1970s, Drama, Italian cinema

La Luna (1979)



Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

By Roderick Heath

Bernardo Bertolucci’s career took some peculiar turns in the 1970s and 80s, after the tremendous international success of The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973) made him a cinema artist of worldwide reputation. He courted an international audience and utilised Hollywood money and stars whilst avoiding becoming a Hollywood director, producing ambitious oddities like 1900 (1976) and La Luna, one of his least-known and -regarded films. The fact that Bertolucci came from a cross-cultural background—his father was Italian, and his mother Australian—perhaps indicates why he was increasingly eager to portray characters trapped between two worlds, feeling like strangers within their own milieu, and meeting other lost souls across great divides. Simultaneously, his recurring obsessions with sexuality and family dynamics dovetailed in La Luna, a rich, intriguing, but also sprawling and diffuse film.


One of Bertolucci’s core gifts is his ability to take on seamy and taboo subjects whilst not making a show of his own daring; instead, he conjures an intelligent, muted beauty, as if to say, “This, too, is humanity.” He was, therefore, primed to find rich expression in the tale of a mother who, eager to save her son from drug addiction and eddying in a vague space of grief after the death of her husband and his adopted father, distracts him with incestuous grappling. The mother, Caterina Silveri (Jill Clayburgh), is an American opera star with roots in Italy, where she had an affair with a young man, Giuseppe (Tomas Milian), that produced her son Joe (Matthew Barry). At the very opening, she’s playing with her young son, but then distresses him by leaving him aside to dance to sugary pop music with Giuseppe, while Giuseppe’s mother (Alida Valli) idly bangs away on the piano in their seaside house. Later, Caterina travels the deserted road back to Rome under the moonlight with her son perched in the handlebar basket.


Some 15 years later, Caterina’s living in New York with her manager husband Douglas (Fred Gwynne). As Caterina and Douglas prepare to go to Italy for a series of engagements, Joe doesn’t want to be left alone, first pleading with his mother to come with her, and then with Douglas to stay behind. Douglas, however, dies from ambiguous causes just before departure, and both Caterina and Joe attempt to put the death behind them immediately. Joe accompanies her to Italy, where she throws herself into her singing, achieving new heights of acclaim for her performance in Il Trovatore. Joe, on the other hand, spirals downward, hanging about with a motley collection of school friends; at his birthday party, Caterina comes across him shooting up heroin with the aid of his girlfriend Arianna (Elisabetta Campeti). Joe and Caterina have an explosive argument, and he leaves to wander about Rome purposelessly, only to then collapse in sickness when he returns home. Caterina, deciding to save her son by any means necessary, tracks down Joe’s supplier, a young, disarmingly philosophical Muslim boy, named Mustafa (Stéphane Barat), to buy some heroin and tend to Joe as he recovers at home.


Caterina travels to Parma to seek the advice of her former mentor, now that Joe’s addiction has made her want to give up singing, but she finds him decrepit and senile. Joe follows her to Parma. Caterina is inspired to try to find a house where she and Douglas once lived, and also shows Giuseppe Verdi’s house to an uninterested Joe. After a spat and a busted tyre, Joe drives off with the car and leaves Caterina stranded, but she soon gets a lift from a good-natured, self-declared Communist (Renato Salvatori). She has him stop at a small inn when she spies her car parked out front, and she and her benefactor lunch and flirt as a glowering, pensive Joe looks on. But she quickly rids herself of her new friend to resume her efforts to keep Joe on a hook, renting a room where they have a brief, violent clinch before he loses his temper at her and goes to shoot up instead. Caterina eventually seems to determine that the best way to help Joe is to fill the hole left by the loss of Douglas by offering him the chance to see his true father, Giuseppe.


Bertolucci essays the incestuous encounters not so much as manifesting true sexual desire, as much as a plunge back into the infantile physical intimacy of mother and son. He depicts that kind of intimacy in the opening when Caterina playfully smears honey over baby Joe and herself (one of their later, frantic encounters sees Joe licking his mother’s face). The instinct toward such physical communion is the only tool Caterina has for helping Joe through a calamitous phase in his life: she, in essence, endeavours to raise him again by reverting their relationship back to basics, as Caterina tries to obey her best intuitions after a life of being coddled and rewarded for childish behaviour. Bertolucci had explored the same idea through different motifs in Last Tango in Paris, with the womb of the apartment, lack of names, and sexual communion a rejection of adult identity and attempt through regressive states to reconstitute the self following calamity. On the other hand, Caterina theorises that Giuseppe’s inability to support her wish for singing career and adapt to her character was due to his actually being in love with his mother.


Joe and Caterina are a peculiar and far from instantly empathetic pairing. Caterina’s a diva in the technical and familiar senses of the word, not really feeling guilty for finding fresh artistic inspiration after her husband’s death. She takes over Joe’s birthday party as a spectacle for herself, dancing energetically and offering up self-important nostalgia: “Back in the Sixties we believed in…things!” Joe, for his part, seems generally forlorn, needy, and emotionally bereft, but has moments of familiarly noxious junkie self-pity and showy self-destruction. Their battle/affair/treatment begins when she, after trying to be calm and pleasant after discovering his habit, asks him if Arianna, his “fat-assed little hippie friend,” is his supplier, and he, irritated beyond words, struts over to the TV and kicks it in with deliberate fury.


La Luna sports barely any firm narrative, as characters flounder in trying to find a way out of their no-man’s-land. In this way the film is composed like a mosaic of vignettes, some funny, some revealing: Joe catching Douglas drinking in the middle of the day; Caterina rebuking Mustafa for selling “poison” and demanding to know why he doesn’t get a real job, and then snorting in derision when he explains he doesn’t keep any alcohol because it’s against his religion; a junk-addled Joe entering a Roman bar, playing the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” on the jukebox, and commencing a disco jive, only to be grasped in an enthusiastic embrace by an apparently gay spiv (Franco Citti). The woozy rhythms of the lengthy scene between Caterina and Joe after her discovery of his habit are memorably etched, swinging from moments of nervy companionship, like when he begins to beat out a boogie on her newly delivered piano, to physical brawling.


Likewise, some of Bertolucci’s images are affecting in their almost musical flow, like the surreally beautiful glimpse of the moon through the opening skylight of a movie theatre that reminds Joe to attend his mother’s premiere, or the flotilla of dreamily gliding skateboarders he and his friends pass in their car in the streets of Rome, a moment which anticipates the richly aesthetic visions of youth culture in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, a work that shares other affinities with this film. A smart framing early in the film separates Joe and Douglas by the frame of a doorway as the young man appeals for companionship, and Bertolucci conjures a weird moment in which, after Douglas’ funeral, Joe and Caterina, conversing in the back of the limousine that brought them, realise they’re being stared at by onlookers like some starfucking edition of a zombie movie.


Bertolucci often returned to the theme of the peripatetic man at the mercy of wayward sexual and emotional impulses, in desperate search for an effective paternal figure, and the script he wrote here with his brother Giuseppe Bertolucci and Clare Peploe is no exception. The final half-hour portrays Joe’s tentative approach to Giuseppe, who’s now a schoolteacher much beloved of his young pupils: Joe, dissembling, misinforms him and his mother that his son by Caterina has died of an overdose. Giuseppe demands this weird visitor leave, but he follows him to the Baths of Caracalla where Caterina is rehearsing for an outdoor performance, and family—Caterina, Giuseppe, Joe and Arianna—are reunited still sporting bruises real and emotional. Bertolucci’s amused insight into the processes of creation and the solipsism of artists, which he aimed at filmmakers in Last Tango, finds some further scope here in the glimpses of the tack-and-tinsel world of opera, noting the clever illusions used in the staging of Il Trovatore whilst the singers wield their very real talents, and such bizarre moments as when the singers rehearse at Caracalla draped in masking muslin to protect their costumes, and somehow evoking the chrysalis from which the characters must soon rip free.

If La Luna remains a minor film in Bertolucci’s career, finally, it’s because the project as essayed seems somehow misconceived. For all the fascinating elements and moments of marvellous humanity throughout, it never gains shape or compulsive force, as if Bertolucci wanted to tell two different, irreconcilable varieties of story. His expansive, experimental approach to realising this tale, which could too easily turn either sentimental or repulsive, is brave, but the concussive hysteria inherent in the central plot conceit is only occasionally realised. Bertolucci’s desire to contrast the languorous beauty of the Italian campagna and the soaring aspirations of high art against down-and-dirty truths of human existence remain opaque and lack force, in large part because the characters never entirely materialise: what each person means to themselves and to others and what others mean to them remains strangely ill-defined.


Although both Clayburgh, one of the most accomplished actresses of the time, and Barry, an ingénue who did little else, both give fine performances, I could never quite shake the feeling they were miscast in their American niceness. Clayburgh doesn’t suggest the improvisational zeal that might have turned Caterina into as vivid a female counterpart to Brando’s grieving, aging wunderkind in Last Tango, though that’s also because her character just isn’t as detailed. That said, she’s got some terrific moments, her performance full of finite shifts of mood and intent. Barry, too, is terrific in moments like the barroom scene, his shaggy, boyish enthusiasm entirely at odds with his all-too-grown-up vices and eddying pain. The ambling, yearning structure, funnelling finally towards the unification at Caracalla, explains, but doesn’t entirely excuse, the rambling nature of the film. Nonetheless, the staging of the finale is some bravura work on Bertolucci’s part, as the characters meet amidst the flurrying performers, Giuseppe, upon realising that Joe is his son, roundly delivering him a slap in the face that Joe quietly takes as a fatherly beatification, whilst Caterina finds her voice again and the cast of the opera rise in unison. Life and art unite in a moment of fitting fulfilment.

1970s, Horror/Eerie, Italian cinema

Deep Red (1975)

Profondo Rosso

Director/Coscreenwriter: Dario Argento

By Roderick Heath

If there’s a problem with Suspiria, often regarded as the high point of Dario Argento’s career, it’s that the bare-bones characterisations and equally minimal storyline build in off-kilter style to a bit of an anticlimax. By contrast, Deep Red offers a veritable banquet of Argento’s imagination: a Gordian knot of a narrative and an array of interesting characters whose interplay both explicates and conceals deadly clever clues and themes. Argento had taken a brief break from horror-thrillers to make an historical drama, Le Cinque Giornato (1973), and in returning to the genre with Deep Red, offered what is in most essentials a remake of his crisp debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)—a tale of a misplaced foreign artist in Rome who witnesses a murder, and, to solve the mystery of the steadily mounting carnage, must discern an unperceived clue in what he witnessed. Argento overlaid that template with everything he’d ever learnt about cinema in a scant five years. The result was a symphonic classic and one of the great films of the ’70s.

It is also a film where Argento pays several distinct compliments to filmmakers and visual artists who inspired him. The interrogation of the very act of looking, built around investigation and mystery that screws relentlessly toward a point of infantile dissolution, and having David Hemmings as the hero, inevitably evoke Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). The staging in many sequences, with giant close-ups of eyes or the hero’s hand, poised like a gunfighter’s over his weapon, clearly reference his old collaborator Sergio Leone, whose intricate tactics of ecstatic tension/violent release Argento transposed into a different genre. In the film’s middle third, the visuals constantly evoke the crisp art-deco style of another former collaborator, Bernardo Bertolucci, essayed in his great The Conformist (1970), and like that films digs into the problems of gender and the family unit. And the spirit of Hitchcock lurks approvingly in every frame, particularly in one scene utilising birds. Argento also plays ceaselessly with the tropes of the giallo genre’s literary inspirations, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, and Frederic Brown, to the point where in classic tradition, one victim attempts to etch the name of her killer at the point of death, here on the steam-smothered walls of her bathroom; and whether it will be detected becomes a nerve-jangling question. And yet Argento’s visualisation moves far beyond the necessities of the mystery genre, his camera composing operatic fantasias of colour and motion.

Hemmings plays Marc Daly, an English jazz musician teaching conservatory students who delivers a speech at the outset that feels like a kind of mission statement for Argento, reminding his students that jazz “began in the brothels” and can’t be too elegant or clean. The musicians are played by the members of Goblin, the conservatorium-trained prog-rock group that Argento dug up to conjure the film’s nerve-jangling score, which, like the rest of the film’s offered template, would powerfully influence John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the entire slasher genre. Yet, Deep Red is far greater than any of its Hollywood imitations. Argento mixes astoundingly beautiful cinema with volatile, hilariously appalling violence, like any good jazz man appreciating the way grit and glam must entwine. He pays constant homage to the rhythms and flow of music, particularly in one startling sequence in which Marc labours at composition whilst being stalked by the killer. He also tips his hat to artists like Edvard Munch and Edward Hopper in his set decoration and visual compositions.

Argento cuts from Marc’s rehearsal and mission statement to a theatre where an audience listens to the pronouncements on parapsychology by a team of New Age professors led by Bardi (Piero Mazzinghi). Argento’s camera enters and exits the theatre in a flourish of red curtains, immediately announcing his film as pure show business. Medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) realises someone in the audience is a murderer. Soon enough, Ulmann is butchered in her apartment: it’s an amusing touch that she senses the malevolent intent of the person knocking at her door, but isn’t quick enough to escape. Out on the street, Marc and Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), an alcoholic, self-loathing pianist, are chatting when they hear Ulmann’s screams. Marc rushes to the scene, misses the killer, and later swears to the police that something was removed from the apartment’s main hallway, suspecting it might have been one of the Munch-like artworks that hang there.

Marc soon hooks up with spirited journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who is covering the case. The two begin flirting a la His Girl Friday by way of Gloria Steinem, Marc’s drolly observed discomfort over his highly unmacho job and shakiness in the face of horror show his proclaimed dislike of women’s lib, inspiring Gianna to challenge and beat him in arm-wrestling. Marc and Gianna’s scenes are pitched as pure screwball comedy, a fascinating divergence for the normally all-business Argento that enriches the film enormously. The lightly handled tensions of sex and equality gives Marc and Gianna’s romance sauce underpin much darker preoccupations of the narrative.

In the opening credits, Argento interrupts the parade of white-on-black titles for a brief, completely bewildering scene of apparent murder—a scream and darting feet in front of a postcard Christmas scene, before blithely resuming the titles. One can only deduce that there’s a victim, a killer, and a young witness. It’s a wicked gambit by Argento, because he has both positioned the scene with intense deliberation and yet also counts on the audience to forget about it immediately. Later, his camera drifts languorously in studying the killer’s weapons, props, and totems of meaning in ultra-close-up, evoking the notion of being too close to something to see it properly. The killer taunts and plays with victims like a child, hanging plastic dolls to frighten the prey; setting a mad, mechanical doll upon one to distract him from where to expect the real attack; releasing birds from their cages; and playing a creepy tape of children singing the same tune we heard in the opening.

As coscreenwriter Bernardino Zapponi explained of his and Argento’s method, things to do with infancy are always somehow scary, and, indeed, childhood motifs—creepy dolls, eerie singalongs, perverted parent-child relationships and decaying family homes—are rife in Argento’s films, as well as in those of his precursor, Mario Bava. In several attacks, the killer pointedly bashes the victims’ teeth out, evoking Freudian theories of prepubescent sexuality. As Marc follows the relentless, inward spiral of clues, he becomes implicated as a suspect, but he continues to peel the layers off the onion, which demands peeling off the layers from how sexual and social personae are constructed, moving closer and closer to a fetid, secreted heart locked within the family home. Marc finally traces a clue to the killer’s background through a book on contemporary urban folklore, and when that book’s author, Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra) is one of the victims—drowned in a bathtub full of boiling water—it confirms he’s on the right track. The book leads him to an abandoned family villa, cared for by Rodi (Furio Meniconi) and his mean little girl Olga (Nicoletta Elmi), within which he first discovers a child’s rendition of the murder from the beginning buried under plaster and, eventually, a secreted corpse.

Argento’s intricate structure keeps throwing up red herrings that subvert many clichés of the contemporary thriller almost before they were invented. When it’s revealed Carlo is gay, the possibility that his eyeliner-smeared boyfriend could be the killer is hinted, in a homophobic twist a la The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Likewise, when the disturbingly strong Gianna seems to transform in one scene into a darkly angelic femme fatale, even in the act of saving Marc’s life, the film recalls the anxiety over upended gender codes exploited by Basic Instinct. The feet of the child in the opening are sexually ambiguous—high-heeled shoes and high socks could be either boy or girl in old-fashioned dress; so, too, are the killer’s, in modern style. But Argento keeps zeroing in on the concept of familial homicide. When Marc sees the grotesque mural from the house reproduced by Olga on her bedroom wall, he presses her and learns she copied it from an old picture she’d found amongst her school’s art class archives. When Marc and Gianna head to the school to find the original, Argento reveals that the killer seems to have beaten them there through the ominous signifiers of the running taps and the scrawled message on the wall: “Kill Your Father and Mother”.

There, Gianna is near-fatally stabbed, and Marc is confronted by Carlo, who drew the picture: the police, on Marc’s tail, arrive in time to drive Carlo off, and he is killed when he is dragged behind a truck and his head crushed by a passing car. However, Marc, realising that Carlo could not have committed all the murders because he was standing next to him when Ulmann was killed, finally discerns that the memory that haunted him from Ulmann’s apartment was not a painting, but a reflection in a mirror, that of Carlo’s mother (Clara Calamai). A former movie actress, who was forced by her husband, a German writer (one doubts the suggestion of roots of psychosexual trauma in the Axis alliance is accidental), to give up her career; she had many stays in an asylum until she rebelled one Christmas day and knifed her husband in the back, and event Carlo in which was forever implicated.

If the notion of the small Calamai committing the ferocious murders throughout the film is a bit of a laugh, Argento nonetheless ties together the film’s restless ideas and acerbic perspective with radical potency. Before he got stuck playing to the more conservative, misogynistic horror audiences of the ’80s with less and less inspiration, Argento found real delight in toying with expectations over who was doing what kind of violence to whom. He never abandoned his liking for substantial female characters, and here, of course, he found Nicolodi, who became his long-time girlfriend and mother of Asia) provided the vital ideas for the “Three Mothers” trilogy. She delivers a hilariously spry and sexy performance as Gianna, particularly when she gyrates her way out of Marc’s apartment after seeing a sketch of his last girlfriend, mocking him for a previous predilection for “super sexy vamps.”

Horror cinema hardly comes better than this.

1960s, Foreign, Italian cinema

8½ (1963)


Director: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Federico Fellini’s signature opus is a film that, nearly a half-century ago, was the height of demanding modernism in the cinema. shook the landscape by challenging filmmakers to match its new, innately personal cinema spun purely out of its creator’s perspective and psyche and thereby establishing a new argot for exploring creative endeavour in movies.

More loudly, too, if not necessarily more artfully, than any other director of the ground-breaking generation to create and work within Italian Neorealism, Fellini abandoned mere reportage and circumstantial study, and pushed deeply into metaphor, associative epiphany, psychology, and personal mystery, rather than analysis, explication, and the traditional demarcations of the social conscience film. He did not abandon such a conscience or method, but radically altered the way that he organised his responses to it, hunting for a way to dovetail the inner crisis with a common sense of anxiety and malaise. An irony of this was that established its own personality cult, allowing student and commercial filmmakers, and other artists, to pinch its effects, images, and methods of realising intellectual autobiography.

’s inherent individuality was alchemised into public code, its pictorial quirks converted into pop art, for Fellini had a way of generating imagery that lodged in the minds of his contemporaries, as rockers like Bob Dylan and The Doors referenced his films in their songs and record covers, and Woody Allen quoted it endlessly in films like Annie Hall (1977). It’s hard to imagine other, key works by such diverse brethren as Scorsese and Coppola, Nanni Morretti, Charlie Kaufman, Bob Fosse, or Emir Kusturica without its example. was also a dividing point in Fellini’s career, after which he took up a kind of free-form fresco filmmaking, which bugged the hell out of many.

It is curious then, considering that it was a creative fount built by one of its era’s most iconic artists, that takes as its concern the theme of creative crisis—the precise loss of clear inspiration and artistic purpose. Fellini kept a sign taped to the camera during production reminding him that the film was supposed to be a comedy, and, indeed, it is a woozily funny film. But it often is underscored with an air of frantic desperation and suffocating intensity, its fumbling search for meaning and metaphor that hasn’t already been beaten to death or prostituted out to any gimmick-merchant around. Underneath its comedic surfaces, has an often grim message to communicate about the state of modern marriage, manhood, and art.

Fellini presents his troubled alter ego Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) as a director who’s in a state of artistic, intellectual, and moral inertia even as everyone around works themselves into a frenzy. He’s given his draft screenplay to Carini (Jean Rougeul), a pompous, relentlessly critical intellectual, precisely so he will do exactly what he does with it—tear it to pieces—despite the fact that sets are being built, cast members assembled, and diplomatic paths being smoothed for proposed sequences involving the church. Guido hasn’t shown anyone else the script; the truth is he’s abandoned the project, but can’t tell anyone.

Throughout the film, Guido dips into moments of reverie, fantasy, and memory that reflect why he’s in such a state, and creep around the edges of his root anxieties. In the immortal, surreal opening, Guido dreams of being trapped in a traffic jam, dying of asphyxiation, then suddenly rising free as a kite, only to find himself still tethered to the earth, to which he falls abruptly like a stone into the sea. Later, he has a conversation with his dead father (Annibale Ninchi) and recalls a childhood filled with moments of communal joy, as when he and other kids pressed grapes in a gigantic barrel, of erotic discovery, as when he and his pals go to watch the gyrations of Seraghina (Eddra Gale), a big old beefy tart, and of forceful punishment after being caught in this act by the guardians of church morality.

These episodes are more than navel-gazing. Guido is engaged in a kind of private, psychological mystery, trying to understand his inability to unite his loving and carnal sides. He has drifted away from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), whose highbrow glasses, short hair, and air of exhausted acquiescence identify her as the frazzled exemplar of the intelligent modern woman, to have an ongoing affair with a foolish but sensual married bourgeois, Carla (Sandra Milo). Several of his male friends are cheerfully hooking up with girls far younger, like his producer with his tag-along teenaged concubine, and Mario (Mario Pisu), who’s happily romping with his daughter’s school friend, the loopy Gloria (Barbara Steele).

Around Guido swirls the madhouse that is the ordinary world. He has retreated to a health spa outside Rome to try to get his wits together, but he’s been followed by the whole apparatus of the film production, including the producer Pace (Guido Alberti), whom he greets with salaams and bows. At the spa, hordes of doughy dowagers and leathery brahmins queue to blaring classical music and display humanity at its most vain, gross, and vulnerable. Guido hangs on to the most singular vision in his proposed film, of a stunningly beautiful and innocent girl (Caterina Boratto), who he wants to be played by star Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), conjuring her in moments of oppression and sadness. Carini dismisses her as an obvious symbol, but this doesn’t dispel the yearning she embodies for Guido. The only person who withholds herself from Guido’s gravitational force, and thus remains his equal, is his wife’s sly, critical, amused friend Rossella (Rossella Falk).

Guido indulges in moments of pure fantasy, as when he imagines himself casually ordering the writer’s hanging, and when he draws all the women in his life together into a dreamland harem, exiling those who have become too old “upstairs” and putting down momentary feminist revolutions with a few good cracks of his whip. It’s a particularly crucial sequence because of its bluntly funny look at the masculine sexual psyche, as Guido accuses himself of childish egotism in his inability to commit, but also relaxes within that childishness, for the harem is in the rural villa of his childhood. He bathes in the same colossal barrel as the grapes were pressed, and the place has the same atmosphere of freedom and rampant indulgence—sexual overlordship imbued with a playtime vivacity. He imagines Rossella hanging about to enjoy the spectacle (she takes the place of a tomboy girl who was his friend in the childhood memory); Gloria shivers in masochistic ecstasy and declares at the lash of his whip, “delizioso!”; and Luisa plays the domestic drudge with cheery acceptance.

But out in the real world, when Guido invites Luisa to join him at the spa, she brings Rossella and a young male friend who sparks Guido’s jealousy. And of course, the sight of Carla hanging about the town drives Luisa to a fuming fit. Despite Guido’s real delight in bringing Luisa back into his life, they soon collide in a spiteful bust-up in their hotel room, as Guido is forced to contend with Luisa’s buried anger mixed into a poisonous potion with love. The artier European filmmakers of the era were experimenting with consciously erasing the edges of the familiar grammar of narrative cinema, and Fellini’s frames, beautifully shot by Gianni Di Venanzo, teem with inky black recesses and hazy, overbright spaces into and out of which characters leap and tumble away in reeling rows, shoving weird faces into view and whipping them away again, or becoming lost in indistinctly defined, maze-like structures and abodes, full of murk and mystery, dropping in half-heard snatches of conversations, jostling and provoking the eye and the mind.

Whilst avoiding abstraction, Fellini successfully generates a giddy world dusted with the lightest frost of surrealism. The greatness of was precisely in being conceived and executed as a comedy despite its painful dramatic concerns; it’s precisely in this way that it avoids pretentiousness and self-importance. Guido is both central to and yet also entirely unimportant to the people whirling about him, who need his inventions to justify their animation but who will become animated without justification. Fellini’s cast is impeccable, and the whole ensemble, from the brilliant Mastroianni to the underused but ever-intoxicatingly weird Steele, rise to deliver; Aimee is particularly splendid. As the lore around the movie attests, was originally intended to be a pseudo-sequel to La Dolce Vita (1960), which Fellini had announced would concern itself with the young sprite whose call to renewal went unheeded by the last Mastroianni-embodied Fellini stand-in.

And yet is still more or less that sequel, presenting variations on scenes from the predecessor, but with certain twists on their meaning. An outdoor, nighttime party scene in Vita, with its air of racy self-indulgence, is mirrored here in a goofy, try-hard replica, riddled through with tedious intellections and dopey dancing. A flight into the city night with a movie star resolves not in pagan fountain-bathing, but soulful confession. The monstrous intimation of the future that was the sea beast is here the clapboard rocket ship that is finally demolished without a second thought once the production is scrapped. La Dolce Vita’s Dickensian wit, sourced like Dickens’ writing in a gift for a feral skit vital to the good journalist (both men were reporters in their youth; just as Mastroianni was followed around by “Paparazz” in Vita, Mario calls Guido “Old Snaporazz” here) described its society superlatively well but retained a slippery façade of moral and intellectual finger-wagging.

La Dolce Vita strained to use elements of symbolism, expressionism, and old-fashioned bawdiness to expand the scope of the Neorealist tradition, whilst maintaining a critical stance, attempting to effectively analyse, in however fumbling a fashion, social lapses and the failing efforts of European intelligentsia to redefine the modern world, with its pagan impulses, pop culture, and apocalyptic underpinnings. is angry with the previous film’s pat caricatures and reductive pessimism, seeking instead to venture inward and celebrate the capacity of creativity, if truly let loose, to repaint the world in new colours—it is art’s riposte and response at last to the stifling dictates of politics, academia and journalism. The film, for all its moments of illness and fractiousness, is generous, even allowing its irritating critic a lucid and sympathetic soliloquy that encapsulates the nature of an artist’s role. “I wanted to make an honest film,” Guido himself eventually defines his aim, “No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves.” The irony is that did offer such a freedom, a spiritual gateway into counterculture.

1960s, Italian cinema, Western

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


C’era una volta il West

Director: Sergio Leone

By Roderick Heath

Sergio Leone’s colossal reputation amongst cineastes is, considered objectively, rather odd, considering that he was only credited with directing seven films, with nearly all of them certifiable greats: The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1966), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), Duck, You Sucker (1972), Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The ironies stack up when considering that apart from his credited debut, The Colossus of Rhodes, Leone, who could barely speak English, set all of his films in the United States. Most of them were essayed in a genre, the western, that was beginning to die out, and worse yet, defined a subgenre that generally was derided and considered absurd at the time they glutted the world’s fleapit movie theatres.

To actually watch a Leone film is to erase all concerns about his reputation; love his style or loathe it, it is unmistakeable. The vastness of his widescreen compositions clashing with ultra-close-ups of leathery faces and staring eyes, the spacious narratives and eccentrically shaped scenes, the slow-burn structures and bullfight-like climaxes, the taciturn heroes, tarty heroines, and incessantly zany Ennio Morricone scores, burnt themselves very quickly into the pop-cultural imagination, even if they actually took some time to be recognised as something rare and wonderful and not mere Euro-eccentricity and cheap imitation run amok. I first encountered Once Upon a Time in the West through a send-up of it on a children’s television program in the early 1980s in which, as in the film’s immortally weird opening, a swarthy gunman is harassed by a fly. The parody gunman kept trying to shoot the damn thing when it rested on his face, only to reappear later with new plasters over the missing pieces of his steadily decreasing physiognomy.

The real opening sustains nearly 10 minutes of silence, as three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Frank Wolff) wait for a train, contending with pesky insects, dripping water and nerve-fraying ambient sounds, before the haunting refrain of a harmonica announces the arrival of the man known only by his instrument of choice. Within a blink, the three gunmen are dead. Long waits for rapid displays of violence are the key Leone trait, but usually they had Morricone’s swirling orchestrations to fill them out. This sequence dispenses with the music and proves that it’s the pure thrill of genius film construction that is so hypnotic.

Leone’s feel for mise-en-scène, conjuring a rough-hewn western landscape possessed of a deep, tactile reality, was something remarkable. Every frame in his films drip with sensuousness—you feel the heat, taste the dust, smell the sweat. Even Once Upon a Time in the West’s interiors, shot at the Cinecitta studio, look for all the world like structures battered together by frontier carpenters.

Leone made Italian baroque and American grit mesh so easily one could hardly imagine how absurd the idea is on the face of it. The phrase “cultural appropriation” gets tossed around a lot, whilst the concept of cultural affinity never gets much airtime, but Leone seemed to find real affinity with American subjects. And yet he and Sam Peckinpah radically reshaped the western, to the point where they removed the supporting props from the western mythology,by substituting for its ironclad moral laws and essential innocence an altogether darker sensibility that was both more psychologically realistic and intrinsically brutal.

But where Peckinpah was fond of exploring the ambiguities of modern morality and character in a rugged setting, Leone’s fellow ’60s Italian director Vittorio Cotofavi called spaghetti westerns “neo-mythologism”—the reshaping of the western along the lines of Roman and Greek mythology, the mainstays of an Italian cinema had produced endless Hercules and Maciste films during the ’50s and ’60s. The western had largely been, in its classical form, endless variations on St. George and the Dragon, the traditional heroes idealised as defenders of social values in rough and rude realms. Leone’s own early work was in the Italian cinema’s mythological genres with pre-modern roots, and he carried something of their less easily defined morality over to the western. What that boiled down to was that Leone’s heroes were hard to distinguish from his villains, differentiated less by attitude or ethical codes than by motives and to whom, rather than why, they dealt out brute force.

Of course, Leone’s films don’t exactly lack heroes or villains, but the distance between Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name or Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, and Alan Ladd’s Shane and Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is obvious. Leone’s are always outside of society, and bound to codes more defined by loyalty and desire for revenge. The very title of this film shows Leone’s hand. An epic, in strict poetic definition, is defined as a tale involving the founding of a nation, a precept Once Upon a Time in the West certainly fulfills as its plot sees the encroaching railway sweep out the last of the macho titans, but not without its own distinct level of pseudo-Marxist criticality. Nearly unique amongst Leone’s films, it had input from other major creative forces, story cowriters Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, and in particular, the former’s politics and the latter’s fondness for female central characters inflected the film. Leone never did a straight love story, and a recurring gag of Once Upon a Time in the West is that Harmonica continually engages in sexually charged situations with heroine Jill (Claudia Cardinale) whilst never actually engaging with her; only villain Frank (Henry Fonda) actually beds her.

Despite the often raw encounters between men and women that punctuate many of Peckinpah’s and Leone’s films, they were both perfervidly romantic directors, always inflecting their machismo with an ironically intense feel for the complexities and fleeting pleasures of femininity. Unlike Peckinpah, who was exploring his cynicism over the state of modern male-female relations, Leone presents overt, extraordinarily romantic qualities with Morricone’s soaring choruses, the charged close-ups and longing eyes of Cardinale here or the gauzy flashbacks that riddle For a Few Dollars More and Duck, You Sucker evoking lost loves and sorry betrayal, conceive romance as something lovely and utterly impossible, leading finally to the rudest of romantic shocks in Once Upon a Time in America.

By all accounts Leone was initially reluctant to do a film with a female central character here, but you’d never know it, in light of the film’s rich conceptualisation of Jill, a plaything of the supermen about her, and yet utterly self-contained and dedicated to self-preservation through wiles and guile. Her transition from whore to empress, predicted by Jason Robard’s scruffily noble brigand Cheyenne when he suggests she reminds him of his mother (“the biggest whore and the finest lady”), entwined with the transformation from wilderness to civilisation, is the theme that ties the tale together. The men in the film either die or ride away to nothingness.

Famously, Leone cast Fonda as Frank, inverting the actor’s image as the pillar of decency, but the role recalls how well he played charged aggression in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and destructive remoteness in Fort Apache (1948). Introduced committing mass murder, shooting a child in the face for the sake of saving the railway company of Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) a few thousand dollars, Frank threatens to unite the evils of modern capitalism and the classical strong man. He is kept in check finally by the vengeful progress of Harmonica, but also by his own weird ethics that remained tied to the ideals of the “ancient race,” as Harmonica calls their breed of super-warrior, explicating the mythological concept. Fonda’s restraint was always his hallmark, and though he clearly relishes the villainous role, tackling it with a virility he rarely got to display, he resists any temptation to go broad.

Like that opening sequence, other scenes in the film are like perfect units, virtual short films in themselves, especially the final confrontation of Harmonica and Frank, which is so precise in its staging, dialogue, and use of a flashback that it could stand entirely alone as a summary of the genre—the greatest gunfight of them all. Harmonica’s recollections of a younger Frank walking out of a desert haze recur throughout the film, until the final revelation of the cruelty that has set Harmonica in his relentless quest is revealed, in a crane shot that’s damn near miraculous in its composition and conception. Harmonica, tucking his instrument, the totem of his history and vengeance, between the dying Frank’s teeth, delivers the most pitiless and deserved of comeuppances. The whole film is littered with such brilliant little flourishes, from, say, the sound of waves that accompanies Morton’s fantasias of manifest destiny in studying a painting of the sea, and then his ignominious fate, expiring by a muddy pool, to Cheyenne trying to stay alive long enough to fight off Frank if Harmonica can’t defeat him, all while only seeming to shave and drink Jill’s coffee. And that, really, is why Leone is such a remarkable figure—he represents the filmmaker as virtual god in full command, playing out sequences entirely according to his own feel for cinematic cause and effect.

Which is not to ignore the dramatic qualities of the film. The sparse dialogue by Mickey Knox is often funny and memorable, and the acting from the key leads impeccable. The always wonderful Cardinale is as luscious as ever, and Bronson, who could be a good actor on the few occasions it was required of him, plays Harmonica with concise authority, his stout, stony physique and petrified glare suggesting some living piece of the landscape having torn itself free to mete out hard justice. But for me, Robards steals the film with his droll, droning performance as a warrior passing his prime: his final demand that Harmonica leave him because he doesn’t want Harmonica to see him die is Leone’s most affecting scene. Once Upon a Time in the West is still one of the highpoints of cinema.

1960s, Famous Firsts, Foreign, Horror/Eerie, Italian cinema

La Maschera del Demonio (1960)

aka Black Sunday ; The Mask of Satan ; House of Fright ; Revenge of the Vampire

Director: Mario Bava

By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava, ace cinematographer, had filled in as director on his mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), the film many horror genre scholars see as the first of a nascent explosion in the genre’s popularity that barely receded until the mid 1980s. Bava was the son of a sculptor and film effects pioneer Eugenio Bava, and had wanted to be a painter himself. But he, too, moved into movies and became a respected director of photography, working for the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. He had also made some short documentaries in the ’40s. The low budgets and strict shooting schedules of Italian genre film often overwhelmed directors and crews, and Bava had proven himself able at picking up the pieces. He had done so on I Vampiri, when Freda, frustrated, had walked off the set, forcing Bava to finish the film in two days. Bava had also contributed to several films as second-unit or fill-in director. In 1960, he finally made his first lone, credited foray into directing at the age of 46, La Maschera del Demonio.

Some horror critics feel La Maschera del Demonio is Bava’s best film. It certainly exemplified a richness of style nigh untouched at the time by other genre filmmakers, pulsing with inventive cinema and making an immediate impact. In what was becoming common practice, foreign actors were imported to sell Italian genre films overseas. For horror films whose makers were attempting to pass them off as Hammer product, British actors, rather than Americans like Steve Reeves, were hired. For his debut, Bava picked up John Richardson, whose greatest claim to fame would be to act alongside Raquel Welch in One Million B.C. (1967), and a young actress whose appearances thus far had been restricted to four rather small roles in her native land—Barbara Steele. The story is loosely based on a Nokolai Gogol short story, “The Vij,” (later filmed more faithfully in 1967 in the Soviet Union) and Gogol’s work itself was adapted distantly from folk tales collected by early Christian scholar Saint John Cassian.

The startling opening is worth noting for confronting violence. Around this time, horror films were becoming vehicles for a fresh, increasingly manifest social and historical cynicism, and were exploiting looser censorship with newly charged depictions of gore that anticipated the interests of the 1960s, when more revolutionary fantasies were taking grip. There is quite a gulf between the relatively distant fantasies of German Expressionism and Universal horror and that more direct impulses toward attacking social order in horror at the time. Terence Fisher had begun actively eviscerating historical iniquity in his Hammer films, Alfred Hitchcock tried to capture the shocking texture of sudden violence and incipient madness in Psycho (1960), Michael Powell had meditated on the relationship between voyeurism and brutality with Peeping Tom (1960), and Georges Franju had made his explicitly antipatriarchal parable Eyes Without a Face (1959).

To this Bava now added a direct approach to historical misogyny and warped religious concepts of femininity and virtue, subjects rarely tackled before except by Carl Dreyer, one of intelligent horror’s strongest influences, in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and Day of Wrath (1943). Bava begins at his most provocative, with a spectacle of Inquisition in old Moldavia. An accused witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Steele), and her brother (a detail obscured in the English-dubbed version), lover, and consort in evil, Javutich (Arturo Dominici), having been captured and condemned by soldiers and priests, are subjected to gruesome punishment. Javutich is already dead. Their other brother, Gryabi, acts as Grand Inquisitor, bringing this relentless annihilation upon them. Asa begs for Satan’s aid to return from the grave and punish her tormenters, which include her own father. She is, in short order, branded, and has a “devil’s mask”—a grotesquely spiked object designed to eternally identify her as a Satanic being— pounded onto her face with a sledgehammer.

The sickening force of the blow and the blood that flows from her face is gross enough, but Bava makes sure we hear her moans that tell us she survives this torture. Following this, she is to burn at the stake, but a furious wind and rainstorm prevent it. Instead, she is interred in her family crypt under a repressing cross, and Javutich is buried. Two centuries later, figures of modern, masculine rationality, embodied by Doctor Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant, Andrei Gorobek (Richardson), travel the region. Their carriage throws a wheel, and whilst their jittery driver fixes it, they venture into a nearby ruin of a church.

Vaguely aware of Asa’s legend, the two scientists discover her sarcophagus and can’t resist opening it, tugging off the devil’s mask to reveal her face, riddled with holes and with the eyes rotten away but still surprisingly intact. Kruvajan cuts himself, of course, and blood spills on Asa’s corpse. As they leave the church, they are startled to happen upon a young woman with a mastiff blocking their exit, the very image of the witch. But this is her descendent Katia Vaida (Steele again), who makes eye contact with the handsome and young Richardson, and bids them go in peace. But peace is short-lived—Asa has been revived by the blood. She summons Javutich from his grave, which he digs his way out of, and he sets about aiding Asa’s vengeance on her family, including Katia; her father, Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani); and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri).

La Maschera was a prestige effort for Galatea Studios, which gave Bava an uncommonly long six weeks to make the film. Bava used the time well, setting up some impressively complex and innovative camerawork. Despite this, it has a number of the regulation cheesy moments of horror films of the time, notably a bat the size of Rodan that attacks Kruvajin. AIP bought the film and hacked it about considerably, dubbing a lousy Les Baxter score over it and changing the title to Black Sunday. Nonetheless, they were paid off with a big hit. The film became an immediate template to steal from, so that works like Freda’s L’Orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock, Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), John Moxey’s City of the Dead, and others filched its plot and imagery to the point where it looks clichéd now.

The shoot was beset with script difficulties that Bava doesn’t entirely paper over. But like Hitchcock, Buñuel, and Lang before him, and Argento and De Palma after him, Bava was the kind of cinematic shaman whose belief in the power of images subverted dramatic standards. Scenes in La Maschera dazzle the eye and imagination; Katia, framed by the shattered doorway of the church, holding two dogs on leashes; Javutich slowly breaking his way out of his tomb and lumbering out into the night; the nocturnal progress of the Vajdas’ coach, appropriated by Javutich, making its ghostly passage through the night fog; the gently gliding camera that observes the Vajda family in their castle, a Byzantine environment of great carvings and paintings; Asa, partly revived, calling for Kruvajin to become her lover and the middle-aged intellectual instantly enslaved; Prince Vajda discovered gnarled and masticated; Asa sucking out Katia’s lifeforce to rejuvenate herself.

It’s wonderful to watch Bava save the genre from the mercenary insipidness that had, apart from rare exceptions, afflicted the style of horror films for two decades after the dizzying stylistic heights of films like Nosferatu (1922), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Vampyr (1932). Bava enters the gothic realm wholeheartedly, employing some newer, sophisticated camera techniques, like slow motion, which had barely, if ever, been used before by genre directors. He also employs some devilishly clever, exceedingly simple special effects, like the slowing regrowing eyes that fill Asa’s sockets, and the infrared make-up effect used when Asa leeches off Katia. Maschera also leapt wholeheartedly into another, perhaps ultimately less salutary, trend, towards strong violence and raw corporeal effect. Asa’s branding and masking, Vajda’s masticated corpse, and Kruvajin’s scorched face all represent the new frontier for gore in the genre. Much of this had to be edited out of the AIP cut, and the film was refused a certificate altogether in Britain, where it was not released uncut until 1992.

With his tales of rampant killers driven beyond all reason to wipe out everyone who taunts their illusory desires, like Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1973), Bava probably did more than any other horror director other than Hitchcock to invent a modern genre; La Maschera, with its Gothic style and themes, might seem backwards-looking by comparison to some of his later work. Bava also had gifts that invited a larger stage than he ever achieved. But Bava was born to make horror films, not merely because of his talent at creating pitch-perfect mise en scène, but because of his insistent interest in the notion of repressed feelings, passions, and ideas rudely returning to enfold and ensnare the present.

Such a notion is, indeed, fundamental to the genre. But perhaps no other filmmaker maintained such a relentless interest in expressing the idea, especially through incestuous families, fuelling the narratives of this film, Operazione Paura (1966), Lisa i en Diavoli (1972), and Shock! (1977). Sexual passion, particularly, keeps resurging in warped ways; condemned in an act of patriarchal repression; Asa is a raw, seething body of sexuality that refuses to die, determined to ensnare all who approach her, and to steal the flesh of the virginal Katia. The image of Asa, lying on her bier, face pocked with unholy holes, writhing like a lustful leech, her fingers clawing and flexing with rapacious need, seducing Kruvajin, isn’t quickly forgotten.

Steele is an incalculable asset. Her perverse beauty, with her ability to project gradations in intensely weird emotions, from virginal insensibility to insatiable cruelty to rampant madness, instantly became emblematic of the genre—and made her verboten for mainstream cinema. Even Fellini could only manage to cast her as a kooky beatnik in (1963). Steele was a cunning actress and a hipster with a feminist bent. As such she was entirely hip to Bava’s approach, and would later express cutting opinions on the degeneration of the genre into misogynistic slasher films. She expertly presents distinct characterizations of innocent, doe-like Katia and the powerfully perverse Asa. She is the centre of the film, far more than the heroes Andrei and Constantine, who, as is often the case in Bava, are present as a requirement, but are so wooden and conventional they practically disappear. If there’s a disappointment to La Maschera, it’s that it ends too conventionally. Asa, unlike a lot of subsequent movie monsters, actually is cool and interesting enough to win.

1970s, Foreign, Horror/Eerie, Italian cinema

Suspiria (1977)


Director: Dario Argento

By Roderick Heath

Dario Argento’s terror masterpiece is a strange work even for that stylistic champion. Like Brian De Palma, his contemporary (and probable acolyte), Argento’s cinematic gamesmanship and love of macabre subjects is, above all, a meditation on the movie screen as tectonic space—a canvas, yes, but also a silk screen, a puzzle box, a set of sliding doors that can be used to reveal anything. Also like De Palma, he drew on the disparate legacies of Hitchcock and Mario Bava in inventing a new kind of thriller where the act of watching is taken advantage of and the importance of narrative is spurned in favour of looking, both soothing and shocking the eye at once. In Argento’s brilliant debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), the killer’s identity is steadily revealed by a constant series of reference to a vital earlier scene in which an assault within an art gallery itself becomes a work of art. Its great glass windows become, in effect, both a painting frame and a movie screen whose meaning constantly taunt and alter.

Suspiria also involves art as it central motif, except here it’s two disparate arts—dance, the art of pure motion, and architecture, the art of stark immobility. These opposites dovetail in the Freiburg Dance Academy, where the film is set, an art nouveau hellhole. Suspiria is also, might I add, a thunderous horror film. The plot can be written on a matchbook. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany’s Black Forest to attend the academy and perfect her style. She discovers it’s the home of a witch’s coven, and anyone who discovers this usually ends up dead. Messily dead. On the night of her arrival, no one will let her in. An hysterical young student, Pat (Eva Axén), runs out into the night after screaming some thunder-muffled message. Whilst Suzy heads to a hotel, the panicked Pat goes to the apartment of a friend. Whilst her friend is out of the room, Pat feels a presence. She sees a pair of glowing eyes outside the window just before a hairy arm smashes through it, jams her face into the glass, and hauls her onto the balcony.

Pat is stabbed repeatedly to the point of baring her still-beating heart before being hung with a wire noose and dropped through a skylight. The broken glass from the skylight impales her friend as she frantically screams for help. This setpiece is an impressive scene, though Argento’s gore is always so cartoonishly overdone—a virtual apogee of horror cinema in itself—it’s hard to take seriously. Suzy finally gains admittance to the academy the next day. She is greeted by the mistresses of the school, Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) and the formidable dominatrix Miss Tanner (Alida Valli), whom she irritates by deciding to live in town. The Directress of the Academy is never around—the excuse is always that she’s travelling abroad.

Shortly after arriving, Suzy seems to be hypnotically affected by one of the staff members and becomes ill during a training session. The camera flows back and forth as Harper buckles in pain as the sadistic Valli puts them through their paces. Suzy soon finds herself placed on a special diet, and her temporary infirmity used as an excuse to move her belongings to the academy. One night, all of the girls are driven screaming from their rooms by a shower of maggots that seem to have come from tainted food stored upstairs. Waiting for the fumigators, the students are forced to bunk down on mattresses in a dance hall, divided by screens from the staff. As they lay trying to sleep, Suzy and her new friend Sara (Stefania Casini) hear a strange, wheezy breathing from the ugly shape that has just settled beyond the curtain. Sara recognises this from a past incident as the breathing of the supposedly absent Directress. Gasp! Could the Directress really be Helena Marcos, the fabled Greek witch who founded the Academy at least two centuries ago? Is Suzy a prospective sacrifice? Yeah, something like that. Argento’s basic notion, inspired by an element of Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis describing the Three Fates, was to construct a trilogy around the three different Mothers De Quincey mentioned.

Argento made the second film, Inferno (1980), a more baroque, nasty, and uneven work than Suspiria. In 2007, the third part The Mother of Tears finally appeared. Argento began as a screenwriter, and had a notable early contact with two greats of the Italian cinema, Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci, with whom he developed the story for Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Like Leone, Argento became fundamentally concerned with exploring cinema as a series of rhythmic scene structures; like Bertolucci, he had a sensual fascination with the use of décor and beautiful women. Unlike either, he became an unconscionable goremeister (the respect Leone received, and still receives, over Argento and Bava before him, is largely due to the less outré genres he worked in, and the commensurately higher budgets).

Argento took to an extreme a kind of cinematic fetishism logical in the horror genre—the plush, but untouchable beauty of what is on screen can only provide sensual satisfaction by being destroyed. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento confronted the erotic danger of his brand of cinema, leaping off from the dualism rife in Mario Bava’s films, by contrasting the face of female fear (Eva Renzi’s and Suzie Kendall’s) with one of female madness (Renzi’s again) as victim becomes villain. Argento often took the edge off the misogynistic air of his films by having female heroes and villains. Bird’s narrative circles around an obsession with a naïf painting. Suspiria, on the other hand, is a naïf painting that places it ingénue heroines against backgrounds of primary colours. Argento surely influenced not just De Palma but also Kubrick (e.g., The Shining), in emphasising environment as a kind of high-décor trap of space and time.

In addition, there are none of the bluffs and games of Argento’s earlier films. Instead, Suspiria patterns itself after a fairy tale, down to aping the setting of many a children’s book about adventurous scamps, and stranding its heroines amidst a terrifying mystery. In the screenplay, the characters were originally supposed to be no more old than 12 years old, an element that was changed shortly before shooting to avoid the controversy the film’s violence might stir. Yet, Harper and her fellows are still babes in a very strange wood. Like a Harry Potter story, Suspiria manipulates the cosy/frightening duality of the boarding school mythos in a supernatural world. When the girls venture out of the security of their domiciles, they inevitably discover something horrifying and die horribly, like Sara, who tries with youthful ingenuity to work out where the teachers go every night by counting out their footsteps, only to end up being pursued by the hairy-armed demon with a straight razor.

Argento’s progressive rock band Goblins provides the film’s relentlessly eerie score, which underscores even supposedly innocuous scenes, for example, when Sara and Suzy swim whilst discussing witches, as the camera evokes the same hovering menace that has already claimed Daniel (Flavio Bucci) the blind school pianist. (His seeing-eye dog bit Madame Blanc’s creepy nephew Albert [Jacopo Mariani]. Daniel is booted out, but his final threat [“I’m blind, not deaf!”] precipitates his death—the strange fluttering presence swooping over his head in an empty square, causing his dog to leap on him and tear his throat out. Argento’s vicious humour is at its most stinging in such scenes.)

But Suspiria is barely about its gore. It’s more about a mood of relentless unease. Like so many Italian horror films, the narrative imperative demands the heroine explore the increasingly mysterious bowels of the building at the centre of the narrative— a the labyrinth of the mind where psychology and sexuality become entrapped and septic, perhaps—and penetrate the heart of a deathless mystery. The heroes either escape or die trying. As Suzy follows the clues, she explores a shadowy realm of absurd beauty and menace and finally penetrates the inner sanctum of the witches just as they’re endeavouring to bring about her end by a hex. She retreats into a bedroom and hears that signature hoarse breathing of Helena Marcos, who mocks her (Daria Nicolodi, who cowrote the screenplay with Argento) before summoning Sara’s reanimated, knife-wielding corpse to take care of her. Yet in a moment of reflexive conciseness, Suzy stabs Markos in the neck (with the crystal plumage from a bird statuette, no less).

Susie’s desperate gesture pays off, Markos’ death causing the rest of the coven to fall about in bleeding agony, and the Academy to begin crashing down around their ears in a final expulsion of utter malevolence. Argento’s careful use of colour, sound, and décor make him one of the few horror directors who has ever been able to evoke a truly powerful sense of atmosphere in an indisputably modern version of the genre—Suzy’s arrival in an airport with its drenching blues and reds and muted sound effects to her first journey through the Black Forest where plays of lightning briefly highlight the shape of something upon a tree trunk, and her final penetration of the Academy’s heart. Mood constantly trumps both plot and horror. Suspiria is a strange, beautiful, ugly dream.

1960s, Horror/Eerie, Italian cinema

Operazione Paura (1966)

aka Operation Fear ; Kill, Baby…Kill! ; Curse of the Living Dead ; Don’t Walk In The Park


Director: Mario Bava

By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava was an experienced cinematographer who worked with the likes of De Sica and Raoul Walsh before becoming a features director around the same time as Sergio Leone. Bava’s background is obvious in his films, with their creative camerawork and orchestrated lighting. Bava is still far less famous than Leone, partly because of the genre he worked in, partly because of the vagaries of distribution that made his films hard to see, and because he rarely worked with the same level of acting collaborators (one notable exception being Telly Savalas in Lisa e il Diavolo, 1972). So the realms of artistry found in Mario Bava’s work still rank as hidden treasure to most filmgoers.


Not that he was without duds. Even Elke Sommer’s miniskirt couldn’t save Baron Blood (Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga, 1972). Scripts usually stank, but in the hands of stylists of the calibre of Bava, this became a plus because they could cut back on dialogue and required acting and concentrate on flights of cinema. Bava contributed to the first film of the ‘50s Horror renaissance, I Vampiri (1956), predating Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein by a year, when director Riccardo Freda walked off the production because of the absurdly tight budget, leaving Bava to get the film finished in four days.


Freda was a great stylist in his own right. Splendidly morbid images dot his L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hitchcock (1962)—the ghostly brilliance of a funeral procession in a sun shower; the black lace curtains around the bier-like bed that the title character (Robert Flemyng) sweeps aside; Flemyng’s desperate attempts to gain access to a corpse in a clean, white, hospital morgue to satiate his necrophiliac desires; the distant patch of light that steadily grows as the heroine nears the end of the tunnel not knowing what awaits her; the jagged flash edits that reveal a mysterious shroud-wrapped figure playing a harpsichord in a lighting-lit house; and most iconic, gothic muse Barbara Steele’s face screaming in silent anguish through the glass face-plate of a sealed coffin. These survive long after the dumb dialogue and stick-figure dramatics are forgotten.


Yet Freda never conquered those limitations as effectively as Bava. Bava made the last few great Gothic horror films, including La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Operazione Paura, and helped invent the stalk-and-slash film with Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (1964) and Ecologio del Delitto (1971), cited by John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham as the source for the stylistics of Halloween (1978), and Friday the 13th (1980), making Bava a shibboleth for horror directors at that time. Operazione Paura, probably Bava’s best film, benefits from a tight screenplay (penned by Bava with Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale). In 1900, investigator Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives in the small Mittel Europa village of Kermigen, a very un-Germanic Italian hamlet, with that look of such towns of being both partly organic and partly hewn over centuries out of solid rock. Eswai has been called to this hillbilly realm to perform an autopsy on Irena Hollander, whom we’ve seen in the pre-title scene run screaming across a field, climb some stairs, and throw herself onto a spiked iron fence. Eswai is there at the behest of Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), who had received a letter from Irena raving about danger and evil in the town. Kruger’s having trouble getting anyone to talk.


Even the town’s Burgomaster, the bald, nervously sweaty, but seemingly sane Karl (Max Lawrence, real name Luciano Catennachi) can’t explain the situation, only give warnings about the grim nearby mansion, the Villa Graps, the name of which elicits a camp gasp of fear from everyone. Whilst Kruger goes to investigate the villa—he’ll be right back—Eswai gets an assistant in the comely form of Monica Shuftan (Erica Blanc), a medical student who has briefly returned to her home town to visit the graves of her parents, and the pair perform the autopsy on Irena. They discover a silver coin buried in the body’s heart. Monica, familiar with local folklore, knows it is a charm designed to save the soul of the deceased from evil spirits. Eswai is soon attacked by villagers, who insist he die for performing the autopsy, but he is saved by the commanding appearance of a black-clad witch named Ruth (Fabienne Dali). She disappears before Eswai can thank her. Later, Eswai spies on her performing a ritual on Nadienne (Micaela Esdra), daughter of the owners of the inn he’s staying at; Nadine has seen the spectral face a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl peering through the window at her, a sure omen of death.


Ruth, despite her cruel exorcism practices (whipping the girl’s back with a branch and forcing her to wear a girdle of thorns) and somber demeanour, comes across as the most pleasant person in town, with her throaty, sorrowful voice and calm, protective attitude. It’s no wonder she’s getting it on with Burgomaster Karl, who ruins the mood of their tete-a-tete by delivering the body of Kruger for Ruth to perform her solemn duty for the town’s dead—putting that coin in the heart. Eswai, still looking for the Inspector, ventures into the Villa Graps,and find a lone occupant, the crazed-looking old Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi), who, when alone, sweats and suffers as swelling voices suggest tormenting ghostly presences, tying her to the sleeping Monica’s nightmare involving freaky dolls (one of the many horror visual clichés that Bava invented) and dark tombs. Eswai encounters the blonde girl in the halls of Villa. She says her name is Melissa, and behind Eswai on the wall, unnoticed, is her portrait, which sports the dates of her birth and death.


Melissa’s a ghost, raining sorrow and bloodshed on the village, forcing people to commit suicide by sheer will. Why? Years before, during a feast, someone knocked her down with a horse, and the villagers, who loathed the Graps family, ignored her as she bled to death. Since then, the embittered Baroness, gifted with mediumistic powers, has been the conduit by which Melissa maintains her vengeful presence. Monica is revealed to be Melissa’s sister; the Shuftans, the Graps’ former servants, had rescued her as a baby from the villa. Karl gives his life to reveal this secret, prompting Ruth to finally defy the prophecy that she will die in the villa and confront the Baroness. Ruth strangles the Baroness, though the old bat has lanced Ruth through the chest with a poker, and the two women fall dead. Operazione Paura stumbles in points, especially in Paul’s throwaway rescue of Monica from a cardboard balcony. The film also suffers at the hands of its lead, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, whose emoting consists of narrowing his eyes and bending his limbs at angles resembling a Ken doll. Bava was at his best in keeping a stately tempo of mystery and atmosphere. Action is virtually perfunctory in his work (as are traditional heroics). In Operazione Paura his slow-build mastery is in full evidence.


The film takes across the course of one night. Eswai arrives at dusk, the sun still giving a watery glow across the flat, bare plains around the town, which is anxiously closing up for the night. The dead woman’s coffin is being hurried through the narrow, crumbling streets. Once darkness has fallen, Melissa is introduced in a POV shot; the camera, accompanied by rusty, yawing sounds, is swinging back and forth looking out upon a cemetery. Then the camera ceases swinging and drops down, and a child’s stockinged legs and trailing dress sweep into view from their place on the swing, and the amused giggle of Melissa’s that punctuates appearances and murders is heard. Melissa stalks the Kermigen night, the shadows of her hands reaching up to windows, then her gliding form forming in view (ironically, Melissa is played by a boy in a wig). That Melissa’s appearances are usually clearly foreshadowed by such flourishes clears the way for the film’s best shock, when Karl ascends to his attic to fetch a letter for Monica; opening a locked cupboard, he screams as Melissa is revealed hiding inside, clutching the letter and smiling with sublime menace.


Probably my favorite scene involves nothing; when Eswai and Monica are locked outside by the innkeeper for causing Nadienne’s death, they are left despairingly tolling a bell for non-existent help. Bava cuts through the deserted town, which quivers with shadow and unnameable menace, as composer Carlo Rusticheri’s eerie music composed of unusual, sonorous instrumentation tickles the backbone. Equally memorable for sheer style is Monica’s prophetic nightmare—Monica pleads and moans as the menacing doll advances on her from behind, a shot that perfectly evokes the aware-but-helpless sensations of a bad dream.


Bava’s sense of symmetry is crucial, and it drives the whole narrative of many of his films, which usually end by closing a circle. His characters often find themselves trapped in cycles of behaviour and fate (incest is the grim heart of many of his films). “The circle of death is finally broken,” Ruth gasps in her last breath. In Operazione Paura, this circularity is even visualised when, after Monica has vanished with a scream, Eswai chases a mysterious intruder through the Villa Graps, through identical rooms, catching up gradually until he grips the figure’s shoulder and spins it around to find he has been chasing himself.


Bava’s women are often avatars for condensed pathologies in the Western psyche over female sexuality. Bava invented the stalk-and-slash horror film that became epidemic in the ’80s with Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (Seven Women for the Killer), a title that says it all. This film that lays down a familiar blueprint; Cameron Mitchell’s psycho killer struggles vainly to exterminate female sexuality whilst nominally pursuing a fiscal motive, a viewpoint usually radically missed by the sadistic spectacles of its legion of imitators. Bava’s women usually inhabit multiple, contradictory roles, toying with familiar Western/Christian stereotypes; Asa/Katia in La Maschera del Demonio, who threatens to become both sexual predator and victim; Daliah Lavi’s Nevenka In La Frusta e il Corpo (1963), both submissive and murderer; Daria Nicolodi’s Dora in Shock (1977), who is both mother and lover of her possessed son; Lisa (Elke Sommer) in Lisa e il Diavolo, who finds herself bound eternally to the identity of a dead woman.


Operazione Paura is cited as slightly weaker than La Maschera because it splits its pathological women into multiple parts, yet with characteristic awareness, Bava inverts the usual imagery by making the image of evil the blonde little girl and the force of good the black-haired witch. Although the structure puts Eswai front and centre, he is actually a useless representative of male arrogance; his “sensible” intervention with Nadienne, stripping her of Ruth’s barbed protection, results in Nadienne’s terrible death. When he catches himself trying to rescue the girl, it’s the logical end for Eswai, confronted by his own egotism.


In Kermigen, the patriarchy of the village has been punished by the matriarchal rage of the Baroness, which has become so crazed it blights everything in reach, even the Baroness’s remaining daughter. The only person free to do anything, though she knows it will spell her end, is Ruth, who inhabits the guise of the most threatening form of female sexuality, the “dark” woman, familiar literary twin of the pristine “fair” woman (here, Monica)—single, mysterious, engaging in S&M-like “exorcism” practises on young women. Usually she’d be burnt at the stake, but now she’s the saviour. The film’s finale, dark woman and warped mother die in each other’s arms, one choked and the other fatally penetrated, in a potent image loaded with erotic and symbolic import, leaving virginal beauty Monica safe and sound.


Despite his status as an Italian horror maestro, Bava rarely indulged in gore for its own sake, though his early films are violent in a way that would not be permissible in British and American horror for some time. The opening of his first full feature, La Maschera del Demonio, is one of the most brutal in all of cinema, and the end of his last film, Shock, has one of the most wince-worthy, yet oddly pretty throat slashings ever filmed. His jolts of violence are always pungent, effective moments, with a certain horrible beauty.


The quagmire of financing in the ’70s killed the European genre cinema traditions and institutions within whichBava worked. The technical and artistic fluency he strived for was degraded by a forced reliance on time-and-money saving devices, such as zoom lens shots. Signing on with Spanish filibuster Alfred Leone didn’t help; Lisa e il Diavolo, a dark, suffocating dream of a film, was butchered, and 20-odd minutes of unrelated footage featuring Robert Alda as a priest was inserted. The film was released as Beyond the Door II (the original film, long a virtual myth known only to Spanish critics, is, thankfully, available today on DVD and video). Bava’s influence has been undeniable, and even if his best characteristics—his intelligence, his sense of cinema as a plastic medium, and his richly artful eye—are sadly lacking in a lot of contemporary horror, today they’re becoming better and better appreciated in themselves. Bava’s son Lamberto, an assistant director on Operazione Paura, became a successful horror director in the ’80s.