It’s a stifling early-September afternoon, and Dario Argento is deep in conversation with his Cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. Nearby, Tony Musante is gearing up for the next take and makeup is being applied in an attempt to counter the lick of sweat forming on his forehead. Around him, a persistent flutter of conversation in a language he barely recognises: the city heat is beginning to take a toll on the American actor. Argento waves his leading man over and breaks into rapid-fire Italian. Musante, for his part, gamely attempts to make sense of the unfamiliar patter of words, but, flummoxed, can only respond in English:
“I was thinking that maybe we should do something different here.”
Argento smiles. The scene is ready, cameras crank into life and the director sets the action rolling. Musante tries his idea, but Argento stops him after a couple of lines of dialogue. The actor looks confused. “No good?” he asks.
Argento offers some thoughts, again in Italian, then calls over the makeup artist to apply a little more to Musanti. She speaks enough English to allow Musante to blow off a little steam.
“I don’t understand him and he doesn’t understand me,” the actor grumbles. “He just smiles. Is he saying yes to my ideas?” The makeup artist shrugs, but doesn’t proffer an answer.
Nestled in the director’s chair, Argento smiles.
The Screaming Mimi
If Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo) and Blood & Black Lace (Sei Donne Per L’assassino) set the blueprint for the Giallo, then Dario Argento’s debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo), surely defined the genre; blazing a trail for classic Gialli offerings from such luminaries as Aldo Lado, Sergio Martino, and Lucio Fulci.
Premiering in Rome on 19th February 1970, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, tells the story of Sam Dalmas (played by Tony Musante), an American writer living in the Italian capital, who, while walking home one night, plays witness to the attempted murder of a woman in an art gallery. The assailant, believed to be the killer of numerous young women across the city, escapes. Sam is convinced that all is not as it seems and begins his own investigation: but, as his obsession to unmask the killer grows, so does the risk to his own life and that of his girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall).
A landmark of Italian cinema, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage was a worldwide success, if not an immediate one. Dario Argento’s visual flair is apparent throughout, as are his cinematic influences, which help colour the film. Indeed, in the accompanying booklet to Arrow Video‘s Blu Ray restoration, author Jack Seabrook posited:
Argento cannot help but pay tribute to the giants of the suspense film: in the chase with the man wearing the yellow jacket, he channels [Alfred] Hitchcock, while the shots down the geometric staircase later in the film recall the work of Fritz Lang.
In fact, comparisons to the Master of Suspense were unavoidable, given Argento’s use of off-kilter camera angles, innovative shot trickery, and MacGuffins (the crystal plumaged bird of the title adding a particularly Hitchcockian element). Such comparisons would continue throughout Argento’s career, with the director dubbed The Italian Hitchcock, a somewhat lazy sobriquet if one should take more than a cursory glance at Argento’s career.
From a narrative perspective, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is easily the most structurally conventional of Argento’s films – particularly when paired with later efforts such as Suspiria or Inferno – but the story derives, at least in part, from 1950’s pulp novel, The Screaming Mimi, written by Frederic Brown. Argento read the book at the request of director Bernardo Bertolucci, who was interested in buying the rights for a future project of his own. Instead, Argento borrowed from the novel and wrote his own version. Duly proud of his screenplay, he only resolved to take the reigns following concerns that another director may undermine his work. Argento said, “Uppermost in my mind was that, if I didn’t want the screenplay ruined, I would have to bite the bullet.”
What is a Giallo?
Giallo (translated literally as Yellow) is the given name for the yellow-jacketed mystery thriller paperbacks, launched in the late ’20s. Following the end of World War II, the novels adopted a more ‘hard-boiled’ American detective thriller approach, as was the popular theme of the time, though Italian authors such as Leonardo Sciascia flourished, with their own take on the Giallo.
When, in 1963, cinematographer turned film-maker Mario Bava went to work on the first cinematic version of the Giallo, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the seed was sown for a period of exemplary Italian genre cinema that grew out of the ’60s and flourished during the 1970s. Though, as suggested in the essay, A Brief History of the Giallo, this halcyon era never burned as brightly again once the ’70s ended:
Despite rapid growth and innovation, public interest in murder mysteries waned by the early 1980s. By that time, Gialli had become more explicitly violent and bloody and before long, filmmakers simply eliminated the mystery element and complex plots in order to make more time for kill scenes. This resulted in a new offshoot genre of the the Giallo: the Slasher movie.
While this is a little hard on the Slasher, especially given its own Golden Age (specifically 1981) produced some of the finest films of the genre, the point does have merit. The best of the Giallo are at the very least stylistically and thematically superior to the Slasher, producing a number of true cinematic works of art, including Argento’s own Deep Red (Profundo Rossi), Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling (Non Si Sevizia un Paperino), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh), and Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done To Solange? (Cosa Avete Fatto a Solange?)
Yet, without Argento’s kick-start at the turn of the ’70s, it’s possible that the Giallo would never have found much of an audience beyond Europe. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage took Bava’s constructs – the black-gloved, fedora-wearing killer – and matched his highly influential countryman’s stylistic virtuosity. The addition of fast cut editing and more bloodily violent passages – particularly in Argento’s later work, practically reinvented the Giallo and paved the way for over a decade of innovative film-making achievement: with the exception of 1973’s side-step into comedy-drama, The Five Days of Milan (Le cinque giornate).
Roger Ebert’s October 1970 review described the film thus:
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is billed as a thriller, and it’s a pretty good one. But its scares are on a much more basic level than in, say, a thriller by Hitchcock. It works mostly by exploiting our fear of the dark.
We keep following the hero into dark rooms, dark alleys, dark parks, dark corridors and dark basements. And that makes us very uneasy. I looked around the theater and found people unconsciously leaning forward in their seats and sort of squinting, as if they could vicariously spot any danger to the hero. That’s what thrillers are all about, of course, and that’s why this one works.
Animals and Goblins
Following the success of his debut, Argento’s sophomore effort, Cat O’ Nine Tails (Il Gatto a Nove Code), reportedly the director’s least favourite of his films, didn’t fare as well, but went on to form part of his Animal Trilogy, with Four Flies On Grey Velvet (4 Mosche di Velluto Grigio) completing the triumvirate.
Following the commercial failure of the aforementioned The Five Days Of Milan, Argento returned to the Giallo in 1975 with the incomparable Deep Red, which, along with 1977’s supernatural ‘Giallo’ fever dream, Suspiria, are cited as his crowning achievements. The former consistently tops Best Of lists for related genre titles, and with good reason, being the creative high-water mark of the era. For both films, and two late-entry Giallos, the ultra-violent Tenebre and the entomological Phenomena (released in the US as Creepers), Argento eschewed a partnership with world-renowned composer and Giallo score stalwart, Ennio Morricone. Instead he turned to Claudio Simonetti and his band, Goblin, to bring a more progressive feel to proceedings; a relationship that continued intermittently until their most recent work with Argento, on 2001’s Sleepless (Non Ho Sonno).
But the final word must go to Argento. When asked during one interview to which of all his films he felt the closest bond with, he replied:
I think to the first movie The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, obviously because it is the first movie I have made in my life and so I am very bound to this my experience that has been strange, sweeping and also a little bit frightening to do it, because made with a total unconsciousness. I think that it is the movie to which I am more bound.