Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dario Argento's first film is one of his best films

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (aka "The Gallery Murders" and "The Phantom Terror") (1970)
Starring: Tony Musante, Enrico Maria Salerno, Suzi Kendall, Eva Renzi, Renato Romano, and Umberto Raho
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

On the eve of returning home to the United States, an American writer in Rome (Mustante) witnesses a brutal attack on a young woman in a gallery (Renzi). The authorities insist he remain in Rome until they clear him as a possible suspect, as they believe the attack and in the meantime, he starts his own investigation. He witnessed the attack, but he feels there was something off with what he saw, but he just can't put his finger on what it was. Meanwhile, the serial killer continues to target young women, seemingly completely at random, and the writer and his beautiful girlfriend (Kendall) end up targeted for death as well.

"The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" was Dario Argento's first film as a director, and I think it is one of his most solid efforts. In fact, it is so solid that I had an even harder time deciding whether my write-up belongs here or with the Argento mystery films over at Watching the Detectives.

This film is, in many ways, a less bloody, more coherent version of "Deep Red," another of Argento's better efforts. Maybe of the same psychological themes are present in this one, including the one where the main character needs to recall something he saw at the scene of a violent crime but that didn't really register with his conscious mind. The conspiracies surrounding the murderer are also similar to one another, and both films "play fair" with the viewer insofar as the surprise twists and the "big reveal" of the killer's identity in both films is set up as the film progresses and the clues that lead to the solution are evident in retrospect. And while "Bird" and "Deep Red" both have characters behaving in unrealistic and stupid ways either for plot convenience or reasons that are only understood to Dario Argento, this film at least doesn't have gaping plot holes that he's trying pass off as red herrings.

More clearly showing Argento's debt to Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Bava than any of the films he made later (including his supposed tribute to Hitchcock that's more a love note to Argento himself in many ways), but also clearly a film coming from his own vision and sensibilities, it's a film that draws its tension as much from what you don't see as what you do see... there are sprays of blood but no outright gore, throats are cut but it happens off scene, and the pictures that will form in your imagination are far more horrible than what appears on screen. Its the intensity generated by the "less is more" approach in this film that caused me place it among his horror films instead of his mystery films.

That's not to say that there aren't great moments that Argento creates as well. The scene where our hero is locked between two automatic glass doors and has to watch helplessly as a knifed woman bleeds all over the floor of an art gallery; the sequence where he chased by an assassin through the deserted back streets of night-time Rome until he reaches a crowded area and then starts stalking the assassin; and some of the visual flourishes involving characters in pitch darkness silhouetted against a single source of sharp light, spring to mind as some of the most effective bits of filmmaking I've seen in any Argento picture.

Argento's "Susperia" had been presented to me as the best of his films. "Deep Red" had also been praised highly and come recommended by people I usually trust. However, I found both films to be deeply flawed, despite their admitted strong visual appeals, and after the more recent garbage he's made--"The Card Player" and "Do You Like Hitchcock?"--I was ready to give up on him completely. Then someone recommended I at least watch "Bird with the Crystal Plumage" and "Cat of Nine Tails" before turning my back on his work... and I'm glad I listened. Although not perfect, they are the best efforts I've seen from Argento yet. (And "Cat o' Nine Tails" will be get a write-up at Watching the Detectives eventually.)

I don't know what went wrong with Dario Argento as far as his skills as a filmmaker go, but he seems to have declined rather than get better as the years went by. Maybe his early films were as good as they are because he had to push himself to be the very best he could possible be, but that he got lazy once he was established and started to coast on his reputation. I wonder if that is what puts him apart from truly great filmmakers that he is compared to... they kept breaking their backs to deliver the best work possible even after they could coast on name value alone?


  1. I recently enjoyed this one for the first time too. But we differ a bit - while I did have a good time with Bird - I kind of thought it was "Argento-Lite" and only a good watch on the way to Profondo Rosso and Suspiria, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I haven't seen anything from the man since Two Evil Eyes, so I can't say how far he's dropped - but all the reviews do seem to point to this - and it seems the bright spot creatively in the family now is daughter Asia, who is making some crazy movies I've yet to see.

  2. She was the girl in "XxX", right?

    And it could be that we differ in our estimation of Argento because I tend to evaluate a film mostly by its story rather than its look... and I've found that in the past that has been where I've had disagreements with Argento fans. (That's why I didn't get Bava for so long. Argento is no Bava, though, so I don't foresee the "come to Jesus" moment as far as his films are concerned.

    The early ones I've seen aren't bad -- they have high ratings all on my blogs -- but I just don't hold them in as high esteem as others do.