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Dario Argento's Tenebre (DVD, 2008, Special Edition)
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The Process of Elimination: Dario Argento Paints a Murder
Jan 24, 2001 (Updated Jan 24, 2001)
Review by Furie
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Wonderful direction, tense scenes, plot keeps you guessing
Cons:The ending miffed me more than life itself
The Bottom Line: Argento's direction is beautiful and the plot kept me guessing. But with an ending that screams contrived and a DVD that sucked like a Dirt Devil, call it flawed beauty.
A character in Dario Argento's Tenebrae quotes from The Hound of the Baskervilles: "When you have eliminated the impossible, the remaining scenario, however improbable, must be true." Indeed, with a directorial wink as large as this placed front and center, you can bet that the way Argento resolves this giallo will not be as you expect him to.
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Bestselling mystery author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa, City Hall) comes to Rome to promote his new novel, Tenebrae, which is a giallo, just like the movie. But, once there, someone begins killing acquaintances of Neal's with a straight razor, just like in his novel. The body count mounts, the killer changes weapons, and Neal's friends and acquaintances all begin to all go the way of the dodo. Someone, it would seem, is a little too close to Neal - and not in a good way. Will Neal get his junior sleuth merit badge and find the killer before the killer finds him?
The answer to that question is perhaps the most frustrating part of Argento's stylistic thriller. Everything previous seems to follow along a tightly scripted path, each murder building on the previous events. But when all the red herrings have been thrown back and the killer has been revealed, it is jaw-droppingly improbable. Frankly, I found it more than a little unsatisfying as well. Murder mystery type films (like the Italian gialli - see Mike_Bracken's review of The Bird with Crystal Plumage for more info on the genre) often end with a twist, where the killer is revealed to be one of the main characters. But that final revelation should be met with a satisfied "Ahhh!" as all the dots get connected. Instead, it feels as though Argento draws in a couple of extra dots during the denouement so that it all works.
So as this conclusion rings hollow, does it then soil the rest of the movie like a puppy with the runs? No, certainly not. Argento has such a crisp, distinctive style behind the camera, directing with assurance and flair, that the movie works without the ending. Every shot is a thing of beauty, a near perfect framing of the on-screen action. You can see his progression from his maverick evolution of style from Deep Red to this calmly rendered and less showy piece of stylistic filmmaking. Lots of long framing shots and slow, lingering tracking shots make up most of the ten-dollar words in his directorial vocabulary.
For example, one of my favorite shots comes after one woman hears something outside, while her girlfriend prances about upstairs. Argento cuts to a camera outside the house, about a foot away from the building looking in a window. The camera then slowly tracks up the walls, over the roof, and down the other side, showing the activity in the house - all in a single take. The camera come to rest on a shot of the blinds being cut outside of the room with the first woman. All the while, a track by Argento's favorites, Goblin, pulses in the background. This brilliant shot cranks up the tension, letting us, the audience, know that we are peeping toms to the murder that we know will come. We just don't know when.
The plot (pre-denouement, natch) is an intricate pattern of red herrings and relationships, a little hard to follow. As the story progresses, phone calls, notes, and odd bits of conversation implicate character after character. But, before you can say, "MacGuffin!" they've been whacked, another name to cross off your Clue scorecard. Until, of course, there are only a few names left and Argento decides to show you his hand. Call me cranky, but I had someone else pegged from early on and I'm not too fond of being tricked. But I've complained too much of these things already. Onward and upward.
Argento has been referred to as the Italian Hitchcock (by "They," no doubt, with their smug diplomas and schemes beyond comprehension). Though not familiar with Hitch's themes, I can see why They'd say that from Argento's style here. There's one moment that cries Hitchcock to me. A man is sitting in a square, waiting for a woman to show up. What Argento does is make us as nervous as the man by showing us this waiting. He turns to watch a scuffle in a cafe, sees two lovers quarrel, and then gazes in the distance, wondering when she'll show. We get antsy as we see conflict all around, but nothing happening with our central figure. But eventually, something does, and it's a jarring contrast to the previous inactivity.
Anchor Bay has a DVD of this out and I hope to Robert Culp that it doesn't suck as bad as my version. The sound cuts out, the subtitles were written by drunken gorillas, and the picture tint fluctuated. But the widescreen presentation was wonderful. I mean, an Argento flick deserves widescreen, just so you can catch every morsel of his glistening style. It also deserves sound that doesn't fizzle out every twelve seconds so that you can get the uncut funk from Goblin vets Claude Simonetti and company.
Overall, Tenebrae is a wonderful visual treat with a few thrills and tension. Don't expect to guess the killer, though, it's an unmarked road off of Argento's driveway. From my experience, I'd still call Deep Red and Suspiria better, though this gets three and half stars rounded up for Argento's stunning directorial skill.
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