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When Dario Argento made his directorial debut with Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, this was the start of a string of successful movies that were firmly planted in the giallo genre. For the uninitiated, giallo is a particular type of murder-mystery that has the protagonist finding himself forced to turn detective and tracking down the perpetrator of a series of violent murders. The term giallo comes from the yellow colour used to signify the covers of many such paperback novels in Italy.

The Card Player
Argento produced several gialli until he turned his attention to the fantastique with Suspiria and Inferno, before returning periodically to the genre that made him a worldwide phenomenon. There are fans of Argento who would argue that 1987’s Opera (a.k.a. Terror at the Opera) was his last great giallo and that what has followed have been pale imitations of greatness.

In 2004, Argento produced a film that was originally intended to be a sequel to his 1996 film, The Stendhal Syndrome, with Asia Argento reprising her role as detective Anna Manni, but this didn’t happen and the role was altered and recast with Stefania Rocca as Inspector Anna Mari.

The city of Rome is in the grip of fear—a mysterious murderer known as the Card Player is kidnapping women and forcing the police to play online poker where the stakes are high—if the police lose the game, the victim loses her life via web-cam.

Anna Mari recruits a young, successful gambler to in order to try and save the lives of the victims whilst she tries to track down the Card Player. Mari is joined in her efforts by disgraced alcoholic Irish Interpol agent John Brennan (Liam Cunningham) and between them they must unmask the identity of the twisted killer before another victim meets a grisly demise online.

The Card Player
Dario Argento’s cinematic output has been patchy since Opera—there have been some very good movies from him ( Non Ho Sonno) and some frankly awful ones ( Phantom of the Opera, The Third Mother), but it has to be said that The Card Player is one of his best movies in nearly a quarter of a century. The pacing is pretty taut and the performances are very good indeed, with Rocca and Cunningham being most impressive and having a pretty good onscreen chemistry between them. Cunningham’s drunken Irishman might be considered offensive to some, but it seems right here, as Cunningham plays a burnt-out lawman with the sort of panache and charm that only a genuine Irishman has—Cunningham’s Brennan is belligerent and short-tempered from his first scene, pinning someone who pisses him off up against a wall.

It’s interesting that Liam Cunningham can quite often be seen standing towards the back of group shots—there are few actors playing the lead in a film that would be comfortable with this, as narcissism plays a strong part in the psychological make-up of many actors. Cunningham has a strong presence to command your attention even when being behind everyone else in a group shot—you can see that he is putting a great deal of work in, even when his character is not the primary focus of the shot.

Rocca is great as Anna Mari—she has a screen presence that is compelling, to the extent that it makes you glad that Argento’s daughter wanted to continue to star in mainstream cinematic bowel-movements like xXx and gave her father the finger. Rocca makes the most of the character she was given—on the surface, she is a tough and resourceful police Inspector, but there are issues with her late father that she is forced to address during the course of the film and ultimately finds herself in a situation at the climax that directly parallels a traumatic incident during her childhood.

There are definite parallels with the Saw movies—a sadistic killer taking great delight in playing games with his victims—but seeing as the original Saw film was made the same year as The Card Player, this is probably just a coincidence. Besides, Argento claimed to have come up with the story outline for his movie many years before production started.

The Card Player
Opinion of The Card Player is polarised—there are some Argento fans who think that it’s a return to form and brings a raw, sadistic edge that was missing from the director’s work for many years; others are of the opinion that it’s a cheap and tacky-looking thriller from a director with his glory days well and truly behind him. We have the former opinion— The Card Player was a welcome return to form for Argento; we loved Non Ho Sonno (a.k.a. Sleepless), as it contained several wonderful set-pieces, a fabulous score from Goblin and a great central performance from Max Von Sydow. The Card Player sees Argento stripping down his usual over-the-top visuals and presenting something that might on the surface look like a fairly generic television police drama, but there is something lurking beneath the veneer that is quintessentially Dario Argento.

Rome is certainly a beautiful place and there are scenes in The Card Player that show you a wee bit more of the Eternal City than just the usual tourist haunts, such as the Coliseum and the Vatican City. You get to see some of the leafy suburbs and they look just fabulous as Liam Cunningham goes belting along the roads in a fast card. In one such verdant area, Cunningham attempts to break into a deserted property, something that has almost become a staple of Argento’s giallo movies.

The make-up effects—led by the maestro Sergio Stivaletti—are at times unnervingly realistic; there are numerous corpses of the Card Player’s victims show in amazingly close-up detail and the level of detail in them is just staggering. The scene where Liam Cunningham pulls out a crucial clue from the nostril of one victim will probably have many viewers flinching. The violence is fairly subdued when compared to some of Argento’s other work, with much of the violence happening just off-screen, but the realistic make-up work on the corpses certainly shows you the aftermath of the Card Player’s work.

There are one or two sequences that will yank those unfamiliar with some of the conventions of European filmmaking right out of the movie—the main one comes during a tense sequence where one of the Card Player’s victims manages to free herself during one of the games and as her efforts to escape and also see off her kidnapper are seen on web-cam at the police station, people watching the screen are unconvincingly yelling phrases such as ‘get him’, which threaten to take the viewer out of the drama. Those steeped in European movies come to accept the odd bit of unconvincing dialogue, but to have it at such a key point of the movie is pretty disappointing.

The Card Player
As with every giallo, there is a twist that occurs near the end and The Card Player is no different, with several clues pointing toward the identity of the killer; another surprise that emerges when one of the main characters is despatched during the final act, but we won’t reveal the identity of this particular character here. There is also a moment where a character suddenly makes the connection between a clue discovered earlier on in the movie and something that will directly tie in with the identity of the killer—the idea for this particular clue was apparently inspired by Edinburgh castle’s tradition of firing the One O’clock Gun (by the way, if you’re ever there to witness that spectacle don’t stand right next to the thing, it’s a bloody silly thing to do…)

As with nearly every Dario Argento movie, there is one eccentric supporting character that steals the scene he is in—in Bird With the Crystal Plumage, it was Mario Adorf’s cat-eating artist; in Four Flies on Grey Velvet, it was Oreste Leonello’s the Professor—in The Card Player, Argento presents the audience with probably his most bizarre character yet in the form of a short, rotund, tap-dancing, opera-singing pathologist played by Luis Molten—don’t ask.

The climax sees Anna Mari and the Card Player (whose true identity has been revealed by this point) playing for one final game that will see one of them live and the other die. This set-up (without revealing anything specific) was probably intentionally reminiscent of the kind of villainous deeds that cape-wearing, moustache-twirling characters used to do in silent movies. If there is one criticism we have about the climax, it’s that Mari should have kicked a certain object out of the Card Player’s hand, rather than have him dropping it accidentally—this would have made Mari a stronger character and performing this action would also have made her directly responsible for what happens to the Card Player, rather than an accident sealing his own fate. The final scene is a little bizarre, but makes a strange kind of sense—we can’t reveal it, but one character lives on in some way because of information disclosed as the credits roll. The action continues during the credits, much in the way that it did during Non Ho Sonno, but without the revealing of crucial information concerning the killer.

The Card Player

Video


The Card Player comes to you with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio—there is some print damage during the opening scene, but this might have been during the optical compositing of the opening titles. There is a grainy look to the film, which was certainly the intent of Argento and director of photography Benoit Debie. Generally, it looks pretty good, with only a few instances of digital artefacting here and there, most notably a couple of times when the light grey walls of the police station are onscreen.

Audio


Here’s where the pleasure and the pain begins…

The Card Player has three audio options: English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Digital 2.0 and Italian Dolby Digital 5.1. The Italian track has the strongest audio—a lovely, powerful soundtrack with plenty of bass and a meaty front soundstage. The English 5.1 track is considerably weaker, with an under-whelming centre speaker and a general subdued air about the whole thing. The English 2.0 track isn’t bad—about what you would expect.

The reason why we’re disappointed is because firstly, the English 5.1 audio should have been better, as it would be the preferred track because the two leads speak English (and have their own voices) and most of the other cast member either have their own voices or at least were speaking English on-set. Secondly, we’re annoyed that there are no subtitles available when watching the film with the Italian soundtrack, but we suspect that this might be down to a licensing agreement.

Extras


Arrow has included some nice supplementary features for your viewing pleasure—they are as follows:

The Card Player Promo: This runs for nine minutes and is just essentially a montage of behind-the-scenes footage set to music from previous Dario Argento movies. There is little in the way of the cast and crew actually speaking, but there is some footage of Argento running over a scene with Stefania Rocca, which has English subtitles on the screen. Argento at times has a youthfully gleeful look on his face, which is charming to see on the face of a man who was in his early-to-mid sixties when shooting The Card Player.

The Card Player
The Making of The Card Player: This short featurette, running for five minutes, includes interviews with Argento himself, on the origin of the story and how he relates to the alien concept of reality, along with an interview with Stefania Rocca who amusingly describes her character in a manner that many people who know Argento would probably describe him. Interestingly, Argento says that he originally intended for this to be a continuation of Non Ho Sonno. We should point out that you really shouldn’t watch this before seeing the movie, as it gives away not only the identity of the killer, but also what happens to this particular individual.

Trailer: The theatrical trailer for The Card Player is presented here. It’s fairly generic and makes it look seriously low budget, but it gives you a little flavour of what is to come.

The Complete Dario Argento Trailer Reel: This presents you with theatrical trailers for almost every single film Dario Argento has sat in the canvas chair for. For those who want to know exactly what you are going to be getting, they are as follows: Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Five Days of Milan, Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, Inferno[.i], [i]Tenebre, Phenomena, Opera, Two Evil Eyes, Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome, The Phantom of the Opera, Non Ho Sonno, The Card Player, The Third Mother and Dawn of the Dead (which had Argento cut the movie himself for the European market). The only movies missing here are Do You Like Hitchcock? (which was made for television) and his latest venture into the genre that made him famous, Giallo. This is wonderful stuff, and kudos to Arrow for also including a trailer for the historical film, The Five Days of Milan.

Other Materials: You also get a reversible sleeve, so you can choose between the original artwork, or the specially-commission art by Rick Melton. You also get a large poster featuring Melton’s The Card Player poster, which also has a nice ad for Arrow’s releases on the back. There is also a booklet written by the one and only Alan Jones, who is Argento’s biographer and is almost certainly the most knowledgeable man on the subject of Dario Argento on the face of the planet. He reveals some very interesting facts and information in the booklet and Jones’ writing is every bit as fascinating and entertaining to read as the man is to talk to in the flesh.

The Card Player

Overall


The Card Player is—in our opinion—a riotously entertaining and compelling thriller; the premise is a simple one, but Dario Argento keeps the audience guessing by throwing in little red herrings and various twists and turns along the way. This is an example of the giallo that is stripped down and almost reinvented for a new audience that has been brought up on the whole ‘torture-porn’ subgenre. Stefania Rocca and Liam Cunningham are great in the lead roles and there’s a nice music score from former Goblin member Claudio Simonetti. With all these ingredients, what more could you ask for? Wonderful stuff.


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