Wednesday, 10 June 2015

1,001 Films: "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L'Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo" (1970)

"Bring in the pervert." Dario Argento's directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, shot by Vittorio Storaro and scored by Ennio Morricone, established the essentials of the giallo subgenre: the visiting guest star (here, Tony Musante as an American novelist caught up in a grisly series of murders when in Rome), the shopping list of fetish items (wipe-clean leather trenchcoats, plate of sharp objects, the painting that serves as clue), the quizzical scrutiny of sound and image, the screams of tormented women, more prolonged and agonised than those in the Hitchcock films that provided one influence. We're not yet in the fully stylised realms of Argento's later films: the tone is recognisably procedural, grounded by a fascination with the emergent science of forensics, as represented here by Honeywell 1200 computers and a dot-matrix printer. Unlike the freakouts of Suspiria and Tenebrae, everything can be explained, and - in the case of its pat, anticlimactic conclusion - explained away. 

Yet Argento's obsessive study of crime scenes - whether in their physical form, or that of the murderous tableau hanging on the hero's living room wall - is typical of a heightened self-awareness that both prefigures the debate over violent cinema ("Is it really necessary?," asks Suzy Kendall's heroine, as her director cuts away from one particularly lingering and voyeuristic murder) and elevates the whole to a warped kind of art: these slayings are curated, connoisseurial - museum pieces, if you like - climaxing in a site-specific finale in which a gallery's installation will be converted into an instrument of torture. Murder and art as not incomparable forms of self-expression: Storaro shot The Conformist the same year, and the two films are practically blood brothers, most crucially in their view of human beings as caged animals, trapped, sometimes crushed, by the architectural specifics of their surroundings.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is available on DVD through Arrow Video. 

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