Way back when I first started working my way through the films directed by Dario Argento, I opened my review of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage with a reference to the early U.S. promotional materials for that film, which banked on the connection between the young Italian director and Alfred Hitchcock. The quotation from Hitchcock cited therein, that he found Argento’s work to be troubling, fascinates me, especially as Argento himself was known at the height of his career as the Italian Hitchcock. As I reach the end of Argento’s C.V., I have to note that this comparison is reductive and does a disservice to both men. Even at their worst, Hitchcock’s stories always made sense, and his reprehensible antihero protagonists were viewed from a distance that was sufficient to allow the audience to have ambivalent feelings about them. For instance, famously, the intent of the scene in which Norman Bates pushes a
car into a bog was designed to elicit an anxious reaction when the vehicle failed to sink, because part of you wants him to succeed. After three and a half decades directing films, Argento was finally able to go full Hitchcock in this tepid made-for-tv picture.
The film opens with an utterly inconsequential sequence in which young Giulio (Elio Germano) is riding his bike in the woods before stumbling upon two women, who make their way to an abandoned shack. He spies on the two through the window as they excitedly slaughter a rooster and dance about in its blood. They discover him peeping and chase him away, screaming after him that they will catch him eventually (they don’t). We then see Giulio in the present day; he’s now a film student working on a thesis about German expressionism, whenever he can tear himself away from peeping on his neighbor, Sasha (Elisabetta Rocchetti), in various states of undress. He also bears witness to Sasha’s frequent altercations with her mother. One day, while visiting his local video rental outlet, he notices Sasha and a blonde woman, Federica (Chiara Conti), both attempting to rent Strangers on a Train. Sasha ultimately rents the movie, but promises to bring it back the very next day so that Federica can have her turn. Giulio befriends the slacker shop owner, Andrea (Ivan Morales). A few nights later, an intruder enters Sasha’s home and kills her mother. Because Giulio had previously seen Federica and Sasha laughing together in the park, he becomes obsessed with the idea that they’ve entered into a murder pact, Strangers on a Train style.
Giulio’s girlfriend Arianna (Cristina Brondo) thinks he’s being absurd, and her mood doesn’t improve when she realizes his evidence gathering technique involves spying on nude women. Giulio begins snooping around Sasha’s apartment while cleaners are there and goes so far as to steal a piece of her mail, which shows how much she stands to inherit from her mother’s death; Sasha realizes Giulio is spying on her. Later, while he is in the shower, an intruder breaks in but is scared off, prompting Giulio to have his locks changed. The next day, he meets up with Andrea, who asks him to mind the shop for a moment; Giulio uses this opportunity to get Federica’s address from the customer database, and to flirt with Sasha when she stops in. Giulio then follows Federica from her home to work one day, where he sees her supervisor behaving inappropriately. He follows the two back to the boss’s apartment, where it is revealed that she stole money from the company and that he is blackmailing her for sexual favors. Before he can force himself upon her, however, he notices Giulio doing what he does best, peeping, and pursues the kid into the street, where he sustains an injury to his foot before absconding on his comical scooter. He’s in full-on Rear Window mode now, with his binoculars and his foot cast, and when evidence starts to mount that he might not be as crazy as was initially suspected, including an attempt on his own life, Arianna joins him in his investigation.
Do You Like Hitchcock? is an unimaginative movie, full of twists that ultimately render the mystery moot and featuring a thoroughly unlikable protagonist. Giulio is a creeping peeping tom, and there’s no way around it; his Harriet the Spy hijinx are not adorable when applied to an adult who only becomes aware of a murder because it interrupts his voyeurism. This is, apparently, the message of the film, given that the final frames are dedicated to reminding the viewer of all the times he spied on people without their knowledge. There’s no denunciation of his activities on the part of the film, and the only person who calls him out on the inappropriateness of this behavior is Arianna, who is presented as an unlikable shrew who lashes out and fails to believe Giulio when he needs her to.
As an Argento product, this is most clearly similar to The Black Cat, except that here the object of emulation is Hitchcock, not Edgar Allan Poe. There are a few reasons why that film worked and this one doesn’t; first and foremost is in the different lengths of the two films. It’s not as if giving Argento a shorter running time will guarantee a great picture (as we’ll see next time), but a lot of Black Cat‘s tautness can be attributed to its abbreviated running time, which ensured the director’s digressions were largely kept to a minimum. Secondly, the characters in the 1990 film were pastiches of ideas and character traits from several different Poe characters, so they felt both familiar and novel, grounded and immortal at the same time; here, it’s impossible not to compare Giulio to both James Stewart’s L. B. Jeffries and Harvey Keitel’s Usher, and where the latter two are consequential, the former is blandly nonpresent, existing only as a cipher through which the plot can happen. And that’s not even getting into the vast difference in acting ability.
There’s also the fact that, in Black Cat, characters couldn’t just walk around saying, “Oh, this killer’s M.O. reminds me of ‘Berenice’,” or “oh, this crime scene is just like ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.” Hitchcock could have gone all the way with this metatextual reframing of the narrative, making this movie like Scream with Hitchcock films in place of slasher flicks. Instead it falls flat, as Giulio says things like “I thought they were doing Strangers on a Train, but they’re doing Dial M for Murder!” Subtlety has never been Argento’s forte, but this movie has virtually no subtext whatsoever, save for one recurring visual that is probably unintentional. There’s a rather large poster for Il cartaio on the video store door, right next to a poster for Hitchcock’s latter day thriller Marnie, which is largely forgotten or reviled these days, with good reason (if you ever wondered what it would look like if James Bond raped Tippi Hedren, Marnie is the movie for you, you sick bastard). Cartaio and Marnie are very dissimilar films, but they both represent a period in each of their respective directors’ careers where the bloom was off the rose, so to speak; their best works already having been completed and canonized as classics, but neither director was ready to go quietly into obscurity.
The connection to Marnie is further underscored by Federica’s similarity to the title character of that film, as both are blackmailed and assaulted by their employers for having stolen funds. Aside from the obvious references to Strangers and Dial M, there are also a few other appearances of elements from Rear Window, some of which are updated for modernism in a way that I actually enjoyed. If you ever wondered how the finale of Rear Window would have been different if Stewart could have just called Grace Kelly on her cell phone, this is the movie that will answer that question for you, for better or worse. The rooftop pursuit has elements of Vertigo in it while also harkening back to a similar chase sequence in Cat o’ Nine Tails, which is a nice touch. Maybe it’s the inherently small nature of television that held this film back, but all in all, it’s one that’s not really worth bothering with. If you want to see Argento try his hand at Hitchcock and succeed, go back and rewatch the opening of Sleepless again; the train-bound chase sequence that centers around the retrieval of mysterious files and papers is very much a spiritual descendant of similar scenes in North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, and packs more of a punch (and more respect for Hitch and his legacy) into 13 minutes than this film does in its entire runtime.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond