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.

No comments:

Post a Comment