Like a number of the French New Wave filmmakers in the late fifties and sixties, Italy’s Dario Argento started out as a film critic (while still in high school), and became a full-time journalist instead of going to college. In the late sixties, in the midst of networking with other film critics and filmmakers, he was given the opportunity to collaborate with Bernardo Bertolucci on the story treatment for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. That film’s success gave him the film bug, and emboldened him to write and direct his first feature, financed by his father Salvatore, a veteran film producer.
Like Mario Bava’s genre-defining The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), Dario Argento’s film debut, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (L’Uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo) (Italy, 1970) doesn’t seem very frightening or transgressive today. But make no mistake – all of the serial-killer, slasher, erotic suspense thrillers that came after it draw from its template. He took an Hitchcockian motif (an innocent everyman witnesses a crime, and becomes the new target of the criminal) and grafted it onto the format of many of the krimi / giallo-style thrillers of the sixties (a succession of identical crimes by a mystery perpetrator must be solved, or they’ll continue, with the solution usually involving an unexpected twist). As we saw in the early efforts of directors like Massimo Dallamano and Giulio Questi, Mario Bava had leant them some structural and visual ideas, but they were still pretty mainstream, script-dependent melodramas, even with a higher degree of stage blood and the occasional bared breast. Lucio Fulci and Tinto Brass were much better at employing stylish visual and graphic flourishes, but Argento was really the guy who took Bava’s visual ideas and Hitchcock’s psychological curveballs and brought them to the forefront, consistently throughout the whole movie.
(In describing a film’s plot, across most of these seventies giallo films, I’m going to use the third person masculine as a general rule. The twist of a number of these films is that the killer turns out to be female, but I’ll do my best to not spoil those instances in my descriptions of the films.)
The first person we happen across in the film is The Killer; we see his victim as he stalks her (she’ll be his third in a very short time), as he snaps photographs of her. We are, in fact, seeing the intended victim through the killer’s eyes, and the photos he snaps, filling the screen in freeze frame, are as much our photos as his. (Argento uses this device effectively but sparingly – creating audience complicity with the killer’s-eye view; he used it to create tension and heightened empathy for the intended victim, but it was emulated, and, inevitably, tastelessly overused in a number of subsequent, derivative horror films). We then see the killer’s hands tending to an array of nasty- looking knives; they’re handled like fine china, and lovingly stored away in red velvet, giving the objects both a fetishistic and ecclesiastical importance.
We then meet Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer who came to Italy to write The Great Novel, but ended up taking a commission to write a book about rare bird preservation instead. His professor friend Carlo (Raf Valenti) landed him the gig, and they walk through the ornithological foundation’s hallways in order for Sam to collect his final check for the book. The halls and galleries are full of glass display cases exhibiting a huge array of mounted and preserved birds. (There is, of course, a cat hidden among the display cases.) Now that he’s been paid for the bird book, he’s hoping to return to the U.S. with his cute model-girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). That night, making his way home, Sam passes a brightly lit art gallery and spies a couple struggling with each other on an upper-level balcony. An attractive woman is wounded, stabbed, and lurches down the stairway as a trench-coated figure holding the knife slips out a back doorway. The entire front of the gallery is a glass vestibule with electric sliding doors, and as Sam attempts to enter the inner front door, the exterior door slides closed behind him, and he’s trapped between them. He can’t help her inside, and passersby can’t hear him crying for help. The police are eventually summoned, though; Sam’s alerting of the pedestrians is what saves her life. Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) is relatively convinced that Sam is innocent in the matter, but still feels he’s too important a witness to let go of – this woman, Monica Rainieri (Eva Renzi), the wife of the gallery owner Alberto Rainieri (Umberto Raho), seems to be the first survivor of The Killer, and Sam may provide a trove of clues to The Killer’s identity and M.O. Unfortunately, with Morosini holding Sam’s passport, his move to the U.S. is scuttled, and Morosini subtly recruits Sam to help him solve the mystery of this attack, as well as the other three murders.
The gallery attack is an impressive sequence, full of visual invention, gut-wrenching suspense and a series of metaphors that echo throughout the movie. Sam, of course, becomes one of the stuffed birds in a glass case, simultaneously frantic and helpless as he’s literally forced to watch Monica bleed out, only a few feet away, as she reaches to him for help. The Hitchcockian theorists among us would no doubt extend the metaphor to we, the audience – having been somewhat complicit in the Killer’s stalking activities earlier, we now must watch Monica’s potential death through the inner window (i.e. On The Screen), compelled to watch something we aren’t comfortable being party to, but unable to turn away and leave. That outer glass wall is our Morbid Fascination – after all, it’s hard to imagine Sam leaving her behind even if he could have gotten out. The overall gallery environment carries compelling psychological import as well – the walls and floor are bright white, but the sculptures on display are large-scale depictions of nightmarish organic forms; a giant bird or lizard’s talon, a walrus-y, gorilla-like seated female creature of some sort, a male humanoid torso with a gigantic tusk where its head should be – there isn’t a whit of the enlightened humanism of a Henry Moore anywhere near this place. Later in the film we see them installing a giant thorned wall not unlike a sculptural translation of Anselm Kiefer. The art itself tells us volumes about the Ranieris – Argento doesn’t need to take up much script space with them.
Sam commences his personal investigations, and meets an array of characters who all, in some way, convolute basic communication. The Killer’s first victim worked in an antiques and collectibles store, and The Killer may have bought a painting from the girl before killing her. The shop owner (Werner Peters) is far more interested in seducing Sam than supplying him with straight answers, and Sam must navigate the owner’s intentions and eccentricities to arrive at the importance of the painting as a valuable clue. The second victim was a prostitute, and Sam visits her pimp, Garullo (Gildo Di Marco) in prison. He stutters, and must finish every sentence with “So long!” as a mnemonic device to let him continue to the next sentence. Sam and Julia are warned by The Killer to mind their own business and take off to the U.S. (how does the killer know they were planning that?); The Killer even hires a gunman (veteran central-casting creep Reggie Nalder) to rub them out when it becomes apparent that Sam’s not going anywhere. A convention of ex-prizefighters, an underworld informant who only speaks in contradictions, and the painter, a recluse who subsists on a diet of cats, all figure in to the pursuit of the solution, and add to the list of suspects.
The actual identity of the perpetrator is a pretty satisfying twist, one that doesn’t necessarily jump out of thin air, as is the tendency with these seventies giallos. But if you think about the events for five or ten minutes after you’ve seen the film, it falls apart pretty quickly. Trust me, Dario Argento doesn’t care, but his attitude isn’t negligent or expedient. He knows that he’s told a terrific story visually, and that the impressions he’s left in your mind’s eye are far more interesting than the specifics of the actual narrative. The esteemed Joe Bob Briggs used to complain about movies where “too much plot gets in the way of the story.” Argento leans in the opposite direction, where atmosphere, visual invention and psychological signifiers can almost replace the story. Dario had lots of help here – this film was shot by a young Vittorio Storaro, edited by Argento’s right-hand-man Franco Fraticelli, and a stunningly modern musical score by Ennio Morricone never hurts, either. The pièce de résistance of the Argento oeuvre is arguably his non-giallo supernatural horror pageant Suspiria, which takes a one-sentence idea (an exclusive ballet school for young girls is actually operated by a coven of centuries-old witches) and turns it into a deeply disturbing art-nouveau version of a Hans Hoffman painting come-to-life. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage led to an explosion of seventies Italian giallo films, all containing the sixties basics (Hitchcock, lush widescreen color, comics-inspired graphic flourishes, Krimi-inspired murder mysteries), but with escalating doses of arty stylishness, avant-garde musical soundtracks, eroticism, and violence.
There’s more Argento to come, but next time we’ll return to a few Mario Bava films that continue to school the youngsters, including Bay Of Blood (Twitch Of The Death Nerve), a film that may remind you of a certain wildly successful American film franchise from the eighties and nineties.