Early in Tenebrae, John Saxon gets a new hat. It’s a jaunty, felt fedora and he is absolutely dashing in it. There’s a lot going on with the hat. It’s introduced. There is a discussion about its stability: will it dislodge and fall if he turns too quickly? He jerks his head around to demonstrate that it will stay firmly atop his head. The hat feels like it should be important to the plot. This is Chekhov’s hat, surely. It will, we think, return later in the story. It’s a clue that will help unravel the mystery or, at least, it serves to illustrate the character in some way.
None of that is true. The hat will be completely forgotten. It served no purpose. Or, rather, it told us a lie. The scene seems to suggest warmth and friendship between Bullmer (Saxon’s character) and Neal (Anthony Franciosa), our main character. The film will reveal that there is no real warmth between the men.
So, what’s the hat about then? Is it just some business to fill space and give some reality to the proceedings? Or, is there something deeper going on? This is, afterall, a Dario Aregento Giallo. We expect serpentine plots, breadcrumb trails of clues, misdirects, double blinds, stylistic flourishes, confusion.
The hat is a mirror image of Neal.
The plot of Tenebrae is the sort of thing one would expect.
Neal is a writer often accused of misogyny travelling to Italy to promote a new book.
(It is of interest that Argento spent much of his career being accused of the same things that Neal is. Argento received a series of phone calls from someone accusing him of being a woman hater and of poisoning the minds of people. Eventually the caller threatened to kill him. This inspired Dario to write Tenebrae. The writer Neal is a stand-in for the director)
Someone begins committing grisly murders mirroring the killings in the novel and sending messages to Neal blaming him. It becomes a whodunit, with Neal working with the police to try to solve the case before too many bodies are stacked.
There are amazing, gory kills and plenty of Argento’s stylistic flourishes. The “mystery” is engaging and the character beats land perfectly. There is nothing to dislike about Tenebrae, and that includes – BIG SPOILER WARNING- the solution to the mystery.
Neal figures out who the killer is right away, and dispatches him so that he can slide into his place and kill his enemies, along with a few unfortunates that are merely in the way. Talking to the police, he gives this away saying “…someone is alive who should already be dead, or someone has died who shouldn’t have”.
It is hilarious that Argento made his stand-in character the killer, and consigned him to a bloody death.
But, what about that damned hat?
The hat is a beautiful, stylish misdirect. Like everything else in the film, it is a fair but slightly offset piece of the puzzle. Focusing on the hat oddly, without making it obvious, tricks us into thinking that Neal Bullmer are close – and this is what we need to think in order to be fooled by the clues and red herrings. It also makes both characters more likable, which is also part of the ruse.
Tenebrae is often overlooked, but should be in the conversation about the best of Dario Argento’s films.
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