Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Shadows and dark… The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

This was Dario Argento’s first film and shows remarkable restraint in creating a giallo light on bloodshed but high on primal, discomforting terror. As Roger Ebert said in his review of the time, “…its scares are on a much more basic level than in, say, a thriller by Hitchcock. It works mostly by exploiting our fear of the dark.” I’d go further than that and say that it exploits our fear of being surprised, overwhelmed and not being able to fight back let alone control our situation.

At the start of the film, American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery; a woman stumbles down the stairs, clutching her chest and falls bleeding onto the floor as her shadowy assailant makes good his escape. Sam sees everything and runs across only to find himself trapped between the interior shop window and another plane of glass in front. Like a fly in a bottle he can’t get in to help the girl and he can’t run away to get help: he can only bang on the windows in hope. It’s a great set piece and is mirrored later when his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) is alone in their flat and the killer attempts to hack his way in: she can’t escape and is paralysed with fear, trapped with no way forward… your worst nightmare; suspended between mortal fear and the instinct to escape when there is no way out…

These moments are so memorable because they play more on the human cost of horror. It’s all very well showing gore but what really troubles us isn’t the largely not simple revulsion but the moment all our resistance will be futile.

Eva Renzi
Around this powerful sentiment, Argento builds a crafty plot that leaves us guessing all the way through until one of the smartest twists in Giallo leaves us gasping, following a camera-destroying shot so audacious you wonder why no one thought of it before…

But all that’s ahead and there’s no spoilers here.

The victim of the attack, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) recovers in hospital and with her husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) seemingly in the clear, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) has Sam immediately under suspicion and it’s another basic fear; we’re guilty enough without being assumed so. But this isn’t the only murder/attempted murder and as then viewers have already seen, there has already been one murder with the gloved hands of the culprit seen focusing a camera lens on a young woman who is then found stabbed… before long another follows.

Witness: Tony Musante
Sam is due to return home to America but can’t shake the incident off and begins to dig deeper despite the pleadings of Julia (did I ever mention how Suzy Kendall is practically perfect?).  He visits the owner of a gallery where the first victim, a sales assistant supplementing her income through prostitution… had sold a strange painting just before she was killed.

There’s a clever moment when Argento switches from Sam and Julia looking in shock at the black and white copy and then to the colour original, pulling the camera back to reveal the killer dressed in black leather hat and coat, staring at the image: the power of visual imagery, unsettling emotional response connecting the participants. The killer looks at photographs of the next victim – a woman photographed at a race course – then pulls out a knife, looking once more at the macabre acrylic inspiration on the wall.

Suzy Kendall
Sam visits the strange artist who painted the strange painting and learns little only that the painting was one of a number depicting the violent murder of a woman… how is this connected to the killings? These investigations get him noticed and he’s assaulted after visiting Signore Ranieri… the killer obviously knows him now and this is personal.

A game of bird and mouse ensues with the killer making threatening phone calls to Sam and Julia  with the strange sounds of what turns out to be the titular avian in the background adding to the sense of unease whilst also providing the ultimate “witness”, if only they can find the liar.

There’s constant unease in the everyday with Sam chasing someone the killer into a convention centre only to find it packed full of people wearing the same work clothes… the murderer is hiding in plain sight and could be anyone.

I don't know much about art but I know what I don't like...
Then there is the, inevitable, moment when the killer tries to kill Julia evading police protection and laying siege to the apartment as she tries to overcome the paralysis of fear. It’s horrible stuff and Kendall plays a blinder as she is ultimately saved by the arrival of the – supposedly watchful – police…

But, and it is a very important but, the killer is another classic example of giallo double/triple think and beyond, working with so much with people’s preconceptions and gender role expectations. Now whether this was post-factual rationalisation or planned throughout till makes it valid.

Dusty Video Box Verdict: The ending will hopefully surprise you… but it’s the overall film that is counts and I think it deserves it reputation of genre busting because of its intelligence and overall style: frightening people through atmospherics and uncertainty – out-thinking them! – is always more difficult than just using gore and director Dario Argento succeeds here like few others before or since.

The film is available on Arrow Bluray and is essential for all fans of Giallo and Italian film of the era.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

And one can smile and smile… Villain (1971)

I had no idea that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais had been such prolific producers of feature films prior to their career in TV sitcoms. I grew up in time for Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Porridge and then Auf Wiedersehen Pet, but it’s only latterly I’ve caught their films such as To Catch a Spy (Kirk Douglas and Marlene Jobert spy caper), the magnificent Otley (Tom Courtney and Romy Schneider Notting Hill spy caper) and Jokers (Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed crime caper…). These films are patchy but ambitious and attempt to create very British products both in terms of location and humour.

With Villain they turned their sights on real crime and the huge impact celebrity criminals like the Kray twins had on British society even after they had both been locked up for good. They enlisted Richard Burton to play a crime lord along their lines, this one apparently brought up in the East End via South Wales with an accent flitting about somewhere between the two. In all other respects Burton is perfectly believable as the hardman with a soft spot for his mum and young Ian McShane. For the period it’s perhaps a juxtaposition to have a gay-hearted gangster but Ronnie’s sexuality was never a barrier to his free expression of violent intent.

Wolfie and Vic
The film’s a bit coy on the men’s relationship, concerned with Burton’s believability perhaps and a more explicit sex scene was cut over concern with audience reaction. The man himself took it in his stride telling McShane that he reminded him of Elizabeth: it may have been the hair perhaps?

Interestingly, the story was based on the book Burden of Proof by James Barlow, and a treatment by the American actor Al Lettieri, a 'tough-guy' in films such as The Godfather and who had actual connections with the New York Gambino Family. This coupled with some crisp dialogue and strong performances – what a cast list - ads a level of believability that leaves this film not that far behind the more stylised Get Carter and the under-rated The Reckoning.

Burton is Vic Dakin, master of hard-won turf in the East End – the location shots are a great window on those streets 48 years ago – and is coolly in control using violence to control the streets and anyone unfortunate enough to descend into his demi-monde. The opening sequence shows a well-to-do business man being violently taken to task and ending up dangling from his Knightsbridge window ledge with his girlfriend in hysterics.

Gerald looks to make new connections with Wolfie's friend Venetia
Vic’s got his fingers in many pies and runs parties at which the supposedly well-to-do can be entertained with and then blackmailed. One MP, Gerald Draycott (a nervy-pervy Donald Sinden) apparently based on Lord Boothby, has a weakness for younger girls and Vic is only too happy to oblige so long as Gerald scratches his back too.

Vic’s left-hand man is Wolfe Lissner (Ian McShane) who has a way with the ladies and procures the required talent. Wolfie’s smart and does what he must but his attempt to lead a life of his own with girlfriend Venetia (Fiona Lewis) is compromised by his being the apple of Vic’s eye too, still, he just about manages the balance.

Vic’s other henchmen are well cast Tony Selby, cockney-dubbed as Duncan, Del Henney – always believable in these roles - as Webb and John Hallam as Terry. You wouldn’t want to cross any of them.

Del and Tony
Out to catch them is Detective Bob Matthews (an impeccable Nigel Davenport) and his partner, Sergeant Tom Binney (Colin Welland); men who are from the same backgrounds but who chose a different path: whilst the villains hang out in strip bars and West End flats, plod tends their gardens in suburbia. The interplay between Vic and Bob (oh yes!) is a joy to watch with Burton and Davenport clearly relishing playing two sides of the same coin.

Vic has always relied on his mother to keep whatever sanity he has and, whilst she seems oblivious to his profession, Mrs Dakin (Cathleen Nesbitt) is of failing health and this starts to undermine her son’s judgement. He gets approached buy a man called Brown (James Cossins), a disaffected employee with secrets to sell concerning the payroll where he works but this is on the patch of rival boss, Frank Fletcher (T. P. McKenna).

Colin Welland, Nigel Davenport and Ian McShane
Against Woolfie’s advice, Vic meets with Frank and his nervy, hypochondriacal right-hand man Lowis (an unsettling and febrile performance from Joss Ackland) and eventually agree that the deal is just too good to miss.

If the plot has one major flaw it’s that these two bosses would get involved in the actual robbery, especially given the power Vic wields in the straight world… but, as his mother passes away and he becomes emotionally, as well as physically-dependent on Wolfie, he is intent on proving himself.

Will the job go as plan and will there be honour amongst thieves? Events play out with well-crafted action sequences, all shot on rugged locations in London which looks impressively careworn in 1970 as the cops and robbers’ career around in top of the range Rovers.

Joss Ackland, TP McKenna, John Hallam and Richard Burton
Dusty Verdict: The film makes some interesting points about criminal charisma but ultimately falls short of the class of say The Robbery or Get Carter. That said, Burton is eminently watchable – if not listenable – and carries the right menace to the end. There’s great support from Ian McShane – what a career he’s still having – he manages to make Wolfie a sympathetic schemer who’s just wheedled himself in to Vic’s world too deep to escape the man’s control and his – now unwelcome – passion.

Fiona Lewis is, as always, highly-watchable – the very model of a theatrically-trained, modern player amongst so many greats of the previous generation. It is a superb cast throughout. Plus, there's great motors, lots of them; Jags, Rovers, Fords... all high performance and driven at speed! Yes, I am shallow.

Fiona is highly watchable...
Victim’s breathless ending leaves open the question of whether right is might and this – as ever – remains pertinent; there are still Vic Dakins out there and not all, necessarily, in the business of crime…

The film pops up on Talking Pictures and on a 2007 Studiocanal DVD available from Amazon etc.