deception and murder. Plus ca change

Again, what the film may lacks in seriousness it makes up for in trashy fun. Valentina's apartment showcases some especially groovy interior design, while composer Gianni Ferrio contributes nice themes and Mina some gorgeous vocalism.

The main thing to be said about the Death Walks at Midnight disc is that it is in the 2.35:1 ratio, with the earlier release from Mondo Macabro having been incorrectly framed at 1.85:1. While the earlier disc was watchable, nowhere near as bad as a scope film being panned and scanned to 1.33:1, the extra information previously “lost” is clearly welcome in a “see it again for the first time” way.

Much the same can be said of the difference between the audio presentations of the two discs: whereas the Mondo Macabro release was sourced from a French print and so lacked the Italian dub, the NoShame disc features it instead; both also, of course, including the English dub.

The extras on the disc comprise a small poster and stills gallery and – rather more impressive – a 105 minute TV version of the film. While the quality is poor, being panned and scanned and sourced from a VHS copy, it's nice to have even if not the sort of thing you're likely to revisit often beyond the Video Watchdog nerd factor.

Also presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with a choice of English and Italian 2.0 audio tracks, there's not much to say about the Death Walks on High Heels except that it's again a pretty much top-notch transfer, clean, bright and sharp as a maniac's straight razor. (Apologies; I just had to work that one in.)

The extras, meanwhile, comprise another small gallery and the original – somewhat psychedelic – English and Italian trailers for the film, which are otherwise identical bar their languages.

The set also includes miniature reproductions of the films' lobby cards and a booklet containing liner notes; biographies of Navarro, Rossi and Wolff by Chris D – author of Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema – illustrations, poster reproductions and a track listing for the Cipriani CD.

One contestable point within the liner notes is the author's assertion that Romolo Guerreri's 1968 film Sweet Body of Deborah “inadvertently opened the floodgates,” for the giallo. While the years 1968 and 1969 saw a rising number of productions in a similarly vein, such as Umberto Lenzi's Orgasmo and Così dolce… così perversa and Lucio Fulci's One on Top of the Other most other commentators would probably have suggested that the key film here was Dario Argento's 1969 debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, as signalled by the rash of like-sounding titles that quickly followed in its wake like Fulci's Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Sergio Martino's The Case of the Scorpion's Tail.

While dedicated followers of Italian pop cinema will likely have many of the 18 tracks featured on The Sound of Love and Death: The Very Best of Stelvio Cipriani, the CD provides a good demonstration of the composer's versatility. Curiously it does not include anything from Death Walks on High Heels, the closest thing to a giallo among the films featured being two tracks from Massimo Dallamano's police / giallo hybrid La polizia chiede aiuto / What Have They Done to Your Daughters, the title piece and a driving chase score. with the mix otherwise one of pieces from dramas, cop actioners and horror. Fans of the trashier side of Cipriani's work may be disappointed by the lack of anything from his Joe D'Amato porno-horrors, but should find the TV studio disco track from Lenzi's Incubo sulla citta' contaminata / Nightmare City a decent enough substitute.

All told, a must-buy for Euro cultists.

La Dolce Morte

Mikel J. Koven's new study of the giallo, La Dolce Morte, billed as the first academic study of the genre in English, arrived this morning. Expect some more detailed comments in a few days once I have had a chance to digest it properly.

Poe / Argento II

"Poe's major claim to fame is as the father of the short story. In November 1838 he published [...] 'How to Write a Blackwood Article'. This is a slight, rather wearying satire on the contemporary taste for 'sensation' stories, wherein the central character is found in a terrible predicament involving incarceration, torture or the threat of an awful death, his or her sensations as they happen being minutely described."

- John S. Whitly, Introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

What I think is interesting here is the line of descent this suggests, from this sensation story through to the early pre-narrative / Classical Hollywood style cinema of attractions and the sensation literature emphasised by Fritz Lang in relation to Dr Mabuse der Spieler, all the way to the attenuation of narrative logic in Argento in favour of the sensational and spectacular of the set-pieces.

Sunday 26 November 2006

Argento and the fumetti

I recently got Jean-Baptiste Thoret's Dario Argento, magicien de la peur, in which he suggests the fumetti character Kriminal as a possible inspiration for Mater Tenebrarum's skeleton form at the end of Inferno. This made me want to find out more about the fumetti than the little I had already been exposed to - a brief appendix in Pete Tombs and Cathal Tohill's wonderful Immoral Tales and the film adaptations of Kriminal, Diabolik and Valentina in Baba Yaga. It was cool, then, to find a blog about the fumetti and a version of Biancaneve - i.e. Snow White - that was very different from the Disney one that part-inspired Suspiria -

Samhain magazine

In the mid-late 80s John Martin wrote a long article on Argento which was published in three issues of Samhain magazine, #6 #7 and #8. They appeared on Ebay and, being a completist, I put in a bid on each one. Unfortunately I only managed to win #6 and #8. Gah!

Poe / Argento

"It has often been asserted that there are [...] two Poes; the writer of tales of imagination, where the irrational reigns supreme, and the writer of mystery tales whose cardinal emphasis is on the operation of the reasoning faculties."

- John S. Whitly, Introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination

I thought this was interesting in relation to the logic of Argento's gialli and the illogic of his horror films and, that - as Whitly argues for Poe - they are maybe ultimately one and the same, confounding the linear, rational, scientific mindset.

Saturday 18 November 2006

Puzzle / L'uomo senza memoria

The puzzle of the English title begins in London as Peter Smith (Luc Merenda), l'uomo senza memoria of the Italian, goes to see his doctor (Tom Felleghy, in yet another character role) to see if there isn't any way he can speed up the process of remembering the past he lost in a car accident some nine months ago.

The doctor tells him that there isn't and it's all a matter of time, but evidently had not considered the way in which a death sentence might speed the process up.

For when Peter returns home he finds an old acquaintance – alas he cannot remember who – waiting for him. Thing is this man knows him as Ted Walden, 30 years old, married and living in Portofino, Italy. Worse, he's now going to shoot Peter/Ted in revenge for some past deed.

A gunman's bullet from the window opposite puts paid to the man's plan, but also prevents him explaining further “at the point of dying” and leaves Peter/Ted with a body – which tellingly he seems rather too adept at dealing with, potentially offering a foretaste of things to come – and a slew of new questions.

Who is he really?

Why did this man want to kill him?

Who saved him?


Unsure of what to do next, the timely arrival of a telegram from Sara (Senta Berger) in Portofino seems to offer some answers. On arrival, however, the questions only multiply. Ted does not recognise his wife, instead requiring her to be pointed out by a third party – who of course has his own agenda, soon to be revealed – before learning that she didn't send for him, doesn't trust him and can't really help him ...

Though there's one of those unconvincing falling dummy moments late on, where its head comes off as it lands in the sea, this is otherwise a well made, tightly scripted and effective thriller that keeps you engaged and guessing right up to the end.

While perhaps a little slow for some tastes, taking time to establish character and situation, there really isn't any waste to speak of. Everything that's there – a kid's photography hobby; the chainsaw that Sara puts back in the kitchen cupboard; a prominently displayed clock; a burglary where nothing seems to have been taken; the cross-cutting between Sara and Ted as they separately prepare for bed etc. – has a reason for being.

Similarly, if stalk-and-slash suspense dynamics and set pieces are downplayed, this only serves to strengthen the slow-burn menace of some of the encounters – most notably when a immobile Sara is terrorised by one of the bad guys flicking matches on her decidedly flammable nightdress – and the impact of the climactic settling of accounts when the straight razor comes out in apparent concession to genre requirements...

And if the amnesia McGuffin is clearly lifted from Hitchcock's Spellbound, the filmmakers have also put sufficient spin on it to make it their own. Whereas that film's protagonist was set free by the uncovering of his true past, here is serves instead to only make things worse for Ted.

Okay, there is undoubtedly a classical model for this in Oedipus, if we want to go back that far, but again the psychoanalytic/Freudian focus of the conventional giallo is conspicuous in its absence, in favour of a more existential reading that (as with Hal Hartley's Amateur some twenty years later) asks whether a man can still be held accountable for the actions of a past self that no longer represents his present and future – if, that is, he still has one...

As far as the casting goes, the only potentially weak link would seem to be Luc Merenda. Yet even here his characteristic inexpressiveness and reliance upon good looks paradoxically work in the film's favour, better conveying the sense of a man whose life is pretty much a tabula rasa, as does his facility with action, implying a kind of muscle memory from his past.

All told, if Puzzle suggests that Dario Argento was right to say that Duccio Tessari was not the man to direct his The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to best effect, it also indicates that this was less down to any lack of facility with the thriller form – The Bloodstained Butterfly is similarly impressive, even in the compromised pan and scan version I saw – than a different accent and set of dynamics.

Put another way, if Argento is the master of the modern giallo thriller, Tessari must be ranked as a master of its classical counterpart.

This Region 2 coded PAL format disc from new Danish outfit Another World Entertainment, billed as the first in their giallo series, presents Puzzle in an ultrabit anamorphic transfer in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is clean and vibrant, perhaps a little soft but undoubtedly far superior to the kind of bootleg sources some might have encountered the film on previously.

While the sound suffers from a bit of snap, crackle and pop, it's never too distracting nor sufficient to detract from overall enjoyment of the film. While both Italian and English tracks are provided, there isn't the option of listening to the former subtitled in the latter, with the choices here – Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish – apparently reflecting the main target market for the disc, while also providing hope that someone elsewhere might yet license the film and provide this.

The extras are a bit thin on the ground, being confined to the film's trailer; a straight off the IMDB style filmography for Tessari, and a small slideshow gallery.

Okay, there's also a trailer gallery of future releases from the company, but these are for films – Cannibal Ferox, Mountain of the Cannibal God, City of the Living Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Eaten Alive and The Beyond – that are all already well represented on DVD – except perhaps for with Finnish subtitles...

Friday 17 November 2006

Bruno Nicolai in Giallo

Ask anyone moderately acquainted with Eurocult cinema to name a composer connected with the form and the chances are that they will respond with Ennio Morricone. While this is testament to both the quality and quantity of Morricone's output, the importance of his collaborators - such as multi-instrumentalist Allessandro Allessandroni, vocalist Edda Dell'Orso, conductor and arranger Bruno Nicolai and Allessandroni's group i cantori moderni - to the sound of 60s spaghetti westerns and 70s gialli has often gone largely unacknowledged.

Of these neglected names, that of Nicolai is perhaps the most inexplicable. Born in 1926, he attended the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia, where he first met Morricone, two years his junior. Becoming firm friends, the pair collaborated through the 1960s and early 1970s, before eventually breaking their creative partnership in mysterious and seemingly acrimonious circumstances; the most popular version that Morricone felt Nicola was plagiarising him.

Whatever truly happened – Nicolai died in 1991 and Morricone remains silent on the issue – there is a clear similarity between their work over the two decades. Then again, this is arguably inevitable given Nicolai's roles; one hopes that someday someone with more musical ability and knowledge will perform a quasi-experiment, listening to different permutations of Morricone's and Nicolai's work double blind and seeing how easy it is to tell the difference (if anyone from The Wire is reading, this might make a good “Invisible Jukebox” test). Yet, the fact remains that, even if only sometimes producing pastiches of Morricone, many of Nicolai's 90-plus original scores are of a high standard in themselves and, moreover, make an important contribution to the European pop cinema of the 60s and 70s in scoring films for – among others – Jess Franco, Sergio Corbucci, Ruggero Deodato, Gianfranco Parolini and Umberto Lenzi.

Another reason for the lack of attention given Nicolai's work until recently was its unavailability to all but the most dedicated and well-financed collectors, many scores having only ever been released on limited edition private pressings via Nicolai's own label, Edipan. But now, with Italian label Digitmovies going back to the original master tapes and embarking upon an ambitious re-issue programme of Nicolai and other neglected composers, in most cases with alternate takes and versions hitherto unheard, there is really no excuse not to acquaint oneself.

To date Digitmovies have released six of Nicolai's giallo scores, under the descriptive series title of "Bruno Nicolai in Giallo" – La Coda dello scorpione, Il Tuo Vizio É Una Stanza Chiusa E Solo Io Ho La Chiave, La Dama rossa Uccide sette volte, La Notte che Evelyn usci' dalla tombe, Perche' quelle strane gocce di sangue sui corpo di Jennifer and Tutti i colori del buio – those for two Jess Franco films, 99 Donne and Eugenie De Sade '70.

Of the giallo scores, the one that feels closest to the Nicolai/Franco idiom is perhaps La Notte che Evelyn usci dalla tomba / The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave, directed by Emilio Miraglia and released in 1971. In part this is because the film's dreamlike what-the-hell-is-going-on sensibilities give it a feel not unlike many Franco films such as A Virgin Among the Living Dead – also scored coincidentally by Nicolai – as an uxoricidal nobleman, played by Anthony Steffen, finds himself surrounded by relatives and hangers-on desirous of his wealth and status. It's also, however, because the film's most memorable cue, in the form of the the swami number that plays over the justly famous scene of the intoxicating Erika Blanc performing a coffin striptease – the kind of thing that makes a CD or DVD worthwhile in its own right – is strongly reminiscent of similar psychedelic cues by Nicolai for the Spanish director's Eugénie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion and Eugénie a year or so earlier.

The other cuts are a palatable mix of romantic and suspenseful atmospheres, along with the odd party/vocal number in the shape of the diegetically located La Festa. Perhaps inevitably they don't all work outwith the context of the film, but most, including the gentle, haunting Il Fantasma di Evelyn and the main title theme (a longer version of which is also presented as one of the two bonus tracks) remain listenable and evocative enough in their own right.

Psychedelic cues are also to the fore in Tutti i colori del buio / All the Colours of the Dark, one of three titles here directed by the talented Sergio Martino and featuring ever-charming leading man George Hilton and no fewer than four starring genre queen Edwige Fenech. A giallo take on Rosemary's Baby, it's the tale of a young Londoner who, having tragically lost her baby in an automobile accident a few months earlier, gets drawn into a satanic cult by her new neighbour and increasingly comes to suspect and doubt all around – though with Hilton as her husband you can see why…

With many of the cues having magical titles – Magico Incontro, Medium, Suggestione, Esorcismo, Ipnosi etc. – the balance is more in favour of the experimental and uneasy listening side of things than on Evelyn, though the likes of the sitar solo Evocazione (performed by Allessandroni as another reminder of how close-knit the Italian soundtrack world was at this time) and the two versions of Sabba (with I Cantori Moderni providing the vocals to make the same point) come close to being classics of easy pop-psychedelic trash. With no fewer than 16 of the 29 tracks being previously unreleased versions, there more to make this disc worth buying for old-time collectors though also consequently less in the way of actual variation in the music.

The second Nicolai/Martino collaboration, Il Tuo vizio é una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave / Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key / Excite Me / Eye of the Black Cat / Gently Before She Dies (going for the record here with the alternative titles?) also dates from 1972 and again gives Fenech a prominent role. She plays the bisexual niece of Luigi Pistilli's alcoholic writer, who conspires with and against him and his wife, played by Anita Strindberg, in a giallo take on Edgar Allen Poe's perennial The Black Cat. In keeping with this, Nicolai's score – his work on Franco's Dracula might also be worth comparing here – is more classical sounding, with harpischord and strings predominating and the 20 tracks identified only by sequence numbers rather than the specific moments in the film they accompany; you can tell that track 12 goes with a high-tension moment while track 18 has a more driving chase music feel to it but that's about all.

The third Nicolai/Martin collaboration, La Coda dello Scorpione / The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, dates from a year earlier. A comparatively straightforward thriller, the film casts Hilton as an insurance agent, one of several people interested in the fortune inherited by adulteous wife Evelyn Stewart/Ida Galli after her husband dies in a plane crash; Fenech sits it out in favour of Galli, Strindberg and Janine Reynaud. With most of the action taking place in Greece, there's an awkward diegetic scene-setting cue as the sixth track on the CD, but on reflection it's no worse than, say, the music that accompanies the changing of the guards in Marcello Giombini's score for Joe D'Amato's similarly set Anthropophagous the Beast.

Otherwise it's a different story, the six variants on the Foglie Rosse and Vento D'Autumno themes providing lush, romantic music that constrast well with the 25 suspenseful and moody La Coda… sequences, where edgy percussion and strangulated trumpet generally predominate. The 32nd and final track, Shadows, is vocal piece that, like much Euro-crooning, doesn't quite pull it off.

Also of note is the title theme: while generally counting amongst the best cuts on each disc, The Case of the Scorpion's Tall's main sequence is truly a standout, its simple ostenato overlaid by menacing guitar wails and squawks getting you into that giallo mood right away.

Hilton and Fenech were together again for spaghetti western specialist Giuliano Carnimeo / Anthony Ascott's 1972 entry into the giallo filone, Perché quelle strane gocce di sangue sul corpo di Jennifer? / What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing On Jennifer's Body? / The Case of the Bloody Iris / Erotic Blue (another contender for the too many AKAs crown), the former playing a model who moves into a murder-prone apartment block designed by the latter, a wealthy playboy; also on hand are Fenech's dumb friend and ex-husband – who has a penchant for bizarre sex games and wants her to rejoin his cult – and a predatory lesbian neighbour…

The trashiness of this scenario, by frequent giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi, is mirrored somewhat by Nicolai's music, although, as the liner notes indicate, only around half the numbered cues appearing on the CD actually found their way into the final cut of the film.

As it is, the title theme motifs, which recur throughout, give the music a bright and breezy musak-like quality as as much as a suspenseful one, with those tracks that eschew this approach, like the diegetic solo violin on track nine, failing to make immediate sense outwith the context of the film itself.

Miraglia's 1972 giallo La Dama rossa uccide sette volte / The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, features neither Fenech nor Hilton, instead giving the starring role to Barbara Bouchet. As the title suggests, there's a bit of a fairy-tale vibe to this one, with titular woman in red supposedly returning from the tomb – just like Evelyn the year before, perhaps – every century to kill seven people.

This fantastical air is mirrored in Nicolai's music, with the title theme, track one, beginning with lullably style voices – which might be compared with the children's chorus on Morricone's score for Aldo Lado's Chi l'ha vista morire? / Who Saw Her Die? of the same year – before going into a more baroque idiom on tracks two and three that thereafter predominates although some cuts, like track four have more of a bossa nova/easy listening vibe to them; all told it's a pleasing mix.

Overall, if there's sometimes a degree of sameness between many of these scores – listening to them back-to-back as I write this I think I would have difficulty placing a lot of the tracks – they are also effective within the context of the films and, for the most part, eminently listenable outwith. Clearly a labour of love on the part of Digitmovies, and well presented in terms of accompanying liner notes and illustrative material – poster and still reproductions etc – they're well worth supporting, even if you may not feel the need to buy each and every one. - Bruno Nicolai tribute page

What's all this then

This is going to be my blog about the giallo and Dario Argento in particular. For those not in the know, which is probably most of you who happen upon this by chance, the giallo is a particularly Italian type of thriller; Dario Argento its most prominent exponent.