Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Horror Thoughts ‘13—The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) ****

PG, 96 min.
Director/Writer: Dario Argento
Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Raf Valenti, Giuseppe Castellano, Mario Adorf, Pino Pati, Gildo DiMarco

“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is by far the most accomplished movie I’ve seen from cult horror director Dario Argento. It isn’t as horrific as some of his other work. It isn’t as out there either. It’s a pretty straightforward crime procedural really. It belongs in Horrorfest because it involves a serial killer and also is the foundation upon which one of the most prolific and influential horror directors planted his roots.

There are no heads smashing through glass windows in this film, but there is some beautiful set and production design. There are other signatures, such as Argento’s habit of introducing the one of the killer’s victims before anyone else, his fascination with the tools of killing, and a hero who is pulled into a foreign world of events that drive him to obsession. Actually, this film is one of the few where the lead is male, but strong female characters also play a large role in the plot.

The story involves an American writer who has moved to Rome because “nothing ever happens there” before is pulled into a serial killer’s plot when he witnesses and prevents one of the attempted murders. The police put a damper on the writer’s plans to go home because he is too valuable to their investigation. He’s quickly dismissed as a suspect, and once his relationship with the chief investigator becomes more amicable, the writer begins to investigate the case himself. The Italian police are surprisingly accommodating to his independent investigation.

The plot has some twists and turns and involves some confusing developments with the killer that is made sense of by film’s end. It’s really an impressive screenplay by Argento who started out primarily as a screenwriter and whose credits include co-screenwriting credits on Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”. I’ve never seen his direction quite so strong either. He commands the story with his camera and his eye for exquisite composition is not what you might expect if all you’ve seen are his more schlocky horror flicks.

“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” makes me wonder what Argento might’ve become had he not concentrated most of his efforts in the horror genre. While I do like his horror movies, he could’ve been one of the great cinematic auteurs of the 70s, mentionable in the same film conversations as Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, and Bergman. I fear his obsession with horror may have held him back. Of course, without it we wouldn’t have such horror classics as “Suspiria”, “Inferno”, “Deep Red” or “Opera”. 

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