One of these days, I’m going to come to some sort of conclusion about the films of Dario Argento. I tend to be either thrilled by them, or completely unmoved. I suppose this uncertainty does make each film an exciting adventure, but as adventures go, they’re often frustrating. I may have done this to myself by approaching Argento’s filmography from, if you’ll pardon the expression, the ass-end; I’ve seen Mother of Tears and Dario Argento’s Dracula and The Card Player, but I haven’t seen Deep Red or Inferno or Four Flies on Grey Velvet. We needn’t concern ourselves with the whys of any of this. If it helps my case at all, I am trying to correct this imbalance by catching up with the big titles.
Such as, just to take a random example, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, his first film as a director. Released in 1970 (and just out now on a snazzy new Blu-ray from Arrow Video), it’s a pretty classic example of a gialli, in that there’s a black-gloved killer, a hunt for same, numerous stabbing deaths, and a cloud of nonsense hanging over the whole thing. It’s a proto-slasher film, or so some would and have and continue to argue, except that, as distinct from most if not all other Argento films I’ve seen, it’s not especially bloody – it’s certainly no Tenebrae, Argento’s film from 1982, made when the slasher genre was really ramping up, and a very nasty piece of work it indeed is.
The plot is simple: a blocked American writer named Sam (Tony Musante) is staying in Rome with his English girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) when, one night, Sam is walking through downtown at night when he happens to look in the window of an art gallery that is closed for the night, and sees and man and woman struggling. The man is wearing a black coat and hat, his features difficult to make out. The woman, who we eventually learn is named Monica (Eva Renzi) and is married to the gallery owner (Umberto Raho), ends up being stabbed in the abdomen. After a very striking sequence involving Sam trying to make his way past locked glass doors (one is unlocked by a mysterious black-gloved hand) to, hopefully, get to her, or anyway have his cry for help heard by a passer-by.
Eventually the cops arrive, Monica survives, and Sam is relentlessly questioned by the police, led by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno). It’s not that Sam is a suspect – he very clearly didn’t do it. But this stabbing is only the latest of many that have left several women dead across the city, Sam is the only eyewitness the police have. And as the questioning continues and repeats itself and days go by, Musante does a good job of showing the weary, almost angry frustration at being asked the same questions over and over again. The trouble is, by the third scene of Morosini asking him what the man in black looked like, I myself probably could have stepped in for Musante, should he have fallen ill at any point. A simple time jump would have achieved what Argento was going for – showing it the way he does is just tedious.
In fact, while the plot of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage could not be simpler, Argento seems to be constantly searching for ways to drag things out. As you’d expect, Sam becomes obsessed with the case, and begins conducting his own investigation, with which the cops have no beef. At one point, Sam’s detective work takes him to a remote Italian village so that he can question the loony artist behind an absolutely bonkers painting the purchase of which from a store in Rome seems to have been connected to an earlier murder. Anyway, so Sam meets the guy, and this whole bit of the film ultimately has no bearing on anything. It exists only so that Sam can accidentally eat cat meat. Many of the various parts that make up The Bird with the Crystal Plumage have little to no bearing on the proceedings, including the title. Which is a great title, but the meaning is ultimately so arbitrary that I wish Argento had called this movie The Crazy Painting Murders and saved The Bird with the Crystal Plumage for a film that could have put it to better use.
Of course, that stuff is all part of the cloud of nonsense I referred to earlier, which is a kind of cloud I do not object to in principle, or as a general artistic or storytelling philosophy, and which, in any case, is par for the course not only with Argento, but with giallo as a whole. My favorite Argento film, 1985’s Phenomena, a film I love nearly beyond reason, is nothing but a cloud of nonsense. It is a nonsense cloud made flesh. But if a mystery film, which is what The Bird with the Crystal Plumage essentially is, is going to sacrifice, or never consider to begin with, narrative coherence, one expects certain compensations – the sort of compensations that Phenomena and Suspiria have pouring out of their noses, but which this film does not. Other than the wonderful early scene with Sam trying to get to a wounded Monica in the gallery, with its eerie silence, monstrous sculptures lurking around the living figures, as a piece of direction The Bird with the Crystal Plumage feels almost indifferent. So, too, did another famous Argento film (one that is rather more divisive than this one, in fairness) called The Stendhal Syndrome, which largely bored me until, in this case, the ending, which is, I’ll just say, interesting. What those two movies have in common, it occurs to me, is that they’re non-supernatural thrillers, whereas my favorite Argento films, Suspiria and Phenomena, have darkly fantastical stories that allow Argento to unleash his imagination. Not that I think Argento is a guy who feels particularly leashed most of the time, but his greatest strengths lay with otherworldly material. This seems undeniable to me.
It’s interesting that a major aspect of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage turns up to much better effect in one of the most highly-regarded films of the 1970s, four years after Argento got there (in his own way). I’ll let those who haven’t seen the The Bird with the Crystal Plumage figure out which movie I’m referring to. Beyond that, I’d say stick with Suspiria. Or watch Phenomena forty-three times in a row.