“Suspiria” (1977) – A Short Film Review

A new version of Suspiria came out in 2018, but I have not seen that. Instead, early last year, I saw the 1977 original when it was blessed with a limited cinematic re-release. The plot of this Dario Argento directed classic is simple enough (young American dancer (appealingly played by Jessica Harper) takes up place at German advanced ballet school, at which point spooky and lethal things start to happen). However it is not the plot that makes this film so remarkable but rather the art direction (in particular the lurid colour palette) and the integration of the soundtrack by Goblin (credited as The Goblins). The latter is so integrated into the film’s sound design that with it conjures forth a great sense of unease, with its whispers and disconcerting synth sounds feeling like they are happening within the film rather than an accompaniment to it. The film is so perfect in these regards that seeing this put me right off wasting my time with the recent remake, whose existence feels like another example of an intellectually bankrupt cinema industry looting the films of the past because it cannot come up with new ideas.

One other thing is maybe worth noting. Before seeing Suspiria I had the vague sense that it was some class of high class exploitation schlock, with the setting in what is basically a finishing school for buff young ladies providing an opportunity for lots of scenes in which said young ladies help each other in an out of their outfits. Yet despite being made in the 1970s, that sleaziest of decades, there is a notable lack of female skin on display in the film (misogynist readers will however be pleased to hear that a number of women characters in the film are murdered in manners both bizarre and gruesome).

image source (Michael Murphy Home Furnishing: The Red World of Suspiria (1977))

Trust No One: “Three Days of the Condor” (1975)

For me this was the final film in the IFI’s paranoia season. It begins with Robert Redford playing some kind of researcher who nips out to pick up lunch for the people in his office only to return and find that they have all been murdered – dream or nightmare, you decide. Of course he is actually working for a CIA front company and he now finds himself on the run from his erstwhile employers, unsure as to who is friend or foe etc.. Also his codename is Condor.There is a general air of hokum about proceedings but it is largely enjoyable hokum, enlivened by an appealing funk soundrack.

But the film has one terrible Achilles heel: its super-dodgo sexual politics, made all the worse for the film thinking of itself as kind of right on. The Condor is dating one of his lady colleagues but this is pure woman-in-refrigerator stuff, there for him to get all emo about it but to then forget about later when he finds himself face-to-face with her killer. Also in order to lie low for a while he kidnaps a woman (played by Faye Dunaway) at gunpoint and hides out at her place; naturally she falls for him and the soundtrack goes all saxophone for obligatory sex scene. Before that the dialogue between them is antediluvian, with one exchange occurring when she accuses him of roughing her up. “Rough you up?” says the Condor, “hey it’s not like I raped you” to which she replies “The night is yet young”, whereupon he ties her up and gags her while he nips off to do some important spy stuff. All this was annoying because Dunaway is nevertheless brilliant in this film; I wish she had a script worthy of her talents. Still, maybe all films were like that back then. Maybe the problem with New Hollywood was that it was actually New Blokey Hollywood.

And on that bombshell I must end my discussion of 1970s paranoia films. I think the best ones were The Day of the Jackal and Z, but they all had something to recommend them, even cheesy old Parallax View.

PARANOIA RATING: 7

image source (Guardian: Robert Redford’s greatest screen roles – ranked!)

Trust No One: “The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum” (1975)

The next film I saw in the IFI’s paranoia season was this German film, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, which dealt with the paranoia in that country arising from the terrorist campaign of the Red Army Faction and related groups. The eponymous Ms Blum meets a guy at a party, they fall for each other, she brings him home… and you can guess the rest (you’ll have to just imagine it, as the film does not treat viewers to a titillating shagfest). But then the following morning a load of heavily armed cops burst into her apartment demanding to know where the guy is, who it turns out is apparently some kind of dangerous radical, with the cops now suspecting that Blum is also in league with these ne’er-do-wells. She is subjected to somewhat intense interrogation while the chief cop enlists the aid of a sleazy journalist from fictional newspaper The Paper (in German Die Zeitung, clearly an analogue of tabloid shitesheet Bild) to poke around in her past and dredge up some dirt. While the film starts off as being about the scary cops, the sleazy journalist and the evils of the gutter press become the main antagonists. The sleazy journalist (played by Dieter Laser, who more recently appeared in The Human Centipede) is actually such a great villain with his mullety hairstyle and preening self-regard that it is a pity that he was not the starring character in a comedy; even as is he provides some great chortlesome moments, like when he breaks off from phoning in a story to shout at some departing ladies to wait for him. Angela Winkler is also great as Blum, showing her unravelling as she is battered by events beyond her control or even imagining. That she looks like an escapee from Belle & Sebastian did not hamper my enjoyment.

One final thing I should mention about the film is that it is set over Carnival, when the normally staid burgers of Cologne dress up in funny clothes and charge around the streets boozing and dancing raucously (with the season also providing a degree of licence for acts that would normally be considered sexual harassment). That sense of the normal rules of society temporarily breaking down plays well against Blum’s disorientation at the strange turn her life has taken. The film has its moments of odd humour, like Blum’s initial non-plussed reaction to armed cops storming her flat suggesting that this was not a particularly outlandish occurrence in 1970s Germany. There is also a funny scene where Blum’s employers and their friends are complaining about being dragged through the mud in The Paper only for one to cheerfully say “Well they’re not saying anything bad about me, but then I am a former Nazi!”.

It shows my instinctive bourgeois conformity that as I was watching the film I initially thought it ridiculously far-fetched – the very idea that the cops would form a false opinion about an innocent person and then subject them to aggressive interrogation! Then I remembered the likes of the Birmingham 6 and the Guildford 4 in the UK, or indeed the darkly farcical case of Nicky Kelly and Osgur Breatnach here in Ireland, and thought that maybe Ms Blum got off pretty lightly with the cops. She does not do so well with the journalist and the film is ultimately far more about the malign power of the gutter press than about abuse of power by the state’s agents. It felt a bit domestic compared to the big picture stories of the other films in the season but I think would still be enjoyed by those interested in film depictions of a troubled time in German history.

PARANOIA RATING: [REDACTED]

image source (Wikipedia)

Trust No One: “State of Siege” (1972)

The fourth offering in the IFI’s paranoia season was another Costa-Gavras film, this time set in Uruguay during the urban guerrilla campaign of the Tupamaros. Like Z and Missing (another great film from Costa-Gavras and one whose throbbing Vangelis soundtrack should be of interest to all readers) it is based on real events, specifically the kidnapping of a US advisor to the local security forces. The film follows the state actors as they try to locate and rescue the American (played by Yves Montand) while at the same time his role in promoting the use of torture and massive human rights violations is revealed; the film is based on the 1970 abduction and murder of CIA agent Dan Mitrone.

There is a lot to like about the film, notably its stunning visual sense (the opening scene of a massive security operation on a busy highway is a feast for the eyes) and its wry humour, but for me it was a bit weak politically and that let it down. In a film like The Battle of Algiers, the guerrillas are shown as active parties to the conflict, committing various unsavoury acts. In State of Siege the Tupamaros do not seem to do very much at all: apart from kidnapping the American and a couple of other people, they seem curiously inactive and not even remotely like the kind of insurgency that would inspire the kind of massive state response the film shows. They seem like a kind of comedy urban guerrilla outfit, going to massive efforts so that they can then just sit around and chat about Marxist philosophy. I also found myself that the 2003 film Good Morning, Night, which deals with the kidnapping of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, is a far better though v different film about an urban guerrilla kidnapping. Nevertheless the film is worthy of the attention of all true cinephiles.

PARANOIA RATING: 6

image source (Wikipedia)

Trust No One: “The Parallax View” (1974)

This third film in the IFI’s paranoia season is itself the middle film in director Alan J. Pakula’s own trilogy of paranoid films. It deals fictionally with the mysterious political assassinations that plagued the USA in 1960s and thereafter. The film begins with the assassination of an up-and-coming politician but picks up speed when reporter Joe Frady (played by Warren Beatty) starts investigating the mysterious and apparently accidental deaths that have struck down witnesses to the killing. A big conspiracy is uncovered etc.

This was my second time seeing this film and I am sticking with my initial verdict that it is not that great. While it has some great scenes and sequences it does not really hang together and the plot makes very little sense. A big problem is the conspiracy itself, which proves ridiculously easy for the reporter to uncover. Also the conspiracy’s overkill with regard to witnesses of its assassinations is also a bit ridiculous, given that three years after a murder that everyone thinks is the work of a lone nutter the conspirators are still arranging fatal accidents for the witnesses, hardly something that would not arouse suspicion. For me the other problem with the film is Beatty’s blow-dried cheesiness; the 1970s were a crazy time but what seemed convincing then is a bit laughable now. Yet as noted the film has some great sequences, notably all the assassinations, or the ones with commission chairmen intoning that after much investigation they have found no evidence of a conspiracy, or the bit with the dam, or the psychological test, and so on. It remains an interesting film of its time but not I think it is deserving of the classic reputation it has in certain quarters.

My own experiences with this film were somewhat unusual. I thought I was going to be meeting a contact (the notorious Mr. B—) in the cinema, but he never showed up. That’s when I realised that I was being played for a patsy, like so many of the film’s characters. Unlike them I was determined not to let them, however they are, use me for their sinister purposes. I left the cinema to walk home by an unusual route but even so I could not help but notice a man in a red hoodie top who seemed always to be coming round the corner behind me. I only escaped him by suddenly changing direction to jump aboard a Luas that was just leaving. I think I have escaped, for now at least.

PARANOIA RATING: 6

image source (Wikipedia)

Trust No One: “The Day of the Jackal” (1973)

This was the second of the Irish Film Institute’s 2018 season of paranoid political thrillers from the 1970s. Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s novel, this Fred Zinnemann begins with a voice-over exposition that that I could not but feel would have been better done as scrolling text, Star Wars style. The time is the early 1960s and Charles de Gaulle is president of France, but the bad French people want to bump him off because they are sad about him retreating from Algeria. Their own assassination attempts fail, so they hire the British contract killer known only as The Jackal to do the job for them. Edward Fox plays the killer with an air of unflappable suaveness that turns into a steely relentlessness as he moves towards his target.

As he sets off on his mission the French authorities learn of the plot (by brutally torturing one of the bad French people (played by the Jean Martin, who previously played the paratroop colonel in The Battle of Algiers, so he might just be the same character). The Jackal is then on his own against the full panoply of the 1960s surveillance state. For all that he is an amoral killer, he to an extent takes the role of protagonist, the individual battling against the power of the system. And the state’s power to see all is pretty terrifying, for all that this is still an analogue age where large numbers of men have to be deployed to trawl through index cards and hotel registers in the hope of finding their target.

The most remarkable thing about the film is how much tension it manages to wring out of a situation we know has to end with de Gaulle not being shot (though I suppose for younger viewers this might not be quite so foregone a conclusion). The tension more comes from how the Jackal will be stopped and what will end up happening to him. The film is also fascinating in how gripping it manages to be despite being almost devoid of sympathetic characters. The French authorities are a series of men in suits and uniforms sitting in rooms, barely individualised (the dogged police-chief, the one shagging the enemy agent, and er… that’s about it), while the Jackal is almost a cipher, his identity masked by the personas he adopts to advance his mission. That said, there are two scenes where for me a sense of the Jackal having an inner life is communicated: one is where, after realising that the authorities are looking for him, he stops his car at a signpost with arrows for Paris and the Italian border, pondering whether or not to abort the mission, and then decides to speed off towards the French capital; the other is the look of genuine regret that crosses his face on one of the occasions when he has to murder someone to advance his mission.

And the film is not without its moments of humour. Particularly striking was the scene where an army of blond men are being given the third degree at a French border crossing, where his hair colour is pretty much the only thing known about the Jackal. Likewise the government official sheepishly leaving the room when his lover is revealed as an enemy spy.

Overall this remains a taut drama showing the clash between the unstoppable power of The Jackal and the irresistible power of the French security state.

PARANOIA RATING: 10

image source (Le Cri du Troll: Le Chacal – un tueur froidement glacial)

Trust No One: “Z” (1969)

Back in the now distant past (i.e. 2018) the Irish Film Institute had a season of paranoid political thrillers from the long 1970s. I went to most of them, skipping a few to throw any observers from the Deep State off my tracks. Now I am finally sharing my thoughts on them. First up was Z, the Costa-Gavras classic based on real events in his native Greece, though without ever referring to that country by name (and certainly not filmed there). In an unnamed city, that is I think meant to be Thessaloniki, a left-wing politician (played by Yves Montand) arrives to address supporters, but then is fatally wounded by right-wing thugs operating with police support. An investigating magistrate (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) arrives to look into the case. Instead of covering things up, he begins to reveal the dark webs of conspiracy (helped by the conspirators and their agents being a bunch of clowns).

For all that the film deals with dark themes (political violence and the subversion of democracy) it is surprisingly funny. Much of the roffles come from the puffed up self-importance of the police and army leaders but there are also some great scenes with lower ranking characters, like a key witness who is relishing his moment of prominence and the thug (not university material) who blabs all about his membership of a covert far-right movement after the magistrate suggests he might be a communist. There is a also a chortlesome sequence in which a succession of indicted police chiefs and generals try to leave a building via a broom cupboard. Even the downbeat ending (the military seize power (/spoiler), sack the magistrate and kill or exile all the leftwing politicians) is delivered as a bit of joke. The film ends with text listing everything the military regime bans in its attempt to prevent the progressive rot from spreading through society: popular music, avant-garde literature, modern mathematics, philosophy, ancient Greek playwrights, and the letter Z, which in Greek means “He lives”.

PARANOIA RATING: 9

image source (Kino Klassika)