Tuesday, October 02, 2012

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Tenebrae

“When you have eliminated the impossible, what remains – however improbable – must be the truth.” This quote, from Conan Doyle’s ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, is central to the construction of Dario Argento’s fiendishly brilliant ‘Tenebrae’.

Having scored a big hit first time out with his debut ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ – and followed it up in fine style with ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’ and ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ – Argento pretty much defined the giallo with the magisterial masterclass in mind-fuckery ‘Deep Red’. That was in 1975, when the genre was peaking. Seven years later, the giallo was on the wane but that didn’t stop Argento delivering his second flat-out classic of the form.

‘Tenebrae’ follows American thriller writer Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) as he embarks on a publicity tour in Rome. The whirlwind round of interviews and TV appearances has been organised by his European agent, an expatriate fellow American by the name of Bullmer (John Saxon). Secretary Anne (Daria Nicolodi) and Bullmer’s protégé Gianni (Christian Borromeo) round out his entourage.

He’s barely arrived when detectives Germani (Giuliano Gemma) and Altieri (Carola Stagnaro) turn up in his hotel room wondering if he knows anything about Elsa Manni (Ania Pieroni) – a kleptomaniac first glimpsed swiping a paperback copy of Neal’s latest novel – who has recently been murdered by a black-gloved killer wielding a straight-razor. Neal, understandably since this is his first time in Rome, had never met the lady. Nor can he explain why the killer had stuffed torn out pages of his novel in her mouth.

Neal soon receives an anonymous letter in cut-out newsprint quoting a line from his book. Germani warns him to be vigilant and report any further threatening correspondence. Further killings occur, including a savage attack on loose-living same sex couple Marion (Mirella Banti) and Tilda (Mirella d’Angelo). Anne thinks she spots Neal’s possessive and mentally unstable ex-wife Jane (Veronica Laria) driving past the hotel. Gianni alternates between eagerly assisting Neal (his idol) in his own unofficial investigating and lusting after hotelier’s daughter Maria (Lara Wendel). Maria, meanwhile, endures a series of escalating misfortunes after an argument with her actual boyfriend and the ministrations of a psychotic dog end with her seeking refuge in the house of a murderer.

‘Tenebrae’ befuddles, bamboozles and wrong-foots the viewer from the outset. It boasts more red herrings than a Communist fishery. Even the title misleads. “Tenebrae” is Latin for “shadows” or “darkness” (as well as being the title of Peter Neal’s latest opus), yet much of the film is shot in a cold hard light that allows neither for shadows nor places to hide. Indeed, an image of something very briefly hidden and then shockingly revealed is crucial to the bravura denouement.

The protagonist is challenged as much as the audience, mainly by TV pundit Christiano Berti (John Steiner), a man whose antagony towards Neal’s fiction seems to border on the obsessive. But even before Berti gets in on the act, the first reporter who interviews Neal – someone he is acquainted with and considers sympathetic – suddenly challenges him: “ ‘Tenebrae’ is a sexist novel. Why do you despise women so much? Women as victims, ciphers. The male heroes with their hairy macho bullshit!” Absent the macho male heroes – most of Argento’s male leads, from the edgy Sam Dalmas in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ to the outright nervous Marc Daly in ‘Deep Red’ are more petrified than pro-active – and the accusation is one that has often been made against Argento himself, particularly in light of this controversy-baiting statement of principles: “I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man. I certainly don`t have to justify myself to anyone about this. I don`t care what anyone thinks or reads into it. I have often had journalists walk out of interviews when I say what I feel about this subject.” And indeed Argento gives us a world-class selection of women-in-peril in ‘Tenebrae’ …

… as well as creating an air of sexual ambiguity by casting transsexual Eva Robins as a seductive and vengeful femme fatale in an enigmatic and fetishistic flashback whose import is not revealed in full until very late in the day.

Pay close attention to his/her red shoes. There’s a learned paper to be written on the parallels between Dario Argento and Powell & Pressburger. The touchstones are more apparent than you might think.

As with all gialli, style is everything; and ‘Tenebrae’ creates an architectural style that is dislocated, borderline surreal and utterly unique. Although it’s established from the opening scenes that the film takes place in Rome, Argento creates a Rome that is as far removed from the Eternal City of Fellini and myriad other filmmakers, a Rome that repudiates landmarks and tourist hives. A city of stark avenues, unexpected open spaces and sprawling post-modern buildings in which Argento creates some of his most memorable set-pieces, from Elsa’s flight from a rapacious vagrant only to find herself in greater danger the moment she think she’s found sanctuary to a three-minute build-up to a murder committed in plain sight that is worthy of Hitchcock. The stand-out, though, is the justly celebrated two-and-a-half minute Louma crane sequence in which the camera prowls the exterior of Marion and Tilda’s house, occasionally probing through the windows to track their movements. Scored to the thunderous and jarring music of Goblin, it’s a symphony of voyeurism and subjective excess. It exists purely for the technical achievement of pulling it off in the first place, it breaks all the rules of perspective and POV, and it’s absolutely gorgeously fucking brilliant.

The script slyly works in references to several of Argento’s previous works, including a fake death à la ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and a conceptual homage to ‘Deep Red’ that I’d like to discuss at great length but won’t because I’d really hate to ruin the film for anyone reading this who has yet to have the experience of discovering ‘Tenebrae’ for themselves. All I’ll say is that where ‘Deep Red’ ends with a bloody but reflective shot, the implications of which are left to worm their way into the viewer’s subconscious, ‘Tenebrae’ gives us a traumatized survivor screaming and screaming and screaming even as the screen fades to black and Goblin tries to drown them out.


The Film Connoisseur said...

This is my least favorite Argento, though I like moments in it, there's other things about it that kind of really get on my nerves, like that shot of the house, to me it was pointless, it goes on forever and without a single reason because it achieves absolutely nothing. Okay, it must have been a bitch to film, but what does it do to move the story? Why is it there?

I see he enjoyed using white and day time scenes on this one a lot which kind of goes against type for a horror film, it was cool to see him trying something different there.

The best thing about it are the last 20 minutes of it, I haven't seen it in a while, but I remember not loving it.

Neil Fulwood said...

I really made a big deal out of the Louma crane tracking shot of the house in my review because I genuinely believe that Argento did it not for any narrative or dramatic purpose but purely to prove, on a technical level, that you could pull off a single sustained shot, orchestrated to the actors' movements around the house, and make it last that long. He did it, I think, purely because he could. And maybe because he knew that it would be one element of the film that people would still talk about and debate years later. Personally, I like Argento in his most undisciplined and self-indulgent moments - the 20 minute scene where David Hemmings prowls an ostensibly empty house in 'Deep Red', the body crashing through the stained-glass skylight window in 'Suspiria', the chimp-with-straight-razor deus ex machina in 'Phenomena', the POV shot depicting the flight of the ravens through the opera house in 'Opera'. For me, he's at his best when he's going utterly over the top.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I like all those moments you mentioned as well, that shot of the crow over the opera house is awesome I agree, but it's only on Tenebrae that I didn't see why he did it. I thought maybe he is going to show us something through one of the windows, or we'll see characters walking from room to room, or maybe we'll see the killer prowling...but NOTHING! It tested my patience after a while.

But of course, I love old Argento, I don't want you to get the wrong idea, his old stuff is awesome!