The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Writer and director – Dario Argento
Cast – Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, and Enrico Maria
I’ve been in Nice, France for the last two weeks, and in addition to a bad cold and a potentially broken foot, I have been battling the lack of new cinematic releases around the city. Before I travelled here, I checked out a website that listed a number of English language cinemas around the city, and things looked promising, but lately it just seems like the cinemas are full of what the end of 2011 had to offer. Films like Drive, Take Shelter, The Help, and The Descendants fill up the ‘Now Playing’ listings. So it looks like I may not be able to review new movies like I had expected. Luckily, I anticipated running into some difficulties and converted many of my DVDs into AVI files, which I will start digging into and reviewing as the months pass by. As many readers will know, my main interest lies in the realm of horror, and it’s for this reason that I kick-off my old school review section with Dario Argento’s first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Most cinephiles will be familiar with the work of Dario Argento, also referred to as the ‘Maestro of Italian horror’. He’s been responsible for a number of now classic horror films, such as Suspiria, Deep Red, and Inferno. If you’re like me then you probably have a great deal of respect for the Maestro, but at the same time can’t help but feel a little disappointed with his work over the last ten to fifteen years (see the awful trailer for his upcoming Dracula film, this is not a joke). Argento seems to have an innate ability to wow audiences visually with striking red blood, obscure camera angles, and creative pans between bedroom windows on a stormy night. There is no doubt that the man has a cinematic eye. However, his films are often burdened with inane character behaviour and dialogue, while his cookie-cutter plot which sees a killer stalk women has been used over and over again without apology. It’s hard not to be torn when it comes to Argento as the issues discussed above are some of the best and worst aspects of horror films in general. I’ve come to the opinion that watching an Argento film is akin to looking at a piece of abstract art: if you like what you see, then stay a while, try to dissect it, if you don’t like what you see, then move on quickly, because things are only going to get worse with any sort of logical analysis.
This was the first time I had ever seen The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and I was really looking forward to it. Would it feel like an Argento film? Would it feel amateurish, indicating that the Maestro needed time to grow? Oddly enough it felt like a typical Argento film, almost disappointingly so. Let me try to explain.
The film follows an American who attempts to come to the aid of a woman when she is attacked by a knife wielding man in black. As a result our hero becomes ensnared in a police investigation, his passport temporarily withheld from him as the police coax him into helping them catch a serial killer who they believe is the knife wielding man in black. The mystery slowly unravels while the man in black claims victim after victim. Sounds like typical Argento, right? In fact, it is Argento to a tee: the killer wears black gloves, first person camera angles are used during the attacks, the killer speaks in a menacing whisper, men are killed quickly while women are emotionally tortured before being killed, and the characters and dialogue are often incredibly stupid. In one instance an antique store owner utters ‘…some say she liked other girls, but don’t get me wrong, I’m no racist’ *face palm*. Therefore, it’s disappointing for me to see that Argento was in prime form on his very first film, potentially indicting that he has failed to grow as a story teller throughout his career and may have been getting by on pure visual talent alone. Argento has been using this black gloved, first person, knife or razor wielding villain for decades with success, but when he departs from this his films are somewhat forgettable.
Finally, I was shocked to discover as I watched the film that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is heavily based on an excellent novel by Fredric Brown, called the Screaming Mimi (see my blog post about Brown). Maybe it was due to the times, but Brown and his novel are completely uncredited, which is an absolute travesty considering how heavily his novel was drawn on. Brown was a master story teller that could wrap a reader around his pinkie finger without them even knowing it. Plot however is not Argento’s forte, and as a result the delicately balanced narrative found in The Screaming Mimi is ill understood by Argento, or simply tossed aside in favour of more kills. In the end, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is worth a watch for Argento fans, but if you’re new to his work, you would be much better suited checking out Suspiria, Inferno, or Phenomena.