For many years Dario Argento has had to live with the label “The Italian Hitchcock”, a comparison that doesn’t really hold up to close scrutiny since the two directors have pretty different styles. However, pretty much everyone working in the field of suspense owes a thing or two to the master, & Argento pays off this debt with this homage, the first instalment of a projected 7-part series, “Do You Like Hitchcock?”. This is slated to be the only one of the seven to be directed by Argento (he’s producing the rest), & is his third foray into the world of television. Thankfully, this is not a Fulci-esque decline into mediocrity & no money (the budget is actually comparable to his last theatrical feature, “Il Cartaio”), as “…Hitchcock?” is an accomplished & entertaining piece of work occupying an unusual slot in the director’s filmography.
Giulio (Elio Germano) is a film studies student who is studying German expressionism, but is finding hard to concentrate on his work when there’s a hot brunette getting naked in the window of the flat opposite, & he can’t resist getting his binoculars out & watching her. The next day, he pops into the local video store only for the girl to walk in. This is Sasha (Elisabetta Rocchetti), who is about to rent out Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” when blonde Frederica (Chiara Conti) also reaches for the box. The two start talking & agree to let Sasha rent the film, but she’ll bring it back the next day to allow Frederica to rent it. Outside the shop, the two beautiful girls swap telephone numbers. One night, Giulio wakes in the night hearing a scream, but thinks nothing of it & goes back to sleep. What he’s missed is a vintage Argento sequence wherein Sasha’s mother has been brutally murdered. Giulio begins to suspect that the two girls have exchanged a murder pact just like in the Hitchcock movie, & starts following them to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Argento’s first television work, the 4-part “Door Into Darkness” was something of a reaction against the staid, restricted & highly controlled Italian TV of the time. Unfortunately it was ultimately restricted by the same permissibility problems, meaning that no amount of fancy camerawork & editing cold hide the fact that none of the good stuff could actually be shown onscreen. In 2005, this is not a problem Argento faces & again he tries to push the TV medium, with stacks of nudity & some protracted scenes of violence which makes it often seem more like a theatrical feature than Il Cartaio did. It’s nice to see the old trick of cutting away from the violence to make the viewer think it’s all over, only to gleefully cut back for some more head-bashing. Meanwhile, with every one of the younger female members of the cast going topless at one point or another, this actually trumps Tenebre as being Argento’s most nudity-laden film to date.
The script by Argento & his regular collaborator Franco Ferrini is (not unlike the Black Cat segment of Two Evil Eyes) a condensed love-letter to the work of Hitchcock, shamelessly throwing together a collection of references to his body of work, whilst also dropping in more than a few nods to Argento’s own back catalogue. The initial set-up is slightly clunky, but once the plot starts to click in, it becomes a compelling & teasing mix as the viewer tries to second-guess which movie will be referenced next. Along the way there are some neat red herrings, cunning distractions, & at least one twist that, whilst not completely unexpected, arrives so suddenly & brutally it’s highly effective. There’s also an attempt to escape with a broken leg on a scooter, which is a strange mix of the genuinely suspenseful with the cheesy & inadvertently comedic. Whilst there are a couple of well-handled scenes of violence (more graphic & protracted than those in Il Cartaio), “…Hitchcock?” turns out to have possibly the lowest body count of any Argento to date (I can’t really be bothered to check this thoroughly but my instincts say this is the case), since the script concentrates more on suspense scenes in the grand Hitchcock tradition, rather than bloody murder. Having said that, the central murder sequence which kick-starts the plot is suspenseful & gory in the Deep Red tradition, whilst a bathtub attack is startlingly protracted. There are also some nice little asides – whilst Hitchcock notoriously had a thing for blondes, Argento prefers brunettes so at one point we see a blonde wearing a brunette wig.
This is the first Argento film to be shot digitally, although this turns out to be a mixed bag. The format doesn’t appear to have changed his approach to shooting the film, opting not to exploit the immediacy of digital, but filming just as if it were 35mm. There are some nimble camera moves, including hurtling shots through a wood in the opening sequence & a stunning close-up of the killers face toward the climax, although it’s not quite the deliriously visual feast of vintage Argento. The night sequences look really good, with subtle & inventive use of colours by cinematographer Frederic Fasano – think of the blinking red light by her bed illuminating Betty’s face in Opera rather than the total delirium of Inferno or Suspiria. In contrast the numerous day scenes show the TV origins of the piece, being very naturalistic & bordering on the bland. In fact - & this could well be a result of the Beta SP projection I saw the film in (a format which conspires to make pretty much everything look like crap) – there are some shots which look almost as if they’d been shot on a digital home camcorder. You may have seen some of the gorgeous-looking stills online, but these were rather flattering compared to the projection I saw. Hopefully this will look rather nicer when viewed at home.
The score for the film is by Pino Donaggio, & thankfully it’s more at the level of Two Evil Eyes than Trauma, being a highly effective accompaniment to the onscreen happenings. It’s not quite the Herrmann homage-fest I was expecting it to be (akin to his glorious work on Seed of Chucky) but is rather more restrained. Aside from the orchestral work, suspense is driven by some pounding percussion that surprisingly actually calls to mind some of the quieter sections of Goblin’s Nonhosonno score (if you have the album, think of tracks like The Cat or Associated Dead), whilst the peeping scenes have all the breathy sensuality of Body Double.
The performances throughout are actually surprisingly good, a thread which follows on from Il Cartaio. Germano is a likeably lead, maintaining out sympathies despite the character being something of a movie obsessed, geeky voyeur (nothing at all like me, in other words). The female cast all work well, though special mention must be made of Rocchetti’s marvellously seductive Femme Fatale, & Cristina Brondo does well in a thankless role as the girlfriend. Unfortunately the English language translation has been saddled with some clunky & silly lines, which are read so po-faced (I’m not sure if it’s the actual actors doing the dub) that they provoked a couple of chuckles around the auditorium.
All of Argento’s films of the past 15 years have provoked split opinions from the fans, with each one have as many ardent detractors as it has fans claiming it to be an underrated masterpiece, whilst each new project is greeting with hopes that it will be his best film since Opera. Does “…Hitchcock?” deliver? Well, almost. Each one of those films, uneven though they may sometimes be, contains ideas &/or images which provoke & disturb the viewer, lingering long in the memory afterwards & being ripe for discussion & debate. “…Hitchcock?” finds Argento in a mood we’ve not really seen before, & is a pretty light-hearted & throwaway affair. Whilst it’s on, it’s a sly, sexy & entertaining affair, but it’s also pretty frivolous piece & there’s nothing contained within to trouble the viewer after it’s all over – although that same complaint can be levelled at Il Cartaio, which I would personally rank “…Hitchcock?” rather close to. “…Hitchcock?” is slightly better though, as there is an infectious sense of fun, but it’s a bit like having a Milky Way when you actually want a steak – it tastes good, but you’re still hungry afterwards.
Brian de Palma has been spending half of his career covering remarkably similar material to this, & at times the film does feel remarkably more like a de Palma effort than an Argento (although obviously without those gloriously extended slo-mo sequence so beloved of the American). Ultimately, de Palma’s efforts show more OTT flamboyance, sleaziness, nastiness, & pure shameless gall in it’s remarshalling of Hitch’s plots than this film, although it certainly makes a nice companion piece to his efforts. Argento can do this kind of thing in his sleep, & whilst the fun & pure entertainment vibe of the film is something new, it’s vaguely unsatisfying & slightly hollow. Do I like Hitchcock? Yes, but I also love Argento & sadly this movie undersells the greatness of both.
Can we have the Third Mother now please?