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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 25, 2009

    The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Review

    Dario Argento, master of Italian macabre, may have gone off the boil over the last decade, but there was a time, much like America's indie-champ John Carpenter, when he ruled the roost with his own unique brand of avant-garde, super-stylish and hyper-violent Giallo thrillers and occult shockers. Blue Underground have now given us the opportunity to revisit his starting point, his first stab, you could say, with their release on Blu-ray of his directorial debut, the elegantly intense mystery-thriller The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, from 1970. Nasty detective-chillers in which nubile, often scantily-clad ladies were menaced by unknown assailants had been commonplace in Italian movies, let alone those from the rest of the world, for some time already, but never had they managed to contain so many now-classic genre staples as those with which the young Dario Argento embellished his hugely successful first foray. Taking a pinch of Antonioni's classically hip paranoid thriller Blow-Up, tipping the nod to Hitchcock's build-up of suspense and laying on a thick coating of visual magic - honed from his time served with the genius of cosmopolitan creep-outs, Mario Bava - he deftly fine-tooled something of a quasi-adaptation of Frederick Brown's 1949 novel, The Screaming Mimi. But make no mistake, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is pure, unadulterated Argento. His hallmarks are all here and, in their virgin exhibition, they would send a shock-wave around the world and make his name synonymous with memorably grand set-piece slaughter and ground-breaking technical expertise.

    American author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is in Rome with intentions of regaining the creative vibe that seems to have eluded him of late. Walking home one night, he happens to witness an attempted murder through the window of an art gallery. As he watches, a woman is stabbed and left to bleed in agony on the floor whilst the mysterious attacker - dressed in black and with their face obscured - gets away. When he tries to intervene and help the woman, he ends getting trapped between the double sliding glass doors that open the gallery, left pitifully impotent as most men in Argento movies are when the chips are down. Although the woman, Monica (Eva Renzi), actually the wife of the gallery's owner, survives the ordeal, Sam is irresistibly drawn into the investigation in the way that only meddling movie characters are. However, he and his girlfriend Julia (played by perennially cute English actress Suzy Kendall), find themselves in jeopardy when the attacker, whom the authorities are convinced is actually the serial killer that has been plaguing the city, continues on a murder-spree that cuts ever-closer to the couple. With his passport held back by the police because they believe he may be able to provide some vital clue, Sam's Roman sojourn to help him over his writer's block doesn't look set to be a very quiet or a very productive one. Something about the incident keeps nagging him, something that he can't quite recall. He replays the attack in his mind over and over again, but something about what he saw doesn't add up. What is the significance of a grotesque painting depicting a horrible attack on a young girl in the woods? And what about the weird and wonderful rare bird with the crystal plumage and its strange call? As more victims fall under the knife and attempts are made to silence Sam, Argento fashions the very fabric of a genre that he may not have created, but one that he certainly brought to attention of the wider world, placing Italian horror films on the international map forever.

    Tony Musante, looking a lot like Eric Bana with a perm, was notoriously difficult to work with, Argento citing him as one of the three worst actors he has ever dealt with. But I like him in this, he strikes up an immediate audience rapport and comes across throughout it all as neither particularly heroic nor profoundly Holmsian, despite his eagerness to follow up every clue. This only helps to endear him all the more. Again, this is something of a hallmark of Argento's detectives - they mean well, but really only ever get anywhere by sheer fluke. Musante had appeared in The Detective and The Incident and was certainly a chic and cool attraction on the billboard. Many have criticised his performance for lacking the necessary gravitas of a man supposedly embroiled in a murderous whodunnit, but his simple, smiling approach to each new dilemma and surprisingly matter-of-fact attitude to repeated attempts on his life make him a comfortable hook for us to hang onto. Whereas plenty of male protagonists in Giallo lack charm and just seem to go through the motions in mechanical fashion to fill in the gaps between killings, Musante is an agreeable and even credible amateur sleuth. Thankfully, his terrible falling-out with his director does not impinge on his performance and, despite playing something of a smug character, he handles the part with wit and conviction.

    Argento loves to have a supposedly foreign protagonist stuck at the heart of the tale or, where possible, a foreign actor. Anthony Franciosa's American thriller-writer in the awesome Tenebrae, Jessica Harper's waif-like ballet student in the masterpiece that is Suspiria, Michael (Dempsey And Makepeace) Brandon's rock drummer in Four Flies On Grey Velvet, David Hemmings' English pianist in Deep Red etc. - and this is down to several things. Firstly, and perhaps most pertinently, it helps to bring in foreign (read American and UK) audiences and to sell the film overseas. Secondly, and the best reason d'etre that I can think of, this is because having strangers move through these psychological nightmares is the closest, most intimate way in which he can involve us in their perplexing, off-kilter narratives. When our protagonist is someone from the “outside”, themselves, it follows that it should be easier for us, literally on the outside and looking in, to identify with them. But there is also another possibility, and it is a cruel one at that. Perhaps Argento wants to draw trespassers in, string them along a path that they, as strangers in his own strange land, don't know and torment them along the way. Barring one or two pretty notable, and supremely demented exceptions, his visitors are almost always innocent and seemingly determined to right some awful wrong. With this in mind, you could say that he practically welcomes us as heroes in these convoluted conflicts, yet this tends to overlook the fact that he is the one setting all the traps and that, by extension, it could be construed that his own people are the killers surrounding us. Thus, perhaps Dario Argento, at least in his first decade as a director, was deliberately setting out to challenge his audiences with images, impressions and scenarios that he hoped would scar them.

    Crystal Plumage also determinedly stamps out his desire to create strong female characters, something he has been at pains to reinforce throughout his entire career. Admittedly, Suzy Kendall has the thankless role of girlfriend-cum-damsel-in-distress, literally just set decoration for much of the time, but, nevertheless, Argento coaxes her into delivering one of her best performances. Kim Newman, in his collaborative commentary for the film with fellow critic Alan Jones, states winningly that “if you couldn't get Susan George, then Suzy Kendall was the next best thing.” Actually the gorgeous Swinging Sixties-starlet, who had appeared in To Sir With Love and Up The Junction, had already made something of a name for herself on the Continent, appearing in 1968's Fraulein Doktor for Alberto Lattuada, although this was the film that would relaunch her career and make her divinely sexy form something of a genre icon. Pretty soon after its immense success, evil black-gloved hands would come grasping for her again in Sergio Martino's sadistic Torso (1971) and then in Umberto Lenzi's Spasmo (1974). But perhaps Crystal Plumage belongs more to Eva Renzi, as the almost-victim that Sam manages to save at the start. Although she survives the attack, she seems unavoidably connected to the killer and Sam is duty-bound to keep looking-in on her, especially since her somewhat severe and older husband appears to be acting so strangely. Making a left-handed catch is never a good thing in this type of film. Renzi, like most of Argento's women, is put through the emotional wringer and, even if her torment is slightly different than Kendall's, who suffers a prolonged and nerve-shredding battle with the murderer, it is no less affecting. Plus, she is allowed to move through the full gamut of frustration, anger, terror and rage, yet remains incredibly alluring all the while.

    Argento, especially in these glorious early years, is abundantly creative and, if he understands the parameters of narrative and the limits of on-set technicalities, he doesn't pay them any heed. Giallo, by the very nature of the beast, means that the story does have to conform to certain strictures of reality. When dealing with the occult, such as in Suspiria or Inferno, for instance, no such rules apply and all bets are off concerning where he will go and what he will do. With Crystal Plumage, Cat O'Nine Tails, Four Flies On Grey Velvet and Deep Red, however, the characters are moving through the real world, populated by people with duties, and the regulations of night and day must be obeyed to a certain degree. Thus, in Crystal Plumage, we have a token gesture to police procedural - dusting for prints, evidence baggies, the biggest computer in the world (at that time!) compiling a profile of the killer - and characters who may be quite colourful but who actually serve to drive the plot and not merely pose as either picturesque and/or grotesque asides to the action. Each person that Sam interviews renders some form of information that will aid his detective mission. For instance, when he makes the uncomfortable climb into the fortress-like house of the bushy-haired painter, played with crazed relish by Mario Adorf, the scene plays out with uncomfortable comedy and does seem to go on for a little too long, but an essential clue is picked up. It is also worth noting that Argento's long-standing distrust for cats rears its ugly head in this sequence, with the reclusive artist fattening them up in cages for his supper. Then there is the slyly amusing scene when Sam visits an antiques shop and has to virtually skirt around the place whilst politely avoiding the advances of the gay proprietor, yet still manages to gather up another crucial piece of evidence. And, of course, we have the stuttering pimp who perplexes Sam on his fact-gathering prison visit, blurting out “So long!” at the end of every sentence. These are colourful little vignettes that Argento would refine and re-determine throughout his later movies, often substituting the wry humour and eccentricity for either overt hysteria or pure directorial sleight of hand. He even affords himself a rather blatantly signposted visual joke involving a smirk-inducing reveal onto a boxing convention awash with yellow jackets - the mischievous little reference being to the yellow, or giallo, jackets that denoted the pulp thriller fiction on bookshelves throughout the decade before. It could be argued that a lot of these incidental moments actually feel like they are simply padding the story out, but the individual scenes still work well enough on their own merit to deliver more texture to a plot that is appreciably sophisticated.

    He stages his murder set-pieces with the utmost suspense, something that is, once again, incredibly assured for a debut director. What would become customary killer's POV shots enforce uncomfortable audience-identification, making us feel complicit in some of the heinous crimes being committed. Even the tense game of hide-and-seek between Sam and the incredibly evil-faced hit-man (played by the bizarre visaged Reggie Nalder from Mark Of The Devil and, terrifically, Tobe Hooper's 'Salem's Lot, in which he portrayed the awesome vampire, Barlow) offers some great moments of sustained action, too, with gunfire and a drawn-out foot-chase spicing things up. The big bravura sequence when the killer menaces Kendall, who is alone and trapped in her apartment, is obviously the centre-piece of the show and established Argento as a major force to be reckoned with. He cuts his teeth on protracted intimidation, his now-celebrated indulgence in showing us women in terrifying jeopardy becoming a signature trademark with gleefully languid shots of the murderer's devilishly sharp knife splintering the wood of the barricaded door and slowly worming the hole bigger and bigger. His penchant for eyes peering through such holes - Suspiria, Opera, The Stendhal Syndrome (where the killer actually looks through the bullet-hole he has put right through a victim's face) - also gains a foothold here in Plumage. Kendall does a marvellous job of collapsing into hideously overwrought paroxysms of anguish and despair and this scene is certainly one for the genre's history books, the catalyst for a million such derivatives - even Kubrick's The Shining owes a debt to it. Another great sequence, and one that hammers home his insistence that there is no such thing as a macho man, has Sam pinned-down beneath a spiked wall-mosaic whilst the killer tauntingly stands on top, pressing down on him. In fact, it is surprising just how kinetic the movie is, Argento keeping things moving all the time. Rarely do we sit still for more than a minute.

    Great camera-work is another hallmark of an Argento picture. He has an eye for crafting a canvas of finely etched terror, his ability to pull your focus in one way whilst scattering visual clues and references elsewhere is, or was, second to none. Using cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who would later work on and, in fact, receive Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor, he captures some incredible imagery, such as the lone girl ascending the stairs to her apartment and seen moving in and out of a triangle of shadow from a cunning high-up vantage point over the stairwell, or the consistently terrific use of the wide-screen frame to give both an expansive feel to the film as well as drawing us deeper into the more intimate close-ups of wide-eyed fear in the shadows. Only someone of Argento's unhinged enthusiasm would elect to fill his expansive 2.35:1 frame with absolute blackness save for the tiny of pocket of light through an open door in the distance. These early Giallo pictures were keen examples of misdirection, too. Argento teases us with a startling image that we see alongside his unwitting protagonist, and then asks them, and us, to think back, to look again, to try to see something that his deft hand and swift photography has helped allude us. It is a great gimmick, to be sure - but it is still a gimmick. It works extremely well in Deep Red with no actual trickery taking place. Here, it works reasonably well too. But as his movies went on - Trauma, say - the effect is far more contrived. But in Crystal Plumage, the device has the benefit of never having been handled in such a manner before and its cleverness goes a long way to ensuring that the film cannily gets one over on you.

    I'm a little unsure about that eerie fog that Sam is tailed through during one early sequence, though. You can quite clearly see that the day, in reality, is very bright and sunny. But the effect is still striking and sets Argento's imagery apart from the herd once again. He takes the mundane and the commonplace and purposely finds a way of making it abstract, unusual and surreal. Here, it transforms an ordinary city street into a limbo-land wherein anything can happen - and, indeed, it does, right out of the blue. Which, of course, creates a milieu of total unpredictability - something that he would certainly take to an extreme with his Three Mothers Trilogy.

    I will discuss Ennio Morricone's eclectic and fiendish score for the film more fully in a separate review for its recent CD release, but this is another vital element in creating a totally unsettling ambience. Argento probably couldn't believe his luck when he nabbed the maestro for his vicious little yarn, but the two worked well together and would collaborate again on both the immediate follow-ups of Cat O'Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet and then again, after a lengthy spell apart, for The Stendahl Syndrome and Argento's woeful take on The Phantom Of The Opera. The use of a haunting pop lullaby was nothing new to Morricone, who had done much the same sort of thing in Leone's Dollars Trilogy and the likes of Guns For San Sebastian and Navajo Joe, but its creepy, insinuating tilt of innocence into perversity is uniquely suited to Argento's psychological muck-raking and the score for Crystal Plumage ranks as one of his strangest and most disturbing.

    Although The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is often mooted as being the start of the Italian Giallo cinematic trend, you really have to look a little further back to Mario Bava's lurid 1965 shocker Blood And Black Lace (BD release soon, please!), or even his 1963 Hitchcockian thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much, with Leticia Roman and cult favourite John Saxon. But the black-gloves and long, gender-obscuring trench-coat, the broad-brimmed hat and assortment of wicked blades and, more often than not, the whispery, giggling voice that accompanies each murder were features deeply entrenched by Argento throughout his tenure as the premier purveyor of European stalk 'n' slash. Solidified by the great Profundo Rosso (Deep Red), this cycle is still hugely popular and, even if it is frequently saddled with daft red herrings, implausible leaps of logic, ham-fisted dialogue and some ripe over-acting (all cherished ingredients of the genre, of course), it remains one of the most instinctive and primal examples of the form to emerge from the blood-soaked Italian horror stable. Presented uncut on Blue Underground's new release, this version contains the shots that many others had pruned away - such as the removal of a victim's panties with the unsettlingly phallic-looking knife and the splashing blood of the lift murder that Brian DePalma riffed-on for his own Hitchcock-cum-Argento homage, Dressed To Kill.

    A terrific debut and a landmark Italian trendsetter, the repercussions of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage still reverberate today.