Sunday 9 September 2018

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage

Knife ‘N’ Easy

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage
L'Uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo) Italy/West Germany 1969
Directed by Dario Argento
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B

It’s been a while since I last watched Dario Argento’s first feature film (as a writer/director, although he had written stuff for other directors such as Sergio Leone before this), The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. I first came by it via a couple of American DVDs in different editions over the years and I remember the last time I saw it was maybe 10 years ago when the BFI had a screening of it, in what turned out to be an astonishingly grubby print. This new Arrow Blu Ray edition brings back Argento’s early signature classic in style and, if like me you bought the limited boxed edition rather than their standard reissue, you also get some nice printed extras included in the slip case such as a thick booklet, a double sided poster (if you have any wall space to hang it) and, a big draw for me, a set of postcard reprints of the original Fotobustas (basically, the Italian version of lobby cards).

The film itself is remastered and, while it doesn’t look as crystal clear as the title might imply, I think it’s probably the best I’ve seen it looking here. If you are new to Argento and want a good jumping on point, this Arrow version would be a good place to start.

While it’s certainly not the first giallo of its kind... Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood And Black Lace (reviewed by me here) both pre-dated it... this is what single handedly started the slew of gialli that followed in its wake and it’s certainly the genre which gave Argento his fame and the one in which he’s worked the most. Not to mention, of course, that it’s the film which earned him the name ‘the Italian Hitchcock’. It’s also what was the start of what has been unofficially titled ‘the animal trilogy’ although, the only common links other than director style and genre is that animals are mentioned in the titles of the next two... The Cat O’ Nine Tails (which is a different thing altogether anyway) and Four Flies On Grey Velvet.

The film starts with the typical black gloved killer typing out a letter, still clad in said black gloves. Now I know 1960s typewriters were somewhat ‘gappier’ than modern day keyboards but, seriously, have you ever tried typing a letter wearing thick leather gloves? It seems somewhat silly and, furthermore, why would the killer not want to get any fingerprints on their own typewriter? This kind of doesn’t make sense. The scene also has the killer ‘fetishistically’ sharpening one of a set of nicely laid out knives. We then have the credits running properly, set to Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score, as the camera follows a young woman on her daily journey and Argento employs a trick here which he does throughout the movie in some fashion or another... he freezes the frame constantly and accompanies it by the shutter sound of a camera, the killer’s camera, taking a picture. Hold that thought, I’ll come back to this a little later. After this credit sequence we join the main protagonist as he is introduced, as an American writer based in Italy, staying with his girlfriend Julia (played by Suzy Kendall). Just before this, his friend buys a newspaper from a street kiosk which also has prominently displayed, some of those famous giallo magazines/novels of the time... so right away Argento was setting the scene for the genre in which he would, for the most part, work on for the rest of his life.

I remember that, when I first saw this movie decades ago, I had already seen four of the director’s movies. I had seen his two main horror movies, a genre which he rarely works in compared to the giallo, Suspiria and the direct, ‘official’ sequel Inferno. I had also seen Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, reviewed here) and Tenebre (aka Tenebrae... reviewed by me here). Now the thing about those two gialli is that they both have twist reveals as to the identity of the killer and, unusually for me, they both completely surprised me when said culprits were revealed at the end. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, however, is the first one by Argento where he not only didn’t take me by surprise but the one where I worked out the identity of the killer within about five minutes of the opening credits. I always wondered why my dad, who was watching with me on that first viewing, never figured this one out because, for me, it just seemed quite obvious what was going on, when main protagonist Sam, played by Tony Musante, finds himself observing an attempted homicide as he is trapped between two sets of glass, sliding doors in the entrance to an art gallery, while he looks on as Monica Ranieri (played by Eva Renzi), is struggling with her stab wound on the floor. Now, I have to say, I always thought those double sets of doors with six feet or so between each set on either end of a long area were an invention of the movie because the design has always seemed completely impractical to me. Funny, then, that I now work in a building which has pretty much exactly the same set up in its entrance... I guess buildings like this do exist after all.

Even from this early scene, where Sam is watching the struggling girl pulling her bleeding body across the floor, Argento was displaying some of those wonderful shot designs he is so famous for... as this includes a lovely, almost iconic, shot looking up from Monica Ranieri’s POV as the camera looks up at Musante and frames his head and shoulders completely with the pattern on the ceiling above him... it’s lovely stuff.

By now, if you are an astute viewer, you have everything you need to solve the identity of the murderer and so Argento spends the remainder of the film trying to convince you that various people are the killer, by giving them character traits which match a somewhat false clue given early in the film and letting the audience get on with it and assume characters with matching traits (smokes Cuban cigars, is left handed etc) could be the killer and, like many a good giallo that was to come after it, various suspects die just when the audience figures out it could be them (not this audience member though... like I said, I found this one surprisingly easy to figure out after both Deep Red and Tenebre had fooled me). While it does this, it also keeps reminding the audience that there was definitely something a little 'off kilter' with the attack that Sam witnessed, by having Sam flashing back to it constantly with footage shot from different angles which, like the opening title sequence where the camera shutter sounds stopped the action dead, he uses in a similar manner to overtly step back from the film and highlight this mental process in as stylised a way as possible, in much the same manner that Godard would sometimes want to pop his audience out of the action to contemplate more what they were watching. And it works brilliantly here.

It’s also very interesting in terms of how Argento progressed as a director here because, although he often uses characters having what I shall call ‘memory attacks’ to remind the audience that there are doubts as to the nature of what they witnessed, he rarely does it in quite the way he does it here, literally calling a great deal of attention to those flashback moments, both visually and with hits of Morricone’s score, whereas in later films he tends to segue to them in a much smoother manner. That being said, I love the way he does it here and I am going to have to watch the new Arrow version of The Cat O’ Nine Tails (a film I haven’t seen for even longer than I have the gap between screenings of this one) to see if he’s still using this way of doing things there.

Morricone’s score, too, is a big talking point of this film, as far as I’m concerned. Argento was lucky enough to have the Italian musical superstar score his first three features before moving briefly onto Gaslini and then, of course, reinventing the sound of both Italian horror and giallo movies for all time by employing progressive rock band Goblin on Deep Red and many of his subsequent movies. Morricone would score a couple of his later movies (his score for The Stendhal Syndrome is wonderful) but these first three are probably what his musical collaboration with Dario Argento are best remembered by. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage fuses a melodic, contemporary jazz approach with a certain amount of ‘stinger’ atonalism and some wonderful wordless vocals which were, according to the IMDB, not sung by the usual suspect Edda Dell’Orso. Still, that haunting ‘la la la la la la la laaaa’ is not something easy to forget from Morricone’s score here.

And that’s all I’m going to say about this one here. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a wonderful giallo thriller from the maestro of the genre, Dario Argento... which he populates with a certain intensity balanced with a very likeable police inspector, played by actor/writer/director Enrico Maria Salerno and some decidedly oddball and larger than life characters who bring a lot of humour to the film. Definitely a good starting place if you’ve never seen any of this director’s work before and, if you can ignore some of the bad acting and ridiculous plot details which are part and parcel of this genre... Argento’s films in particular... and instead concentrate on the visual poetry of the film which he brings to all his work, then you will surely find this film wins you over with its edgy charm. And if you’re going to buy it, definitely grab the latest Arrow Blu Ray version because it’s the best version around, to date (and not the older Blu Ray they did from years ago which was incorrectly cropped on the image). If you're going to do Argento... do it right.

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