The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970) October 31, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Festival, Literature.
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Bryan Edgar Wallace and Dario Argento
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno
For some reason, the vivid image of crawling stays in my mind after watching The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and up to now, weeks after seeing it, it is still that image that pushes me to write about it. I do remember a lot of crawling, but I can’t remember them specifically, except that scene when the girlfriend is trapped inside the apartment and the killer hacks the door to get in. The girl acts like she was killed already, wailing and not doing much to escape, but she tries to open the window at some point. When she realizes that her death is near, she crawls on the floor and cries. I can’t remember if she fainted, but when her boyfriend arrives, the killer walks away and her savior gets in to rescue her. There is something thrilling about that scene, yet there is also something funny about it—ludicrous even to the point of distraction.
What most fans say about Argento’s first film is not really false. In comparison with his latter films—Suspiria being the most immediate work that comes to mind—The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is too weak to fly, well, if you get the lousy figure of speech. But strangely, I still find it very entertaining. Not that the fans don’t find it entertaining, or my taste gravely matters, but I don’t find it as disappointing as most of them do. The genre that the film belongs to—the giallo, which in Italian means yellow, named after the series of paperback novels of mostly yellowish covers—is remarkable for pushing a tradition of suspense-thriller films that are characterized by their stylish visual elements, often too polished and theatrical, and unconventional use of music. The “cheapness” of the pulp novels is usually emphasized, although when giallo started to be popular in film, the language has been defined to offer an alternative to schlock horror, punctuating the use of technique to help the story achieve a distinct pacing and atmosphere. It is in this context that The Bird With The Crystal Plumage would be appreciated, as an early potent example of the genre.
Yet the crawling could have been Argento himself trying to figure out the aesthetics of giallo. Like his inquisitive main character, who is a writer like himself, he is risking discovery by being nosy, by relentlessly holding on to what he wants even if it means getting killed or, in Argento’s case, reaching failure. It’s helpful that he has two wonderful artists with him to lend a hand: Vittorio Storaro—whose photography moves even when the scene is static, and stays even when the scene is moving—and Ennio Morricone—whose “lalalala” music keeps ringing like a broken record, adding a bizarre texture to Storaro’s strong visuals. It’s more of miscalculation than consistency, come-hitherness than vapidness, and tenderness than stoicism, that make The Bird With The Crystal Plumage work. When the killer’s husband falls from the window, slipping from the hands of the main character, the camera, taking his point of view, falls too. It’s a classic Argento device—playing with the point of view to build up the tension—that still looks fresh and astonishing up to now.