Monday, July 1, 2019


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


This film, Dario Argento's follow-up to the successful BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, sports a title meant to suggest the multiplicity of clues that the two amateur detectives must follow to find a serial killer.

I noted in my review of the 1970 film that in Argento's world, the detection of a murderer did nothing to dispel the overall sense that the world was fundamentally enigmatic. CAT follows the same pattern, and may well be even less comprehensible than the first film, which followed an American novel reputed to be fairly linear in structure. By contrast, CAT was based on a story concocted for the screen by Argento and three other credited writers, so it was crafted more expressly for Argento's aesthetics. The script also throws in a little more unpredictability by giving the viewer two detectives, one of whom is literally "in the dark."

This time out Argento teams up a young Italian reporter named Carlo (James Franciscus) and an older former reporter, Franco (Karl Malden). Despite his affliction of blindness, Franco overhears two men having an ambiguous conversation that seems to involve blackmail. That same night, there's a violent burglary of the Terzi Institute, which lies close enough to Franco's home that the blind man hears some of the racket. Argento treats Franco's perceptions as if his heightened senses almost take on visual intensity. When the police investigate the break-in the next morning, Franco seeks out the scene of the crime and makes contact with young Carlo. At the same time, several of the employees of the Terzi Institute, all oriented upon genetics research, are interviewed by police. One of the men, identified by Franco's young niece as one of the men involved in the blackmail conversation, dies, and soon the two detectives connect the researcher's death with the break-in.

From there the detectives follow one lead after another, and the mystery killer shows an omniscient ability to know just what leads to cut down at what time. (For instance, after a photographer records the image of the unknown killer slaying the researcher, the murderer shows up to silence the photographer mere moments after the latter discovers his prize.) In contrast to the highly sexualized murders seen in PLUMAGE, the ones here are fairly mundane: the photographer is garrotted with a cord, the researcher is pushed into a subway train. Indeed, the murderer, when he's finally shown, has nothing unusual about his appearance, and the oddest thing about his killings is that after slaying the photographer, the unseen psycho gratuitously slices the dead man's face.

Still, despite his mundane motives, the killer is a genuine uncanny type of psycho, and his nature is explained (if one can call it that) by the Institute's research. The script posits that the researchers found an anomalous "XYY" gene which was always found in psychopathic murderers. Scientifically this is nonsense, and only for a few minutes do the characters discuss the research's possible use in the early detection of psychotic types. But it's most interesting in a symbolic sense, for it's as if Argento wanted to imply that psychosis arose from an excess of masculinity. In BIRD the killer is female, but she seems to "catch" her psychosis from some male source of trauma.

CAT does seem to have too many "tales" at times. One subplot involves Carlo's romance with Anna, the young adoptive daughter of Doctor Terzi. Both characters never feel like anything but red herrings, and Argento reveals a sexual relationship between the two that doesn't come to much dramatically. Carlo's discovery of the forbidden romance, which leads to him voicing suspicions to Anna, does lead to her great sarcastic line, "Whore plus liar equals murderer!" (It probably has more resonance in Italian.) It's also possible that the relationship exists merely to be the obverse of the normative one between Franco and his beloved niece.

Though the killer suffers from a psychosis rooted in his gender-genetics, none of his murders are committed for sexual pleasure, and Argento goes out of his way to avoid any really "bizarre crimes." The murderer's true identity, like his crimes, is unimpressive, and Argento seems much more interested not in violent murders but in violent set-pieces showing men fighting or chasing each other in the tradition of the Hitchcockian thriller.

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