As far removed from the Technicolor phantasmagoria of Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) as it was possible to get, Tenebre marked Dario Argento’s dazzling return to the gialli that made his name a decade earlier. More concerned than his other films with sex, transgenderism and body dysmorphia, and filmed in a blinding chiaroscuro, it is an oddity in the Argento canon, albeit a hugely impressive one.
Anthony Franciosa plays the standard issue American abroad, writer Peter Neal who arrives in Rome to promote his latest thriller, Tenebre. No sooner has he landed than he is being stalked by his unstable fiancée Jane (Veroica Lario) and the city is being stalked by a black-gloved killer who forces pages from his new book into the mouths of his victims. But all is not quite as it seems and there maybe more than one killer at work…
Argento has frequently expressed his deep disinterest in the machinations of plot and narrative, yet Tenebre features one of his strongest and most complex storylines, full of twists and unexpected revelations. The plot revolves around the audacious and quite unexpected transference of guilt from the maniacal killer (about whom we learn very little, itself unusual for Argento) to the eminently likeable hero, surely the film’s boldest stroke. As indeed was the revelation – made in a series of cryptic, dreamlike flashbacks and dreams – that Neal had already killed before, stabbing the object of his humiliation to death before running off with her bright red stilettos.
It comes as no surprise to the devoted Argentophile that these dream sequences should hinge around and feature so prominently the red shoes that Neal covets so much and which he later sends to Jayne before killing her. The Freudian psychology that informs almost all of his work (despite Argento’s protestations that he is Jungian at heart) virtually demands it after all. The red shoes act as a fetishistic totem for Neal and signal the more seriously sexual overtones with which Argento imbues Tenebre. The Freudian connotations are obvious (and somewhat complicated by the fact that the woman is played by the transexual Eva Robbins) though one mustn’t overlook Argento’s oft-stated admiration for director Michael Powell, director of The Red Shoes (1948).
Though sexual identity had played a prominent role in his earlier works (most notably in Il gatto a nove code (1971) and to an extent in Profondo rosso (1975)), nothing in his canon thus far had hinted at the unbridled sexuality of Tenebre. As Maitland McDonagh notes in Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: “[the earlier films were] about madness and spiritual corruption revealed through sexual deviation… Tenebrae is fraught with free-floating anxiety that’s specifically sexual in nature, but it doesn’t spring from a particular act of sexual transgression…” (pp.175-176).
Sex has been there in all of Argento’s films of course, but it was never quite so prominent as it was in Tenebre and it is here where Argento chooses to dabble his toes in the murky waters of Catholic morality. An uncomfortable exchange between television book reviewer Christiano Berti (John Steiner) and Neal confirms that both men were raised strict Catholics, yet both are capable of the most extreme acts of sexual violence. Desire is the catalyst for Neal’s rampages (initially a repressed desire for the mysterious woman on the beach, later a jealous rage that his agent Bullmer (John Saxon) is having an affair with Jane) and a fear of either non-conventional sex or overt sexuality drives Berti. In both cases, the men are driven by a heady mix of Catholic guilt and perverse puritanism – Neal’s initial murder had been inspired by his conflicting mixture of disgust with and desire for the woman’s wanton ways which caused him to intervene when she attempts to seduce his colleagues. The ensuing humiliation at her hands (but mostly feet…) is enough to tip him over the edge. And Berti explicitly nails his flag to the staff with his insistence upon reading the novel Tenebre as a a study of human perversion and little else – he even spits “filthy, slimy pervert!” at Tilde, a lesbian journalist before butchering her. The irony is that Berti is himself a rather effete figure, much more irritatingly camp than most of the largely sympathetic homosexual figures in Argento’s earlier films.
Sexual politics plays a more important role in Tenebre than it had ever done in Argento’s films prior to this date, and at times Tenebre can only be seen as Argento’s response to critics who have accused him – not entirely without justification – of misogyny. At times, Neal is clearly a surrogate Argento, fielding accusations that his work denigrates women. Tilde’s first meeting with Neal (although they seem to have been friends years before in New York) culminates in her accusing Neal of sexism: “Why do you despise women so much? Women as victims… ciphers… Do you write to a fixed pattern or do your publishers tell you this kind of sexism sells?” This sniping between the sexes continues throughout and there isn’t a single relationship in the film that doesn’t end in conflict, murder or guilt. Examples of isolated skirmishes in the ongoing gender war are prevalent and Argento almost seems to despair of any meaningful dialogue between the two parties. The casting of Robbins (mid-way between male and female at the time of filming) as the catalyst for Neal’s murderous desires merely adds to the sexual delirium.
As the unusually robust narrative and the equally unexpected obsessions with Catholic sensibilities and sexuality mark Tenebre as notably different to Argento’s earlier work, so the look of the film reflects a perhaps conscious decision to distance himself from what had gone before. The title Tenebre had led many to expect the closing chapter of the Three Mothers trilogy begun in Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), yet Argento had apparently tired of his witches as early as the initial scenes of Inferno where a notice on a blackboard announces this as the final part: “I rather lost interest in it after Inferno,” he noted later, though he would eventually complete the trilogy with the disappointing La terza madre/The Third Mother (2007). Tenebre, perhaps as a further attempt to establish his return to his giallo roots and to further emphasise his abandonment of the purely supernatural, has a look all its own. The vivid, Technicolor dreamscapes of the Three Mothers duo are replaced by a stark, icy look that often verges on the monochromatic.
One of Argento’s most cryptic remarks about the film has been his claim that it is set in a de-populated future: “Tenebrae occurs in a world inhabited by fewer people with the results that the remainder are wealthier and less crowded. Something has happened to make it that way but no-one remembers, or wants to remember” (from an interview with Alan Jones (1983)). To be honest, it isn’t clear at all from the film itself that the setting is futuristic (though Bullmer has what would have been for the early 80s an unusually effective videophone system) but Argento certainly gives us a glimpse of a Rome that is rarely seen in the movies. There are none of the usual travelogue shots, nor any of the classical architecture we normally associate with that city. Instead, it is a dream Rome of post-modern architecture, full of angular constructions, painted in stark white. Interiors are sparse and purely functional and the city streets are unusually quiet and free from clutter: “For Tenebrae I dreamed an imaginary city in which the most amazing things happen. For this reason I stayed away from anything old. My decor is ultramodern. Extreme…” (from an interview with Christophe Gans (1983)).
The mise en scene is often dazzling in its clarity, a testament to Argento’s admiration for Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), a film whose influence is all over Tenebre. To realise this vision, Argento was reunited with cinematographer Luciano Tovoli who had given Suspiria its memorable look a few years before. Together they created a film that is simultaneously realistic yet wholly artificial. The irony is of course that while the title reflects something altogether darker (it translates from the Italian as ‘darkness’ or ‘shadow’), the film is a voluminous trip through a clearly lit landscape captured on film with crystal clarity. What this serves to do is focus us on the true relevance of the title – the darkness to which Argento directs us is that that lies at the heart of its protagonists, a darkness that Argento had a peripheral glimpse of in an incident that shaped some of the narrative concerns of the film.
“To kill for nothing – that is the horror of today” is a quote that Argento has frequently used when discussing Tenebre and stems, perhaps, from an excursion to that land of random murder and serial slaying, the United States. On a visit to Los Angeles, Argento was pestered by a series of motiveless threatening telephone calls, much as Neal is bothered by the then unmasked killer’s taunting phone calls and letters after each murder.
While Tenebre clearly possesses a more sophisticated and challenging narrative than we were used to from Argento, it would be churlish to ignore the film’s sheer visual bravado. As with his earlier – and indeed subsequent work – Argento plays relentlessly with the possibilities of the visual medium, be it the glowing photography or the plethora of brief scenes that purport to show one thing only for Argento to playfully pull the rug from under our feet and show us something different instead – look at the strange shot of Neal (we only realise it’s him much later) taking exercise, seen only in silhouette and grunting sexually; or the stunning shot near the end, where Germani stoops down to retrieve the movie prop razor that Neal used to fake his suicide, only to reveal Neal standing right behind him, alive and not at all well.
But the technical tour-de-force is undoubtedly that much discussed and truly awesome tracking shot that sees Argento’s restless camera, strapped to a louma crane, exploring every nook and cranny of the doomed lesbian’s house before alighting on the gloved hands of the killer forcing entry. Two and a half minutes long, and scored to the pounding main theme from Simonetti, Pignatelli and Massimo Morante (Goblin in all but name), it’s a tour de force of directorial excess, utterly gratuitous in terms of furthering the narrative but nonetheless spellbinding for all that. It serves no purpose other than to dazzle the audience with its own brilliance and we surely can’t fault Argento for simply having a bit of fun and showing off his technical prowess. As a means of carrying us from scene to the next (from establishing the emotional and physical insecurity of the intended victims to illustrating the arrogant omnipotence of the killer), it’s unnecessarily complex and rather time consuming – as a joyous celebration of the freedom of the cinema, however, it’s a masterstroke.
For some, Tenebre was a disappointment, a return to the giallo after an all too brief excursion into the realms of dark fantasy. Yet in retrospect, it now appears to be one of Argento’s most durable and fully realised films, the culmination to that date of his pre-occupations and themes. Far from being a simple retrograde step, it was in fact the full stop at the end of one phase of Argento’s career and the signal that he was ready to move on – though few could have suspected that the direction he would now travel would take him to the extremely weird territory of his next film, the seriously odd Phenomena (1985).