‘My dear, I’d like you to meet Jerkoff.’
A young rock musician confronts a mysterious man who has been following him. During the confrontation, they struggle and the stalker is killed. The musician flees the scene and doesn’t tell the police, but a strange masked figure has witnessed the event…
The final part of young Italian director Dario Argento’s so-called ‘Animal’ trilogy that kickstarted the Giallo phenomenon of the early 1970s. ‘The Bird With the Crystal Plumage’ (1969) had received international acclaim, and follow up ‘The Cat O’Nine Tails (1972) also enjoyed a positive critical and commercial reception. He gets a sole screenplay credit this time around, although fellow directors Luigi Cozzi and Mario Foglietti share an original story nod.
After a studio session pounding the drum kit with his progressive-rock combo, Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) is followed on the way home by a man in black wearing sunglasses. It’s not the first time, either; Brandon has been noticing this shadow for about a week and decides to put an end to the not-so-covert surveillance. Chasing the figure into an abandoned theatre, the two struggle, a knife flashes, and the man falls dead into the orchestra pit. What’s worse is that when Brandon looks up, he sees a masked figure in the gallery taking photographs.
Convinced he will be jailed for the killing, Brandon keeps his mouth shut. However, it’s soon clear that the eyewitness intends blackmail when one of the incriminating photographs turns up in the drummer’s record collection during a house party. He employs failed private eye, Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), to help unravel the mystery on the advice of his friend God(frey), played by Bud Spencer. After a break-in at their home, Brandon sends his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) out of town for her protection, and it’s not long before her cousin Dalia (Francine Racette) is sharing his bed instead. Unknown to everyone, family maid Amelia (Marisa Fabbri) has discovered Brandon’s secret and plans to blackmail the blackmailer.
After Argento’s unhappy experience with producers on ‘The Cat O’Nine Tails’ (1972), this project found the young filmmaker firmly in the driving seat and able to indulge his flair for experimental editing and filmmaking. These choices result in some truly outstanding set pieces that build extraordinary levels of fear and suspense. The sequence where Fabbri waits for her blackmail payoff in the park is a particular tour-de-force. Argento uses skilful edits that both convey the slow crawl of the hours and express how the boredom of the long wait lulls the maid into completely losing track of time until it’s too late.
The other murder setups are striking and memorable, with some stunning shots from the killer’s POV and there’s also a superbly orchestrated dream sequence. Argento also exhibits his usual flair for identifying interesting locations and using exterior and interior space in fresh and original ways. He also employs the highest-speed camera then available to capture the outstanding slow-motion of the film’s final moments.
If this sounds like a recipe for a true Giallo classic, it would be, if not for some major flaws. The first problem is with the flat performances of Brandon and Farmer, who fail to invoke any emotional investment from the audience. This could have been Argento’s intention, however. Italian cinema of the period was highly critical of the young and idle rich, and our golden couple here are living off an inheritance Farmer has received from a relative. Their house parties tend to be typically indolent, lacklustre affairs. The uncomfortable Brandon thumbs through his record collection, dodging glances from the lovelorn Maria (Laura Troschel) and trying to ignore the crass and mean anecdotes of smug boor Andrea (Stefano Satta Flores).
In contrast, Brandon’s interactions with his friends and bandmates are far more animated and natural. He grooves with keyboard player Mirko (Fabrizio Moroni) in the studio and jokes with the demonstrative Spencer and the Professor (Oreste Lionello), who share a shack down by the river. Apparently, the duo exist off Spencer’s fishing and sometimes eat the results raw! The contrast between their earthy existence and that of his wife’s arrogant smart set is hardly subtle, but it gets the point across. However, it’s rather a high price to pay if Brandon’s rather dour performance was the result.
The only character engaging audience empathy is useless private detective Marielle who cheerfully admits that he’s never solved a case. The character is saddled with some tiresome gay stereotyping, however. On arriving at the investigator’s office, Brandon finds him painting the walls, which is apparently enough to type him as gay and probably useless as a detective. Those facts may be true, but it seems a baffling conclusion to draw from a bit of home decorating. Pleasingly, Marielle proves a good deal sharper than his professional record would suggest.
Some Argento humour arrives in the person of Gildo Di Marco, who was so memorable as the stuttering pimp in ‘The Bird With the Crystal Plumage’ (1969). However, his appearance this time is little more than a cameo as a harrassed mailman. There’s also a scene set at a trade show where coffin makers peddle their new models, which could have been very funny if developed further but would have been out of place in the overall story if allowed too much screen time.
Unfortunately, there are some fundamental issues with Argento’s screenplay. Although the resolution to the mystery doesn’t create any glaring plot holes, it’s still wildly implausible and takes a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. Additionally, there’s a significant problem with the way the killer is unmasked. This involves something called Optography, taking a photograph of a victim’s eye after death to capture the last image it saw from the retina. This outlandish idea originated with physiologist Wilhelm Kühne in the 1870s and was actually used to help convict a mass murderer in Germany as late as 1924, despite the lack of scientific evidence that the technique has any credibility whatsoever. The notion did become popular in fiction, if not in real life, and had been thoroughly debunked by the time of Argento’s film. The fact that a modern-day police force would employ it as an investigative tool in 1971 is plainly ridiculous, but what’s worse is that, in the film, it actually works!
One unfortunate outcome of the project was a falling out between Argento and famous composer Ennio Morricone. The great man’s music had graced both of the director’s previous films, but they violently disagreed over his contribution here. The argument led to Morricone walking out, and the two didn’t work together again until ‘The Stendahl Syndrome’ (1996), a quarter of a century later. The good news is that this led to Argento’s introduction to experimental rock group Goblin, who provided memorable scores for his films’ Deep Red’ (1975), ‘Phenomona’ (1985) and ‘Sleepless’ (2001). Sought out by other filmmakers, the band also provided the music for films such as George A Romero’s classic ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) and Lucio Fulci’s cult response ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ (1979).
Brandon was overseas talent, an American actor a little short in screen experience, but one who had impressed in the Broadway show ‘Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? (1969), a production which is largely credited as launching the acting career of a certain Al Pacino. He is probably best remembered for the UK action series ‘Dempsey and Makepeace’ from the mid-1980s where he co-starred with wife-to-be Glynis Barber.
Farmer was also born in the United States and was of French extraction. Her career began in juvenile roles in the 1960s, including a featured supporting part in ‘Spencer’s Mountain’ (1963) with Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara. Choosing to place school and travel before her screen career, her next significant role wasn’t until Barbet Schroeder’s ‘More’ (1969), which featured a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. She came to Argento’s attention when she relocated to Italy after becoming disillusioned with the political scene in America. Subsequent appearances included the lead in Francesco Barilli’s Giallo ‘The Perfume of the Lady in Black/Il Profumo della signora in nero’ (1974), Lucio Fulci’s ‘Black Cat/Gatto Nero (1981) and mercenary action flick ‘Code Name: Wild Geese’ (1984) with Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine and Klaus Kinski. She left acting behind in the early 1990s to pursue a career as a sculptor.
A flawed film in many ways, it’s still a must-see for fans of Argento and the Giallo. The shortfalls in acting and story are easily compensated by some notable examples of the director’s dazzling technique.