Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Director Report Card: Dario Argento (1970)

So here's my frequently promised Dario Argento report card. Aside from my general laziness, the main reason this took so long to get going was because I was trying to find an English-subtitled copy of Argento's sole foray out of the horror genre, 1973's "The Five Days of Milan." No such luck there, as even grey market releases are unsubbed. Since I don't think a review of a movie I can't understand would be very insightful, I went ahead and did this without. I probably wouldn't understand a comedy about 1800s Italian politics anyway.

Anyway, here's the first part. I told you I'd get back to reviewing horror films next.

1. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo

It was pretty much inevitable that Dario Argento would become a filmmaker. His brother was a producer and his dad was a film executive. After working as a film critic and writing Sergio Leone’s epic western “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Dario made the jump to directing himself. I don’t know what made him decide the thriller and horror genre was the one for him, but he’s been a part of it ever since.

“Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is an amazingly self-assured debut. It’s fair to say Argento’s been remaking the same movie ever since. So many of the narrative devices that he would use over and over again in the future are first presented here. The film begins with a witness to an (in this case attempted) murder, which soon makes the witness the murderer’s next intended victim. During the sighting, the witness sees something that he can’t quite remember but he knows is an important clue to the killer’s identity. It’s only at the end that he realizes what this subconscious hint was. A painting provides an important clue. There’s a whispery voice making threats over the telephone. The main character is a writer and his relationship with his sassy girlfriend provides the emotional backbone for the movie. Honestly, the only missing is a precocious kid and some toy-featuring flashbacks to childhood for this to be the archetypal Argento experience. Even the Ennio Morricone score, with its creepy child choir, recalls later Argento films.

And there’s something else missing too. “Bird with the Crystal Plumage” features a number of horrific elements. Following an atmospheric walk through foggy streets, our protagonist is almost decapitated by a mean looking meat cleaver. There’s a pretty bloody slashing with a straight razor. A dead body turns up in a closet. In the movie’s queasiest moment, the killer attacks a busty young woman in a see-through nightie, by cutting her few remaining clothes off. Despite all of this, the movie really doesn’t feel like a horror film. Instead of generating the raw terror the director would become famous for later in his career, “Bird with the Crystal Plumage” plays more like a straight-up investigative mystery, with a few gruesome thriller elements added on.

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that either. The film makes fairly captivating viewing as our protagonist chugs along, following leads. Sam Dalmas is a fairly likable, charming character and Tony Musante plays him nicely. Suzy Kendall plays Sam’s girlfriend Julia, and the two have a great chemistry. A quirky set of supporting characters are marched out, each one providing his own clue. There’s a stuttering pimp, a paranoid snitch, a transvestite who is most definitely not a pervert, a chatty cab driver, and, most memorable, a grouchy, hermit-like painter who has a closet full of caged cats that he intends to fatten up and eat. While all of these characters are certainly entertaining and its fun to watch our protagonist play off of them, it feels a bit like the movie is just spinning it’s wheels until it’s time to reveal the killer.

That the killer’s eventual reveal has less to do with Sam’s amateur sleuthing and more to do with bad luck doesn’t help the movie’s case in that regard. We find out the killer is a mad, giggling lunatic too, which smacks of lazy writing. (As does the “Psycho” style, pre-credits sequence exactly explaining the origin of the murderer’s lunacy.)

Another thing missing from the movie is Argento’s experimental camera work. There’s not too much in way of style here. There’s a fantastic point-of-view shot of a man falling from a window and another where the camera follows the blade of a knife as it cuts towards an exposed eyeball.

Which isn’t too say that the movie is short on suspense. The sequence of the killer slowly working his way into the protagonist’s apartment, digging a hole in the door with the knife, is the most suspenseful scene of the film. An unexpected hit-and-run is surprising and leads to a decent chase sequences throughout the back allies of Rome.

I guess the simple truth is that “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” simply doesn’t resonate with me the way Argento’s later work does. But it is a good film, a solid thriller, that certainly lays out many of the filmmaker’s favorite tropes and trademarks. [Grade: B]

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