3/24/09

Terrifying Tuesday: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Welcome back to the second Terrifying Tuesday that was chosen by you, the readers of the LBL. Last week I took on the number one choice, Unberto Lenzi’s Hell of the Living Dead, and this week we get to look at the runner up. 

Dario Argento is a name synonymous with the horror genre to many people, but in the late ‘60’s when Argento was getting his start, he took jobs writing screenplays. Argento put his pen to such films as the Leone western Once Upon a Time in the West and Lenzi’s war flick Legion of the Damned. Then in 1970, Argento finally got a chance to make a film on his own, and its success lead to Dario becoming such a name in the genre. So for this Terrifying Tuesday, I give you the Argento’s first film in a review picked by Ryan and The Bonebreaker. Gents, this is….
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage [Italian: L’Uccello dalle piume di cristallo] (1970) starring Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, and Enrico Maria Salemo. Directed by Dario Argento. 

Sam (Musante) is an American writer who has come to live Italy to look for inspiration, but all Sam has managed to do is take a job writing a book about the preservations of rare birds. Feeling dejected and suffering from writers block, Sam collects his paycheck for the book and intends to return home, but on the way back to his loft, he witnesses a murder in progress in an art gallery. He tries to get to the victim to save her, but he only manages to scare the murderer off. Thankfully the police arrive and whisk the woman to the hospital as she clings to life. Sam feels like he’s done his civic duty, but Inspector Morosini has a few questions for him.

Morosini takes Sam to the station where he makes the writer go over the details of the crime time and time again. They finally release Sam, but keep his passport so he can’t leave the country. The events of that night begin to haunt Sam’s thoughts, and soon he is tracking down leads on his own. He scours the city for any clues and questions everyone from art dealers to get to the bottom of the case. As Sam draws nearer to uncovering the killer, he might have to give his own life to find out the truth. 

The Bugg Picture

I’ll be the first to admit that Argento is not my favorite among the Italian directors. While I respect both his body of work and achievements, Argento’s films often leave me wanting. I do have to say that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is one of my favorite films which I have seen from the director. Especially considering this was Dario’s first foray into directing, it was quite an achievement. I could definitely see the young director stating his purpose and beginning to define his style. There are shades of what Argento would do in films such as Susperia and Tenebre and the stylistic flourishes that he would become known for. 

One of the best things about The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is the script which was also written by Argento. The pacing of the film is done incredibly well, and although there is only one action sequence to speak of, it still moves along at a breakneck pace. It is easy to become involved in Sam’s story, and while it is ludicrous that the Italian police would allow a writer to continue his own rogue investigation, other than that, the film maintains a realistic tone throughout which makes the tension palpable. My only gripe about Argento’s scripting comes in the form of the red herrings. While they are a must in a giallo, here they feel contrived and are easily to discount. That being said, I did not see the final reveal coming, and that was immensely satisfying. 

The acting was also quite strong throughout. Tony Muscante, who looked so young and was barely recognizable from his roles in Oz and 2008’s We Own the Night, carried the movie incredibly well. When I praised the script earlier for making Sam and engaging character, I was perhaps doing Muscante a disservice. Without his energetic portrayal of the frustrated writer, the character could have easily been nothing more than a cardboard cutout. The other great performance in the film comes by way of genre cinema regular Enrico Maria Salerno. With credits such as …Calling all Police Cars, Night Train Murders, Candy and Gambling City on his resume, he will be a familiar face to many avid film watchers. Here as Inspector Morosini, Salerno brings a great deal of humor to what amounts to a grim situation. There is one scene in particular where he wants Sam to look at a line up and calls for them to “Bring in the perverts.” which will stick in my mind for quite some time. The rest of the cast acquit themselves quite well, but their performances are nothing more than incidental to the continuation of the narrative. 

Argento worked with Vittorio Storaro on this film, and with only three previous credits before The Bird with the Crystal Plumage,  Storaro was also just beginning  his career. He would go on to lens Apocalypse Now, Reds, and the childhood favorite Ladyhawk. While the film did have a very beautiful look to it, I felt that it had a much more muted color palette than would be on display in much or Argento’s later work. Perhaps the collaboration was not a fruitful as either would have liked as they never paired up for a project again. However, this film would signal the start of a professional relationship between Argento and composer Ennio Morricone. They would go on to work on four more films together, and with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Morricone provided an excellent soundscape as usual. 

While I have much good to say about Argento’s freshman effort, I still do find the film a bit lacking. While the end has a good twist which is never really hinted at, the red herrings we are given along the way are such throwaways the viewer never really suspects anyone, much less the actual killer. So while it is technically well made, scripted and acted, it does not rank up there with the best of the gialli I have seen. I would much rather put in Blood and Black Lace or What Have You Done to Solonge?, but at the same time for the importance of this horror icon’s first film, this is one that should not be missed. While it probably will not call to you for repeated viewings, one if definitely required. 

The Bugg Rating

4 comments:

  1. Hey, thanks for the review-on-request! I've always liked, but not loved, this film. I'm more partial to Suspira (and I have this Jessica Harper thing), but I like the Hitchcock feeling that Argento got here. Nice Morricone score, too. One of probably twenty he did that year.

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  2. Maybe because Argento was only starting out here and it's a less characteristic work, I found Bird more accessible than the more admired stuff like Suspiria, which left me shrugging. The art direction and cinematography dominate here. It reminded me more of Storaro's other work than Argento's. But Dario deserves credit for bits of craziness like the cat-fancying painter and the effective pacing throughout.

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  3. Hey there. Great writeup on this film. I'm a big fan of this film. It's amazing. I'm not as big a fan of Dario Argento as some people. I like him and his movies, but there are other directors I prefer.

    Oh yeah. I just did a post about when I plan to return to blogging. I hope you'll check it out. Thanks.

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  4. Glad to hear that this one worked for you LB!

    Thank you for the excellent review - I shall raise it higher in my Netflix Queue :-)

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