In 1975 Dario Argento released "Profondo Rosso" (Deep Red): arguably the best -- and certainly one of the most innovative -- Italian "giallo" thrillers of all time. Building on themes and plot-points from his first three movies (since dubbed "The Animal Trilogy" by his fan-base), the director brought elements from the horror genre to bear with much more forcefulness than had ever been attempted by Italian cinema before: larding the traditional Italian mystery plot with brutally violent set-pieces, audacious camera work, and an all pervading sense of dread and unease. The resulting film effectively blurred the boundaries between the horror and giallo genres in a much more convincing manner than previous attempts, such as Sergio Martino's ultra-sleazy "Torso" or even the great Mario Bava's "Twitch Of The Death Nerve" -- neither of which could match the "in-your-face" modernity of Argento's horror/thriller masterpiece despite their ostentatiously high body counts.
"Profondo Rosso" had, in part, been inspired by Argento's frustration with Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow Up": a glacial art-house masterpiece filmed in London, which very effectively set up a beguiling mystery in its opening half, and then resolutely refused to explain anything -- leaving the audience in as much confusion as its lead character, a "swinging sixties" fashion photographer played by David Hemmings. With "Profondo Rosso", Argento exploited the same trendy milieu, relocated the action to Rome and Turin, and recast Hemmings in essentially the same role as he'd played several years earlier. He then added his favourite giallo motifs to the mix, and the rest is history. It is somewhat ironic then that in 2003, Argento's latest thriller, "Il Cartaeo" (The Card Player), sets out to reformulate his own early successes by recasting them in the form of an icily modern police procedural thriller. With the horror element that made Argento's work so revolutionary now toned down and sometimes removed completely, the end result is more akin to the stylish remoteness of the Antonelli masterpiece Argento had originally sought to spurn -- only without that film's sphinx-like philosophical musings to replace Argento's errant trademark stylish violence.
But it becomes pretty clear very early on, that the psychological requirements demanded by the kind of modern thrillers Argento ostensibly intends to emulate with "The Card Player" are on a head-on collision course with the gloriously superficial approach to character and motivation that has been a virtual mainstay of most of his gialli since year dot! Luckily for Argento's fans, it is the director's traditional Italian sensibility that just about survives the resulting crash; "The Card Player" is easily - almost despite itself - still the most satisfying Argento thriller in years.
Argento sets up his intentions with the opening scene - and it is this scene that immediately betrays the conflict between those intentions and Argento's habitual way of going about things. A stylish opening sequence sets up the police procedural angle as we watch - through oblique angles from a handheld camera - Italian detective Anna Maria (Stefania Rocca) arriving for work and organising her desk. (Any similarity between the name of Rocca's character and that of Asia Argento's detective in "The Stendhal Syndrome" is purely intentional since "The Card Player" originally started life as a vehicle for Asia to reprise her role as Anna Manni, before her sudden withdrawal from the project obliged a drastic rewrite.) One is immediately reminded of countless television cop thrillers, and Rocca even looks like a younger Helen Mirren from the popular British series, "Prime Suspect" -- with a little bit of a sexy Björk resemblance thrown in! But the ground-level steadycam shot which tracks the entry of another character, and a rather stilted piece of dialogue between Rocca and one of her Italian-to-English-dubbed colleagues, immediately signposts the fact that we are very much in Argentoland -- however hard the director may be working to convince us otherwise! Even Claudio Simonetti's initially off-putting techno-tinged score soon gives the game away: behind its unfamiliarly harsh, pounding synthetic beats and modern computerised rhythmic arrangements, Simonetti's beautifully addictive euro-melodies can still easily be discerned.
Unlike in the uneven "Nonhosonno", Argento keeps things nipping along at a reasonable pace throughout this time around and we're soon down to business: someone identifying themselves only as the Card Player, contacts Anna by email and sends her a picture of the female British tourist (bound and gagged and terrified) whose disappearance she has been investigating. The Card Player wants to play a game ... with the tourist as the stakes! The police must play the best of three rounds of internet poker; for every round they lose, the Card Player will amputate one of the victim's fingers with a Stanley knife; if the police lose the match, the victim will be murdered, but if they win she will be let go! A webcam feeds live pictures of the captive tourist while the game is in progress. Anna's boss refuses to be blackmailed so the Card Player cuts the girl's throat while Anna and her horrified colleagues look on!
The death of the tourist leads the British embassy in Italy to send Irish detective, John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) to collaborate with Anna on the case: a man with several skeletons in his closet and many demons to be excised. The gruff detective soon sets about winding up Anna's Italian colleagues, but Anna and Brennan get along well and become increasingly attracted to each other as they begin piecing the clues in the case together. They enlist the help of a video poker whiz-kid called Remo (Silvio Muccino) to help them, as the killer continues to use kidnapped women in his deadly game of risk with the Italian police force. But when the police chief's own daughter (Fiore Argento) is kidnapped, the pressure is really on for the investigative team!
In the first half of the film, Argento and co-scriptwriter, Franco Ferrini stick to the narrative structures of a clinical police procedural thriller. Argento may have been influenced in his decision to go down this route by the then recent success in Italy of "Almost Blue": a modern giallo based on the story of popular Italian novelist Carlo Lucarelli. (In fact, Lucarelli had previously been employed by Argento to bring an authenticity and coherence to the limited police procedural aspects of his previous giallo, "Nonhosonno"!) Argento's own attempt at the form has a few plus-points but many minuses. On the positive side, Argento continues with a recent trend in his movies of seeking to make his characters believable and sympathetic: Anna Maria and John Brennan make an interesting team; and for once, the English dub version of the film is arguably the preferred one, since both Rocca and Cunningham give their performances in English (Cunningham is dubbed by an Italian voice actor in the Italian version). Both characters come with some emotionally significant back-story (Brennan once accidentally shot a minor in a siege and Anna hates gambling because of her gambling-addicted, alcoholic father's suicide) and their relationship with the young poker expert, Remo turns them into something of a makeshift investigative family. Unusually, Argento apparently let his two leads improvise some of their scenes together and there is a believability to their shared dialogue that is rarely evident in other Argento movies. It's rather odd to hear English slang terms like "bollocks" and "dickhead" issuing from the mouth of an Argento character as well!
Another plus-point are the forensic examination scenes, which Argento handles with horrific frankness. When the director first talked about the film to Argento buff, Alan Jones for his initial set report, many people expected it to be a grungy gore-fest in the Lucio Fulci tradition. Argento spoke about making the death scenes "pornographic" in their violence. So those same people were disappointed when it became evident that, in fact, there is no gore (and barely any blood) in the film at all. Actually, re-reading the initial on-set report reveals that the director had always intended to tone down the violence from the beginning ... the pornography comment concerned the way Argento intended to shoot the webcam sequences -- which do indeed look sleazy in their pixilated graininess. Instead, Argento gives a clinical portrayal of violence by downplaying the actual bloodletting and concentrating on an intensive examination of its aftermath instead. Sergio Stivaletti's dummy cadavers stand up very well to the camera's unusually invasive prowling as it closes in on the wounds of the victims with a voyeuristic glee.
When Argento attempts another plot staple of the modern police drama though, he doesn't fare so well! Anyone who's a fan of "24" will be familiar with the programme's ability to generate suspenseful scenes even when all that is actually happening on screen is someone tapping away at a computer keyboard! We've all seen the "can-we-trace the-telephone-call-before-the-killer-puts-the-phone-down" sequence countless times over the years in many, many movies, and modern dramas like "24" simply update this traditional suspense tactic utilising computer hackers instead of phone traces. Argento, here, attempts this hackneyed old suspense generator ... and completely buggers it up! While the video poker games with the killer are in progress, the Italian police's "team" (well ... there's three of them) of crack computer boffins attempt to trace the killer through his Internet server. It doesn't help matters that the viewer is distracted by the fact that one of them bears an uncanny resemblance to the younger Stephen Fry, or that they are three of the most atrociously dubbed actors in any foreign film I've ever seen, or that the hairstyles & dress-sense of these guys is so unbelievably ridiculous; but what really makes these poorly paced, dully directed scenes so laughable is the fact that the poker games actually go on for bloody ages and still the hapless trio, after three attempts, seem unable to come up with anything other than the "astonishing" revelation that the killer is "somewhere in Rome". All the better then that, halfway through the movie, Argento ditches the "modern" approach and returns to what he does best: stylishly directed set-piece sequences, beautiful photography and a fairly bog standard giallo storyline with a killer whose motivation is no more sophisticated than the fact that -- although he/she may act normally in everyday life -- they're actually also a deranged lunatic!
The first casualty of this return to the old-style approach is the hard-won characterisation and intimated psychological depth of the film. After letting Rocca and Cunningham develop a touching relationship between their respective characters in the opening, they barely interact at all in the second part of the movie, which is devoted mainly to three, key set-pieces which involve Rocca, Muccino and Cunningham separately. The themes inherent in Brennan and Anna's back stories never come to tie in with the killer's motivation and are just left hanging; at one stage, a police profiler states that the killer is "a risk-taking hedonist" but that's about as far as it ever goes as far as motivation is concerned. Even in Argento's classic gialli such as "The Bird With The Crystal Plumage", "Opera" or "Profondo Rosso" there was always a kind of perverse logic to the killer's actions, but in "The Card Player" we are given nothing of any substance to latch on to -- not even a dodgy Freudian reading of the killer's psychosis!
But if this is the price we have to pay to regain some of that old Argento flare then so be it; the direction the screenplay takes makes it increasingly clear that Argento was probably always just trying to create a traditional giallo in the style of "The Bird With The Crystal Plumage" but with the trappings of a modern thriller tacked on to ensnare modern Italian theatre audiences; this suspicion is considerably bolstered by the time we reach the end credits, which are preceded by one of those "You Have Been Watching ..." titles which Argento used to end all of his early films with, but which at the time hadn't been seen since 1977's "Suspiria"! - he's since used it on "Mother of Tears", of course. After all, if Argento had really wanted to remake "Prime Suspect" he would have got Lynda La Plant to write it rather than his habitual collaborator, Franco Ferrini! Somewhere along the way though, the perverse sense of madness and creepy atmosphere of those fabulous Argento giallo classics from the past has got lost. "The Card Player" is a clinical, by the numbers giallo which is saved from banality only by Argento's partial rediscovery of the kind of show-stopping sequences we thrilled to in "Opera" and "Profondo Rosso" & a unique visual aesthetic lent to proceedings by French director of photography, Benoît Debie's notable lighting style.
This collaboration between Debie and Argento proved to be surprisingly fruitful. When the news first broke that Argento planned to use the "Irreversible" photographer on his new project, the director talked about taking a Dogme-style approach to the photography; but any concerns that Argento's carefully thought-out visual aesthetic would be replaced by shaky, poorly lit handheld video camerawork, can be safely laid to rest: apart from where that style is appropriate (the grainy webcam images) the film actually looks rather beautiful. Although, like Ronnie Taylor (the British DP who had worked on three of Argento's films including 1987's "Opera") Debie is working to bring a naturalistic look to the movie that utilises natural lighting, he really manages to capture an outsider's imagining of Rome -- something we have never really seen before in Argento's work. The city's peculiar mix of rundown slums and beautiful tourist attractions is evocatively rendered by Debie's sodium and neon-lit night-time scenes, as the viewer follows Argento's winding vision through the back-streets and shrouded alleyways of Rome. The day-time sequences are beautifully sharp and vivid, capturing a much colder, autumnal/wintertime aesthetic than we normally associate with Italy. The set design and set dressing (by Antonello Geleng & Marina Pinzuti) is imaginatively co-ordinated with Debie's burnished lighting schemes to bring an aura of low-key stylishness to the movie's overall look which is as equally distinctive in it's own way as the stark "Profondo Rosso" or the uber-modern (circa 1982) "Tenebrae"; the film is certainly Argento's most visually captivating experiences since "Opera".
Once this visual appeal is recombined with the dazzling set-pieces, resurrected giallo motifs and familiar plot points of old, many Argento fan will be in seventh heaven! The second half of the film launches us straight into one of it's most talked-about sequences: despite being virtually goreless, it's one of Argento's most satisfying bravura set-pieces, simply because of the way the director expertly builds a sense of tension and threat from such small beginnings. Anna Maria is relaxing in her softly-lit living room when something catches her eye ... her reflective glass ashtray seems odd. Examining it, she notices something that can't quite be made out is reflecting on it's surface from outside. She grabs hold of a magnifying glass and studies the distorted image more closely and soon realises that what she can see is a pare of eyes observing her from the bushes outside her house! From here we are catapulted into one of Argento's most sustained and superbly realised stalking scenes -- as Anna confronts the killer in her house, with Debie lighting the action with just the light from street lamps pouring into Anna's darkened house through her windows, and Argento's camera tracking most of the events from directly overhead. It's notable just how reminiscent that preamble is to "Blow Up" as well!
Other classic gialli reminders follow: the clue that eventually enables Brennan to track down the killer's lair is lifted from "The Bird With Crystal Plumage" and Brennan's investigation of the picturesque surroundings of the killer's lair will remind you of David Hemmings investigating the old house in "Profondo Rosso"; if the finale -- where the identity of the killer is revealed to Anna (the viewer will have guessed it within the first twenty minutes) and one more game of computer-based poker is played for the ultimate stakes -- falls a little flat, at least the killer bows out in a manner that will give the speakers on your surround sound system a good work out if nothing else!
Arrow films bring Argento's 2004 thriller to DVD with a fine anamorphic transfer and the choice of English 5.1 Dolby Digital or 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks, plus an even stronger Italian 5.1 audio track which should include English subtitles (see press release from Arrow below). Arrow are to be commended for including the Italian audio, although it's a case of 'swings and roundabouts' as to which audio option is the better in terms of enhancing the experience of watching the film. The English option gives us the best representation of the relationship between the characters played by Liam Cunningham and Stefania Rocca, while the Italian option seems to lend the film as a whole more gravitas and grittiness, thanks mainly to the fact that we no longer have to listen to the awful English dub for the computer 'boffins'!
The disc extras furnish us with a nine minute promo featuring behind the scenes footage; a five minute making of with some interesting comments from Argento about the origins of the film; a trailer and the Argento trailer reel, featuring trailers for all Argento's movies apart from "Do You Like Hitchcock" and "Giallo".
As with all Arrow Video releases, you get a reversible sleeve that allows you to choose between Rick Melton's distinctive artwork or the original poster art, and a compelling booklet written by Argento set reporter and author of "Profondo Rosso", Alan Jones.
Flawed though it is, most Argento fans will not be able to stop themselves enjoying lots of things about this little foray into giallo territory -- mainly those keystone sequences and the great cinematography. Although not everything comes off, Argento gets away with it...just!
Anyone buying this release needs to be aware of the following statement released by Arrow Video last week:
"It has been brought to the attention of Arrow Video that incorrectly manufactured stock of The Stendhal Syndrome and The Card Player has been released onto the market. The one fault on both discs is the absence of English subtitles. This will not affect the enjoyment of fans who prefer the English dubs and otherwise the discs are as intended but for those of you who like to select the Italian tracks and don't have a grasp of the language you may find the English subtitles beneficial!
This is of course extremely annoying and Arrow Video would like to offer their apologies to all fans for the inconvenience this may cause.
If you don't need English subtitles your disc is fine but for those of you who are affected please hang onto the DVD packaging and poster and booklet inserts and post the DISC ONLY back to:
Arrow Video Returns
Porters Park Drive
Arrow Video will mail back to you a correct replacement disc plus a bonus DVD to apologise for the inconvenience. Please ensure that you enclose a copy of your full name, address and postcode.
Please send any queries to - firstname.lastname@example.org"