[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]
Le Secret bears a 1974 copyright and yet it seems much more dated than that. The films of Costa-Gavras notwithstanding, political paranoia thrillers feel so endemically American that this rather nondescript French movie comes across mostly as a by-the-numbers emulation of the U.S. model—just as contemporary French films noirs recall not such honorable homegrown predecessors as Carné–Prévert and Clouzot but rather the classic American noirs of the Forties and Fifties. This guy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, throttles a guard and escapes from this semi-medieval dungeon somewhere in the French night—a half-hour’s drive from Paris, as he and we learn. “They” had been slipping him the old Chinese water torture there, he tells a handily available ladyfriend of short-term acquaintance, because he accidentally learned a secret “they” can’t afford to have anyone know; and now “they,” of course, will be looking for him. OK. By means not narratively disclosed, Trintignant quits Paris and turns up in some woodsy terrain where he hopes to go to ground in a certain shed. Said shed having burned down—or so he is told by a jovial Philippe Noiret he encounters on a hillside—he accepts the shelter of Noiret’s own bucolic retreat for the night, and several ensuing days. The problem posed to Noiret and wife Marlène Jobert, as well as to the audience: is he a paranoiac or just someone who damn well is being persecuted? In either case, which way do they jump next?
The Cat O’Nine Tails (Blue Underground) Deep Red: Uncensored English Version (Blue Underground)
It’s official: Blu-ray has redefined my home repertory schedule. DVD is the format of home video debuts and rarities unearthed, but the Blu-ray release calendar has become my guide for revival screenings of films not seen in years, maybe decades, and sometimes for classics that I never got around to seeing in other forms.
Thanks to Blue Underground, Dario Argento’s number has been coming up with some frequency (see my review of Inferno here). This month, two early Argento gialli (that’s plural for giallo) debut on Blu-ray, neither of them among his masterpieces but both showing a young director exploring the possibilities of play within genre filmmaking and perfecting his technical skills and expressive talents. I reviewed the English language versions of each film, in my first viewing of the films since Anchor Bay first released them to VHS at the end of the nineties.
The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Argento’s second feature, follows up his directorial debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in genre, style and “animal” theme (stretched into a trilogy with Four Flies on Gray Velvet). In Bird, Argento explores, pushes at and plays with the mechanics of suspense and murder mystery spectacle in a psychodrama thriller (an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi”). Developed with novelist and screenwriter Bryan Edgar Wallace, one of the godfathers of the German “krimi” genre of gruesome body-count murder mysteries, flamboyant killers and creative murders, with stylistic inspiration from Mario Bava’s elegant dances of death. The Cat O’Nine Tails continues down the same twin paths, but this time he also starts to play with the conventions and tropes of the genre, not defying or overturning them, simply bouncing them around with buoyant sense of play as he turns them into opportunities for style.
James Franciscus (under a blonde dye job) is a reporter chasing down a mysterious break-in at a genetics lab, where nothing was apparently stolen, and Karl Malden is a blind man who overhears a conversation that appears to tie in to the mystery. Their meeting is a narrative contrivance to team them up (what reporter rushing to a scoop would take the time to explain what’s going on to a blind bystander?), the hot-shot reporter with all-access to crime scenes and police officials and the retired journalist, blinded years ago, who spends his days caring for an orphan and solving puzzles. Malden comes off as the cheerfully amateur detective of British cozies, smiling as he checks off the clues and bounces ideas off of Franciscus, himself a fairly animated and buoyant presence. Only when the little girl is kidnapped does Malden falter, the fun tipped into danger and the stakes become personal.
There’s nothing unique or daring in this handsome CinemaScope production, and little of the bravura flights of style that will define his later, more flamboyant exercises in color and camera movement and the fine art of murder. Even the spare score by Ennio Morricone looks back to traditional Italian horror, which Argento left behind for the pounding prog rock scores of his subsequent films. But he has a flair for juicing up characters with personality quirk (not subtly or even all that convincingly, but with a certain sense of fun) and he keeps the film moving ahead or bouncing around characters as they dole out the exposition and a mystery that twists and turns with almost arbitrary direction.
The beginnings of his trademark style can be glimpsed in the POV sequences of the killer at work, begun with a close-up of the eyes so tight all you see is iris and whites and continuing through the stalking and dispatching of characters intercut with the fragments of murder mosaics, the most obvious evidence of his debt to Hitchcock. The shower scene from Psycho is his touchstone, only Argento’s mini-symphonies of murder aren’t about fooling viewers into thinking they’ve seen more than is actually onscreen. He uses the discreet shots to foreground the assault on the flesh and the shedding of blood and impress audiences with his spectacle. A body pushed in front of a speeding train is punctuated with a close-up of the engine colliding with the skull and the freefall of another victim is just the prologue to the desperate grasping for purchase before the crush of impact, complete with the crumple of the body. It’s not exactly sadistic—Argento is like Malden’s character in the movie, delighting in the design and execution of his set pieces like a puzzle—and he doesn’t revel in their suffering. It’s all rather dispassionate, a matter of cinematic engineering.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Updating the setting of de Sade’s novel, Pasolini’s Salòproposes that in the final months of fascist rule in northern Italy a quartet of authorities (a noble, an administrator, a banker, and a monsignor) sign a pact, intermarry with one another’s daughters to ensure solidarity, systematically capture the most attractive children of their political enemies, and spirit them away to a country manor house, there to subject them to unspeakable indignities in their unrestrained pursuit of perverse pleasure, from masturbation and sodomy, through coprophagia, to torture and death. Though the power of the film’s images might be easily achieved, simply by evoking the inherent shock of the acts depicted, nevertheless, power there is, in abundance, and Salòdoes not slip easily (or ever) out of one’s mind. Is the violent reaction against Salòthat has occurred in this country a reaction against the acts that it depicts, against the (patently faked) depictions themselves, or against the fact of that depiction, the very idea that someone should make a movie about such things?
For last Halloween, I offered a list of 13 movie scores that I believe stand out as landmarks in the in the history of scary movie music. I got some comments from a few readers who were disappointed that some of their own favorite fright film scores and composers werenâ€™t represented. Well, thereâ€™s a lot more great stuff out there, and so, with Friday the 13th upon us, hereâ€™s a second set of 13.
This remarkable film and its score came in for new and long-delayed recognition in 2008 with the release of a two-disc recording of the Carpenter-Howarth score, probably the best of their many collaborations. Thereâ€™s an insistent underbeat throughout the film, the advance of relentless evil, over which Carpenter and Howarth weave motifs of traditional Gothic sound in non-traditional electronic instrumentation.
12. Orson Wellesâ€™s Great Mysteries, John Barry, 1973.
For a little-watched and little-remembered television anthology series, John Barry created one of his best themes, an infectious melody with a distinctively creepy, almost threatening reach.
Ortolani, who remains best known for â€œMore,â€ the popular theme tune from Mondo Cane (1962), had a stock in trade of putting music to the graphic horrors of Italian shockumentary, and the ensuing cannibal cycle of film-making that assayed previously unimagined depths of gore and cruelty. The notorious Cannibal Holocaust boasts a score that features one pretty melody, several jaunty passages set to a Latin beat, and several savage musical embodiments of horror and revulsion.
Fifteen CDs is a big setâ€”and a bargain for $99.95. But in what sense is GDMâ€™s big holiday release a â€œComplete Editionâ€? Obviously itâ€™s not everything the Maestro has written; that couldnâ€™t be done in ten times as many discs.
The avowed effort here is, for the first time in a single collection, to offer a sampling of Ennio Morriconeâ€™s work in every one of the specialized fields of musical composition in which he has worked. The set is organized accordingly: Music for Cinema (9 discs); Music for Television (2 discs); and one disc each covering Contemporary Classical Music, Orchestral Arrangements, Hit Song Arrangements, and Original Songs.
If you bought GDMâ€™s previous extravaganza, Ennio Morricone: The Super Gold Edition (GDM Music srl, 0168292GDM; 6 discs, avail. at $45-85), you may well wonder whether the cinema music portion of this new collection replaces that previous set. No, it doesnâ€™t. While the vast majority of the cuts on the previous set are also included in the present one, there are several instances in which a film represented in the earlier box set is represented this time by a different excerpt, or none at all. So if you buy the new box, thereâ€™s reason to hang on to the earlier one as well.
Like the earlier box, this new setâ€™s CDs are all in matching format, featuring the same superb pencil portrait of Morricone at mid-age; unlike the earlier box, the new one has color-coded the CDs, so one can always grab the right sleeve to consult the contents ofthe current disc. A big difference between the new set and the old one is that the works on the new set are presented in chronological order, enabling you to trace the evolution of the Morricone touch from the late â€™50s right through to last year, spotting patterns, repetitions, variations, and increasingly complex and inventive stylistic gestures.