Posted to coincide with Max von Sydow’s 82nd birthday
Broadly speaking, the glory days of the giallo were the mid 60s to the late 70s. But the genre never entirely went away. Still hasn’t. Dario Argento saw in the new millennium with ‘Sleepless’, a rather calculated return to form that gave him the biggest hit in his native Italy that he’d had since ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’ five years earlier.
A prologue set in 1983 has world-weary cop Inspector Moretti (Max von Sydow) promised the young son of a murder victim that he’ll bring the killer to justice if it takes him the rest of his life. A promise he thinks he’s fulfilled when the dead body of the dwarf identified as the killer is retrieved and the case is closed.
Eighteen years later, Moretti has retired, the young lad Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi) is now in his twenties and embarking on a relationship with harpist Gloria (Chiara Caselli), and Moretti’s successor Inspector Manni (Paolo Maria Scalondro) finds himself reopening Moretti’s old case when an identical series of murders occur.
There are two ways to look at ‘Sleepless’: an old-school return to the giallo stamping ground that Argento made his name with; or a “greatest hits” package that simply rehashes former glories. Indeed, the case for the latter hardly needs to be made. There isn’t a single set-piece that doesn’t recall an earlier example of Argento’s filmography, with ‘Deep Red’ in particular being worked over (major plot points involve a child’s nursery rhyme, a buried childhood memory, a character poking about in an old dark house, and a victim menaced by a mechanical doll marching inexorably out of the shadows) like there’s no tomorrow. A secret unearthed in a graveyard recalls ‘Cat of Nine Tails’; a victim framed between the windows of a train is reminiscent of the huge glass doors both framing and denying prevention of the murder in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’; some prowling camerawork in a concert hall is straight out of ‘Opera’, and the plot device of a novelist whose opus the killing spree seems to be patterned on is ‘Tenebre’ writ large.
However, coming after the abysmal ‘Phantom of the Opera’, and providing the last hurrah of satisfyingly stylish Argento goodness prior to a decade’s worth of offerings (‘The Card Player’, ‘Do You Like Hitchcock?’, ‘Mother of Tears’, ‘Giallo’) that has seen his stock plummet to a new low, even something as deliberately reflexive as ‘Sleepless’ is to be embraced: it’s a reminder, however self-derivative, of what you love about Argento.