Ran SUSPIRIA for some of my students the other week, particularly the cinematography student who wanted to see some interesting colour work. Argento’s film has that in spades — I can’t recall where I heard that the maestro of mutilation used discontinued Technicolor stock, and purposely replicated the colour schemes of Disney’s SNOW WHITE, but it seems to be true. At times, notably during the first double-homicide, Argento’s vivid hues land him in trouble, where the kaleidoscopic shifts in palette make the intercutting a touch confusing — is this a new scene? where are we? is that the same woman?
While Argento’s CAT O NINE TAILS features a sympathetic blind character played by Karl Malden, and must surely form the subject for a future Blind Tuesday column, SUSPIRIA has a minor blind character, a pianist, who is treated pretty shoddily by both the film’s ballet school/coven of witches and by Argento himself. First the poor chap is rudely ejected after an allegation, no doubt unfounded, that his guide dog bit a nasty little kid (Argento never bothers to clear up what really happened, but there’s a clear suggestion of canine provocation). During this scene, where Alida Valli gets to be gloriously nasty and flash her terrifying teeth, the pianist’s jacket and stick are flung on the floor where he has to fumblingly retrieve them. The ballerinas stand around, uncomfortably. That’s no way to treat the Bavarian Stevie Wonder.
This seems to me a pretty good example of Argento’ disinterest in character. It does the film no favours, in any conventional sense, for its heroine to stand passively by during this abuse of a disabled man. Having Jessica Harper step forward and help the guy out would’ve made for a sympathetic moment. As it is, Argento’s camera ignores her (is she even IN the scene? Why not?), dodging the question of how she would react and thus evading character insight.
That night, the pianist is gored to death by his own dog, in a scene which only makes sense if it’s a bit of diabolical influence from the Queen of the Witches. We never find out what happens to the dog, which departs, grinning, just as Harper will at the end.
For much of the movie, I was wondering, since Argento clearly has no interest whatsoever in dialogue per se, why he includes so much of it? It ought to have been reasonably easy to develop SUSPIRIA’s plot with action alone. But there is, occasionally, a weird virtue to his plodding conversations, where all the dialogue is utterly on the nose, as well as being post-dubbed in a variety of accents. It’s like listening to two chatbots talking in space. Sometimes it can actually make you feel high.
Udo Kier’s scene is the best example of this. As he tells Harper how she shouldn’t believe in witches, a wind picks up, ruffling their hair and the tablecloth and the potted plants and the trees in the background. Soon it’s going gale-force, with Harper struggling to act through her whipping coiffeur, to the point where one fears for the crew’s safety, but the soundtrack ignores it completely — there’s not even the mildest whistle of “Antarctic Whiteout” (Fellini’s favourite FX record). The result is simultaneously trippy and hilarious.
To cap it all, Kier then introduces Harper to a white-haired old expert who he claims can confirm everything he’s said. Instead, the geezer starts talking about how witches are real, and have immense powers, but can only do evil. Kier has slunk off, so we don’t get his reaction, but Harper doesn’t find this contradiction strange, which is genuinely dreamlike — I think it might have been even better if Udo had stood there, nodding sagely, as the old fellow rubbished everything he’s just said.
No reference to the discrepancy is ever made — it passes in silence, like the wind.