Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Film Review: THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970, Dario Argento)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 98 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Ennio Morricone (did the score for Argento's entire animal trilogy and was evidently next-door neighbors with Dario at the time), Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Renato Romano, Vittorio Storaro (ace cinematographer who also did everything from THE CONFORMIST to LADYHAWKE to THE LAST EMPEROR to APOCALYPSE NOW) , Salvatore Argento.
Tag-line: "A stunning portrait in psycho-terror!"
Best one-liner(s): (at a police line-up) "Bring out the perverts."

Dario Argento's first film as a director, and his first Giallo (literally "yellow" in Italian, after the color of the covers of Italian murder mystery novels), and he certainly lets you know it- he ridiculously (but artfully) weaves the color yellow in and out of the aesthetics and narrative. This giallo was the first in Argento's 'animal' trilogy which also included THE CAT O' NINE TAILS and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, which proved so successful that they spawned a slew of rip-off animal-themed gialli from THE CURSE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL to LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN to THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA.

Everything that makes Argento 'ARGENTO' is here, alive and well, even at this early stage. The ritualistic black-gloved murders of beautiful women; the fact that every frame could be frozen, ornately framed, and put in a museum; the laying of knives on red fabric; making animals essential to the plot; his awkward sense of humor, which treads territory from streetwalking trannies to the taboo of eating cats; and the use of art as a weapon, literally and metaphorically.
It's funny that the first murder setpiece of Argento's career doesn't actually end in a fatality. But it's a beautifully shot tour-de-force sequence with our hero trapped between two sets of glass doors watching an attempted murder in an art gallery, with all the kinds of visual, aural, and ironic touches Argento murders have always been known for.
As always, Argento keeps us guessing as to the identity of the murderer (and not in a corny or embarrassing or Agatha Christie-cheating way), and the mystery unfurls with the sure-headed confidence of a master, despite the young Argento's lack of directorial experience. (Though we need only turn to his writing contributions on Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to see him masterfully wield horror elements within the constraints of a Western.)

Argento's films always have some hilariously awkward suspension of disbelief, and here, the biggest is that our hero, who's clearly as Italian as Puccini, spaghetti, and chianti, is...an AMERICAN. And it's a major plot point, too. The good thing for the rest of us is that only more ridiculousness was to come... Viva Argento!

-Sean Gill

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