Thursday, 21 December 2006

Lies, damned lies and statistics

One of the most prized books in my cinema collection is Maurizio Baroni's Platea in piedi, 1969-1978. It is one of three volumes of Italian film posters and ephemera, the others covering 1945-58 and 1959-68; unfortunately I don't have them.

What also makes the books great, beyond the hundreds of full-colour reproductions in them, is the invaluable information they contain on every Italian production or co-production made during the period, with domestic release dates; box-office figures, both in original terms and in relation to a constant 1993 baseline; and the certificate awarded each film.

It's this kind of thing that I want to concentrate on here.

While it is impossible to get a complete picture, insofar as these data tell us nothing about longer-term receipts, numbers of admissions, or the international box-office – three areas where a prestigious auteur product and a no-nonsense commercial one could be markedly different – they nevertheless provide a lot of very useful contextual detail for situating specific films and film-makers - in my case Argento and the giallo

The most successful giallo released in 1969 was Lucio Fulci's One on Top of the Other, although it was only the 22nd most successful film of the year and grossed just over a quarter of the amount taken by the film in first place, the comedy Nell'Anno del signore.

Perhaps of more significance, then, for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's breakthrough the following year were the successes achieved by Argento himself as screenwriter of Metti, una sera a cena, in ninth place, and his female star, Suzy Kendall, who appeared in the 12th placed Fraulein Doktor.

Elsewhere, Visconti's The Damned and Fellini's Satyricon ranked fourth and sixth respectively

Although The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was the highest-grossing giallo of the year, it was only the 24th most successful film overall, with its takings – using the constant 1993 lire baseline – only around 25% more than those of Fulci's film the previous year.

The next most successful giallo was Martino's The Strange Vice of Signora Wardh, whose takings were just over half those of Argento's film, closely followed by Lupo's The Weekend Murders, taking just under half.

At the top of the charts, meanwhile, was Barboni's spaghetti western My Name is Trinity.

The question, then, is why the giallo suddenly became “hot” the following year. One suspects that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's international success has an important role here, along with its longer-run legs as a sleeper hit (in turn boosted by the positive foreign reception) that was to remain in circulation for years.

Although Enzo Barboni continued to reign with Trinity is Still My Name, with Pier-Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Leone also scoring notable hits through Decameron and Duck You Sucker in second and sixth place respectively, this would also appear to have been the year in which Argento made his real breakthrough.

Cat o' Nine Tails, released in January, was seventh most successful film of the year, while Four Flies on Grey Velvet, released in December, was ninth, making him the only filmmaker to place twice in the year's top ten. Moreover, the domestic box-office for each film was around one-third in excess of their predecessor.

The giallo as a whole, however, was less successful. The next genre entry, Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin, ranked only 38th and took only about 40 per cent as much money as Argento's double whammy. Following quite closely after it, meanwhile, were Tessari's The Bloodstained Butterfly in 44th and Ercoli's Death Walks in High Heels in 50th. Elsewhere in the listings, meanwhile, are the likes of The Case of the Scorpion's Tail, The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave and The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, testifying to a strong current of giallo production at various levels within the industry.

Again the wider aspect comes to the fore, in that the year's most successful film, Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, had the backing of United Artists and the advantage of being something of an international cause celebre.

Argento, meanwhile, worked on the television series Door into Darkness at this time, thereby boosting his position as the Italian Hitchcock and the pre-eminent giallo director. Against this, however, the relatively poor international box-office for the second and third parts of the Animal Trilogy compared to their predecessor would appear to have to be brought into consideration to also help explain his desire to do something different next.

One also wonders what this might mean for Mikel Koven's vernacular audience thesis: while many gialli would indeed appear to have had little in the way of artistic aspirations and been quite happy to circulate on the terza visione circuit, those of Argento, as its most prominent exemplar, again seem to be a – possibly rule proving – exception.

In terms of those gialli that were released, meanwhile, Fulci again appears to have confirmed his position as Argento's most important imitator / challenger, with Don't Torture a Duckling the year's most successful example of the genre. Equally, however, he again failed to match his rival's figures, the film ranking 35th and still taking less than half the half the money of Cat o' Nine Tails or Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

This year saw Fulci and Argento temporarily reverse their box-office fortunes. Fulci's family-friendly adventure White Fang was the ninth most successful film of the year, coming closer to the second and third parts of the Animal Trilogy in takings and surpassing those of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Argento's non-giallo Le Cinque giornate, meanwhile, only managed 32nd place and less than half the box-office of Fulci's film.

Argento's Deep Red was the sixth most successful film of the year, though its domestic box-office – again in constant 1993 terms – was still lower than that of Cat o' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet; a clear signal that audience figures were continuing to decline.

The moribund state of the giallo as a whole and the fickle nature of public tastes, meanwhile, were signalled by the fact that the next most successful genre entry, Martino's crossover giallo-poliziotto Suspicious Death of a Minor, made only around one-seventh Deep Red's box-office.

In this instance we can also perhaps discern a reversal of the The Bird with the Crystal Plumage situation, in that Deep Red was only a domestic success, never making it onto the all-important US screens at this time.

With Suspiria Argento achieved his highest ranking position, fifth in the year's top money-makers. Perhaps equally important, however, was that unlike Deep Red this success was paralleled – albeit obviously at a lower level – in the international arena, perhaps offsetting the film's actual box-office only being marginally greater than that of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage at the start of the decade.

The next most successful genre entry was Mogherini's The Pyjama Girl Case, with box-office barely one-third that of Suspiria; the general decline of the industry again being reflected by the fact that Barboni's first-placed Due Stupendi quasi piatti took less than half what Trinity is Still My Name had in 1971.

No comments: