Belated Props to Karl Malden

Giallo, that distinctly Italian crime subgenre, has some signature characteristics. There’s usually a ludicrous whodunit plot, some striking visuals, and a groovy soundtrack. Fans like me watch these movies for the flash, since there’s precious little substance. And we’re seldom given anyone to really root for, becauseall the characters, even the heroes, are frequently utter jerks. Dario Argento’s Terror at the Opera (1986) provides a fitting example when a stage manager tells the protagonist, an opera singer, that a stagehand died while she was singing. Apparently, it was “molto strano”. With his very next breath, he tells her to leave her costume in the dressing room for refitting. She hangs her dress on the coat stand, turns back, and asks him to accompany her to the opening night party. Yikes! There’s cold, and then there’s heartless, know what I mean?

"Some guy just died. It's pretty weird. Wanna go to a party?"

To compensate for the insensitive weasels and shrill hellcats that often populate these callous movies, Italian filmmakers will usually include a character that’s so innocent and goody-goody as to nearly induce vomiting. This person, sometimes an ebullient colleague of the main character or some absurdly kind neighbor, inevitably suffers a grisly death at the hands of the killer. This person adds nothing of value—other than a cool death scene. To craft a genuinely sympathetic character in a giallo, the actor has to do all the work, through sheer talent and star power. As it happens, that’s just what veteran character actor Karl Malden did in Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), in which he plays a blind one-time reporter. His Franco “Cookie” Arno has inane dialogue like everyone else around him, but Malden’s acting chops and charisma help him rise above the material. And although his is a small part, it’s one of the better performances in the Argento back catalogue. Leonard Maltin once wrote that he “brings his innate dignity to every role he tackles,” and that quality is certainly on display here. Imagine, dignity in a giallo!

Malden's blind ex-reporter gets the feel of a crypt.

When Malden passed away on July 1st, at the ripe old age of 97, the media was already in a frenzy. Six days earlier, some controversial pop star or other had expired from an accidental drug overdose, and consequently most people were far too busy elsewhere to notice that a Hollywood legend had died. It’s pretty disconcerting that a suspected pederast gets saint-like status upon his death, while a genuinely decent guy and top-notch actor is practically ignored. Watch Cat o’ Nine Tails to see how Malden injects sincere warmth into otherwise trashy, but certainly entertaining, material.

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A Soundtrack to Madness

John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Jerry Goldsmith and Joe Dante. Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. Some composers become almost synonymous with their directors. And the ones mentioned above are/were some pretty imposing twosomes! But only one director is synonymous with a band. As Forrest Gump might have said, Dario Argento and Goblin went together like carrots and peas during the 1970s. Not coincidentally, the decade was a purple patch for both band and horror maestro. Here’s a short montage I found of Goblin in their prime. (Check out Massimo Morante’s guitar on “Roller”—it looks like a doubleneck Gibson, just like Jimmy Page used to play.)

Three things conspired against Goblin ever getting the recognition they deserved—they were Italian, their output was almost entirely instrumental, and they were associated with horror movies. Meritless reservations, obviously, but three strikes against popular opinion and you’re out. Add to that the slight onus of being associated with prog rock, and they really didn’t stand a chance.

Personally, I’ve never viewed Goblin as prog. It’s just a convenient label, owing to a jazzy, propulsive sound that often defied categorization. And their tunes were always sharp and fairly short. Not for them the meandering rock symphonies about fairy kingdoms, lunar colonies, and tanks shaped like armadillos. Crucially, they weren’t show-offs either, which left room for every instrument to breathe. Churchy organ, tight drum fills, spiky guitar licks, and a groovy bass guaranteed a distinctive, symbiotic sound. Be lazy and compare them all you want to their contemporaries, like Yes and Genesis. By 1975, when Goblin came into their own, they sounded like no other band.

Addendum: The classic Goblin line-up has worked together only once since 1978—for Argento’s Sleepless (2001), in case you were wondering. But various constellations of the band continue to collaborate. Will the “Founding Fathers” ever reconcile their differences and team up for more insidiously inventive music? Or at least one last hurrah? Im tenere le dita incrociate!

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