Monday, March 12, 2007

An Afternoon at the Library with Argento and His Critics



I am granted many spare moments in my days working at the reference area of my college library. I often find myself wandering over to our film section and browsing through old film reference guides. One of my favorite things to look at our bound issues of Filmfacts magazine from the sixties and seventies. Filmfacts, put out by the AFI, had a pretty simple format. Each month would find the newly released films being given a synopsis and then a sampling of reviews from the major critics of the day. I find myself marveling at just how many films are essentially lost in time, that aren't available on dvd or ever even mentioned anymore. These are great reference guides and, along with several other similar publications we carry, offer an intriguing glimpse into not just lost films but reactions to films that I love.
I thought I would offer a sampling of American critical reactions to two Dario Argento films. Argento is a favorite and I never tire of searching down information about his films. Two issues of Filmfacts focus on Cat O' Nine Tails and Deep Red.
Here are some thoughts by some names you will recognize and some you might not on one of Argento's weaker films and one of his best.

Cat O' Nine Tails featured a Filmfacts score of 0 Favorable, 1 Mixed and 6 Negative.
Here is a sampling of reviews for Cat O Nine Tails listed at 112 minutes:
Judith Crist for New York Magazine: "The Cat O Nine Tails provides flickering proof, in living color, of just what you can get under the GP rating.....sleazily sick and senseless murder mystery......vomitous offering comes from the Italian writer director who made his debut with an equally badly dubbed flashy-stylish irrational mystery....Argento's blood relish has come to the fore.....it is unfit for human consumption".

Donald Mayerson for Cue Magazine: "one regrets more care wasn't taken in the casting and dubbing....the complex story is intriguing....this is not a film for people with weak stomachs...the movie suffers from a let-down feeling."

Kevin Thomas for the L.A. Times: "a mere trickle in comparison to The Bird With The Crystal Plummage.....tedious, needlessly overlong, gratuitously grisly and finally simply silly and utterly pointless.....adding some glamour but given no chance to offer more is Catherine Spaak".

and now for Deep Red listed at 98 Minutes:
Ann Guarino for NY Daily News: "the camera is particularly intrigued with gloves....Argento, who's no Hitchcock, manufactures suspense with flashy camerawork, loud noises and pounding music....garnished generously with gore....credibility flies out the window....nothing quite fits".

Linda Gross for the L.A. Times: "frightening, atmospheric.....promises more than it delivers but it's intriguing.....excruciating suspense....bloody flourishes....Daria Nicolodi is credible....artful long shots, eerie music provide primordial terror....English distributors have added 'Dripping' to the original title, an unnecessary hyperbole".

'Robe' for Variety: "Not in the same class as his debut....sirs up plenty of action....same vein as Torso, but lacks that pictures alleviating factor of many pretty females in the cast....pace is fast....technical aspects are outstanding although the blood comes on as pretty fake....camerawork is particularly good".

Vincent Canby for NY Times: "Italian made bucket of ax-murder movie cliches.....soaked in red paint that seems intended to represent fake blood....Argento is simply a director of incomparable incompetence".

That last line by Canby is particular stinging and boils my blood but I find reading these reviews and these particular quotes interesting. I'll not pick these critics apart and I doubt that if seeing the uncut Deep Red would have made much difference to them. I am very impressed that the one critic who seemed to get what Argento was doing and responded to it turns out to be a woman, and Ms. Gross' review is the most intelligent of the bunch.
What strikes me most in flipping through these old critical journals is just how many 'acclaimed' films by 'important' people have been completely forgotten while the work of an, in Canby's words, 'incomparably incompetent' director continues to interest and captivate.
We have dozens upon dozens of these journals here, I'll keep posting more quotes from vintage reviews, and might even do some full scans. Certainly finding the initial reactions to people like Argento, Bava, Martino or even Leone might help us appreciate them even more in seeing the derision and flat out hostility they had to face.

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