‘How many times do I have to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts?’
A struggling writer is about to leave Rome and fly back to the United States. On the way back to his apartment one night, he witnesses a woman being stabbed in an art gallery. She survives the ordeal, but the police inspector assigned to the case is convinced that it’s connected to the murders of three young women in the city over the past few weeks…
Writer-director Dario Argento’s debut film redefined the Giallo picture and turned into a marketable international commodity, provoking a avalanche of similar Italian pictures over the next five years. These edgy, stylish and violent horror thrillers are considered the precursor to the American slasher craze, which began with John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978) and is still producing new movies almost half a century later.
Author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a cynical, defeated man. His sojourn in Italy has produced only a factual book about rare birds, rather than the Great American Novel that he had intended to write. Tickets are already booked for a flight home with girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) when he goes to pick up his final paycheck with friend, Carlo (Renato Romano). On his way home alone, he passes by an art gallery and witnesses two figures in the mezzanine of an art gallery struggling with a knife. The woman is stabbed, and her assailant escapes with Musante trapped between the automatic glass doors that open onto the street.
Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) survives the attack, to the relief of worried husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) who owns the gallery. Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) believes the violent assault is linked to the recent murders of three young women in the city. The victims were not connected, and Salerno is keen to keep eyewitness Musante close at hand, especially as the writer is convinced there was something odd about what he saw, although he can’t quite put it into words. Salerno encourages Musante to investigate the case himself, and the American needs little encouragement.
Groundbreaking films can be difficult to assess once a great deal of time has passed. Whatever innovations they brought to the table will often have become familiar with their use by other filmmakers in subsequent years, sometimes almost to the point of cliché. It’s refreshing, then, that the dynamic cutting, pace and abundance of exciting technique ensure that Argento’s film still holds up remarkably well today, even though its impact has inevitably lessened a little with the years. Rewatching does expose some weaknesses in the narrative and story structure, but these are not major enough to compromise the suspension of disbelief or affect the entertainment value.
Argento got the inspiration for his story from Frederic Brown’s noir novel ‘Screaming Mimi’. It had already been filmed by director Gerd Oswald under that title in 1958 but, despite being mostly faithful to the decent source material, the results were a disappointment. Argento elected to use the book only as a jumping-off point; specifically the notion of a psychotic triggered by an object of art. Like the novel, the film does open with an assault visible from the street through glass, but Brown’s original has it in a hotel lobby, and his protagonist only witnesses the aftermath. The only other similarity is a passing reference to Musante’s character having a drinking issue, the reporter in Brown’s story being a (barely) functioning alcoholic. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Argento chose not to credit Brown’s novel.
One of the film’s great virtues is its pacing. The script sets up Musante’s character very quickly. The quick, potted history of his unproductive time in Rome is covered in casual conversation with friend Romano, and he’s across the street from the art gallery less than five minutes into the movie. This scene is rightly celebrated as a masterful example of concept, production design, editing and execution. Musante getting trapped between the two sliding glass doors may be a somewhat unlikely development, but it’s an important touchstone for his character that helps to inform his later actions. All he can do is watch Renzi bleeding out on the carpet, reflecting his own artistic impotence and failure.
These circumstances help explain why Musante stays to investigate the killings, rather than getting out of Rome on the first plane after Salerno returns his passport. Similarly, the script may give the talented Kendall little to do, but her presence is essential in how it softens Musante’s character. Without her, the writer would come across as almost entirely self-absorbed and more than a little arrogant. It helps enormously with audience investment and sympathy that the two actors have good chemistry together and present a convincing romantic couple.
But what takes the picture to the next level are Argento’s attempts to do something interesting with every scene, either visually or by use of Ennio Morricone’s masterful score. The music is particularly effective in elevating potentially generic scenes such as the one where Musante questions antique dealer (Werner Peters); the wordless chorus of female singers performing almost in a half-whisper providing a unique ambience. Just as importantly, the young director never allows technique to overshadow the drama, avoiding the self-conscious showboating that many directors of the period favoured.
There’s also outstanding use of locations. Instead of the Eternal City as seen through a tourist’s eyes, this is a Rome of crumbling plasterwork, broken light bulbs and run down, abandoned buildings. Again, it’s not overplayed, it just serves to give each scene a visual identity, and ground the more stylised aspects in a solid, tactile reality. This attention to detail is ever-present on many levels; for example, there’s an almost playful scene where Musante and Kendall discuss the previous murders. She is almost laughing as she reads out the details from newspaper clippings. Argento intercuts this banter with black and white photographs of the murdered victims at the crime scenes, a device which would raise few eyebrows now, but wasn’t something you expect to see in a film of this vintage.
Similar care is taken with most of the supporting characters, with some sly comedy courtesy of stuttering pimp Garrulo (Gildo Di Marco), the contradictory patter of snitch Faiena (Pino Patti) and the dietary habits of artists Consalvi (Mario Adorf). Again, these could have been very generic roles in very generic scenes, but they are made memorable, thanks to the quirky traits Argento bestows on these minor characters. There also an effort to show the police at work, both with new forensic methods (very dated now, of course) and with standard, routine procedure. Nothing unusual when viewed today, of course, but not a common aspect of the films of the time.
Those watching the film for the first time today, expecting buckets of gore are likely to be disappointed. Proceedings aren’t entirely bloodless, but the kills are not very explicit although Argento’s camera does linger and emphasise some of the more lurid aspects. We see the killer’s hands (Argento’s own) in black leather gloves, fondling the tools of their deadly trade. It’s almost fetishistic. The director breaks up the rhythm of the violence too, with the razor attack in the elevator swiftly delivered with multiple slashes of the weapon straight into camera. Familiar now, of course, but not the done thing at the time.
The film isn’t without some flaws, however, and these lie in the story development. For a start, we’re supposed to buy into the notion that seasoned copper Salerno not only grants Musante an inside view of the police investigation, he also encourages his only eyewitness to dig into the case himself. This is especially hard to swallow when the killer has already targeted Musante. Later on, an unknown assassin (US actor Reggie Nalder) is hired to deal with Musante and, although this leads to an excellent action scene and a fine gag, it doesn’t ring true in terms of the plot. This is explained when you learn that Argento ran into the holidaying Nalder on the street one day and wrote him a part in the film at the last minute.
Also, it’s more than a little puzzling why the killer intends to rub out Musante in the first place. Why is he a threat exactly? His investigation hardly seems to be getting closer to the truth (despite what he says!), and the fact that the author is still struggling to recall something that he witnessed at the gallery isn’t news that’s likely to have escaped police headquarters. Sure, he’s been going around asking a lot of questions, but if that’s a valid criterion for being on our murderer’s hit list then why isn’t he after the entire police investigative team as well?
But the main issue is that no-one thinks to check out the origin of the painting. After all, it was sold by the first victim to a mysterious customer on the night she was killed. Musante stares at it off and on for most of the movie (he has a copy of it on their apartment wall!), and it’s only on the same day that he and Kendall are finally due to fly back to the States that he thinks it might be a good idea to look up the artist! In Brown’s original novel, the reporter is always aware of the importance of the little black statuette in the case (the ‘Screaming Mimi’ of the title) but keeps his knowledge from the police. Here, however, Inspector Salerno knows all about the painting from day one, but somehow never considers it as an appropriate line of enquiry.
These are minor quibbles, however. The virtuosity of Argento’s framing, the superb cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, the editing of Franco Fraticelli and the production design of Dario Micheli (check out those fantastic pieces in the gallery!) combine to create an unforgettable experience. Despite a slow start at the box office, the film became a massive hit, both critically and commercially, playing for three and a half years in one Milan cinema. By 1971, the Italian film industry had gone Giallo crazy, and more than 60 similar pictures were delivered in the next couple of years.
Musante was an American actor who’d made a significant impact with a showy supporting role in ‘The Detective’ (1968), an unusual vehicle for Frank Sinatra which had played more as much as a character study than a conventional thriller. He never went onto to become a star but played second leads in a few significant pictures such as Robert Aldrich’s ‘The Grissom Gang’ (1971)and excellent crime drama ‘The Last Run’ (1971) starring George C Scott. He transitioned quickly into television and split his time between Italy and the US. Kendall had an uncredited bit in ‘Thunderball’ (1965) before making a big impression in a supporting role in ‘To Sir, with Love’ (1967). The female lead in social drama ‘Up the Junction’ (1968)followed, and she enjoyed another big hit in the title role of ‘Fraulein Doktor’ (1969). After leading roles in Sergio Martino’s ‘Torso’ (1973) and Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Spasmo’ (1974), she retired from the screen in 1977.
The film launched Argento on a celebrated filmmaking career, of course, as he followed up with further Gialli ‘The Cat o’Nine Tails’ (1971) and ‘Four Flies On Grey Velvet’ (1971). An unsuccessful side-step into historical drama with ‘The Five Days’ (1973) was followed by arguably his most significant works; ‘Deep Red’ (1975), and the astounding ‘Suspiria’ (1977). Further projects such as ‘Inferno’ (1980), ‘Tenebrae’ (1982), ‘Phenomona’ (1985) and ‘Opera’ (1987) kept the bar high for many years, but his subsequent output is generally regarded as disappointing.
A daring piece of work that helped to define an entire sub-genre of film and was the calling card of a major new filmmaking talent. However, you can push all that historical importance to one side if you want and just revel in a cracking horror thriller. An essential Giallo.