In his first film as writer/director, Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red, Two Evil Eyes) single-handedly created the giallo genre and instantly emerged as the filmmaker critics worldwide hailed as ‘The Italian Hitchcock’. Tony Musante (Traffic, Oz) and Suzy Kendall (Circus Of Fear, Torso) star in this pulse-pounding suspense thriller about an American writer in Rome who witnesses – and is helpless to stop – a brutal assault, the cunning vengeance of a maniac, and the heart-stopping horror that lives – and kills – deep in the dark.
eyelights: the pace. the vibe. the style.
eyesores: the bird with the crystal plumage. the staging.
‘L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo’ is Dario Argento’s first film. It is loosely based on a novel titled ‘The Screaming Mimi’, which had already been adapted in 1958, and was influenced by Italian crime thrillers – notably, Mario Bava’s ‘Sei donne per l’assassino‘. It was a huge success and it established Argento as an exciting new filmmaker.
Until then, he had worked as a film critic and penned screenplays (including, most famously, Sergio Leone’s ‘C’era una volta il West‘). He wrote the screenplay for ‘L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo’ and then borrowed money from his father to make his film. He also used money from German producers, who were tempted by the crime thriller – the genre being popular in Germany at the time.
Argento brought his own flair to the material, of course. Although he injected violence into the picture as well as suggestive sexuality, which were popular with audiences, he had a unique visual sense. This made him a darling of critics and film buffs, who relished his inventiveness (there’s a showy scene, in particular, where he let a camera drop from a few stories to give audiences a first-person perspective of someone falling).
‘L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo’ is not as stylish as Argento’s later films, but it has an alluring quality to it nevertheless, drawing the viewer into what would otherwise be a pretty preposterous script – because, as is typical of Argento films, the core idea is quite good but he tends to develop it in a logic-defying fashion. He simply doesn’t seem to feel the need to create realistic situations and behaviours in his works.
One perfect example of this is when our protagonist, a writer who is stranded in Italy because he is the primary witness in a murder case, is stalked by the killer. The scene has him walking down a mildly fogged up, but otherwise clear, street. As he approaches an older woman, she shouts out just in time to warn him of an oncoming attack from behind – which he promptly dodges.
Firstly, the timing is pure contrivance. That the man would meet up with someone on this empty street at the exact point that the killer would lunge at him is ridiculous to say the least. On a busy street, that might have made more sense. But, given that the street is empty, the fact that he couldn’t hear either approaching is also slightly peculiar.
Even worse is the attack it self, which was a high side-swipe that unnaturally ends up against the wall, cutting a wire. It’s obviously been conceived by Argento in visual terms only, as pure storytelling technique, but without any consideration for realism. Again, as with his other works, this reminds me of old comic books – stylistic more than realistic.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Then there’s the key clue, which is the titular bird with the crystal plumage. It’s total hokum: it hinges entirely on the recording of the killer’s voice, behind which can be heard the sound of a rare bird, a Southern Caucasus. This recording would eventually prompt the protagonist’s agent to remember that there is a Caucasus in the city, and this would lead them to the killer.Now why would the writer’s agent know the sound of a specific bird, a rare one at that, and just happen to know that there is only one of those birds in the whole country – and that it so happens to be in this city? Talk about a long shot! Well, thank goodness he was there, because no one else could have possibly known this. If not for him, the is a case that would have remained unresolved.Then there are the recordings themselves:
Why would there be recordings of two murderers – other than to give the audience a clue that the ending wasn’t the ending proper, I mean? The husband was pretending to be the murderer in order to divert attention from his spouse, but he didn’t actually murder anyone. So why would he call people and threaten them? It just doesn’t make sense. And, anyway, drawing attention to himself doesn’t necessarily steer attention away from his spouse, the person closest to him.
Then there’s the ending, which depends on the protagonist’s memory being flawed. He remembers the events of that first night a certain way, but then later realizes that he’d been mistaken all along and that he had put things together in the wrong order. It’s a cool twist, and I like that it discusses perception vs. reality, but it’s pure rubbish if one considers the details.
After all, there is NO reason why the woman would be trying to kill her spouse that night, especially in public view. But let’s say it was a fit of madness, then why was he wearing her murderer’s get-up at the time? And then, why was she trying to kill him, if all her victims were women? And why would he trap our hero between two glass walls, leaving him to watch his spouse bleed to death?
And, finally, why would the couple behave normally, afterwards, as though everything were okay? It just doesn’t make sense. Or, at least, it’s totally unexplained.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Thankfully, and this is rare in Argento films, the actors are generally convincing. We’re not talking award-winning performances, here, but his pictures are usually marred by theatrical or even campy performances. Similarly, I was surprised by the fact that the dubbing was actually pretty decent. His films are often dubbed very poorly, making me want to watch them in Italian with English subtitles so that I don’t notice how bad it is. Not so here.
In the end, ‘L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo’ is a pretty decent film. Perhaps had I seen it at the time of its release I would have been more impressed with it, but I nonetheless enjoyed it. It’s a more traditional, slow-cooking thriller, with no cheap scares to be seen. Sure, it’s slightly exploitative, but given the genre and/or era it’s not outrageously so. Had this been my first Argento picture, it would have intrigued me for sure.
One could do worse than to start with ‘L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo’. And it was a terrific conclusion to my Dario Argento binge.
Date of viewing: April 17, 2013