Saturday, November 1, 2008

Review of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

While it’s fair to call “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (1963) the first giallo, the genre didn’t really become internationally recognized until Dario Argento’s debut film “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (1970). The film introduced many of the genres touchstones, like bold color highlights, art-decked set pieces, multiple red herrings and a creative twist ending. While its rougher around the edges than his later masterpieces (“Deep Red,” “Suspiria” and “Phenomena”), it’s still one of his best pictures.

The story follows Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) and his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) who are temporarily residing in Rome. One night Sam witnesses a fight taking place in an art gallery: a beautiful red-haired woman (Eva Renzi) is struggling with a black-clad knife-wielding killer. Trying to intercede, Sam find himself trapped between the entranceway’s inner and outer glass panes and he watches impotently as the woman collapses and the villain escapes. When the police arrive, they confiscate his passport, involuntarily forcing Sam to open his own investigation before he can go home.

Gialli, and thrillers in general, are known for plucky amateur sleuths who, despite no training and life-threatening circumstances, manage to solve cases that stymie entire police forces. Sam would be considered enthusiastic even within that tradition. He seems to find every new attempt on his life (or Julia’s) exciting and helpful; confirmation that he’s on the right track. He buys a creepy work of art that might be a clue and stares at it whenever he’s not trotting around jails and reclusive cottages conducting interviews.

A mark of a less-talented giallo director is that this travel/interview/investigation phase is often a hollow wild goose chase that treads water until the big showdown and shocking twist. In terms of the narrative progress, Argento is almost guilty, but he excels at making this stagnant phase unusually interesting.

One way he does this is with over-developed characters. These are minor characters that are given extreme quirks, outrageous personalities or elaborate backstories even though they will have little or no bearing on the plot. Examples here include a hermit artist who feeds the hero cat meat from his feline kennel and a kindly imprisoned pimp who overcomes his stutter by finishing sentences with “goodbye.”

Meanwhile, every relatively normal character is turned into a potential suspect, not just because of meaningful zoom shots. A series of clues are given at the beginning of the film, including a fiber from a gray English suit and the assailant’s smoking preference. From this point onward, almost every character will wear gray English suits and smoke. The red herrings are often unassuming, since Sam almost never mentions them out loud and the audience is left to catch them with only light emphasis.

[Image: One of many throw-away red herrings, in which Sam and Julia awkwardly make-out as their ornithologist friend smokes an incriminating cigar. Conveniently enough, the key clue involves a rare bird call.]

If Argento had pointed out these connections directly, everyone would have known they were red herrings. The subtly of this schema is perhaps best displayed by a moment when Sam throws the victim’s husband a cigarette box and he catches it left-handed. Mystery enthusiasts know to watch cigarette preferences and left/right-handedness like hawks as they’re virtually clue clichés, but these pieces of trivia turns out to be relevant in a way more likely to misdirect the viewer than to enlighten. Argento accepts that a lot of people will miss the game completely, but explanatory codas ensure that everyone comprehends the final reveal (in this case, a talky tv special literally spells it out for the audience).

Long before the giallo, Italy had a tradition of dubbing rather than using subtitles. Since this meant that quality writing and dialogue-heavy performances would inevitably suffer in foreign markets, it sent much of Italy’s film exports down market. Mysteries in the style of Sherlock Holmes or Law & Order: Criminal Intent, that are often based on solving cases through verbal cues, psychological traps and the Socratic method would be lost in translation.

Argento, like Bava before him, adapted to the problem by developing a highly visual presentation. This lent itself to an international audience whose appetite for gore and nudity was increasing, but also allowed for a rapid intensification of stylistics. This explains one cause for the heightened focus on over-the-top camerawork, fashion and set design. It also created a need for mysteries based around object clues rather than verbal slips and performance “tells.” Gialli often play this up in the titles that feature provocative adjective-noun clues from the plot like Crystal Plumage, Scorpion Tail, Black Lace, Bloody Iris, Bloodstained Shadow, etc.

[Image: Close-ups of eyes have become a horror film staple, often as a self-referential implication of the role voyeurism plays in films, fear and pleasure. Gialli are no exceptions.]

I’d speculate that the decreased reliance on dialogue also encouraged the rise of atmospheric soundtracks to fill the silence. Ennio Morricone worked on this film, for example and would help shape the mood on many other gialli to come. He established a tradition of horror music that saturates the action rather than simply accentuating the dramatic moments.

It also fits that protagonists in gialli are usually not private detectives or policemen called in to investigate, but first-hand witnesses to a crime. Argento established a popular system where the solution to the case hinges upon a detail from that first trigger event, often involving a reinterpretation of an image that the hero, and by extension the audience, already saw. “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is a very clever example of this, while “Deep Red” takes it to the extreme.

This witness-hero convention has another advantage: if gives an excuse for the killer to mark the witness, who may have unknowingly seen the key to the killer’s identity, as his next target. In addition to providing an excuse for more action and tension, this makes use of a common horror film goal: to transform the observer (with the hero as a surrogate for the audience) into a participant. This can sometimes be predatory, as in villain POVs (what I call “stalker vision,” where the camera pushes through branches as it sneaks up on the oblivious victim), but it is more often a way to vicariously experience the fear of the victim.

Argento uses a particularly neat structure for effecting the observer-to-victim transformation. Sam is an unhappily passive observer during the first attack. The audience and their surrogate are frustratingly trapped outside, forced to watch the action with the detachment of window shopping. At the conclusion of the film, Sam and the killer will return to the same location, but this time Sam will be trapped under a heavy, spike-bristling sculpture as the killer threatens to stab him. It is almost as though he were reliving the first scene as the victim. “Suspiria” and many other Argento films follow this pattern.

So what else distinguishes an aesthetics-driven mystery from a traditional dialogue-driven one? Zooms, close-ups and fast-cut continuity editing were popular tools available to Italian directors for guiding the narrative and the attention of the viewer, but Argento’s genius lay in adopting other methods. Often, he relies simply on color. The fight that Sam witnesses near the start of the film, for instance, features a white set, a white-clad woman and a black-clad man. These colors help to influence our interpretation of the scene.

Another example is an assassination attempt on Sam featuring a killer in a bright yellow jacket. The jacket serves as a striking contrast during a nighttime chase through a parking lot filled with blue busses and helps the audience follow the action even in the dark. Argento then plays with our expectations as Sam turns the tables and uses the jacket to trail his attacker. The identifying feature is soon lost in a convention of auto mechanics all wearing the same jacket.

One explicit nod to the difference color makes is a painting that a previous victim purchased shortly before being murdered. Sam and Julia hang a black-and-white print of the picture on their wall because they believe, correctly, that the image has some bearing on the case. It does not end up helping their investigation, partly because their experience of viewing the picture is not as dramatic as the killer’s, who possesses the brightly colored original. Argento will use a graphic match from the BW print to the color painting as a way of cutting from Sam’s loft to the killer’s apartment.

There are some memorable set pieces in “Crystal Plumage,” too, and a lot of inspired props (like a candelabra stuck in shatterproof glass), but you get the idea. The visual-driven storytelling style can take many forms and stimulated a lot of groundbreaking creativity. Much of the distinctive styles of giallo directors can be thought of as a way of communicating to the audience beyond the unreliable intermediate of dubbed dialogue. It can also be seen in Martino’s fondness for letting the eyes do the talking, Ercoli’s way of defining a characters personality and feelings through outlandish clothing and Fulci ability to provoke gut reactions with zooms and in-your-face gore.

Walrus Rating: 8.0


Mad Dog said...

Oh, hey, a giallo I've actually seen! I really enjoyed watching this one, especially the amazing set piece that was the first (attempted) kill. The twist that the story ended up taking at the end was pretty cool in that it didn't break the boundaries of logic, unlike lots of modern horror twists. One thing that this movie did that amused/irritated me was when the protagonist's girlfriend is caught in their apartment. She is so friggin' helpless. Maybe I'm just more used to the female-empowered horror in the good ol' USA, but what's with Dario Argento and women?

Anonymous said...

Loosely based on "The Screaming Mimi" a Post War pulp best seller. A great/horrible novel.

FilmWalrus said...

Yeah, giallo can be pretty awful about portraying women, not to mention downright exploitive and pornographic in some cases. Do check out some of Susan Scott's films with Luciano Ercoli for a more feminine-empowered perspective, albeit with a conspicuous amount of cleavage, costume-changing, hair-tossing and stripteasing.

Missesgrim said...

Hi there,
I am a huge Argento fan and since I saw this movie I was trying to find out from wich artist this painting is!
Does anybody know it???

FilmWalrus said...

I'm usually pretty good at recognizing artwork in giallo, but this one escapes me. It's possible that it was made specifically for the film, so you might see if you can find anything on production designer Dario Micheli who did the set dressing. What kills me though is that I feel like I've recently seen a painting that looked like the work of the same artist, but I can't recall where...

Missesgrim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Missesgrim said...

Oh I'm so afraid that it really was just made for the film.
It fascinates me a lot and I would like to have a large print of it on my wall.
Yes it also gives me a familiar feeling. It's so strange.
The technic and way the figures are drawn reminds me a little bit of Pieter Bruegel. And Argento has used one of Buegels Pictures "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus " for his Stendhal Syndrome!
So I searched for paintings by Bruegel... but nothing :(

Well, I will try to find something out about Dario Micheli, Thank You!!!

Ray Crowe said...

I think this is one of Argento's better plotted films, extremely suspenseful and stylish and a very promising debut for the Maestro. That taunting soundtrack has always given me the creeps as well. Unforgettable giallo.