Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Trouble with Harry

Most often cited by fans as Hitchcock's first collaboration with Bernard Hermann, 'The Trouble with Harry' is a delightful, colourful, laid-back comedy, the very cheerfulness of the film set in perfect counterpoint to its subject matter.

Out shooting in the woods, Captain Wiles (Fred Gwynne) comes across a dead body. He reckons up the shots he's fired - three in total - and remembers that one whanged straight through a beer can and another took out a 'no trespassing' sign. He looks at the corpse at his feet and decides he'd better dispose of it pretty damn quick.

Half of his fellow townsfolk happen by while Wiles hides behind a fallen tree, waiting for them to bugger off so that he can inter the recently deceased Harry. ("He didn't live around him," someone observes, earning Wiles' wry rejoinder: "He died around here and that's what matters.") Among those stumbling upon the corpse - quite literally in the case of myopic Dr Greenbow (Dwight Marfield) - are appropriately-named spinster Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), smart-talking youngster Arnie (Jerry Mathers), son of attractive young widow Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), and penniless artist Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), whose first thought is to whip out his sketch pad and capture the dead man's likeness.

Both Jennifer and Miss Gravely have cause to believe they were responsible for Harry's death. Wiles is convinced he's the guilty party. Sam is decent enough to lend a helping hand to all parties, and over the course of a long afternoon, Harry is buried, dug up, reburied, dug up again, etc, etc. Meanwhile, romance blossoms between Captain Wiles and Miss Gravely and Sam and Jennifer - when they're not busy with the shovels, that is.

With its snappy dialogue, comedic complications and the effortless pairing off of its romantic protagonists, 'The Trouble with Harry' is as frothy, insubstantial and entertaining as anything by P.G. Wodehouse ... well, Wodehouse by way of Edgar Allan Poe, anyway. And when I say 'insubstantial', I don't mean that in the bad way. 'The Trouble with Harry' is pure entertainment, its wry humour pointed up by Hermann's jaunty score. Shirley MacLaine instantly establishes herself as a quirky and likeable leading lady in her first role. Forsythe does sterling work and Gwynne and Natwick are pure joy in every scene they share.

In many ways, this is atypical Hitchcock. Apart from the continual interruptions to Wiles' attempted corpse-disposal, there's nothing here that bears even a nodding acquaintance with the maestro's signature suspenseful set-pieces. The glamorous heroine isn't even blonde.

It is, however, 95 minutes of good clean (slightly macabre) fun.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


In 1924 Nathan Leopold and Robert Loeb, two outrageously gifted and socially privileged ivy-league students, lured 14-year-old Bobby Franks into their car, struck him with a chisel and congratulated themselves on committing the perfect murder. Out of pure show-offishness, as if playing a macabre parlour game designed to accentuate their intellectual superiority, they contacted the victim's family and instigated a ransom scenario.

Unfortunately for them, Bobby Franks' body was discovered. A pair of Leopold's glasses were found nearby, their design incorporating a unique hinge mechanism which investigators narrowed down to only three purchasers. Hauled in for questioning, they pinned their defence on a hastily concocted alibi regarding a night-time drive with a couple of fictitious girlfriends (Leopold and Loeb were gay lovers). When the police established that their car was garaged on the night in question, the game was up.

Leopold was 19, Loeb a year younger.

In 1948, Alfred Hitchcock adapted Patrick Hamilton's play (the adaptation is credited to Hume Cronyn, the actual screenplay to Arthur Laurents) as his first technicolour film. 'Rope' is also his stagiest production. Deliberately so. Hitch wanted to recreate for the cinema audience the feel of a stage play. Whether this is a good thing or not is open to debate. (To throw in my tuppence-ha'penny-worth, theatre = stage = stagy; cinema = moving picture = movement. See where I'm coming from?) Still, it was an experiment and a tip of the hat is due to Sir Alfred for giving it a shot. But does an experiment make for good cinema?
In trying to create the impression of the whole thing playing out in one take, Hitchcock's major obstacle was the 10-minute shooting time per take, this being the maximum amount of footage that could be captured on a roll of film. Which is why 'Rope' relies on occasional awkward moments when the camera moves behind a character, the back of their shirt or jacket filling the screen, then pulls back out again (having been loaded with a fresh reel) and continues floating merrily around the elaborate but stultifyingly artificial set.

There's this to say for 'Rope': the camera certainly isn't static. A parlour piece it might be, but the film at least has some movement.

Narratively, Hitch departs from the facts of the Leopold/Loeb case, retaining the only the motive (murder as an intellectual exercise). Had he focused on the extraneous ransom element of the crime, or shaky alibis and the crucial bit of business with the spectacles, he might have made a far more interesting film. It's interesting to note (several interviewees on the special features documentary attest to the fact) that no mention was made during filming of the Leopold/Loeb case, nor of the murderers' homosexuality, even though the lead actors clearly play the roles in a prissy, effeminate manner (ie. conforming to the stereotype that still crops up in today's cinema).

The egg-head sociopaths in 'Rope' are named Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Grainger). Their victim, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), is in his twenties, making for a much different dialectic to the murder of a 14-year-old. Having strangled this poor unfortunate, they cram his body into a large chest, use it as a table and invite a bunch of people over for a dinner party. The guests are: David's father (Cedric Hardwicke), his sister-in-law Mrs Atwater (Constance Collier), David's girlfriend Janet (Joan Chandler), her ex-boyfriend Ken (Douglas Dick), and Brandon and Phillip's former tutor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who introduced them to the Nietzschean concepts their crime is patterned on. Waited on by long-suffering housekeeper Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson), a tense evening ensues.

Part of the problem with 'Rope' is that none of these are characters you'd want to spend much time with. Brandon's a pompous smartarse (Dall's performance varies between inspired moments comparable to Richard E Grant's Withnail characterisation at one end of the scale and, at the other, scenery-chewing so pronounced you fear for the wallpaper), Phillip spends the film in a perpetual sulk (the Farley Granger masterclass: pout, scowl, pout, get all shouty, pout some more), Janet's a spoiled young thing, Ken's a chinless wonder of the highest order, Mrs Atwater is yer actual bit of comic relief who seems to have wandered in from eccentric aunt duties in an Oscar Wilde play, and Mr Kentley's essential decency is hamstrung by the fact that he's given nothing to do by the script other than fret about his son's non-appearance. A potentially dynamic stand-off between Brandon and Mr Kentley, the latter railing against Brandon's espousal of the Nietzschean concept of the uber-mensch, is curtailed before it develops into anything too interesting.

Which only leaves Rupert. And for most of the film you're fooled into believing him the hero of the piece (he's the one who senses something is up, who discovers the overlooked clue, who goes back after the dinner party to confront Brandon and Phillip) simply because it's Jimmy Stewart playing him. Prefiguring 'Vertigo', Hitchcock sneakily punctures Stewart's all-American Mr Nice Guy persona by giving him a role which, on the surface is sympathetic, but who is actually complicit in the dark machinations onscreen.

Cadell was the boys' tutor: his beliefs, entertained as purely cerebral concepts and never acted on, are made actual by his former students. He's the catalyst. Listen to his incensed rant at the end of the film. The old gag about how it's not just a river in Egypt springs to mind.

Still, at 77 minutes 'Rope' never outstays its welcome; and it offers some memorable moments: Brandon handing Mr Kentley a stack of books tied together with a piece of rope last seen tightening around David's throat; Mrs Wilson clearing the plates, candlesticks and tablecloth from the chest and almost giving the game away as she goes to open it (watch how slyly Hitch segues from a discussion about David's disappearance, the speakers eventually relegated offscreen as the chest and Mrs Wilson's interminable treks to and from it occupying complete centrality onscreen); Rupert distracting Phillip with a metronome and an endless reel of questions as Phillip tries to pick out a classical piece on the piano.

An overriding theme in 'Rope' is class and social tension. The story - and its real-life inspiration - might have been American through-and-through but Hitch, as a Brit, understood it better than most.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Interrupting the Hitch-fest ...

Tony Passarelli's short film 'Blinded by Sight' has been selected as one of the East Midlands finalists in the BAFTA Orange 60 Minutes of Fame competition.

An article on the film will appear in the Nottingham Evening Post either tomorrow or Wednesday, and the film itself will be shown on the East Midlands Today programme on BBC1 between 6.30 and 7.00pm on Thursday.

Please support Tony by visiting and giving this up-and-coming film-maker the vote of encouragement he deserves.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Shadow of a Doubt

The DVD of 'Shadow of a Doubt' includes an affectionate thirty-minute documentary featuring contributions from stars Teresa Wright and Hume Cronyn, film-maker Peter Bogdanovich, and the director's daughter, Pat O'Connell Hitchcock. "This was my father's favourite movie," she explains, "because he loved the thought of bringing menace into a small town."

In his six-decade career behind the camera, Hitch helmed over sixty films. He couldn't have picked better for his personal favourite. Everything about 'Shadow of a Doubt' is perfect.

Consider the opening. Under the credits, elegantly dressed couples whirl across the screen to the strains of Lehar's 'Merry Widow' waltz. The image segues into a series of shots establishing a less-than-elegant locale: vagabonds lounge under the shadow of a steel bridge; a broken-down car has been left to rust; kids play in the street outside a block of unwelcoming tenement buildings; a man - Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), our villain of the piece - lies on a bed in a dull little room, staring listlessly at the ceiling. The contrast is immediate: this is not at all the kind of place you'd hear waltz music, let alone get dressed up to go to a ball.

On the subject of music, Lehar's sickly-sweet bit of romantic Vienna recurs throughout the film, losing a little more of its romanticism each time you hear it. An hour in, the effect is just plain sinister. (Kudos, too, to Dmitri Tiomkin's score - granted, it's melodramatic, but he cleverly subjects Lehar's waltz to series of dark variations. The waltz thus gets into the fabric of the film just as it lodges indisplacably in the heroine's mind.)

Our heroine, Charlotte ('Charlie') Newton (Teresa Wright) is introduced in similar fashion to Oakley (or 'Uncle Charlie' as she adoringly calls him), lying on her bed and gazing disconsolately upwards. The establishing shots that sketch out her milieu - Santa Rosa, California, tell a different story. The town is picture-postcard stuff; idyllic. Neat houses, well-turned-out townsfolk, picket fences, an avuncular policeman on point duty. It's like the opening of 'Blue Velvet' forty years before David Lynch brought his twisted classic of small town Americana to the screen.

The parallels are obvious. 'Blue Velvet' is son of 'Shadow of a Doubt', Frank Booth a direct descendant of Uncle Charlie but with a leather jacket instead of a suave suit, fedora and walking cane. Not that Uncle Charlie is any less murderous or dangerous than Frank; he's just classier, better mannered and has vocabulary enough that he doesn't need to say "fuck" every other word. What he does say can be shocking, though. Take his tirade against the very women he preys on: "The cities are full of women, middle-aged women, their husbands dead. Husbands who spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave the money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do they do, these useless women? You see them in the best hotels ... eating the money, drinking the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women." Not a foul word in the whole monologue, but it still feels like you've been slapped in the face.

This is a good place to consider the performances. Joseph Cotten quite simply gives a career best. He gets the balance of charm, menace, guile and ruthlessness just right. It doesn't matter that there's something dodgy about Uncle Charlie from the off, or that his guilt is a foregone conclusion, there is something so suave, so commanding about him that it's difficult not to relish the Machiavellian way he insinuates himself into his niece's family and effortlessly becomes the lynchpin of the household. Put simply, the man invites complicity in a way that no other screen villain, save a certain Hannibal Lecter, has ever managed.

Teresa Wright proves an ideal foil. Romantic, precocious and rather too enamoured of her uncle, the film documents a gradual falling of the scales from her eyes. She experiences doubt, fights it with denial, then becomes overwhelmed with a need to find out for herself. Realisation sends her spiralling through a maelstrom of suspicion, fear and resent. 'Shadow of a Doubt' is not just a top-notch psychological thriller; it's also a meditation on the end of innocence. Wright was twenty-five when she made the film; it was only her fourth role. The character arc she describes is (allowing for the mannered style of acting prevalent in the 1940s) damn near flawless.

Henry Travers and Patricia Collinge as Joseph and Emma Newton, Charlie's parents, bring a rumpled humanity to their roles, while Edna May Wonacott as Charlie's younger sister Ann, full of intellectual pretentions, just about steals the show. Hume Cronyn is terrific as Joseph's nerdy friend Herbie Hawkins. The pair are obsessed with murder mysteries and swap ideas for the perfect murder, placidly unaware that someone is actually planning it under their very roof. The scenes between Joseph and Herbie are rich in gallows humour and laced with irony.

Just like the film itself, really. 'A Shadow of a Doubt' is as seductive as its villain, often blackly amusing, but its every scene underpinned by menace, grimy ironies and the expectation of a dark resolution.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


'Saboteur' is something of a follow-on from 1940's 'Foreign Correspondent'. Both are propaganda pieces. 'Foreign Correspondent', like Powell and Pressburger's '49th Parallel', is an exhortation for America to enter the war. 'Saboteur', made two years later, is a warning to be on the qui vive for Fifth Columnists. While not as accomplished or memorable as 'Foreign Correspondent' - it lacks singularly great moments like the windmill sequence or Joel McCrea's "the lights have gone out" speech - 'Saboteur' remains a slick and entertaining thriller, notable for its recapping of earlier Hitchcock and a few nods towards what was to come.

The plot is set in motion when Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and Ken Mason (Virgil Summers), labourers at an aircraft factory, encounter uptight co-worker Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), who automatically provokes suspicion for carrying large amounts of money on his person ("So that's what they look like," Kane murmurs appreciatively as he picks up a dropped hundred dollar bill). Moments later an explosion tears through the factory. Kane and Mason try to tackle the blaze. Kane hands his friend a fire extinguisher. Neither of them realise it's been tampered with and is now full of gasoline. Mason dies in agony and Kane finds himself the chief suspect. Fry, meanwhile, has disappeared.

Remembering an address on an envelope Fry dropped along with the money, Kane sets off cross-country to track the down the Nazi agent and clear his own name. En route, he is assisted by a cop-hating truck driver, a blind musician and his circumspect daughter Patricia (Priscilla Lane), and a travelling circus troupe. The trail leads from a picturesque ranch to a ghost town to the home of a wealthy socialite to a dockyard and finally to a confrontation atop the Statue of Liberty.

'Saboteur' is vintage Hitchcock: Kane and Patricia are a mismatched couple on the run, a la Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll in 'The 39 Steps' (there's also a moment heavily redolent of that film where Kane suddenly realises that an ostensibly helpful and sympathetic character is actually one of the bad guys); there's the stiff-upper-lipped-Brits-vs-foreign-agents solidarity of 'The Lady Vanishes' re-imagined as American-patriots-vs-Nazi-sympathisers as various characters rally to support Kane in his quest for the truth.

The pace and structure - a series of well-staged set-pieces speedily connected, often with little regard for exposition or narrative logic - both evokes Hitch's British thrillers of the 1930s and looks ahead to the likes of 'North by Northwest'. Like 'Saboteur', it's a chase movie, it's chief pleasure is its half-dozen or so set-pieces (the mechanics of how the protagonist gets from one set-piece to the next being, by and large, inconsequential); also the Mount Rushmore finale is explicitly prefigured in 'Saboteur'.

Where 'Saboteur' doesn't quite scale the heights of first-rate Hitchcock is in the casting: Robert Cummings is a one-note, clench-jawed hero, lacking the ironic panache of, say, James Stewart or Cary Grant; there is little in the way of romantic tension between him and Priscilla Lane, who, while a game heroine, is neither as engaging as Margaret Lockwood in 'The Lady Vanishes' or Teresa Wright in 'Shadow of a Doubt', or as glacially cool as Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint in the later films.

Still, there is much to enjoy: the honest joe trucker spouting "say buddy, didya hear about"-type dialogue like a dime-store Homer; the circus troupe taking votes on whether to turn Kane in or not (a nice little irony: transients and outcasts as a microcosm of democratic society); Kane inadvertently infiltrating the Fifth Columnists' organisation; an excellent scene of subtle tension and social hypocrisy as he tries to escape their clutches at a high-society ball; a shoot-out at a cinema, the comedy of the film onscreen an obvious but effective counterpoint to the villainous Fry's lack of compunction at injuring or killing innocent bystanders.

Personally, though, what I find most intriguing about 'Saboteur' is the thematic dichotomy that runs through every scene: as a propaganda piece, it warns that enemy agents can be lurking anywhere, from a press junket to the home of a bastion of society who publically organises fundraisers to that most American of enterprises, a ranch - and yet Kane, identified by the media as a suspect in an act of sabotage against the war effort, his description circulated, is assisted at every twist and turn by citizens who demonstrate their patriotism by aiding and abetting a fugitive.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Birds

The Hitch-fest kicks off a couple of days later than anticipated ... My apologies. Due to limited connectivity (I only have a laptop at the new house at the moment) the next few postings might be a bit haphazard. Please bear with me.

Daphne du Maurier's short story 'The Birds' is a grim, tense, open-ended tale of a working man on a remote farm fending off an avian attack when a flock of feathered fiends go beserk. In adapting it for the big screen, Hitchcock made it clear to scriptwriter Evan Hunter* (better known by his pseudonym Ed McBain) that he was not interested in the farmer and his wife as protagonists. Also, du Maurier's story is probably good for 20 minutes of screen time.

Thus Hunter took the basic dramatic dynamic of the original (birds vs. humanity) and grafted it onto an unlikely romance between bored little rich girl Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) - a sort of 1960s Paris Hilton, except without the home video fellatio - and hotshot San Francisco lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). There's sparky comedic scene between them in a pet shop (look out for Hitch's cameo as a customer leaving the store with a couple of ludicrously fluffy poodles on a leash) which, while nonsensical, is nicely played. The backdrop of domestic birds, all behaving impeccably and tweeting away in their cages, sets up an obvious but effective point of comparison for the carnage to come.

Itching to get one up on Mitch, Melanie tracks him to his hometown, the sleepy fishing village Bodega Bay, where he spends his weekends at the family home with his 11-year old sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) and his domineering mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy). Melanie meets a bunch of eccentric village folk straight out of Central Casting as well as Mitch's old flame Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), now installed as Bodega Bay's school teacher.

Parenthetically, I never had as a schoolteacher a shapely brunette with a knockout 60s hairdo and a talent for drawling wry dialogue. But then again, I didn't grow up in Bodega Bay. Which is probably just as well, since the little darlings of the town are the most annoying squeaky clean kids you've ever seen in the movies. During the birds' attack on the school - a sequence whose build-up is justifiably famous but the pay-off to which is shriekingly amateurish - you can't help cheering the birds on. Either that or wish Hitchcock had cast some 1960s version of the Li'l Rascals instead and let them loose with catapults and BB guns ...

You've probably gathered from the above that (a) I don't like the kids in this film and (b) I'm more taken by Ms Pleshette than Ms Hedren. Indeed, the only good performances are by Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy. Overall, 'The Birds' is an appallingly acted film. It's an easy shot to lay the blame at Tippi Hedren's feet - yes, she's utterly wooden, but the same can be said of square-jawed plank of four-by-two Rod Taylor. The townsfolk - played by people you've never heard of but are sure you recognise from something you saw on TV one night but have completely forgotten what is was - are uniformly caricatures rather than characters.

Okay, that's enough cheap sarcasm. There may be no getting round the fact that 'The Birds' is saddled with a pointless first hour, some shoddy back projection and a woeful dearth of decent acting, but I really don't want this write-up to be an exercise in critical scalpel-wielding or cheap jibes. Why? Because 'The Birds' - when Hitchcock does hit the right notes - is bloody good horror movie.

The initial lone seagull attack on Melanie, the gull hurling itself to its death against Annie's front door - these moments work well - but 'The Birds' really hits its stride when Lydia visits the Fossett farm to find the eponymous freeholder dead in his bedroom, eyes pecked out. The scene builds subtly and Hitch's use of editing literally puts the image of horror that sends Lydia fleeing right in the audience's face. From hereon in (ie. for the second half of the film), 'The Birds' delivers a series of great set-pieces:

The aforementioned attack on the school, Melanie desultorily smoking a cigarette outside as she waits for Cathy's class to end, the children singing an interminable nonsense song in the background. Again, a textbook exercise in how editing can build up tension, a murder of crows (oh, how appropriate that collective noun) silently amassing behind her.

The diner sequence, internal pressures leading one of the locals to denounce Melanie hysterically ("This started when you arrived ... I think you're evil"), while chaos erupts outside. A gull swoops down on a patron of the gas station, the pump falling from his hand as he collapses from the attack. This being the movies, it doesn't click off the moment he releases the grip, but spews petrol over the forecourt, across the road and down into a nearby car park when a slick suited salesman is lighting up a smoke as he steps out of his car. A couple of cut-aways to reaction shots of Melanie and the customers in the diner watching the flow of petrol and the flame racing towards the gas station kind of spoil the effect as they look like nothing more than tennis spectators, eyes following the path of the ball, but Hitchcock effectively demonstrates how quickly panic erupts into physical chaos.

The siege of the Brenner family home, Mitch boarding up the windows and locking the doors as he, Melanie, Cathy and Lydia prepare themselves to weather the birds' climactic attack. As with the school, the build up is more memorable than the catharsis, but here the ensuing attack is grimmer, bloodier, more intense. It paves the way for the last two set-pieces:

Melanie breaking the horror movie golden rule and venturing alone into the attic. The roof has been breached. Birds are everywhere. Rescued (too late?) by Mitch, she emerges traumatised and stays that way. There's a glimmer of humanity at the end, as the hitherto vituperative Lydia becomes her comforter, but it's a dim and guttering glimmer.

The finale emphasises the bleakness. With no reason established for the birds' behaviour, and only an understanding based on observation that attacks are followed by long periods of inactivity and regrouping, this small band of survivors leave Bodega Bay, the whole place overrun by birds, with no certainty of safe passage. 'The Birds' closes silently (the film is devoid of music) with an image as bleak and unforgettable as the screen door closing on John Wayne in 'The Searchers'.

For all its first act attempts at mismatched rom-com, 'The Birds' achieves a shattering pessimism in its conclusion.

It is a horror film, after all.

*See Hunter's short but affectionate memoir 'Me and Hitch' for an enjoyable behind-the-scenes account.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Retail therapy

Indulged myself in HMV this afternoon: 7-disc set box set of the Martin Scorsese-produced documentary series 'The Blues', the 6-DVD Billy Connolly Ultimate Box Set Collection (my favourite comedian after Bill Hicks) and a 14-disc set of films by Alfred Hitchcock, the latter a snip at £25.

So, with a total of 27 new discs in the collection, and the Werner Herzog box set still unexplored beyond 'Even Dwarfs Started Small', my only quandry was what to watch first.

Then, logging onto the net and my homepage opening to today's news round-up, I learned of the recent death of Suzanne Pleshette, a much underrated actress probably best known for her TV work.

One of her best known big-screen outings was in Hitchcock's 'The Birds'. Fobbed off with a lesser role while the significantly less talented but (crucially) blonde Tippi Hedren bagged the female lead, the brunette Pleshette famously commented "The blonde he gives a mink, I get a housecoat." As pithy a summarising comment on Hitch's choice of leading ladies as I've ever heard.

I'll be watching 'The Birds' tonight and raising a glass of tempranillo to Ms Pleshette's memory.

The Hitch-fest starts tomorrow.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Demons / Demons 2

Conversation between self and Paula:

"What are you going to write about now you've finished watching the Dario Argento box set?"

"Well, I thought I'd make a start on the Herzog set you bought me for Christmas. But I've got 'Demons' and 'Demons 2' to review first."

"I thought you said they weren't proper Argento films."

"They're not. He co-wrote and produced them. Lamberto Bava directed."

"So why bother writing about them?"

"I kind of intimated I'd review the entire box set."

"But you didn't like them. How was it you described 'Demons'?"

"Piece of shit."

"And what was your opinion of 'Demons 2'?"

"Piece of shit: the next chapter."

"And why did you start the blog?"

"Well ..."

"To write about the films you're passionate about. So skip the 'Demons' films and write about Herzog."

What's that line in 'Hamlet' - "to whet thy already blunted purpose"? Thanks, Paula. Wise words.
Still, though ...

'Demons' concerns a group of stereotypes (uh, sorry, characters) who are invited to a movie preview at a newly renovated cinema. They include a handful of repulsively clean cut teenagers, a pimp and his two girls (the only pimp in history who takes his bee-hatches to the flicks instead of sending them out on the street to make him some money), a bickering middle-aged couple and a blind man (at a cinema ... you work it out). The film they watch is a violent horror with pretentious overtones (the protagonists discover Nostradamus's tomb and unleash a curse which turns them into demons). The events onscreen start happening to the audience and suddenly the cinema is amok with demons (although, to be honest, they just look like bargain-basement zombies). The survivors try to fend them off. Because all of this occupies less than half of the mercifully short 85-minute running time, Bava then throws in a car full of coke-snorting young thugs with names like Ripper, Hot Dog and Baby Pig; chased by the police, they take refuge in the cinema ... and then it's more of the same for the last half hour.

'Demons' is infuriating not for its sheer ineptitude, its horribly dated 80s soundtrack and music-video stylings, or the fact that four people (including Argento) contributed to the screenplay and the best they came out with was lines like (on entering the projection booth and looking at the machinery), "These are automatic - they run by themselves." Like, duh! 'Demons' is frustrating because occasionally - occasionally - it does something that's almost clever. The opening sequence, squeaky clean American student Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) getting all worried because she's convinced herself she's being stalked, climaxes with a man in a mask stepping out of nowhere to block her exit ... only to hand her a complimentary ticket. Bava subverts audience expectations nicely here - likewise, in the closing credits, he savagely turns the 'final girl' convention on its head. More scenes like this and less of the am-dram acting, over-reliance on gross-out effects and utterly inappropriate music, and 'Demons' could have been ... well, significantly less bad.

What of 'Demons 2'? Less a sequel, despite a tenuous plot device wherein a TV movie about the survivors of the original causes the residents of a tower block to become infected, than an act of recycling. At least two prominent cast members return: Bobby Rhodes follows up his wear-bad-suit-and-shout-a-lot performance as Tony the Pimp in the first film with a wear-bad-track-suit-and-shout-a-lot performance as Hank the Gym Instructor. The demons kill him off pretty easily in both. Pasqualino Salemme follows up his frown-and-scowl-a-lot characterisation as Ripper the Teenage Thug in the erstwhile installment with a frown-and-scowl-a-lot characterisation as The Security Guard ... but, see, in this film he's on the side of the establishment. In the hands of a better director this might have passed for irony. Bava also re-uses the wrongfoot-the-audience opening sequence, this time revealing blobs of red falling onto a knife as the result of an upended jam jar in a baker's kitchen.

Here's an example of the awful cheesiness of 'Demons 2': square-jawed hero and heavily pregnant heroine (they had names, they were played by someone or other ... I honestly can't be bothered to go back on IMDB) flee to the top of the tower block, the demons pursuing them. From somewhere (a mountaineering shop tucked between the service lift and the janitor's closet, perhaps?) they acquire a gapple and a few metres of rope. Hero secures the grapple, glances over the parapet. "Remember those safety courses we took last year?" he asks the heroine. She nods, dewy-eyed. Cut to: heroine clinging tightly to hero as they abseil to safety. Some films fall into the so-bad-it's-good category. 'Demons 2' goes one step further: so-bad-it-was-almost-good-then-it-went-all-out-to-prove-it-was-actually-just-bad-in-the-first-place.

I'm going to take a shower, birch myself, say a couple of hundred Hail Marys and watch some proper films before I next post on this blog. Honest.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of an eternally-absent movie star, is packed off to the prestigious Richard Wagner School for Girls in Switzerland, under the care of the equally musically named Frau Bruckner (Daria Nicolodi). The beheaded corpse of a Dutch tourist, Vera Brandt (Fiore Argento) has just been discovered, another victim in a spate of grisly murders. The school is abuzz with fear and intrigue. The girls are cliquey and snide. Jennifer is scorned for her perceived fame. The prissy headmistress (Dalila di Lazaro) takes against her from the start. She makes just two friends - room-mate Sophie (Federica Mastroianni) and, away from the school, entomologist Dr John MacGregor (Donald Pleasance).

She meets MacGregor after a sleepwalking incident. Lost and confused, miles from the school, she is rescued by MacGregor's assistant, Inga, who takes Jennifer to the wheelchair-bound scientist's home/laboratory. Oh, yeah, Inga's a chimpanzee, by the way. I am not making this up.

Jennifer and MacGregor hit it off immediately, bonding over their mutual love of insects. MacGregor studies them; his field is insect communication - he believes them to be telepaths. Jennifer proves his thesis and then some. Our girl actively empathises with them. A firefly leads her to an important discovery following Sophie's murder. A couple of million flies angrily descend upon the school when Jennifer is tormented by her classmates. The headmistress reveals herself as something of a religious fanatic. "Satan is sometimes referred to as Beelzebub," she muses; "the lord of the flies", and on this basis plans to have Jennifer bundled off to the nearest psychiatric hospital.

In the meantime, MacGregor has been helping Inspector Geiger (Patrick Bauchau) with his enquiries, studying the insects feeding off the recovered remains of Vera to pinpoint her time of death. This, and his burgeoning friendship with Jennifer, bring him to the killer's attention. The inevitable attack on him is witnessed by Inga who, unable to intercede, later finds the killer's discarded straight-razor and goes looking for revenge. Yes, that Inga. You know, the chimp.

Let me say it again: I am not making this up.

As you might have gathered, 'Phenomena' is ever so slightly bonkers. Although many of the director's fans rate it low in his filmography it is, in many ways, archetypally Argento. There's the wonky science from 'The Cat O'Nine Tails' and 'Four Flies on Grey Velvet'. There's the protagonist's visual impairment from 'TCONT': while Arno is blind and witness something only by overhearing it, Jennifer sleepwalks and witnesses a murder while not conscious. There's the telepathy subplot from 'Deep Red' that gets Helga killed in that film and Jennifer's life put at risk in 'Phenomena'. There's a pounding rock score that features compositions by former Goblin frontman Claudio Simonetti, as well as songs by Iron Maiden and Motorhead. There's plenty of prowling camerawork, editing that's as sharp as the aforementioned straight-razor, and a handful of scenes, particularly an extended finale, which are as tense and gloriously grand guignol as anything Argento has committed to film.

So why its reputation as second-rate Argento? The ludicrous plot probably has something to do with it ... but when has Argento ever been beholden to logic, narrative coherence or anything so conventional? Take 'Suspiria': it's an exercise in illogicality, but as a work of film art it's as gorgeous as it is demented.

No, I think 'Phenomena' suffers from the place it occupies in Argento's filmography. From 1975 to 1982, Argento was in his element: 'Deep Red', 'Suspiria', 'Inferno', 'Tenebrae', two deliriously over-the-top horror movies bookended by the two finest examples of the giallo in all of cinema. Compared to these, 'Phenomena' does, unfortunately, seem a little by-the-numbers. It doesn't even feature one of Argento's technical trademarks, like the two-and-a-half minute Louma crane sequence in 'Tenebrae' or the swooping ravens' POV shot in 'Opera', the film that followed 'Phenomena'.

It would be all to easy to make a case for Argento's career as a study in decline since 'Tenebrae'. But 'Phenomena' has its moments - along with a good performance, despite the often awful dialogue she's saddled with, by the young Jennifer Connelly (she was fifteen at the time and her star quality was already in evidence). Donald Pleasance gives sterling support in one of his better post-'Halloween' appearances. Argento's assistant director and protege Michele Soavi pops up in a supporting role as Inspector Geiger's assistant. And on the subject of the good detective, 'Phenomena' is that rarest of gialli: one that features a halfway competent copper, even though his complacency proves his undoing in the final reel.

Finally, 'Phenomena' has the most manic climax of any Argento movie. There's never been a deus ex machina like it!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Deep Red

Whereas 'The Bird with the Crystal Plumage' and 'The Cat O'Nine Tails' are immediate in the instigation of their narratives (Sam Dalmas is walking home when he sees something; Franco Arno is walking home when he overhears something), 'Deep Red' sets out its stall in a more roudabout, even oblique, fashion. The first scene shows very little but is full of significance: we see a table set for dinner, a gramophone stand, a Christmas tree, an expanse of parquet flooring. A child's nursery rhyme plays liltingly on the soundtrack. In shadow, an indeterminate figure knifes another figure in the back. The bloody knife is thrown to the floor, suddenly occupying the screen in grotesque close-up. A pair of legs enter the composition, feet halting before the knife. Small feet. Those of a child.

The lilting song is replaced by Goblin's bass-heavy score ('Deep Red' marks Argento's first collaboration with the band; their music would become a mainstay of his films). The opening credits over, a POV shot takes us into a hall, heavy red curtains drawing back theatrically, where a conference on parapsychology is in progress. Psychiatrist Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) is interviewing a famous medium, Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril). Helga demonstrates her powers with a borderline parlour trick (correctly identifying an audience member she's never met) before jolting back in her seat, body wracked as if in agony. "I have contacted a twisted mind," she gasps. "You ... you have killed. And you will kill again." Another POV shot as the still anonymous newcomer to the conference just as quickly withdraws. Helga returns to her hotel room, keen to record her perceptions of this telepathic experience. Her few pages of notes are summarily removed after a shocking attack by a black-clad antagonist wielding a meat cleaver.

It is only now that, in true giallo fashion, our wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time hero happens along and witnesses the murder. Introduced a few minutes earlier rehearsing with his band and berating them for sounding "too clean, too formal ... this kind of jazz was born in brothels", Marc Daly (David Hemmings) is an English musician living in Rome. Walking home, he stops to chat with his friend Carlo (Gabrielle Lavia), a pianist-for-hire at a trendy bar. Marc remonstrates with Carlo about his drink problem and the way he squanders his talent. "You do it for the love of it," Carlo returns; "I do it for the money." This remark suggests that Marc occupies an ivory tower while Carlo lives in the real world. Seconds later, the real world (or at least Argento's hyper-stylised version of it) comes crashing into Marc's life as a scream rings out. Seconds after this, he sees Helga plunged face-first through a plate glass window.

By the time Marc gets to her apartment the killer has fled and it's too late. The police arrive, again adhering to giallo archetype: Superintendent Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) stuffs his face with sandwiches at the crime scene, demonstrates more interest in what instrument Marc plays than in generating lines of enquiry, and basically proves as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot. Marc, meanwhile, fixates on the surreal paintings that line the walls of the hallway leading to Helga's apartment. Something bothers him; something he can't quite put his finger on.
Threatened by the killer, who plays the child's nursery rhyme outside Marc's apartment prior to warning him to leave Rome, Marc joins forces with flamboyant journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, making her first appearance in an Argento film) and they begin their own investigation. Marc buys a recording of the nursery rhyme and plays it to Giordani, who suggests it might be linked to a formative and probably traumatic event in the killer's childhood. Marc learns of a book detailing unsolved mysteries in which the nursery rhyme is mentioned. There is an illustration of an old house. Marc tears the illustration out of the book, and sets about tracking down the author, Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra). The killer beats him to it. Frustrated, sickened at the brutality of Amanda's death, Marc overlooks a vital clue. Giordani, who visits the scene later, sees what Marc has missed. He returns to his office, confident that he knows the murderer's identity ...

Marc, meanwhile, locates the old house. He makes a couple of discoveries, but is coshed, left unconscious and wakes to find the place in flames. It seems like the killer has, once again, been one step ahead of him. Then he unearths a final clue which leads him to a confrontation in a deserted school ... but even then, there's something that doesn't add up. And there's one more nasty surprise lying in wait for him.

'Deep Red' meets all the criteria expected of a giallo. So what makes it transcend the sub-genre? Why is it arguably Argento's greatest achievement? Firstly, there's the script, which Argento co-wrote with Bernardino Zapponi (who worked with, among others, Fellini): crafty, clever, intricately structured, it leaves its greatest conceit - the transference of guilt from killer to protagonist - beautifully understated, assuming that the more the viewer thinks about the last-act revelation, and the motivations behind the murder and mayhem, the more apparent the supposed hero's complicity will become. That's all I'm saying on the subject, by the way; if you haven't seen the film yet, I don't want to deprive you of the jaw-dropping confidence which with Argento shows/conceals the murderer's identity quite early on. Structurally, the script offers a number of 'rhymed' scenes: incidental details and bits of throwaway dialogue which presage the mechanics of the various death scenes.

There's also the introduction, for the first time in Argento's filmography, of the supernatural, Helga's telepathy providing the impetus for the first murder. When Giordani introduces Helga, he talks of telepathy in the animal world, how a butterfly, in danger, will mentally communicate with others of its species, a mass of them responding. (This line finds its visual corrolary, only with flies instead of butterflies, in a key scene in 'Phenomena'.) Argento would go on to make two supernatural/horror films: 'Suspiria' and 'Inferno', the first two parts of his only-just-completed Three Mothers trilogy.

'Deep Red' brings the horror ethos to the fore, both in terms of elaborate, blood-soaked set-pieces (the title, 'Profondo Rosso' in its original Italian, is certainly apt) and the dark psychology behind them. I won't dwell on the latter for fear of giving too much away (suffice it to say that key themes here - duality and complicity - are taken to their logical extreme in the later 'Tenebrae'), so let's consider the former. The death scenes are bloodier and more violent than anything Argento had depicted before - something he would raise the bar on with (again) 'Tenebrae'. But there's more going on than just a B-movie guts 'n' gore exploitation workout. Argento raises the bar on tension, as well, particularly in Giordani's death scene, where he is menaced by an unseen assailant only for a rabbit-faced life-size mechanical doll to come hurtling into his office, maniacal giggling filling the soundtrack. Typing a description of this scene, I'm aware that it probably sounds ridiculous. Onscreen - take my word on this - it's fucking terrifying.

Just as creepy are the pre-murder scenes where the camera pans, in fetishistic close-up, across a collection of childhood mementos set against a backdrop of black velvet. Again, a simple description doesn't communicate much; but the combination of image, music and camera movement add up to one of the most effective head-fucks in cinema.

Argento's technical bravura is also evident during the wordless 15-minute sequence where Marc prowls the old house. With Goblin's soundtrack again providing aural assault, Argento's camera gets as much inside his protagonist's head as it does the empty rooms, dusty corridors and flooded basement of the house itself. The full extent of Marc's obsession is documented here.

Hemmings's performance, reminiscent of (as well as slyly satirising) his earlier work on Antonioni's 'Blow-Up', is one of his best. His scenes with Gianna work well, too, her supreme confidence an eternal threat to his painfully thin veneer of masculinity. Marc emerges as an often vulnerable but likeably tenacious character - multi-layered in a way that Sam Dalmas or Carlo Giordano aren't. And yet it's this tenacity that leaves him, in the film's powerful final image, looking back at his own image in a pool of blood, silently reckoning the cost of his obsession.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Cat O' Nine Tails

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. 'The Cat O'Nine Tails' opens in similar fashion to 'The Bird with the Crystal Plumage': Rome by night, a street scene; a man on his way home is an accidental witness to ...

Actually, no; scratch that. It becomes a very different film quite early on. One of the chief pleasures of 'TCONT' is Argento's first-act manipulation of accepted giallo conventions. To begin with, our protagonist Franco Arno (Karl Malden) doesn't technically witness anything since he's blind. Secondly, what he stumbles on (a few words of overheard conversation) is indicative of blackmail, not murder. Thirdly, he's revealed, a few minutes later, as not even being the protagonist but a supporting character. Here's our hero of the day, another example of Argento's blandly interchangeable leading men: Carlo Giordano (James Franciscus), an investigative journalist hurrying to the scene of a break-in at the Terzi Institute, a renowned genetics research facility. En route, he bumps into Franco (quite literally); the two quickly join forces as blackmail and burglary leads to multiple murder and everyone at the institute seems to have a secret to hide.

There's institute head honcho Professor Terzi (Tino Carraro), whose interest in his adoptive daughter Anna (Catherine Spaak) is rather unwholesome; there's narcissistic German researcher Dr Braun (Horst Frank), leading a double life that leaves him open to personal as well as professional jealousies; there's Dr Calabresi (Carlo Aleghiero), who fatally discovers something about one of his colleagues ... fatally for him, that is; there's Calabresi's lover, Bianca Merusi (Rada Rassimov), who races to find the incriminating evidence before the killer can find her; there's Dr Casoni (Aldo Reggiani), whose work on the XYY project constitutes one discovery too many.

The XYY project, the Macguffin around which the narrative centres, explores the idea that criminal tendencies are genetically pre-programmed. Casoni enthuses that, once the research has been completed, a simple test at birth, followed by immediate incarceration of all carriers, will effectively stamp out crime and violence. It's a startling concept: a future in which the state whisks babies from womb to prison to guard against what they might do later in life. It's also a highly dubious bit of science, which is probably why the script doesn't explore it any further. Although, as with the later 'Deep Red', there's a brutal irony lurking at the end of the film once you think about it a bit.

It's curious that 'TCONT' remains so under-rated. Read the user comments on IMDB and the general concensus seems to be that it's lacking in Argento's trademark bravura visuals and camerawork ... but you could say that of 'TBWTCP'. In fact, Argento's operatic visual excesses didn't fully kick in until 'Deep Red'. True, there's nothing in 'TCONT' quite as striking as Sam Dalmas trapped between the two sets of glass doors at the start of 'TBWTCP', but there are still some great set-pieces: a murder at a railway station, a bunch of paparazzi distracted from the arrival of a pouting starlet as someone is pushed in front of an oncoming train (the face/front of locomotive impact is not so much homaged in Eli Roth's 'Hostel' as shamelessly plagiarised); a Hitchcockian bit of suspense involving a poisoned carton of milk (a sly reworking of a terrific sequence in 'Notorious'); a bit of business in a shadowy crypt that segues from blackly comic to just plain creepy; a roof-top confrontation/chase scene in which Franco proves himself more than capable despite his blindness.

There are also flaws, however: far too many scenes with the typically ineffectual cop, Superintendent Spini (Pier Paolo Capponi); a pointless romantic subplot between Carlo and Anna (Franciscus and Spaak pitch their performances at a narcoleptic level; there is absolutely no chemistry; their love scene is embarrassing); perfunctory and fairly ordinary death sences; way too many red-herrings (granted, a certain amount of misdirection is requisite in the giallo, but here there are too many instances when the actual plot is all but forgotten about); and a title that's as tenuous as the science is shaky. Discussing the various institute staff whose behaviour prompts suspicion, Franco and Carlo come up with nine names. "Like a cat o' nine tails," Carlo exclaims. "Yes, the old navy whip," Franco nods. "If we could just grasp one of them ..." Carlo muses.

And yet 'TCONT' is an intriguing and often entertaining film to watch. It also benefits from arguably the greatest acting performance in any Argento film: that of Karl Malden. I don't think I've ever seen a mainstream actor play a blind man so convincingly, so physically and with such dignity. Forget Al Pacino's inexplicably Oscar-rewarded turn in 'Scent of a Woman', Malden truly integrates with his character.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Expatriate writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), spending his last few days in Rome before he returns to the States, is wandering back to his apartment one evening when his attention is drawn to the brightly-lit facade of an art gallery. The gallery is on two levels, its exhibits mostly sculptures - strange, twisted, threatening objects. On the upper level, a woman dressed in white is struggling with a black-clad figure. Sprinting across the road, Sam tries to gain entry, intent on helping her. A large sliding glass door, locked and immovable, stops him. While he struggles, the black-clad figure leaps down to the lower level, leaving the woman bleeding from a stab wound, and disappears through a rear exit ... though not before triggering a mechanism which closes a second glass door behind Sam. Trapped, and looking like a bizarre live-art addition to the galleries exhibits, Sam is helpless, impotent, unable to do anything but await the police's arrival and hope the woman doesn't expire in the meantime.

Unusually, the police arrive in a timely fashion ... then immediately revert to giallo type as they spectacularly fail to generate any leads. In fact, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno)'s only attempt at pro-active police work is to organise an identity parade for Sam's benefit, rounding up a group of usual suspects ("right, bring in the perverts"). Sam avers that he didn't see the attacker's face. All he can be sure about is that some aspect of what he witnessed doesn't seem right - but he just can't put his finger on it. A foiled attack on him on his way home, followed by threatening phone calls advising him to go back to America, do nothing to quell his curiosity and he begins his own investigation, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). Sam ties in the attack at the gallery with a recent series of murders of young women which the police - surprise, surprise - have no suspects for.

Sam learns that one of the earlier victims worked at an antique shop. The proprietor tells him that she sold a macabre picture just before she was killed. Sam obtains a catalogue photo of the painting and eventually tracks down the artist, but he proves as unhelpful as he is eccentric and the trail goes cold. Then another clue falls into place and seems to lead Sam back to where he started. But there are still a few surprises in store for him ...

'The Bird with the Crystal Plumage' was Argento's first film and an immediate success. He followed it up very quickly with 'The Cat O'Nine Tails', establishing himself as a master of the giallo and inviting comparions to Hitchcock. Praise indeed! And yet 'TBWTCP' isn't without its flaws: Musante and Kendall turn in wooden performances, an early indicator of Argento's tendency to casting bland actors in lead roles (cf. James Franciscus in 'The Cat O'Nine Tails', Leigh McCluskey in 'Inferno'); the script, while clever in terms of structure and misdirection, is bogged down with clunky exposition; the attempts at comedy (an effeminate antique shop owner, a pimp with a speech impediment) are laboured and unfunny.

So why does Argento owe his career to it? Why is it still considered a classic of its kind? Why is it still being paid homage to (most recently by Quentin Tarantino in 'Death Proof')? The Hitchcock comparison provides an answer: like Argento, Hitch was never a director of actors ("actors are cattle" is one of his most cutting and oft-quoted homilies); his fame derives instead from bold, hugely memorable set-pieces, wrought with tension, which are perfectly geared to the visual potential of the medium. The crop dusting plane and the Mount Rushmore finale in 'North by Northwest', the shower scene in 'Psycho', [insert personal favourite here].

Same deal with Argento. At his best, he's capable of wringing every possible drop of tension from a scene then still making you jump when he delivers the pay-off. Visually, his films are full of striking compositions and often surreal colour schemes (although his recent work has, sadly, demonstrated a curbing of his excesses in this respect). Some stand-outs from 'TBWTCP': the iconic opening scene, the black-clad figure stark against the clinical white of the gallery, Sam trapped between the bright interior and the nocturnal street outside (the now discontinued Killing in Style has a perceptive article on this scene); a claustrophic cat-and-mouse sequence as a gunman stalks Sam through a bus depot, the closely parked buses forming a maze of sorts as Sam tries both to evade his antagonist and find a way out; Julia menaced as she waits for Sam to return from his meeting with the painter, desperately trying to escape the apartment through a back window as the front door begins to splinter under the killer's assault; Sam at a disadvantage, pinned beneath one of the sculptures at the art gallery as he finally realises who's behind it all.

Ultimately, if 'TBWTCP' isn't quite top-flight Argento it still stands as a statement of intent - a clear indication of the idiosyncratic style he would develop as a film-maker.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I am murderously yellow: a guide to recognising the giallo

You can’t really talk about Dario Argento without using the word ‘giallo’, so for the benefit of the non-aficionado, a few words of explanation:

Giallo is Italian for ‘yellow’. Historically, this refers to the distinctive yellow covers of pulp novels published by the Mondadori company in the 1920s and 1930s. These were the equivalent of American hard-boiled fiction (indeed, many were translations of works by the likes of Edgar Wallace), and proved so popular that other publishing houses rushed into print similar titles, retaining the lurid covers. In the 1960s and 1970s directors like Mario Bava, Sergio Martino and our current man of the match Mr Argento crafted cinematic equivalents – some of them adaptations of the original novels.

For an in-depth but always accessible examination of the giallo phenomenon, with plentiful examples under review, check out Giallo Fever.

For my part, perhaps the quickest introduction to the giallo is a simple list of some of its defining characteristics:

1. Black gloves. Along with identity-concealing trenchcoat and fedora, this is the de rigueur fashion accessory for the killer-about-town.

2. An amateur sleuth, in the wrong place at the wrong time, who decides to launch their own investigation after witnessing a murder or attempted murder. There’s usually something about what they saw that bugs them, something they can’t quite put their finger on. And there’s generally a threat to their own safety as a result of launching said investigation. Which they only do because …

3. The police are totally ineffectual. Take ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (of which more later): Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno), getting nowhere with the official investigation, happily sanctions star witness Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) to undertake his own enquiries. Saves on police manpower, I guess.

4. Extended, operatic death scenes. Essentially, the giallo is a hybrid of the traditional whodunit and the visceral stalk ‘n’ slash flick. Death scenes are all important – the more tension that can be generated, the more bizarre the mechanics of the murder, and the more bloody the pay-off, the better.

5. Staircases. I don’t know why, but there’s a penchant in these movies for vertiginous shots of (often spiral) staircases. Likewise, killers and victims alike tend to plunge from high places or down elevator shafts.

6. J&B. It’s a bloody awful blend, but the manufacturers must have bunged a fair bit of money towards gialli budgets because it features as product placement in the same way – and just as blatantly – as Aston Martins in Bond movies.

7. Famous mainstream actors at the start or later on in their careers. Jennifer Connelly in ‘Phenomena’, for example, or Karl Malden in ‘The Cat O’Nine Tails’.

8. Gratuitous nudity. Well, black gloves and bottles of J&B can only generate so many ticket sales.

9. Edwige Fenech. See above.

10. Distinctive titles, often featuring an animal (‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’), a colour (‘Deep Red’), a number (‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’), or sometimes a combination of all three (‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’). Elsewhere, you might find a reference to the murder weapon (‘Hatchet for the Honeymoon’), or the promise of something of something steamy, seamy and downright disreputable (‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ – see above).

Right, then: ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’. And to quote Inspector Morosini, “Bring in the perverts …”

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Dario Argento: the, ahem, Ultimate Collection

I’m currently working my way through Blackhorse Entertainment’s ‘Dario Argento: the Ultimate Collection’. This six-DVD box set is very nicely presented, but nonetheless I have to take umbrage with it.

For starters, only two-thirds of its contents were directed by man himself: ‘Demons’ and ‘Demons 2’ were helmed by Lamberto (son of Mario) Bava, with Argento co-scripting and producing. Yes, I know that Argento therefore influenced the style and content of these films – and that, in the early stages of Bava’s career, Argento was his mentor – but damn it, if a box set advertises itself as the Dario Argento Ultimate Collection, or the Martin Scorsese Ultimate Collection, or even the Brett Eisner Ultimate Collection for Christ’s sake, then surely it’s not unreasonable to expect all of the films contained therein to be directed by said individual. And besides, if you need a couple of Argento-produced fillers to round the set out, then Michele Soavi’s ‘The Church’ and ‘The Sect’ are better choices.

So what are we left with? Well, we have Argento’s first two films, ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and ‘The Cat O’Nine Tails’, as well the magnificent ‘Deep Red’ and the preposterous ‘Phenomena’.

Which brings me to my next gripe: if you have the word ‘ultimate’ in the title, make damn sure the content justifies it. ‘Bird’ is a striking debut, ‘Cat’ remains one of Argento’s most under-rated works, and ‘Deep Red’ is a straight-up masterpiece … but where ‘Suspiria’, where ‘Tenebrae’, where ‘Opera’? In another box set, that’s where! And – quelle surprise! – I’m still waiting for Amazon to get it to me. Final gripe: I've not watched every disc yet, but the quality of those I have has been shocking - the sound is crackly; the prints grainy and subject to ghosting. Fair dues, what I paid for the set brings the individual disc price down to a shade under £3.00, but still it comes back to the words on the cover: Ultimate Collection. Put simply: it isn’t.

Nevertheless, the Argento-fest, such as it is, kicks off tomorrow … so don your black gloves, pour yourself a glass of J&B and prepare to stalk the shadowy reels of that most visceral and operatic of sub-genres, the giallo.

Monday, January 07, 2008

New short films from Tony Passarelli

Happy New Year! Here’s a feel-good start to 2008: two new short films by Tony Passarelli, which showcase the director at his wittiest.



‘Blinded by Sight’ is Tony’s entry for this year’s Orange Bafta 60 Seconds of Fame competition. Go here to rate the film and comment on it.