Sunday, March 1, 2009

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970)

It was about twenty years ago when I encountered Dario Argento in person at an Albany Fantacon. The Fantacon was originally a comics-oriented event that expanded its scope in its last years to cover the horror movie business. I bought my first "grey market" tapes at Fantacons, including a copy of Akira before the movie itself reached Albany and the 1943 Batman serial. I had one of my first true "cult movie" experiences when an earlier Fantacon showed The Flesh Eaters to an appreciative audience. So I was game when Argento (a name of which I was then still barely aware) appeared to introduce a director's cut of Opera. He spent much of his talk badmouthing the American distributors who mutilated his work in an apparent attempt to minimize the gore content. Then the movie began. When it got to the scene where a woman has her eyes pried open Clockwork Orange style so she can see her boyfriend slaughtered, as the rock score kicked in, I walked out. As far as I was concerned, Opera was no better than the American slasher movies that I despised. To me, the rock music seemed to signal that I was to think the murder was something cool, and that offended me.

Since then, I've given Argento a try about once a decade. About ten years ago, one of those good old, long gone corner video stores, this one with stronger-than-average foreign and cult sections, added Suspiria to its collection. By this time I had heard of the film and its legendary reputation, and I had grown accustomed enough to the genre that I could actually sit through the whole thing. But while I gave credit where due to the cinematography and art direction, my overall response to Suspiria was "Huh?" I was still having problems with Italian horror at the time. I had gone to see The Beyond during its big-screen re-release around the same time, and "Huh?" was my response to that one, too. On the other hand, I responded positively to stuff like Zombie and Cannibal Holocaust, so maybe a set of aesthetic preferences were simply asserting themselves.

Once I acquired a DVD player, after much further reading into genre cinema, I tried other examples of the giallo genre and found myself liking many of them. I suppose that on one level I was learning to appreciate "style" in its own right without subjecting it to the literary expectation of "substance." Cinematography, music, and beautiful women were their own rewards, even if narratives sometimes left plenty to be desired. I began to realize that there was a distinct European (if not Italian) sensibility that differed strongly from what seemed to be an Anglo-American insistence on clarity and closure, not to mention justice prevailing in the end. What I first saw as absence and failure I now recognized as a different perspective and not necessarily an inferior one.

So once the Albany Public Library added Argento's first film to its collection, it seemed time to give the man another try. This is the old VCI DVD, with only had the English language version of the film. I suspect that the story is very familiar to many readers. Tony Musante plays Sam, an expatriate American author whose return home is delayed by his involvement in an assault case that may be linked to a spree of murders. Sam sees the attack through a huge picture window of a sculpture gallery. The sequence when he's trapped between sliding glass doors while the bloodied woman cries for help inside, with who knows what ready to spring out, is a nicely done bit of tension and very stylishly realized. As the murders continue and the local police round up the usual perverts as suspects, Sam decides he can speed up the process by undertaking an independent investigation of the murders, which includes a protracted inquiry into the significance of a violent painting by a deranged artist. His activities, of course, only put those close to him in danger.

Tony Musante reaches out helplessly to Eva Renzi in the gallery sequence from THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE . Photos from (top) and (below)

This one I liked. It was an effective thriller despite the almost purposeful clunkiness of the Psycho-style explanation of mental motives offered at the end. But I don't know if the credit goes to Argento or to his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro or his production designer Dario Micheli. Storaro's influence seemed strongest to me in the way the gallery sequence was filmed, among other bits. I felt that I was looking through the same eyes that shot The Conformist, and a browse through his filmography shows some powerful credentials. On the other hand, Storaro didn't write or edit the film, so while he deserves credit for how good the film looks, Argento obviously makes the movie work. Ennio Morricone's music deserves a mention, but it's one of his less flamboyant scores, more functional than stylish. It sounds its best in the trailer.

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is more of a conventional thriller than a giallo, from what I saw. The killings are pretty straightforward slash-slash, splash-splash, without the baroque inventiveness of later films. The effort is all in the buildup, and suspense rather than shock seems to be the object. In that respect, I don't know how well it represents Argento as he would evolve, but it gives me somewhat more confidence about approaching his other films, including even those that perplexed or offended me before.


Soiled Sinema said...

I have this on my shelf. Should I watch this soon?


Samuel Wilson said...

Depends on what else is on your shelf. If you're in the mood for a stylish Italian thriller, go for it.