The Irishman (2019)

Despite it earning an ecstatic reception that wasn’t afforded to similar late-career, swing-for-the-fences experiments like Silence or Hugo, I struggled to get excited for Martin Scorsese’s latest picture. Somewhere between the film’s 3.5-hour runtime and my disappointment in seeing my ancient Unkie Marty fall back on his tried & true Gangster Epic template, I couldn’t help but meet the prospect of watching The Irishman with an exhausted shrug. I doubt I ever would have caught up with the film at all if it weren’t for its prominence in the current Oscars Discourse, as I’ve been outright bored by Scorsese’s most recent mobster-violence retreads The Departed & The Wolf of Wall Street in the past. Even as someone who’d count GoodFellas among his favorite films of all time, I struggle to see the need to return to this thematic territory yet again, especially from a filmmaker who has so many other kinds of stories to tell (and, sadly, so little time left to tell them). It turns out that I was both a little right and a little wrong in my skepticism. The Irishman finds plenty more to say about the corruption & violence of organized crime that Scorsese has not addressed in previous efforts. Unfortunately, it allows that new material to be drowned out by an overwhelming flood of the same-old-same-old.

Scorsese mascot Robert De Niro stars as a low-level mafia hitman who becomes the unlikely, trusted bodyguard of infamous union organizer Jimmy Hoffa – played by the explosively charismatic Al Pacino. Pacino remains a hoot throughout the picture, which almost forgives the endless hours that monotonously detail the behind-the-scenes corruption & violence on the union-mafia border. Classic Scorsese collaborators like Joe Pesci & Harvey Keitel are flanked by giddy-to-be-there “youngsters” like Ray Romano & Bobby Cannavale in a GooderFellers redux that serves mostly as a history lesson to a new generation about why Hoffa was important in his time and how his flagrant corruption forever altered public opinion on labor unions in America. Each cast member holds their own in this decades-spanning epic, despite a distracting, much-written-about “de-aging” effect that lands the film near the realm of the “theme park” superhero movies Scorsese has been having fun flippantly dismissing in the press. It’s just that they’re instructed to joylessly go through the motions of reliving Marty’s past Mean Streets/GoodFellas/Casino triumphs, deliberately stripping the onscreen power & violence of any potential misinterpreted cool. No matter how many times Scorsese’s past pictures have been willfully misinterpreted as dorm-poster posturing for Badass Antiheroes, they’ve always had that same grim, hyper-critical eye for this realm of hyperviolent bullies. Those movies were just never this dull or exhausting. Scorsese is essentially repenting here for the sin of being entertaining.

In theory, I appreciate the idea of Scorsese self-examining what a life spent submerged in all this violence is meant to accomplish. In its best moments, The Irishman is exactly that – featuring an ancient De Niro, retired from his Murderer for Hire days, unable to find meaning in the remaining scraps of his life. He self-justifies his “youthful” crimes as a soldier who was just following orders, one with a duty to “protect” his family by remaining well-employed. After three grueling hours of matter-of-fact violence & corruption, the movie finally finds him discovering just how empty all that dutiful brutality truly was. Faced with the idleness of obsoletion & an inability to mend familial bonds that were never really there to begin with (especially with a silently disgusted adult daughter played by an expertly icy Anna Paquin), he actually considers what he’s done with his life for the first time, and is haunted by what he finds. That’s the core of the movie! That’s new, fresh territory worth dwelling on & exploring at length in miserable sequences of domestic drama. Unfortunately, these scenes that get at what the movie is About are only a small blip in a grander picture, a flood of familiar faces & imagery from Scorsese’s past work. I could have fallen in love with The Irishman if it started with that final half-hour and really dug into the themes that distinguish it as a unique work in Scorsese’s catalog. As is, they’re treated more as dashes of seasoning rather than a proper meal.

Ultimately, The Irishman is Fine. It’s also easy to complain about and not entirely worth the effort, so in that sense I suppose it’s a perfect Oscar Movie. Part of me wishes that Scorsese had gotten all these accolades for something more demanding & daring like Silence instead, but I can’t begrudge one of our greatest living cinephiles getting recognized for his contributions to the artform – no matter the context. The only real hurdle here for most audiences is going to be its massive runtime, as everything else goes down relatively smooth (including the confounding “de-aging” tech, thanks to the growing ubiquity of CGI fuckery on the big screen). I’ve got my own personal reservations about the choice in subject matter & thematic emphasis, but no real fervor for shouting them at what appears to be an otherwise appreciative crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

Low Level Crime and New York City Grime in Mean Streets (1973) & Mikey and Nicky (1976)

In our initial conversation about May’s Movie of the Month, the 1976 Elaine May mafia pic Mikey and Nicky, Alli wrote about how the modern organized crime picture as a genre typically is associated with large ensemble casts, gigantic budgets, and sweeping themes about the Italian immigrant experience in modern America. That does ring especially true if you think of Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, one of my all-time favorite films, as typifiers of the genre, as you likely should. Mikey and Nicky has much smaller concerns than either of those grand, ambitious works. Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the mafia’s rise and fall in America, from poverty to opulence to back again, May’s film focuses on the small players who are but individual pixels in that much larger picture. The titular characters of her film, played by John Cassavetes & Peter Falk, are low level nobodies, merely necessary annoyances to their mob bosses, who treat them with open contempt. Staged over the course of a single night, the film’s minor drama reaches its lowest point when the two characters, despite essentially being each other’s only friends in the world, fight over a broken wrist watch in the dimly lit, visibly disgusting streets of pre-Giuliani NYC. There’s nothing grand or glamorous about the organized crime players in May’s film. They’re the lowlifes who’re left to fight over their mob bosses’ crumbs. That sentiment wasn’t entirely absent from Scorsese’s mafia pictures, however, even if his work in Goodfellas later represented Mikey and Nicky‘s aesthetic opposite. Three years before May’s film made it out of editing room post-production Hell, Scorsese had delivered a spiritually similar gangster film, one with common themes about small players fighting over pittances and with a common New York City grime.

I often dismiss Mean Streets as a kind of trial run for what Scorsese would later achieve in Goodfellas, but there’s a distinctly punk, lowkey charm to the film that makes it a rewarding watch in its own right. Harvey Keitel stars as a low level numbers runner who struggles with then-risque topics like interracial romantic desire & atheistic religious doubt. What really creates conflict for him as a low level mafia type, however, is the idiotic proto-punk antics of a life long friend, played by Robert De Niro. Living fast & loud, De Niro’s Falstaffian foil leaves a trail of financial debts & bruised egos wherever he goes, a mess Keitel’s troubled anti-hero often finds himself having to clean up. The dynamic of Mikey and Nicky is more or less the same, with its titular, brotherly lowlife criminals finding themselves at odds because one of them brings hateful scrutiny through his bratty, bridge-burning hedonism. With minuscule budgets & then-unproven directors, both films never had much of a chance to touch the more grandiose mafia stories of The Godfather or Goodfellas. The keep their scopes as small as possible, building tension in the betrayals and petty disagreements between their individual sets of low level criminal fiends. There’s something inherently tragic & pathetic about watching these crime world nobodies butt heads over minuscule debts & mafia etiquette while the higher-ups profit off their violence offscreen. By keeping their stories small & highly specific, both films do a great job in their own way of exposing a larger truth about the world of organized crime, if only by inference. Mikey and Nicky keeps things especially focused & streamlined, playing almost like a two-man stage play for long stretches, but Mean Streets is similarly dedicated to profiling the minor tragedies of low level criminals.

Besides their shared indulgence in minor crime world tragedy, Mean Streets & Mikey and Nicky are also both great snapshots of New York City grime. Scorsese’s reputation as a master of capturing 70s NYC in all of its sleazy glory might be more closely associated with Taxi Driver, which is a film more or less about the subject, but Mean Streets feels almost more authentic for using 70s NYC as a backdrop & a playground instead or a focal point. Keitel & De Niro’s crime-ridden tour of the Old New York is a great atmospheric measurement of the underbelly sleaze and working class angst that would soon lead to the city’s punk rock boom in just a few trips around the Sun. Mikey and Nicky feels even more authentic in its grimy New York City tourism, since it pulls an all-nighter, tearing through NYC street lights past an endless parade of barroom cretins, urban graveyards, and seedy late night cinemas. The New York City portrait captured by these two films a duo is of a city that’s long gone, cleaned up & policed into oblivion. Both films almost function as historical documents in this way, but more importantly, their shared New York City grime is an essential element in their bottom of the barrel crime world tragedies. Scorsese & May’s directorial styles were noticeably disparate in pulling off their minor New York City crime stories, with Mean Streets reaching for the pop music sleekness later perfected in Goodfellas & Mikey and Nicky luxuriating in the rough exploitation film looseness off handheld cameras & improvised dialogue. Together, though, they represent a small scale version of what we’re used to seeing in our mafia media, with more individualized stakes and a decisively punk rock attitude. I believe May made the better film in this pairing, but both entries are worthwhile for very similar reasons.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, Elaine May’s small scale mafia drama Mickey and Nicky, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Corrupt Lieutenant (1984)

I have a bad habit of occasionally purchasing second-hand DVDs solely for their shoddy cover art. I don’t think I’ve ever topped myself in this trivial pursuit since the day I purchased a bootleg copy of some forgotten cop thriller titled Corrupt Lieutenant. The cover for my obviously unofficial copy of Corrupt Lieutenant is a master work of outsider art & visual anti-comedy. Falling somewhere between rudimentary Photoshop collage & a nightmare swirl of stock photography, it’s the exact kind of utter garbage my terrible raccoon brain can’t help but hoard away at home instead of just letting it rot at Goodwill. Unfortunately, that means these movies sometimes collect dust, unwatched for years until I force myself to follow through on actually giving them a chance. As it turns out, Corrupt Lieutenant not only has some of the best-worst artwork I’ve ever found on one of these ill-advised excursions to the thrift store; it also stands as one of the few select examples I can think of where it turns out the movie itself was actually worth the gamble. As far as cop thrillers go, it’s not exactly mind-blowing, but considering the state of its cover art it’s a miraculously competent picture.

It’s worth noting upfront that my unsanctioned copy of Corrupt Lieutenant isn’t even titled correctly. Although it’s been released under the alternate titles The Order of Death, Corrupt, and Bad Cop Chronicles #2: Corrupt, this Italian crime thriller was originally distributed under the name Copkiller, which is by far its most apt moniker. Since the distributors of the film allowed its copyright designation to slip into public domain status, however, it’s been repackaged several times over in disparate stabs by a wide range of enterprising folks trying to make a buck. This is how Copkiller was retitled Corrupt Lieutenant in the early 90s after its star antihero, Harvey Keitel, was featured in the infamous Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. The two films don’t really have all that much to do with each other outside of Keitel’s starring role in both. The Ferrara picture plays like an especially deranged version of a Scorsese crisis of faith exploration, while its Italian predecessor is more of a sleazy, giallo-esque knockoff of the crooked cop genre Friedkin ignited with The French Connection. Performances from Harvey Keitel and a typically acting-shy Johnny Rotten combine with a score from omnipresent Italian composer Ennio Morricone to afford the film an air of legitimacy, but its shitty public domain transfers, off-kilter Italian dubbing, and sleaze > substance ethos are all constant reminders of its true place in the world as a forgotten work of mediocre genius.

A killer dressed in a police uniform and ski mask is terrorizing the cops of New York City by murdering them one by one, seemingly at random. A young John Lydon plays a spoiled brat punk who confesses to these crimes to Harvey Keitel’s grizzled lieutenant. Keitel’s either believes the confession or is angered enough by its flippancy to falsely imprison Lydon in his own apartment, since the rest of the force is treating him like a liar and a prankster. After a period of keeping the smirking punk tied up & torturing him for a more detailed confession (he feeds him out of a dog food bowl, shoves his head in an oven & cranks the gas, etc.), Keitel’s forces his prisoner at gunpoint to actually slit a cop’s throat, an ill-considered plan that backfires in a wide variety of ways. While figuring out what to do about that cop’s death, Keitel’s finds himself seducing the widow of the man they killed and Lydon moves into his former captor & newfound accomplice’s apartment on his own free will, nagging him as a kind of spiritually corrupt conscience. The film takes on a tense, slowly ratcheted form of psychological torment from there as the weight of the crime the two committed together and the true identity of the (would-be titular) cop killer eventually driving the whole thing home for an inevitably tragic conclusion.

Corrupt Lieutenant is most notable for the authenticity of its violence & grime. Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten, is reported to have provided his own wardrobe for the picture, which shows in his convincingly ratty, 80s punk appearance. When Keitel’s corrupt lieutenant goes on a bender and starts bonding with the gross little bugger in the most unlikely of unions, the grotesqueness of their collective downfall looks & feels legitimate, an effect that’s only amplified by the VHS-quality imagery of a shitty bootleg DVD transfer. Similarly, Keitel’s physical violence laid upon Rotten’s scrawny shoulders is a convincing kind of rough-housing and it’s occasionally tempting to worry about the little shit’s physical wellbeing. Instead of reading the punk’s rights, Keitel’s more prone to shout, “Shut the fuck up!” and thrash him around the interrogation room. I’m not convinced the film has anything more to say beyond a Cops Can Be Violent Criminals Too cliché, but the way Rotten worms that idea into Keitel’s head in the back half and the way Beetlejuice/Mars Attack actress Silvia Sidney posits that, “The police create disorder, not order. They inspire us to commit crimes so that we can be punished for them,” makes the idea interesting and more than a little bit slimy. There’s even a hint that Rotten’s confessed cop killer gets a sexual satisfaction out of having Keitel’s slap him around, which is then backed up by the S&M collages plastered on his bedroom walls.

I’m not exactly sure what I expected out of Corrupt Lieutenant/Copkiller/The Order of Death/Corrupt when I popped it in the DVD player, but the sleazy Italian cop thriller I got was a surprisingly entertaining watch. That could maybe be chalked up to the low expectations set by its laughably bad cover art, but I think anyone with a little appreciation for giallo or the post-Friedkin crooked cop thrillers of the 70s & 80s would be able to get on board with it as a minor entertainment. Funnily enough, just about the only scenario in which I wouldn’t recommend the film is if someone were specifically looking for a work similar to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Corrupt Lieutenant has even less to do with that work than Herzog’s “spiritual sequel,” which was mostly about, I don’t know, iguanas & Nic Cage freakouts. Much like the cover art for my DVD copy of the film, that little bit of revisionist rebranding was amusingly brash & ill-considered.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 12: Mean Streets (1973)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Mean Streets (1973) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 73 of the first edition hardback, Ebert likens losing his Catholic faith to the internal struggle of Harvey Keitel’s character in the film. He writes, “When I saw Harvey Keitel placing his hand in the flame in Mean Streets, I identified with him. The difference between us was that long before I reached the age of Charlie in the film, I had lost my faith. It didn’t make sense to me any longer. There was no crisis of conscience. It simply all fell away.” He also mentions on page 276 that Scorsese, who he affectionately refers to as “Marty”, sent him early screenplays that would eventually blossom into Mean Streets and that critic Pauline Kael was another major supporter of the film.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ isn’t so much a gangster movie as a perceptive, sympathetic, finally tragic story about how it is to grow up in a gangster environment. Its characters (like Scorsese himself) have grown up in New York’s Little Italy, and they understand everything about that small slice of human society except how to survive in it.” – from his 1973 review for the Chicago Sun Times

“Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ is not primarily about punk gangsters at all, but about living in a state of sin. For Catholics raised before Vatican II, it has a resonance that it may lack for other audiences. The film recalls days when there was a greater emphasis on sin–and rigid ground rules, inspiring dread of eternal suffering if a sinner died without absolution.” -from his 2003 review for his Great Movies series

I’m going to get this disclosure out of the way early: Goodfellas is probably my favorite movie. At the very least it shares the top spot with Boogie Nights, which is a film that was heavily influenced by Goodfellas. I know this is a sort of bland, generic selection for personal favorite film that doesn’t shed much light on my cinematic tastes (Would it help if I also made it clear that John Waters is my favorite director?), but that doesn’t make it any less true. Goodfellas is a fun, gorgeous, devastating work of pop cinema that pulls off my favorite formula in the art of filmmaking: combining highbrow finery with lowbrow trash. It constructs one of the most perfectly balanced & lush cinematic journeys I’m likely to ever see before I die. I cannot say enough good things about it, so I should probably just cut myself off now before the gushing becomes unbearable.

It took a long time for Scorsese, or Uncle Marty if you will, to perfect his Italian-American crime life aesthetic for what would eventually be, by my measurement, his magnum opus. Indeed, a lot of his highly-lauded work came before Goodfellas‘s release:Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ. Even before these hallmarks in the director’s career, however, he had given Goodfellas something of a dry run in his early work Mean Streets. Scorsese’s third feature film is impossible to discuss in without mentioning the shadow of Goodfellas that looms over it. Praising the film’s innovation or artistic specificity now would feel like exalting the brilliance of the match after the invention of the blowtorch or the flamethrower or the nuclear bomb. Mean Streets is a germ of an idea that Uncle Marty would later hatch & perfect. As someone who wasn’t around to catch the original version of Goodfellas in isolation, it’s difficult for me to judge it too fairly or afford it much patience. For so much of Mean Streets‘s runtime I find myself wishing I were watching its superior incarnation instead.

As much as I’m downplaying Mean Streets here as Goodfellas‘s older loser brother who still sleeps on Mom’s couch “between jobs”, the two films are actually quite different plot-wise. Goodfellas depicts an organized crime ring of Italian-Americans who are on top of the world in their villainy (for a time). Mean Streets follows the same ethnic group through the same streets of NYC, except it depicts them at the bottom of the food chain. Harvey Keitel navigates the ratty New York City of the early 1970s (hard drugs, gang activity, and all) as a low level numbers-runner going through a personal, spiritual crisis. His inner monologues about losing his religious faith & struggling with the then-taboo of interracial lust have lost a lot of potency in a modern context. Most of what makes his conflict worthwhile to the audience as entertainment is in his Achilles heel of affection for a baby-faced Robert DeNiro, who plays the unconscionable brat bastard Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy is essentially an Italian-American version of Johnny Rotten, forecasting the punk rocker stereotype long before the “mean streets” of NYC gave it a name. It’s this loudmouthed, shit-stirring catalyst that gets Keitel’s protagonist mixed up in a level of do-or-die mob violence that’s way over his head and drives the film to the inevitable bloodbath catharsis that would eventually serve as a Scorsese calling card.

Mean Streets is mostly charming if you think of it as a punk rock version of Goodfellas. Its risks, successes, and failures work on a much smaller scale than its descendant’s eventual pinnacle, but there’s something inherently cool about its absence of pressure to deliver big time thrills & awe at every turn. The film was born of the same New Hollywood adrenaline rush that brought on new kinds of crime films like The French Connection and Bonnie & Clyde and although it didn’t quite match the artistry of those works, it’s easy to see how its influence could’ve reached far beyond Goodfellas. The film was made even before Coppola’s The Godfather, for instance, so this version of the modern gangster genre was truly embryonic at best. However, it’s difficult to discuss Mean Streets as a seminal work without obsessively narrowing in on the Scorsese films to follow (as you can likely tell). Almost all of the film’s pop music, pan shots, street brawls, and home video charm is repeated in Goodfellas to the point where the only scene that stands out as distinctly its own is one where two rival crews fight over someone being called a “mook”, despite no one involved knowing exactly what that means. It’s a great moment, but I’m willing to bet it would’ve played even better in Goodfellas. (And, yes, even I’m tired of hearing me say that.)

Ebert loved Scorsese as a filmmaker & as a friend. He supported the director’s career since his debut film Guess Who’s Knocking? and did his best to make his name the modern behemoth that it is. Scorsese even sent Ebert an early copy of the screenplay for Mean Streets before the film went into production. I’m not saying that the reason why Ebert gave the film such a glowing review was that he had established a personal relationship with the director. I just think that their personal connection may have put the critic more in tune with what Uncle Marty was trying to do & say in his work. When Ebert watched Mean Streets he saw an ambitious film about the loss of Catholic faith that had shaped his own life in his youth and all other sorts of early 70s spiritual crises that wouldn’t affect me as much in a modern context (despite ditching my own Catholic faith as a youth), the jaded brat that I am. When I look at Mean Streets, all I see is a misshapen embryo of a better film to follow. Maybe when I get to Ebert’s chapter of Life Itself on Scorsese I’ll even get to review that masterpiece properly instead of cramming my thoughts on it into a different film’s territory.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: 2001 – A Space Oddyssey (1968)

-Brandon Ledet

 

 

Due occhi diabolici (aka Two Evil Eyes, 1990)

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Following Opera, Dario Argento set to work drumming up enthusiasm from his peers for a collaborative horror anthology film based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe, despite that genre having already gone fairly quietly into the night after peaking with 1982’s Creepshow. By 1989, the only two directors still involved with the project, Argento and George A. Romero, each directed a roughly hour-long horror short, with both episodes released under the banner film title Due occhi diabolici, or Two Evil Eyes.

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

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Initially, Romero conceived of his segment as an adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death,” reimagining it as a parable about AIDS and updating the setting to a luxurious high rise. Argento argued that this would be inconsistent with his vision of the film. With Argento’s segment capitalizing on many of Poe’s most famous pieces, Romero was forced to choose from the writer’s lesser known works, finally settling on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

The 55-minute segment opens as Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau) makes her way to the office of Steven Pike (E.G. Marshall), the lawyer of her dying husband, Ernest (Bingo O’Malley). Jessica was once a flight attendant whom the much-older Ernest brought home after a trip, and she’s ready to get her literal and metaphorical payment for acting as his escort and trophy all these years. Pike’s suspicious protests about Ernest’s deathbed money reshuffling are overturned when he speaks with the man himself over the phone. He is, of course, unaware that Ernest is doing so under hypnosis, perpetrated by his physician, Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), who was Jessica’s lover many years before. Jessica and Hoffman must keep Ernest alive in order to make sure that Jessica inherits everything, but he succumbs to his disease while hypnotized. Although his body is dead, his mind is trapped between worlds, and he begins to bemoan that wherever he is, there are “Others” there who want to use his body as a gateway into the world of the living; he begs to be released from his hypnosis and embrace death.

This segment is not without its merits. Barbeau’s appearance here further connects this film to Creepshow, although this segment (and the next) lacks the dark comedy that made that anthology so memorable. When the Others finally track down Hoffman after he escapes, their spectral appearance and creepy, featureless humanoid forms are legitimately scary; film legend Tom Savini’s makeup on both the undead Ernest and the rotting corpse of Hoffman is the work of a craftsman at the top of his game. The problem is that the story feels somehow like a very small story. Watching it, you get the sense that you aren’t watching the first half of a movie as much as you’re viewing a vaguely familiar episode of Night Gallery. The mediocre “Valdemar” takes place almost entirely within a single location, but instead of inspiring feelings of claustrophobia or entrapment, it contributes to the overall perception that it was produced on a budget more suited for television than a theatrical release. If you happen to catch it on television, give it a watch; that’s where it belongs.

“The Black Cat”

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Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes was much more compelling, although it too suffers in comparison to the source material. Its other primary weakness is in the seemingly odd choices Argento makes about what to spend time on given the segment’s 63ish minute run time. Primarily based upon (and sharing its name with) Poe’s “The Black Cat,” Argento’s segment of the film also incorporates elements from various other Poe stories, well-known and otherwise, as the director paid homage to one of his favorite writers.

Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a photographer with a morbid streak; his amicable relationship with Detective LeGrand (John Amos) gets him into plenty of crime scenes, where he captures intimate images of the grotesquery that humans can visit upon one another. His live-in girlfriend of four years, Annabel (Madeleine Potter), is a contrasting spirit: a sensitive, meditating concert violinist who gives lessons to teenagers. Annabel adopts a stray black cat with a white spot on her chest, and Roderick takes an instant disliking to the animal. Under pressure from his editor to shoot some material with the same tone as his crime photos but a different subject matter, Usher waits until Annabel takes a couple of her students (Holter Graham and adorable widdle 17-year-old Julie Benz in her first film role) to the opera and then tortures and strangles her poor cat, photographing the whole thing.

Annabel becomes distraught and is correctly suspicious that something horrible has befallen her pet and that she did not run away, as Usher insists. He grows increasingly irritated by Annabel’s grief and, after an afternoon of drinking, he slaps her; he then falls asleep and has vivid dream about a medieval witch who looks like Annabel. She cryptically says that his fate is written in the cat’s white spot before he is brutally executed and starts awake. Annabel discovers Usher’s newest book, Metropolitan Horrors, and realizes that her earlier suspicions were true. Meanwhile, Usher is haunted by the sudden appearance of an identical cat, which he takes back to his home and attempts to kill again, but not before noticing that the cat’s white spot is in the shape of a gallows. He is interrupted by Annabel, and the true horror begins.

Although the plot structure is mostly based upon “The Black Cat,” Argento’s interpretation is also a pastiche of Poe’s other works. When we first meet Usher, who is named for the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he is attending a crime scene where a woman was murdered via a descending blade, just as in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Later, he takes photos of a woman whose body was dug up by her cousin (an uncredited Tom Savini) so that he could remove her teeth, as in “Berenice.” The inspiration for Annabel’s name is obvious, while the couple’s elderly neighbors (Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter) have the surname Pym in honor of the main character of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel; yet another character takes her name from the title character of “Eleonora.” There are probably even more that I missed, and, as a love letter to Poe, the number of references packed into this relatively brief outing show how much Argento deeply cares about Poe’s work.

The primary issue here is that the truncated running time of the piece works both for and against it. Argento is, for the most part, forced to keep the focus tight and thus is allowed no weird and unnecessary digressions from the plot. On the other hand, Roderick’s downslide from safety-negligent pranking to drunken domestic abuse to coldly calculated murder cover-up occurs too quickly to incur the kind of gravitas that Argento is presumably hoping to invoke, which makes Usher’s indulgently overlong medieval dream sequence seem even more out-of-place upon reflection. I suppose he could have been banking on Keitel’s general “perpetually on the verge of losing it” aura, but Usher consequently seems like a horrible person from the beginning, so it’s hard to elicit the kind of sympathy that was present in the original text. There, the unnamed narrator struggles with his alcoholism, decrying it as something akin to a curse or a hex, which possesses and controls him in a way that he despises but cannot escape. Here, it’s just Harvey Keitel knocking back tequila shots at a bar and one scene in which he becomes enraged and hits Annabel, and then it’s on to full blown murder and sealing corpses up in walls.

Despite being based upon Poe’s narratives, there is Argento to spare here as well. The director’s giallo trademark of a character struggling to cognitively and consciously understand a clue that was passively observed is given a slight twist, in that the clue comes in a dream rather than the waking world. Instead of observing other characters talking and later discern what was said, the main character watches the Pyms and one of Annabel’s students discuss the possibility that he is a murderer, reading their lips in the moment. Still, there’s something quintessentially American about Poe’s work that shines through in this, the oddly culturally cryptic first film Argento made in the states. (I’ve heard conflicting stories about whether or not any part of Inferno was actually filmed stateside, with the primary point of contention being whether or not the scene at Central Park Lake was shot in NYC or Italy; most sources say NYC, but an interview with Inferno‘s SFX director on that film’s DVD seems to suggest otherwise.) The place where this is most notable however, is in the presence of people of color. Argento’s films are usually awash in white faces, even in crowd scenes. Part of that may largely be the result of ethnic homogeneity in the Italy of the era in which Argento was doing his primary work, but this film is a refreshing exception. John Amos’s character is very likable, as is the pastor with whom Annabel is friends. Even many of the extras are black, causing “Cat” to stand out among Argento’s other work. Overall, it’s definitely worth watching, despite its problems with pacing and tempo.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond