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Viddying the Nasties #6: Tenebre (Argento, 1982)

After the more extreme experimentation of Inferno, Tenebre finds Dario Argento relatively buttoned down and back in more conventional territory. I think it’s a tighter effort with some interesting ideas up its sleeve, and in contention for the best thing I’ve seen so far for this project. The story this time is (on the surface) a more straightforward murder mystery, with a killer seemingly imitating the murders in the novel written by the hero, an author who finds himself in hot water for his lurid, controversial content. Audience identification with the killer is a common device in these sorts of movies, but this time around it’s thematically relevant, as Argento seems interested in some genuine self-reflection. The big theme of the film is the effect of art on the artist himself and society at large. This isn’t explored with tremendous depth, but Argento incorporates it cleverly into the story, and his tendency to take a little too much relish in his murder scenes is reflected on, making it a more unsettling and compelling piece of work.

I mentioned that the style has been turned down a notch, but like his early films it’s still very assured. Barring some cryptic dream/flashback sequences, the images aren’t as consistently bold as those in Inferno (and Suspiria), but he seems to have better adjusted to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which actually seems better suited for this more straightforward thriller. The colour palette has been pared down, with red and white the two dominant hues, in line with the focus on sin and perversion versus purity. The murders here are stylishly rendered as expected, but instead of being drawn out and logistically elaborate, they are quick and vicious, suggesting that Argento is somewhat serious about his self-examination. And once again he uses the furniture and décor to visually complement the action – this film could be edited into a fabulous IKEA commercial if someone really wanted to.

There is one camera move in the film I’m particularly fond of, a crawl around the exterior of a house, traipsing over the crevices and shadows and finally moving into position as the killer’s eyes, all while time seems to freeze for a second. The way the camera detaches itself from the action for this detour adds a strange poignancy to the events that follow, and the vigorous scoring by Goblin (nothing says murder like Italo disco!) makes it an exhilarating piece of filmmaking. Goblin’s score isn’t as constant a presence as in Suspiria or Deep Red, but like in the latter it proves to be tremendously effective in the way it seemingly plays against the action.

There are two surprises here that I especially appreciated. One is the ending. It’s a surprise ending meant to shock the audience, but I think it’s the strongest one I’ve seen in an Argento film yet. He has a tendency to seemingly throw things at the wall and hope they’ll stick when coming up with conclusions (although I do find the nuttiness of the results to be quite endearing), but here it actually seems to evolve from the story and themes, and works with the characters. Which leads me to my second point, in that I appreciated that Daria Nicolodi gets to shine in this. After being given a lamentably small amount of screentime in Inferno, it’s nice to see her get a more substantial role in this. It’s not a terribly deep role, but there’s a quality about her as an actress that I can’t quite pinpoint, but it makes it very easy for me to root for her. And I think that because we get to know her character better, we understand what the ending means for her, and it resonates that much more strongly as a result.

9/10

Movie Review: Sorcerer (Friedkin, 1977)

So relentless a film I have rarely seen. Like in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. (two of his other masterpieces), Friedkin is an expert in presenting us with hard, unlikable men (a robber, a terrorist, a banker and an assassin all trying to get away from things in their past) and getting us to empathize with them through the gruelling intensity of their experience. There’s little room for sentiment here, yet somehow we manage to root for these men. The performances are pitch perfect, with little showiness and heroism shining through, just struggle and the desperation in barely surviving, and while there is subtext about the pervasiveness of capitalist interests, the movie wisely focuses on more visceral matters. The central set pieces (a terrifyingly unwieldy bridge is crossed twice) are merely an extension of the ruthlessness of the film surrounding it, and the sum total is an overwhelming experience. I’ve heard it described as documentary-like in its realism, but the closest documentary I’ve seen to it is Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, with the environment acting as a hostile force warring with man, who is constantly dwarfed by the enormity of his surroundings. The filmmakers pushed themselves to the limit in creating this, and it definitely comes through.

10/10

Movie Review: Manhunter (Mann, 1986)

The look of the film is gorgeous, but often at odds with the narrative. The cinematography seems more interested in creating handsome images and leering over the décor than in working as visual storytelling, resulting in scenes that play as curiously flat despite the intensity of the proceedings. The problem is that Mann never gets us in lockstep with the narrative. Procedurals should be tightly wound affairs – half the pleasure is seeing how the investigation reaches its conclusions – but the procedural elements here are handled in a sloppy manner, with giant leaps alternating with scenes where we reach conclusions much faster than the characters do. Introducing the hero as a damaged character may have given him an internal struggle for us to empathize with, but we never get into the same wavelengths as him – even good scenes like where he tries to re-enact the killer’s actions lose us by ending in goofy gestures like having him barking from the top of a tree. William Peterson’s performance isn’t really the issue, it’s just that Will Graham seems here like a collection of clashing moods than a complete person, little helped by some embarrassing monologues. Mann seems rather uninterested in having the film function as a proper thriller, but he should either have dialed down his experimentation or ramped it up – the concessions to procedural tropes are disappointingly short-lived at best and half-assed at worst. It seems odd that I’m criticizing him for things I seemingly admire in the work of someone like Dario Argento, but Mann never commits wholesale to intended style and frequently undermines it (often through some poorly chosen music). But all that being said, I do think the film is worth watching, mostly for individual sequences when it actually does work. The scenes with Hannibal Lecter and those with the villain are appropriately chilling, the movie does capture the thrill of procedurals in fits and starts, and the climax (despite some wonky editing) is an intense and tightly assembled piece of work. And those images, even if they don’t really “work”, are a pleasure to soak in.

6.5/10

Movie Review: The Untouchables (De Palma, 1987)

De Palma’s direction is strong as expected, but the total lack of character development encourages little investment in the proceedings. The performances here aren’t bad (with the exception of De Niro’s take on Al Capone, which plays like a greatest hits of recycled De Niroisms), but the characters play more like glorified scenery than actual individuals. This wouldn’t be a problem if the film commented on their lack of depth in any substantive way (there are hints of how law enforcement sacrifices the personal lives of its best and brightest, but these moments are barely sketched out), but it slavishly follows a template that demands big character moments without actually delivering on them. And this all would be enough to sink the movie if it wasn’t such a treat to see De Palma at work. There are a number of terrific set pieces, most notably a shootout in a train station and an assassination in an elevator, that show his mastery in juggling an unnerving amount of elements with a dancerly sense of timing, without sacrificing the tension. And even a dialogue-heavy scene like a back-alley argument-turned-brawl is handled with bold lighting choices that elevate the images from merely attractive to strong visual storytelling. A more fleshed out script would have helped a ton, but there’s enough to enjoy in this.

7/10

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