Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage
Original Title: L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo
Directed by: Dario Argento
Italy / West Germany, 1970
Giallo, 96 min
Distributed by: Blue Underground

For the last few years I’ve had a somewhat complex relationship to the films of Dario Argento. It sounds kind of silly, but I got too full of Argento. I’d spent years watching, writing and analyzing his movies – (both my film study thesis’s focused on his movies, structure and technique – not to mention the ludicrous amount of papers, articles and reviews I wrote on his movies.) and after a string of disappointing movies that bookend Sleepless 2001 – which still is a great return to form – I just couldn’t watch his stuff with out feeling let down. I guess that’s what happens when you spend too much time twisting and turning one filmmakers movies over and over and inside out on a frequent basis. The more you learn the higher demands you make, I just got fed up with the movies and I couldn’t understand why, or where he lost that magic touch.

But at the end of last year I realized that I was constantly catching, either the start, or the end of several of his movies as they screened late night on the telly. (Showtime) I found myself settling down in front of them and just couldn’t tear myself away, even though these where movies I’ve seen on more occasions than possibly healthy. With this in mind, I decided to slowly and gently return to the director who once dominated my world so profoundly, and where else to start, but with that great debut feature The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and no I’m not going to get into a deep end analysis, but just a few things that come to mind after revisiting this fantastic movie.

There’s no doubt in mind when I say that Dario Argento’s debut feature The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is one heck of a fine Giallo. It’s one of those movies that many other Gialli are measured by and with all right. But at the same time, and without taking anything away from this great movie, it’s quite unfair as this is in no way the first, or the best Giallo. Although what makes this one stand out above it’s predecessors is the artistic value that Argento brought with him to the genre… and there where even better movies to come from this “Italian Hitchcock”.

What differs Argento from the others at this point in time is that he explores much more with his camera. It’s always been apparent that Argento is a lot about imagery that makes his debut feature still today feel refreshing after watching the many Gialli made at the time. Instead of just shooting people getting out of a car, he’ll take the camera to the top of the building and shoot down towards the ground, he puts the camera not only in the subjective view of the killer, which was done several times previously, but he also adds to the emotional damage by having the audience take on the point of view of several victims. The murder of the fourth victim (fourth in the movies narrative time space, first of the movie) [Rosita Torosh], as she lies smoking in bed looking out of the doorway, turning to butt out her cigarette, and looking back to the starting point only to see the killer, is without a doubt one of the finest sequences ever put on film.

This is very apparent in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and many other of Argento’s films. He takes those extra shots, from the most unexpected angles, to add an extra level to the film, almost forcing us into certain mind frames. The slashing of the killer is more direct when we see it from the eyes of the victim. These traits of his, where taken to extensive levels a few years later when he started using the steady cam to give a fantastic flow to some of the most memorable scenes in his movies.

You know the drill, and here’s the quick fix. After a enigmatic opening, where the gloved killer, not only writes a cryptic letter, but also chooses a weapon, and stalks a young woman, Sandra Roversi [Annamaria Spogli], later paid homage to by Q.T. in Death Proof 2007, we are introduced to Sam Dalmas [Tony Musante], an American journalist working in Rome, and as in many other Dario Argento's movies, he’s only a few days away from returning home, after completing the task he has performed in Italy. During a late night stroll through Rome, he is startled when he witnesses an attempted murder of a young woman, Monica Ranieri [Eva Renzi] inside an art gallery. After talking to Inspector Morosini [Enrico Maria Salerno] for a while, he’s released back out on the streets, only to be attacked by an axe-wielding maniac. Making a narrow escape he returns to his girlfriend Julia [Suzy Kendall] and tells her all about his little incident at the art gallery… Which he obviously can’t get out of his mind, and in true Gialli fashion, he makes it his task to figure out what he really saw going on there. And what better way to waste time as he waits for the cops to return his passport to him. Needless to say, one thing leads to another, and Dalmas is slowly drawn into a tangled web of mystery as he starts fitting pieces of the puzzle to a comprehensive image.

Several techniques that Argento used as his bag of tricks in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and later movies too, became traits that define the Giallo. Emotional childhood scars – often used as explanation for the killers insanity. Music cues with a childlike naivety to them – often used to signal that there’s something in the childhood that is relevant to the killers rampage. Fine art – often used as the spark to that initial flame that plummets the killer into the depths. Here you can find them all. The rape in the killer’s background, sparks murder frenzy when exposed to the Brugel like painting, and always cued by Morricone’s childlike score. It will return in several other Argento movies like clockwork.

The amateur detective - Now this is a theme that Argento - and others, that's why it's a Gialli trait - almost consequently returned to in all his early Gialli; the common man (or woman) investigating and solving the crime that the coppers couldn’t. It’s no secret that Argento’s political views where on the left side, and it’s a fair assumption that he held little faith in the police force. Placing the protagonist in a situation where he, or she, is the one to take the reins of the investigation is a great device which you already know is one of the significant traits of the Gialli. This is also quite possibly why the critics decided to name Argento as the new Hitchcock. Which is in some ways just, but at the same time somewhat erroneous, as Hitchcock often had his protagonists set in such high level of suspicion with the police, that he, or she, had no other option than to solve the crime or be jailed for it in person. Argento frequently has the relationship be somewhat more passive in his movies. More than often the police do not have enough evidence, or suspicion to actually detain the protagonist, and after having a few polite conversations release them back on the streets, where their relationship becomes more of the nature where the protagonist tries to find clues to assist the coppers, or go all in and solve the mystery due to their own curiosity.

But even though this is considered one if the best it has some flaws, flaws that Argento solved in films to come. There’s the comic relief characters that so often destroyed many a good spaghetti westerns, here’s it’s the antique dealer, the prison snitch So Long, and the gag where Sam has eaten cat, only to have the artist selling him a painting completely misunderstand him. Sure there’s some value to inserting a few tension releases, but at the same time it’s scenes that take some of the seriousness out of the movie, and give a lighter tone to the film. I presume that this is a side effect of the Spaghetti Westerns that Argento had previously written, as the ”funny gimp” character is frequent in most of the movies of that genre. Fortunately as his films evolved, exploring darker and more sinister topics so did also his screenwriting.

In film studies the words Image System is frequently used. This refers to the finer details of the piece where certain symbols and imagery is recurrent. In Roman Polanski’s Chinatown 1974, there is a very detailed image system of water, which is apparent throughout the movie, images of dripping taps, seas, water reserves etc, and even on the audio track there’s several sometimes odd, but effective uses of water related audio. All this is because of the main subplot; the sinister plan that Noah Cross holds for the water reserve.

Looking at The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it’s no understatement that birds are a heavy part of the image system. Sam and Carlo [Renato Romano] walk through a gallery of stuffed birds, bird claw sculptures are seen in the gallery during the initial attack, there’s the obvious one, the rare crystal bird that gives away the location of the suspected killer, and one could even go so far as commenting on the airplane collage at the very end, where image and audio of moving aircrafts are frantically cut against each other in as representing migrating birds. Argento would later continue his use of images as part of his tightly woven movies and riddle his films with relevant symbolism. Unfortunately he’s somewhat shifted away from this in his later movies, and the image systems are not as apparent any longer.

Cast wise there’s a load of great small parts to keep an eye open for, well some you can’t really miss, Reggie Nalder from Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil 1973 is a nasty hit man who gives his best shot at assassinating Dalmas, and Werner Peters is that above mentioned campy antique dealer. And it may come as no surprise that Fulvio Mingozzi makes an appearance as a copper.

You can’t really talk about The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and it’s splendid look without mentioning Vittorio Storaro, the Academy Award winning cinematographer who definitely adds value to the smashing visuals of this movie. Last but not least, Ennio Morricone’s superb soundtrack is definitely one of the better soundtracks that he made for an Argento movie. Soft, tender and at times versatile and ferocious. A splendid mix and a great soundtrack. This is also one of the smaller details that I often feel Argento took a bit to far. The demand for a more modern sound is fine when he bring onboard the progressive rock of Goblin some years later, and the more experimental stages he went with them. But the movies with the contemporary heavy metal just feel so out of place these days, even with the last few years’ old school metal revival.

All in all this is the definitive starting point to getting into Dario Argento’s movies, you start here not only because it’s his first, but also because it gives you an insight into the style, tone and approach he takes to his subjects. Then you settle down to Four Flies on Grey Velvet 1971, Tenebrae 1982, Terror at the Opera 1987, The Stendhal Syndrome 1996, and Sleepless 2001 before climaxing with the masterpiece, Profonfo Rosso 1975. That’s my take on how to watch Gialli in the shape of Dario Argento. The Mothers trilogy is something quite different and a whole separate discussion.

Widescreen 2.35:1

This is the way a DVD special edition should be presented, Dolby Digital 6.1 dts-ES, Dolby Digital 5.1m Dolby Surround 2.0, and the Original Italian Mono. English Subtitles are optional. Wonderful selection and great sound.

This Blue Underground two-disc special edition doesn’t leave much more wanted. It’s packed with interviews, giving Argento, Vittorio Storaro, Ennio Morricone and Eva Renzi time to talk about the movie. Then there’s the great audio commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman, international trailer Italian trailer and TV spots.


Alex B. said...

That's quite an insightful review, with a lot of interesting thoughts in it.
Have seen BIRD a few dozen times and now your review makes me want to revisit it.
I totally agree about heavy metal not really working in films like PHENOMENA.
Humor scenes in BIRD worked fine for me, while in later films such as PROFONDO ROSSO I found jokey characters unbearble.
I've set the main theme for BIRD as my morning alarm, works well:)
God, I want one of those yellow jackets like Reggie Nalder has in the film!

CiNEZiLLA said...

Yeah, that jacket is spiffy. I love how they use it as such a strong contrast to the dark, blue busses in that sequence. that's the sort of extra seasoning that Dario brings to the genre. Great stuff.
I haven't been back to Profondo in quite some years, as I'm afraid of rupturing that mental image I have of it as the perfect Giallo. You got me worried now. Although I will get around to revisiting it soon, and hopefully it's still as I want to remember it. :)

Ray Crowe said...

Amazing review! I think this is one of Argento's better plotted films, extremely suspenseful and stylish and a very promising debut for the Maestro. That taunting soundtrack has always given me the creeps as well. Unforgettable giallo.

CiNEZiLLA said...

Thanks Ray, and Yeah that is one hell of a great movie.



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