There wasn’t much choice on Italian TV in the 70’s, with only two channels – one of which could only reach around half the country. Top channel RAI (strictly controlled by the government) was looking to reinvent itself, & decided that the man behind the hugely popular, cutting-edge giallo films Bird with the Crystal Plumage & Cat O’Nine Tails could be the one to help. For Dario Argento, this was a prime opportunity to reach an audience of a scale far larger than his cinema releases. Cat had been a huge hit with around 2Million ticket sales. Around 30Million would tune in to see this TV series. The series would prove to be an important turning point in Argento’s career. Before then he’d been just a name on the poster. By introducing each episode, he himself became the star of the series, a face instantly recognised by virtually everyone.
Of course, this success was not without it’s limitations. With very strict controls over what could & could not be shown on television, Argento found himself facing tough problems with censorship; each script had to be first approved by RAI. This did create some problems – the episode Il Tram for example, was to show a woman being chased by a man with a knife, & RAI didn’t like the phallic symbol. The result of these strict censorship issues was that Argento & his collaborators found themselves having to find more creative ways to create the suspense & horror, being very careful to keep virtually all the violence off-screen. If my ratings seem perhaps erring on the side of generosity, it’s taking into consideration how tight the restrictions on the series were. What really impresses about the series nowadays is just how much it gets away with, containing scenes with as much tension & fear as those in the director’s much-lauded Animal trilogy, which he was completing with 4 Flies concurrently with the creation of this series. The invention with getting around the censors is also impressive – the rejected knife for example being replaced by an equally threatening but non-phallic hook.
All of the episodes are based around a relatively simple idea or concept, which is then worked through to its conclusion. The relatively short running time (each episode is between 52 & 58 minutes) means that there are fewer incidental characters than in Argento’s feature films & fewer tangents. This means that things are tied up rather tidier, although this may result in them losing some of their charm upon repeat viewing, & inevitably there isn’t as much depth, both in terms of themes & narratives, as in a feature. Indeed, quite often the killers motives here are comparatively mundane & there’s much less focus on their insanity at the conclusions.
Ennio Morricone had scored all 3 of the Animal trilogy, but Argento had had a falling out with him over 4 Flies. As a result the director chose a new composer to work on the series & opted for Giorgio Gaslini, who provided some brilliantly terse & jazzy underscore, which really does sound like the missing link between Morricone & Goblin. The composer worked with Argento again on the rarely seen 5 Days of Milan, & provided music for Profondo Rosso (including the murderer’s lullaby theme) in conjunction with Goblin.
The first episode was to have been Il Tram, but before the series was screened Argento decided that Il Vicino di Casa (The Neighbour) would be the series opener. Directed by Luigi Cozzi, this really does get the series off to an excellent start. A young couple (Aldo Reggiani & Laura Belli) & their baby move into an isolated villa on the coast, the same night their new upstairs neighbour (Mimmo Palmara) has murdered his wife. Cozzi admits to being heavily influenced by Rear Window in this episode, & it is certainly the most overtly Hitchcockian of the four episodes. Stylistically, Cozzi isn’t the most adventurous with his camera moves (though there are some impressive shots), but instead prefers to keep things interesting in the editing. The creation of suspense through intercutting is very accomplished – there were some moments here where I genuinely on the edge of my seat. But the editing is also rather aggressively stylised, with sudden jagged jump cuts keeping the viewer off-balance. There is little time wasted in this episode, although Cozzi arguably peaks too soon, with the second half perhaps not quite so intense as the first. He also throws in some nice, almost post-modern touches when the couple watch an old horror movie on TV. Not sure quite how they plugged it in, though… Nonetheless this is a compelling & sometimes intense episode, which concludes with an amusing & almost Poe-esque touch.
The second episode is Il Tram (The Tram), credited as being directed by Sirio Bernadotte, is actually directed by Argento himself, opting not to take the credit for fear it may undermine his stature as a feature director. A girl’s body is found in a tram, but no one who was on the tram saw anything strange. How can a girl be killed in front of so many people without anyone noticing? This is the problem facing Inspector Giordani (Enzo Cerusico), so he gets everyone who was onboard that night to come back & re-enact events in the hope some vital clue will come to light. This episode is based around a sequence originally conceived for, but dropped early on from, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. Argento has fun with his camera here, delivering some typically impressive imagery. Nevertheless, this is a film of two halves. The first half is rather prosaic, but as events develop the second half is where it all really begins to take shape as the teasing mystery gives way to nightmarish suspense. By the virtuoso climax Argento is in full flight, including one magnificent running shot underneath a tram in the depot. Another signature typical of Argento’s work is some incidental comedy, & Il Tram delivers here too. Cerusico was best known for his work as a comedy actor (& he played the lead in Argento’s own comedy, 5 Days of Milan), & his central performance is probably the best given in all four episodes. With incessant character tics (like the clicking of fingers as he thinks), he delivers some really nice moments – his reaction to the killer’s confession early on is priceless.
Roberto Pariante is credited as director of the third episode, Testimone Oculare (Eyewitness), after Argento gave him the opportunity as thank-you for his support as AD on the Animal trilogy. However, after around 4 days shooting, Argento decided that Pariante’s work, whilst not technically poor, was not in keeping with his signature style to fit with the series. Argento completed shooting the rest of the film himself, getting Luigi Cozzi to re-shoot these early scenes. Roberta Leoni (Marilu Tolo) is driving home one night when suddenly a woman comes crashing out into the road in front of her. Just stopping before hitting her, she finds the woman dead & with a knife wound in her back. Leaving the scene to fetch the police, she can’t believe it when they turn up & there’s no corpse & no blood to be found. It’s hard to say what Pariante’s work was like, but as finished by Argento Testimone Oculare is a dizzying & intoxicating technical marvel, which dazzles still today. I can barely imagine the effect it might have had on a relatively safe TV audience back in 1973. Argento’s trademark visual style is all over this episode, with crazy pov shots (including a tray/cup shot prefiguring a scene in Suspiria), startling close-ups of eyes & lips, unusual camera angles & dynamic, jagged editing tricks. For pure visual prowess, this would be a 5 skull affair, but like all episodes it’s let down slightly by it’s thin narrative. In this case, there’s a nice twist at the end, although it’s one borrowed from elsewhere so perhaps not too hard to see coming.
The final episode is La Bambola, which is the episode with the least input from Argento. Written & directed by RAI regular Mario Foglietti, it’s also the weakest of the four. A crazed opening sequence sees a patient escape from a mental institute (shot largely from their pov), & the film then settles back as a moustached man seeks out similar looking beautiful redheads, one of whom is killed, & he stalks his way into the household of the other. What really lets this episode down is its reliance upon its climactic twist as its main focal point. Sadly, it’s a pretty obvious twist, not helped by being signposted by Argento himself in his introduction (“I dare you to guess who the killer is…”), & with the lack of a strong hook or driving force the episode becomes something of a clock-watching episode, waiting for the twist to be revealed but having to endure not entirely logical attempts at misdirection in the meanwhile. What just about saves the episode is some strong visual style; although here’s it’s slightly hit & miss. There are some very impressive moments – notably a strong sequence prefiguring Opera in a dress-shop/factory, & a crazy prowling camera shot roaming around the floor of an apartment, peering into every room. But to compensate for this are some very ordinary looking scenes indeed – whilst in the other episodes it’s possible to imagine you’re actually watching a feature, there are a few moments here it’s only too obvious you’re watching a 70’s Italian TV show.
I’d never thought I’d ever see this series, so I was overjoyed when I heard that Germany’s Dragon Entertainment had rescued them from obscurity & released them on DVD. Sadly, this 2Disc Region 0/PAL set is limited to 3000 copies, so availability may be a problem still. There are two episodes per disc. I was expecting the picture quality to be really poor, but I was actually quite pleasantly surprised. For sure, this is a very soft picture, with plenty of grain & low levels of detail. The colours are often quite washed-out, but since it was originally intended to be screened in black & white, that’s not too much of a problem. But it’s always watchable, & to be honest, I’d be very surprised if it was ever released looking any better. There is a noticeable background hiss to the audio (Italian mono), but it’s not too bad & the score & dialogue are perfectly audible. Removable subtitles are available in English or German, although it’s annoying that they keep setting back to the default off position, even changing from the introduction to the episode proper.
For extras, Dragon have got Luigi Cozzi to introduce the series as a whole (on disc 1), then each episode individually. These are not the usual on minute pieces either, running up to 15 mins a time, they are interesting & in-depth with good detail & anecdotes. However, it’s worth noting that occasionally there are some minor spoilers (particularly regarding La Bambola), so you may wish to watch the episodes first if you want to keep all the surprises. Also, occasionally there seemed to be half-sentences missing in the English subs, although it’s not to hard to work out what is missing. You also get a lengthy booklet (in German) written by Cozzi, although if you can’t read it don’t panic, since it’s essentially the same as his video introductions.
Overall, I am extremely pleased to have this in my collection, & rather than the interesting curio I thought they might be, there’s enough to recommend this set on genuine merit. It’s certainly strongly recommended for Argentophiles, but anyone with a taste for the giallo style could do a lot worse than pick up a copy.