In this "personal interpretation" of two of Argento's earliest films, Gary Needham looks at how each one relates to the giallo form, identifying points of reference and divergence and raising central issues of gender dynamics and the Italian horror film's fixation with boundary transgression and breakdown.
Il gatto a nove code (The Cat O' Nine Tails, 1971) and Quattro mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1972) are the second and third entries in Dario Argento's so-called "Animal Trilogy," following L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage) in 1970. This trilogy served to shape the giallo in the 70s and formed the kernel of Argento's obsessions and idiosyncrasies. My commentary on the later two films is intended as neither a synopsis nor an exhaustive critique, but as a personal interpretation and an initial attempt to articulate points that may have been overlooked in other Argento studies.
To put it bluntly, Il gatto a nove code is the least inspiring of Argento's Italian-made gialli, although I doubt that many would admit this (as the recent plethora of critical evaluation of the Anchor Bay DVD has illustrated). Breathless praise of Il gatto's stunning print quality and widescreen presentation has veiled over the film's narrative shortcomings. In comparison to an Umberto Lenzi giallo, for example, Il gatto still possesses a remarkable finesse, but I still doubt that the latter will be hailed as an anthem for authorship.
Perhaps the root of the film's mediocrity—that is, as an Argento product rather than a giallo—lies in its formal relationship with American cinematic models of detection and investigation. The film is not a hybrid in the sense that the Spaghetti Western is a hybrid; rather, it emulates the conventional aspects of American thrillers as a structural plan and not as playful subversion. An uneasy picture from which to extrapolate illuminating points of analysis, it is perhaps more productive to explain why Il gatto is not exemplary of that Italian form par excellence, the giallo.
I would first point out that by distancing itself from the giallo's discursive support of psychoanalysis, shifting its allegiances in the direction of scientific rationalisation, Il gatto closes down the perversity inherent in deviant and oppressive familial relations. Systematically explored over the past several decades, it is now safe to say that "the family" lies at the root of horror cinema. But Il gatto wishes us to read its pathological killer as a genetic anomaly. The familiar panoply of otherness is here on display (of Argento's initial joke concerning otherness, who can forget, in L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, that unforgettable line by Inspector Morrisini: "Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites not the perverts!"). Alas, however, Il gatto implies that we should consider genetic defects as the basis of psychopathologies: it is all in the Xs and Ys.
Contributing to the lack—that is, of a psychoanalytic frame—the most ingenious aspect of the film is its displacement of the agency and potency of the eye for that of the ear. The enigma is an aural clue picked up by the blind crossword-puzzle maker, Franco Arno (Karl Malden). Although the eye does appear as a visual marker of the killer's presence, it does not have the symbolic value attached to it as, dare I say it, the gaze. The foregrounding of the iris, in extreme close-up, recalls not the aggressive eye of Argento's later Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975), but rather the genetic trope of the iris as a unique physical characteristic (like the fingerprint).
Argento and the punctum
My second point, and quite related to the eye, comes from Roland Barthes, and concerns what I take to be one of the main attractions of Argento's cinema. That is the punctum—an inconsequential detail that pricks (or punctures, hence "punctum") the eye, adding something that the narrative and mise en scene itself can neither contain nor foretell. It is a supplement in the true sense of the word.
Generating an entirely subjective response, Argento forces us to confront the supplement of his image, the punctum, in an almost violent fashion. The punctum doesn't come forth in Il gatto in an instant (as it should), filling the void of visual banality, because the eye is not central to the film. In his other gialli, the punctum is literally inscribed into the filmic discourse through the protagonists' confrontation with the traumatic image. The punctum in effect becomes the mystery for both Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) in L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo and Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) in Profondo rosso, and is relayed in a fashion for the spectator.
The punctum for Sam is even framed through the large-panelled gallery. He sees Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) holding the knife but veils over the ideological contradiction of a female assailant, thus returning the moment of the punctum (the knife in Ranieri's hand) and its implication as trauma. Marcus likewise sees the reflection of the killer in Helga Ullman's (Macha Meril's) monstrous hallway. The hallway itself invites the "look" through its conflicting assortment of grotesque oil paintings and specular surfaces. What is revealed in both these films is that the punctum moment takes us beyond the gaze. Theoretically speaking, it forces its power back upon itself as the literal short-circuiting of the act of looking. It justifies the blindness (literal and ideological) of Sam and Marcus when confronted by the truth of the gaze they are ultimately robbed of at the same time.
Quattro mosche and formal experimentation
Quattro mosche di velluto grigio constitutes Argento's successful departure from Il gatto a nove code's burden of tracing the American mode of detection through the Italianicity of the giallo. The film thus marks the emergence of the superfluous authorial style that has recently elevated Argento to the pages of Cahiers du Cinema and what one Cahiers critic has so eloquently called the territoire hypercodifié of his hermetic universe.
From the first few minutes of Quattro mosche's opening scene one is instantly seduced by the complexity and experimentation of the form as we are introduced to the central protagonist, a rock musician named Roberto Tobais (Michael Brandon)— another "artist" in the Argento canon of lay detectives. The organ-led rock introduction by Ennio Morricone works intimately with the image and is intercut with a beating heart alongside the bold titles.
In line with Argento's tendency to turn every moment into an abstraction, we are next shown a point of view shot from inside a guitar and a slow-motion spinning drumstick. The music shifts from the recording studio (diegetic) to Roberto leaving the studio (non-diegetic) and closes on a fly being crushed between two cymbals back in the earlier space. The sounds bridging the spatial and temporal discontinuities turn an otherwise simple opening into a tour de force. In addition, the slow-motion photography and the motif of the fly formally connect this initial scene to the closing sequence.
A fly in fact lies at the heart of the film's enigma, suggested by the title and—reminiscent of the scientific methodologies of crime-solving that run through L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo—represented by the retinal photograph of a murder victim's eyeball which reveals an image of ‘four flies on grey velvet.' It is worth mentioning the return of the agency of the eye as the force that leads Roberto to the killer. It is once again the punctum inscribed through the character's vision, as Roberto eventually spots the swinging pendant with the fly in resin and thereby solves the murder. Back on track with psychoanalysis, the dénouement of Quattro mosche di velluto grigio is close to home.
Argento, gender as usual!
The Argento mythology, if there is such a thing, concerns the way in which gender figures centrally to the field of his films. While gender is always a lynchpin in any kind of detective/murder-mystery fiction, either through its absence (all detectives are men, it's a masculine pursuit, etc) or through its presence (women are prioritised as victims, they are the currency between detective and killer, etc), it seems that a major part of Argento's appeal is his complex articulation of gender dynamics.
A recent trend in Argento studies has been an understanding of his early gialli as inherently progressive. At the same time, his most recent film, Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2001), would seem to confirm without a doubt that the director's stance is not clear, or at least that it has changed. Non ho sonno is both exciting in that it is a "return to form" yet seriously troubling due to the manner in which the execution scenes are less stylish demises than violently gendered murders. Be that as it may, Quattro mosche di velluto grigio still comes under the banner of progressive Argento.
The character of Nina (Mimsy Farmer) might be thought of as "Judy's (Butler) friend," for she perfectly illustrates the manner in which femininity and masculinity are often mapped onto bodies in a compulsory and violent manner. Nina, born a girl but forced to grow up by her father as a boy, is beaten mercilessly, as her father obviously thinks boys should be physically punished whenever visible signs of femininity appear.
The progressive Argento is clearly posing questions about gender and performativity in relation to conventions of stereotyping in detective/murder-mystery fictions. Here the notion of violently erasing gendered identities, in light of performative theories, bears the hallmark of homophobic assault, whereby the destruction of the body's surface, its habitus and performance, its cultural signifiers, appears to be the catalyst of hate. This subject has since been explored in Kimberly Pierce's Boy's Don't Cry (1999), with its tragic and distressing account of Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena (played in the film by Hilary Swank).
However, Nina in Quattro mosche di velluto grigio becomes not only the victim of such a circumstance but also a driving fury against "it," her father and Roberto. But as with Monica Ranieri in L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, Nina's crisis (and collapse) of identity reveals a fundamental inability on her part—and on that of her victims—to make sense of clearly-defined boundaries. This problem perhaps needs to be understood not just as an identity issue, but as the crux of both the giallo form in particular and Italian horror generally. The latter's relationship to representations of abjection, as well as its generic hybridity, are obvious yet very different examples of this concern with boundary transgression and breakdown.
The final scene
Quattro mosche's final sequence, in which is depicted the most poetic and tragic fate of an Argento assassin, is simply breathtaking. Poetic in the sense of its beauty and emotive quality, and in its appeal to Morricone's childhood rhyme "Nina nana in blu," but also poetic in its ability to break the syntax of cinema's classical paradigm through the use of a technologically advanced high-speed camera.
This would be the Pentazet, a German camera which consumes 30,000 frames per second but when run at normal theatrical speed shows the image in a wholly different temporal register. It is not slow motion, as the image doesn't drag or shudder, but flowing. Nina's face emerges slowly through the windscreen of the car, glass shimmering in the black of the night, isolated in its own moment of time. Morricone's touching lullaby soothes the images, which are finally followed by the head of Nina rolling just before the credits themselves begin to roll. It leaves us wondering and asking the same question asked by Helene Cixous: castration or decapitation?
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