[This October is "Gialloween" on Daily Dead, as we celebrate the Halloween season by diving into the macabre mysteries, creepy kills, and eccentric characters found in some of our favorite giallo films! Keep checking back on Daily Dead this month for more retrospectives on classic, cult, and altogether unforgettable gialli, and visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Gialloween special features!]
[This piece was done in collaboration with Gian Giacomo Petrone.]
Born in Villa del Conte, near Padua (January 8, 1949), Antonio Bido fulfills his academic education at the University of Padova, where he graduates in literature with a thesis on Italian horror cinema. His directorial debut arrives in 1970 in the form of the experimental feature-length project Dimensioni (translation: Dimensions), followed a year later by Alieno da (translation: Alien From), a film with a similarly Dadaist approach, both of which were much appreciated at various contemporary Italian festivals. After a brief apprenticeship with director Giuseppe Ferrara, in 1977 Bido gets to work on his first real film, produced and conceived within the structure of the industry and followed by professional technicians and actors, Il gatto dagli occhi di giada (Watch Me When I Kill). The success of this film will allow Bido to have exponentially greater decisional power on his next feature film, Solamente nero (The Bloodstained Shadow, 1978), another well-regarded effort. Despite this more than flattering beginning, Bido has difficulties in repeating the visual and narrative results demonstrated in these two films. Three more titles follow and complete his filmography: Barcamenandoci (translation: Getting By, 1984), Mak π 100 (1988), and the high-budget Blue Tornado (1991). He is also the author of several documentaries, both cultural and promotional, on the activities of the Italian Air Force and Navy. In more recent times he has returned to making short films, which are a synthesis of his passion for classical music and filmic imagery.
The coordinates of Watch Me When I Kill and The Bloodstained Shadow follow all the canons of the giallo in vogue at the time: serial murders, a whodunit structure, investigations conducted by a private citizen who reaches the truth before the police. Bido follows these rules with patience and intelligence, often demonstrating great ability in building suspense, directing with skill and formal elegance, but shunning some narrative stereotypes popular at the time. In both films, in fact, there are rational motives—and in the case of Watch Me When I Kill, even ethical ones—that distance themselves from intricate and sometimes spurious psychoanalytic motivations used in most other films of the same genre. If in the first of these two films the engine of the crime is an entirely justified revenge that intertwines with dramatic historical events that took place during World War II, in the second it is blackmail, even if suffered by a mentally disturbed and already murderous character, in the distant past, for reasons related to his aberrant impulses.
From these elements emerges Bido’s dissociation from a fairly widespread topos of those years within giallo structures as well as an attempt at finding narrative solutions connoted by political or existential implications. Another defining feature is the guilt, or at least the moral opacity of the victims, altering the emotional attachment of the viewer—diverting their relationship with the characters—reminiscent, in some ways, of the pre-Argento gialli of the ’60s. Beyond these features related to the construction of the story and creation of the characters, what also becomes clear in Bido’s work is a certain taste for digression, which leads him to intensify relations between characters and environments, placing certain actions and events in contexts—narratively and emotionally—peripheral to the main story, thus bringing forth the need to experiment with stylistic elements unconnected to genre films and closer to an authorial sensibility and personality. It is a subtle and far from invasive experimentation, which does not undermine the language of thrillers through visual aggressions or sharp breaks in the linearity of the plot, but, on the contrary, expands and lightly deconstructs the narrative.
This approach also indicates that the director is at times free to explore the environment without having to justify himself, free to lose himself in pure contemplation within the first and most obvious level of the story, and certain narrative and visual solutions extraneous to it are marked by a non-cognitive look, purely observational, absorbed reflection, suspended with respect to any judgment or action. It is no coincidence, in fact, that the best moments of Watch Me When I Kill are set in Padua when the character, played by Corrado Pani, arrives and is able to touch the black heart of his investigation; likewise, it is no coincidence that the most personal film, and probably Bido’s worthier one, is The Bloodstained Shadow, shot almost exclusively in the lagoon of Venice. Bido knows and loves those territories because he was born and lived there until early manhood before becoming a director, and the emotion is palpable, emanating from the walls, the houses, the deserted streets of the province, from the silence that surrounds the sites and characters. It is an approach, moreover, which does not interrupt the emotional flow of the story, but rather intensifies it, throwing the protagonists in that state of melancholic despair that comes from loneliness.
Let’s talk about your initial stages. When did you start moving towards films?
Antonio Bido: Professionally I began as a documentarian, but in reality, I started much earlier when I began experimenting with the medium as a kid. I was a real video-maker and would do everything: photography, editing, directing. It was 1963 when I was given my first camera. I was 13 years old and the first thing I did was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the countryside with my friends. I continued making these small little movies throughout my teen years and this adventure culminated in a feature-length Super 8 film called Dimensions, an experimental product into which I put everything: sex, religion, politics—a cocktail of elements which I had absorbed and decided to process with this project. I was 19 or 20, and the 1960s were nearly over. Dimensions went to a few festivals, but more importantly it won first prize at the Montecatini Film Festival, which, at the time, was the Cannes of short films and amateur filmmakers. This pushed me to make another experimental film called Alien From in 16mm, 70 minutes long. I never went to film school, I learnt on the field by making mistakes and trying again and again. For Tom Sawyer, I didn’t have an editing machine of course, so I had to do all my cuts in-camera. If you watch those short films in chronological order, you can really notice an evolution. As much as they are crude and incredibly naïve, they are grammatically correct. This might seem normal now that we live in a visual world, but, at the time, to be able to grasp the language of images wasn’t common for a kid. Plus, I didn’t come from a family interested in films or who had educated me in that sense. Yes, I watched a lot of films that would get shown at the local parish church, but that’s it.
You worked as a 1st AD after this “long exploration of the medium” as you called it, didn’t you?
Antonio Bido: I only did one film as an AD, because I was anxious to make my directorial debut and was lucky enough to find funding right away; if not, I would have probably worked on more of them as an AD. Everything began, professionally speaking, when I was at this international festival in Carrara presenting these experimental works of mine. While there, I met Giuseppe Ferrara, who came up to me. I had no idea who he was, and he goes, “You’re the Dreyer of amateur films!” I will always remember this introduction. Anyway, he liked my approach, especially the fact I used a handheld camera, and he threw me right at the frontline, in the middle of the action. He took me with him to work on a documentary he was going to direct. Previously I had shot everything with a Beaulieu. He puts an Arriflex 35 in my hands. I still remember that evening in my hotel room… I didn’t sleep all night trying to figure out how it worked. I had bought the wrong light meter at Padova, spending more than I was going to earn with the documentary. Ferrara had complete trust in me. When I sat down for the screening, I was so worried. It was full of nice things, but also packed with mistakes and blurry, out-of-focus shots. Nothing too serious because it ended up winning at the Venice Film Festival, where I collected the prize.
What is the title of this documentary?
Antonio Bido: La città del malessere (literal translation: The City of Discomfort, 1973). That was my first professional project. All shot in Naples. Subsequently I did other short documentaries with Ferrara, always as an operator and a director of photography, even if we didn’t really have much lightning… It was all very crude and gritty. In that period, I also started doing my own stuff with Corona Films, a production company specializing in those brief documentaries that preceded the feature films. This continued for a few years until Ferrara called me again to work on Faccia di spia (C.I.A. Secret Story, 1975), but this time as 1st AD, even if I did a little bit of everything: sometimes I would be an operator or DOP on the second unit, or even direct a few little things here and there. By then Ferrara and I had come to know each other well. There was also another AD, Patrizia Pistagnesi, who would cover me if I had to go and finish something off with the second unit.
What do you recall of that film? It has a very rich cast…
Antonio Bido: It was Ferrara’s first or second feature film, and he had the same approach that he had with documentaries. He didn’t talk or follow the acting aspect at all. Probably in the following years he refined his method from that point of view, but back then he never gave indications to the actors. He was a battlefield kind of director. Shoot and run. Always hurrying. Consider also that film was a cooperative project, meaning that a part of the cast and crew were paid with percentages from the box office income. As far as the cast is concerned, the two actors I remember the most are Mariangela Melato, who was an incredible professional, always 100% impeccable, a lovely lady, and Riccardo Cucciolla. Cucciolla was already a big name, both in theatre and in films, but he was incredibly insecure. That is something that shocked me. I was still a kid, 22 or 23 years old, and to see this seasoned and celebrated actor grab my arm and say, “Antonio, stay next to me. Give me a few minutes more to concentrate, please,” was incredible. A lovely person ravaged by this self-doubt that to me was inexplicable.
Generally, though, everybody got along well. It was a great experience, even if it was tough, also because Ferrara was a true cynic. He didn’t give a damn about anybody’s personal problems… what had to be done had to be done. He could be very mean and hurtful at times, especially with some of the more inexperienced actors. Working overtime was not an issue for him, which led to disputes and rows with the crew. Once, the electricians turned everything off and refused to continue. That was another shocking moment for me. “Can they do that? Isn’t the director in charge?” I was still very naïve. That was my only experience as an AD, not only that… it was my first and only time on a set, a real set. When I directed my first film, that was my second set! Incredible, if you think about it. These were things that worried me when I was preparing Watch Me When I Kill. I was going to be working with old veterans, people like DOP Mario Vulpiani, who had experiences with the likes of Monicelli and Marco Ferreri. Were these people going to take me seriously? Was I able to win their respect? I was a 28-year-old with very little practice and virtually no reputation in the business. The first thing we shot was the scene in which Esmeralda Messori, played by Bianca Toccafondi, who is standing by the window talking to Bozzi, Fernando Cerulli. I asked for the dolly to be placed at the center of the room, slightly decentralized, moving towards the window and ending on a close-up, with him in the background. I will always remember this gratifying moment. Vulpiani looked at me nodding, “Okay, you know what you’re doing.” If the crew realizes you’re not an asshole, they’ll follow you even if you’re young. That said, I do regret not having had more experience as an AD. I feel I’ve missed out on an important stepping-stone. There are, of course, directors who never even sniffed a set before directing… Pasolini would be the perfect example… but I think it’s wrong.
What was one of the first things that struck you about this world you finally became a part of?
Antonio Bido: Well, many things. The maliciousness of the crew, for example. They don’t waste an opportunity to gossip and point out your faults. I remember as we were making Watch Me When I Kill, we were not too far from the set of what I imagine was also Carlo Vanzina’s first film, and we crossed paths with some of his crew members. When I asked how things were going: “There’s this kid who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.” Maybe it was true that Vanzina was having difficulties, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the crew might have been saying about me. I learnt pretty soon to take everything I was told very cautiously. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “I saved that film,” “I actually directed that scene,” “when he brought in the film, it was a mess. I had to re-edit it completely.” Everybody is a hero, in their own mind.
Another aspect is the incredible creativeness of our technicians—I don’t know if the level of professionalism has diminished over the past years, but at the time it was spectacular to watch them at work. I remember once we were shooting in a canal when I expressed the desire of having a shot right on water level. “But that’s not possible,” I said. “No problem. Give us a couple of hours,” said the head grip. Do you know what it means to build something like that in two hours, capable of holding the weight of a camera that size? Have you seen what beasts we used to shoot with? They made a scaffolding attached to the boat we were in, that could hold the camera, the operator, the DOP, and myself. In the real world, if you asked someone to build you something like that, they’d take a few days working full-time. I was fascinated by what they were able to achieve.
What about previous Italian gialli, was it a genre you were interested in?
Antonio Bido: I had appreciated Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975). The first films of Argento I didn’t mind, but I hadn’t found them incredible, whereas Deep Red I thought was truly innovative and revolutionary. Especially in the use of the music. I had never heard film music like that, used the way he did in a film of that genre. Deep Red was one of the things that pushed me to choosing giallo as the genre to make my debut with. Both Argento’s approach and Gaslini’s music influenced me a lot.
What about the films of other directors?
Antonio Bido: Probably people say I’m “Argentian” because his were the only films I had watched. I did see, but I don’t remember whether it was before or after my debut, Sette note in nero (The Psychic a.k.a. Death Tolls Seven Times, 1977) by Lucio Fulci, which I very much enjoyed. I had also seen Il medaglione insanguinato (The Cursed Medallion a.k.a. The Night Child, 1975) by Massimo Dallamano, which wasn’t at all bad. Ah! How could I forget… a film I really liked a lot was L’etrusco uccide ancora (The Dead Are Alive a.k.a. The Etruscan Kills Again, 1972) by Armando Crispino. That film really made an impression on me and I think Argento owes a lot to it. Some narrative solutions of Deep Red are copied from Crispino’s film. I don’t remember it visually, but narratively I remember it being very interesting. But I hadn’t seen that much. Yes… but my first film was the most “Argentian” because so many people handled the script. You know this story, right?
I would like to hear it again.
Antonio Bido: Initially Vittorio Schiraldi and I had written something that had nothing to do with the Argento universe. It was a giallo, but much more classical, nearly Hitchcockian in its structure. We handed it to producer Eliseo Boschi, who read it, liked it, and told us it just needed a little tweaking. Tweaking meant a complete revolution. When I read it again, the film had become Italian; it was made to conform to what was the new giallo current. A certain tone that was present in the original script survived because I put my foot down, but most of it was radically changed. That film was created by making continuous adjustments, though they were probably right seeing how the film ended up being so successful. Four people participated in the writing of Watch Me When I Kill: me, Schiraldi, and then Roberto Natale and Aldo Serio. It was a contaminated film. The subsequent The Bloodstained Shadow is, in many ways, what Watch Me When I Kill was supposed to be. After the success of my debut, the producers and distributors gave me more freedom to decide what tone and story to adopt: a film based much more on locations and atmosphere… of course following some of the rules set by the genre, but in a context that I felt closer to.
Even the Italian title of Watch Me When I Kill, The Cat with the Jade Eyes, is made to sound like one of Argento’s “animal trilogy” films.
Antonio Bido: Chosen by the distributors. The original title was Commissione omicidio (literal translation: Commissioned Murder). They were probably right in their choices. If I had made The Bloodstained Shadow, or something more along those lines, like my first film, it probably would have changed everything in my career. Watch Me When I Kill was way more successful, though The Bloodstained Shadow got better reviews because it was a more distinctive film.
Let’s talk about the cast of Watch Me When I Kill. It’s a rich one and full of actors you wouldn’t associate with the genre.
Antonio Bido: The first actor on board was Philippe Leroy, then came Luciana Paluzzi, the Bond-girl, who was replaced shortly after because the producer’s woman was Paola Tedesco’s mother. Tedesco was going through a moment of great popularity. I wasn’t convinced and felt quite reluctant, but I gave in. They were convinced she was more appealing box office-wise. As far as Philippe Leroy is concerned, I met with him many times to discuss the film and his character, and he seemed very happy about everything, but he kept telling me, “Antonio, nobody has given me anything to sign and I have to leave soon...” I believe he had to start work on Sandokan with Sergio Sollima. Both actors I had chosen vanished. I was desperate... I don’t remember who or how Corrado Pani got involved, but I was happy with him. He was the Italian thinking-man’s Charles Bronson, and a very good stage actor. By the way, Paolo Malco got in the film because, at the time, he was having an affair with Paola Tedesco. But I was happy with him… he works perfectly in the film. The only actor I wanted right from the start and actually managed to get was Franco Citti. The only actor I wanted right from the start and actually managed to get was Franco Citti. I had loved his work with Pasolini, and I wanted an auteur cameo in a genre film. Eliseo Boschi had been Alfredo Bini’s executive producer on all of Pasolini’s films, so I talked to him. “Would it be possible…?” “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to Franco myself.” I liked the idea of putting him in a giallo. I don’t know if he had ever made genre film before mine. Had he?
Antonio Bido: Well, there you go! Anyway, a strange cast, very collage-like, but somehow it works. A completely different process compared to The Bloodstained Shadow, where I’m responsible for most of the choices. Lino Capolicchio is an actor I liked very much, especially after having seen him in La casa dalle finestre che ridono (The House with the Laughing Windows, 1976) by Pupi Avati, who is a director I’ve always loved. Stefania Casini was an idea of PAC, probably due to the fact she had just made Suspiria (1977). What I notice in my films, compared to other genre films—not all of them of course, but many—is that the quality of the acting is higher. The actors are directed well. I mean, that’s one thing many have pointed out to me over the years. In fact, critics would be more lenient with me. They still considered my films below average simply for the fact they were genre films, but they would underline the fact that there was something more compared to most other films.
You’re a big music lover and we all know how crucial music is in the giallo genre. What was your relationship with the composers of your films like?
Antonio Bido: Very good, with all of them, because I’m able to speak the language of music. I know the lingo and can understand what they need from me and how to express it in a clear manner to them. I’ve always followed the whole musical process from beginning to end: from conception up to the recording studio sessions. I especially remember the conversations with Stelvio Cipriani. I would go to his house and explain what I was looking for musically, he would interrupt me and go, “Antonio, is this what you mean?” And start humming, playing the piano, or simply beating on the living room table as if it were a drum. “Yes! Perfect!” Cipriani was a genius. He was a musician who was born for the cinema because he truly understood the sound of images. He did The Bloodstained Shadow, but he came after because initially I had chosen Goblin. Even if I wanted, with that film, to pull away from the Argento comparison, I thought it was a commercially winning idea.
Why didn’t they do it?
Antonio Bido: The label Bixio Music Group, with whom Goblin was under contract, wanted money. Not many people know this, but at the time music composers didn’t get paid by the production company. Maybe a few, like Morricone, saw money from the start, but for the most part musicians got their money through copyright, SIAE rights, and the subsequent use of their music. The guys at Bixio thought they had a Morricone… At the time Goblin were going incredibly well, they were big, but they asked for a ridiculous amount. Claudio Simonetti was very sorry, and I remember him trying to explain that his hands were tied. The band had seen the film and had loved it. Then Cipriani came to mind… I was the one who thought of him. I knew he was a good musician, but I had difficulties associating his style and sound to the giallo ambient. I thought, “Why not combine Cipriani with Goblin?” I called Claudio and asked if they were willing to participate as session players. He said “yes” and so did Cipriani.
How did they collaborate? What were their roles?
Antonio Bido: Cipriani composed the music, the main theme; he set the base for the film score. Simonetti and the other Goblin members, but especially Claudio, who is really, and has always been, the creative thrust of the band, rearranged and readapted the score composed by Cipriani. Some parts, the purely orchestral ones, have remained intact, but other themes and moments were completely revolutionized by Simonetti. He really created the sound of the film, not the score but the sound, that electronic moog vibe is all his doing. If there hadn’t been all those problems with Bixio and the money-related issues, Goblin, or I should say Claudio, would have been credited alongside Cipriani. Well, actually without those problems I probably wouldn’t have gotten to Cipriani in the first place.
By the late ’70s, Italian cinema was starting to show its first cracks and tremors. It’s easy to make these observations now, but did you realize this at the time?
Antonio Bido: Absolutely. This is why I decided to make this film, for example. The late ’70s, early ’80s were confusing times. The market was all over the place. I got offered many projects that died out after a couple of months. The industry was trying to find a stability which seemed impossible to achieve. Plus, I might say I was also quite unlucky. After The Bloodstained Shadow, I was supposed to make a film with Marisa Berenson, who had just finished Barry Lyndon (1975). It wasn’t easy getting her to accept working on a film directed by Antonio Bido, but they sold my name well. You know, “a bright new talent… he’s only directed two films, but he’s destined to go far…” etc., and she agreed. Vincent Gardenia was supposed to be in it as well and also Franco Califano, who producers were trying to launch as Italy’s answer to Jean-Paul Belmondo. The project never got wings and soon after everything changed for the worse, and I had to adapt to the sinking boat which was the Italian film industry.
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