Tag Archives: Alida Valli

Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)

For most of its runtime, Suspiria builds. It increases suspense, it increases terror, it increases discomfort. Director Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shoot these long shots with slightly fish-eyed backgrounds. Combined with Giuseppe Bassan’s jawdroppingly awesome production design, the film gives the impression of having no depth. No perspective. The actors move in front of these flat backgrounds, which they may or may not interact with. It’s beyond creepy; it controls the narrative distance but also the narrative possibility. How can lead Jessica Harper interact in three dimension space if the shot is her in the foreground, but the background is flat.

Then she does and the discomfort increases. Not in the narrative, not through the off-putting Goblin (and Argento) score, but because she’s moving into a space where she shouldn’t be able to move. It takes time, each time, to readjust. Just a couple seconds, which is more than enough time for Argento to move on to the next discomfort acceleration.

He also plays with depth a little in the first half of the film. Foreground is sometimes less important than background, even though foreground takes up most of the frame. Then there are all the colors. Harper moves through a world of color, most often red (though blue eventually becomes big); red is, of course, the color of blood. It’s also the color of danger in Suspiria, something Harper doesn’t recognize, but the viewer does. It’s all about unsettling the viewer and Argento succeeds at it, scene by scene, frame by frame, for more than half of the film.

Then he gets impatient. He also relies way too much on Stefania Casini, who plays Harper’s friend. Casini is an inexplicable busybody, something Harper can’t quite acknowledge because it turns out she’s being doped into tranquility. They’re both students at an elite German dance school. Harper has just arrived. The film opens with her getting to school and seeing another student run away, out into a torrential thunderstorm.

That student (Eva Axén) ends up brutally murdered, something the viewer sees (along with a lot of Argento and Tovoli’s perspective flattening and a lot of blood), but Harper doesn’t. She’s just slightly bewildered by Axén’s behavior. Slightly. She’s got the intense dance school to deal with. There’s strict instructor Alida Valli (in an awesome performance) and abrupt headmistress Joan Bennett (in a decent, but certainly not awesome, smaller part), not to mention possible love interest Miguel Bosé. The non-teaching staff of the school is all peculiar Eastern Europeans (Harper’s a New Yorker) and Harper’s classmates range from snippy to downright vicious mean girls. Casini is the only nice one. But she too has her secrets.

Instead of returning to a calm after Axén’s murder, weird occurrences keep getting weirder and more deadly around the school. It’s one of the problems with Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s script. It makes no sense how the place could function without incident. Especially if Bennett is going to keep letting in busybodies like Casini and Axén.

More problematic is how Argento’s style changes as the film moves along. His composition is always strong, Tovoli’s photography is always good, Franco Fraticelli’s editing is always good, but once the film starts into exposition, Argento stops relying on the visuals. Harper’s story–getting to this weird school, being a fish out of water, getting sick–doesn’t have anything particularly ominous about it. Argento’s direction–and the narrative distance, which reveals quite a bit to the viewer (though not everything–like why does the creepy little German kid force an altercation with blind staff pianist Flavio Bucci’s guide dog)–they make Suspiria creepy. The music makes Suspiria unsettling. Not Harper’s story. She’s just naive.

When the film does shift its focus, just for a while, to Casini, things start going off track. Repeated, inexplicable stupidity mars an otherwise solid chase sequence. The pace changes. The script’s calls for suspension of disbelief get bigger; Argento has no time for gradual. Contrived becomes good enough.

He still lets Harper have a good performance, he and Nicolodi just don’t care about giving her a good character arc. The third act is a breathless race to the finish line, with Suspiria stopping instead of ending. It goes out on a shrug, Goblin and Argento’s score no longer one of the film’s greatest assets but its primary encumbrance. The film never recovers from making Casini the lead, even for five or ten minutes. Suspiria’s all dubbed–Harper, Bennett, Valli doing their lines for the English version–and it’s unclear if Casini’s performance is the fault of her or her voice actor. Even if she were better, her material’s all crap. After forty minutes of precise filmmaking and writing, Argento lets it go to pot.

The film does recover somewhat and, with a stronger finale, it would’ve been fine. But the finale’s not strong–and gets weaker as it progresses–leaving Suspiria a phenomenal exercise in filmmaking. And a disappointing contrivance as a film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Dario Argento; screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, based on a book by Thomas De Quincey; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Franco Fraticelli; music by Goblin and Dario Argento; production designer, Giuseppe Bassan; produced by Claudio Argento; released by Produzioni Atlas Consorziate.

Starring Jessica Harper (Suzy Bannion), Stefania Casini (Sara), Alida Valli (Miss Tanner), Miguel Bosé (Mark), Flavio Bucci (Daniel), Udo Kier (Dr. Frank Mandel), Eva Axén (Pat Hingle), Jacopo Mariani (Albert), and Joan Bennett (Madame Blanc).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE HORRORATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDYLOVESHERCLASSICFILMS.


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The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)

The Third Man runs just over a hundred minutes and takes place over a few days. It’s never clear just how many; director Reed and writer Graham Greene are both resistant to the idea of making the film too procedural. Greene’s scenes, even when they’re expository, still strive against lucidity. Everyone in the film is their own person, with their own agenda–it’s an entirely depressing affair.

Joseph Cotten is a hapless American in over his head and slightly aware of it. He liberally ingests alcohol to get himself through. Trevor Howard is a cynical British military policeman; he’s aware of the futility of trying to police in unison with three other governments (the film takes place during the post-WWII occupied Vienna, the four Allied powers each taking a section–as the film’s opening narration succinctly informs). Cotten thinks Howard has it wrong about his friend, played by Orson Welles. Except it turns out Howard and Welles are just alter egos. They never get their moment to reflect on one another, because Cotten’s the lead. His bumbling, drunken American is the audience. Reed and Greene are putting on a show about the world and what a terrible place people have let it become.

The Third Man has a lot of noir elements–Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker’s use of Expressionist angles and harsh black and white is breathtaking–but it’s an anti-war picture. It’s the epilogue to a war film; after the fighting is done, what’s left for the people. Alida Valli gets to be the people. Howard’s the hero, Welles’s the villain, Cotten’s the audience, Valli’s the people. The people whose lives the war changed, something Cotten can’t understand. There’s so much to The Third Man before it gets to be a noir thriller–Reed’s use of German and Russian dialogue (Cotten’s protagonist only speaks English, as does the presumed audience), the way Vienna residents engage one another, the way they don’t, there’s so much to it. It’s so incredibly heavy it seems like Cotten’s sort of doofus is going to collapse under it all. At one point, when it appears his obtuseness has finally gotten him in too much trouble, he asks his captor if he’s going to be killed. It’s not resigned, just curious. Because Cotten has finally realized he doesn’t understand Vienna, he doesn’t understand Valli. But Howard and Welles do understand it.

When Cotten finally does get to be the hero, when he finally does step up to the plate, it’s not because he’s grown, but because he’s not willing to grow. He’s learned there are no heroes in the Old West but he still has to pretend there can be. It’s devastating. And it’s not even the main plot of the picture. It’s not even Cotten’s main plot, really, because his relationships with Valli and Welles are far more important than his one with Howard. It’s such a weird, anti-romantic film. The film is a mental assault–Reed’s direction, Krasker’s photography, Oswald Hafenrichter’s stunning editing–it’s not a question of the viewer catching up, it’s about the viewer not breaking down. Greene’s script is all too happy to oblige; the subtle understanding of the characters reflects in their dialogue. The Third Man seemingly ends where it begins, all the character development is conveyed in the dialogue, more specifically the actors delivery of it.

It’s an exceptional motion picture.

Great supporting turns from Bernard Lee and Ernst Deutsch. Cotten’s excellent, Valli’s better, Welles is sort of otherworldly. All of the audience’s hopes–and thereby Cotten’s–are pinned on Welles. He delivers. He’s a movie star in a world without movie stars. It’s not just his gentle but exuberant delivery of his dialogue, it’s his physical performance. Welles’s character development isn’t in how his delivery of dialogue changes, but in how his body moves. It’s so good.

And Howard’s awesome. It’s kind of a thankless role, but he’s awesome. He has to be unquestionably right and can’t ever seem obnoxious about it. There’s this gentle humanity to him, underneath the real world cynic.

Technically, there’s never a bad moment, never a less than perfect cut, never a less than perfect shot. Reed, Krasker, Hafenrichter and composer Anton Karas are all spectacular. Reed’s use of Karas’s Zither music (central European folk music) deserves a lengthy discussion and examination. Karas’s music leads Cotten (and the audience) through the film, but is never tied to them. They’re occasionally tied to it, but the music gets to be freer. The film even opens on a close-up of the Zither instrument itself, the strings vibrating as the opening titles run. Reed (and Greene) are very deliberate in giving instructions as to how the viewer engage with the film. The Third Man is never hostile, always inviting. It’s just inviting the viewer to be depressed and to value that depression.

Like I said, it’s exceptional. It’s exceptional overall, it’s exceptional in its technical qualities, it’s exceptional in its actors essaying of their roles. If The Third Man isn’t perfect, there’s no such thing as a perfect film.

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Carol Reed; written by Graham Greene; director of photography, Robert Krasker; edited by Oswald Hafenrichter; music by Anton Karas; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Joseph Cotten (Holly Martins), Alida Valli (Anna Schmidt), Orson Welles (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard (Maj. Calloway), Bernard Lee (Sgt. Paine), Ernst Deutsch (Baron Kurtz), Erich Ponto (Dr. Winkel), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Crabbin), Siegfried Breuer (Popescu) and Paul Hörbiger (Porter).


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