Wednesday 2 November 2011

Birds of a feather

Giallo, the subgengre of violent 1970s Italian murder mysteries that inspired the North American slasher films, is a bit daunting. I finally decided to take the plunge after reading the A.V. Club's excellent introduction. And Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) proved a great place to start - a taut, thrilling slice of sleaze that introduces many of the genre's tropes.

Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer living in Rome with his girlfriend Giulia (Suzy Kendall). The night before he is supposed to return to the States, Sam witnesses a cloaked, gloved madman attempt to murder a woman with a knife at an art gallery, but being locked on the other side of a glass door can't intervene. He's informed by police that this attack is the latest in a series of murders of young women in the city. Sam tells the police all he knows, but is certain that there is an important detail he just can't recall. He decides to aid the police by doing some amateur sleuthing of his own (the police are amazingly supportive of this, by the way) and speaks to, among others, a stammering pimp (Gildo di Marco), a bumbling snitch (Pino Patti) and an eccentric painter (Mario Adorf, much more famous in Germany than in the US), all while being pursued by the killer...

As I said, this was my first foray into giallo, but I do know a thing or two about slasher films. Early slashers borrow liberally from Argento (who himself pays homage to Hitchcock's Psycho in several shots, incidentally). The first North American slasher, Black Christmas (Bob Clark, Canada 1974), takes the framing of one murder, the prevalence of POV shots and a subplot about phones from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, among other things, but the most obvious influence is in the music. Ennio Morricone's score for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage - wildly different from his more familiar spaghetti western scores and remarkably prog-influenced - may well have provided the base Carl Zittrer worked from in Black Christmas.

The film is marked by what were to become the tropes of the giallo: a masked, glove-wearing psychopath stalking and murdering young women using - much like later slasher film killers - primarily bladed weapons (although the killer in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage sends a pistol-toting accomplice to off Sam). That iconic poster, drawn from a famous scene, is emblematic of the defining lurid, sexually suggestive threats to women (men are only murdered when they get in the killer's way). But it also points to the importance of style when assessing the giallo: the gleaming knife, the bright colours, the gloves, the symbols of wealth.

It may be too much to link the genre directly to the 'years of lead', the period from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when Italy was wracked by political violence, or to plays like Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which premiered in 1970. But what gialli share with Fo and left-wing critiques of the Italian state is a focus on the corruption of the wealthy and powerful. Their fear of knife-wielding maniacs invading decent people's homes, on the other hand, is much more conservative and parallels the obsessions of North American vigilante films from the same time; and although they are woefully incompetent, the police in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage are affable and well-intentioned. (Like Black Christmas and unlike later slashers, Argenton's film is a murder mystery first and a horror film second.)

An exceedingly well-filmed murder mystery at that: Argento's directing genius is displayed in the choreography and editing at least as much as in the framing of individual shots. There's an extraordinary number of killer's POV shots, later (wrongly) held to be a defining feature of the slasher film; but just as importantly we get POV shots from the victim, while being attacked - the knife stabbing at the audience, tearing the screen as in Psycho. For my money, the opening gallery scene is the highlight of the film: the protagonist is separated from the scene by glass that muffles sounds, allowing alternation between full volume and creepy almost-silent horror; the place itself, a cold white with a number of spooky-looking exhibits, contrasts with the killer's black outfit.

When Sam is trapped on the other side of the doors and can't intervene, Argento's use of negative space is brilliant:

Having sung the director's praises, I feel free to turn to what struck me as most odd about The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: the humour, of which there is an extraordinary amount. For me, the best of this is the snitch's excellent preamble: 'Now get this straight. I don't know anything, I don't know anybody, and I ain't seen anything. What do you want to know?' There are entire scenes - such as Sam's visit to shaggy cat-eating painter Mario Adorf - that rely on broad comedy. I don't think this is bad - by and large, the humour works - but it's certainly odd to anyone familiar with the fairly dark early slashers.

As someone new to the genre, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage strikes me as a weird hybrid between a cerebral mystery like Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder and a slasher film. It's a great film, though, disturbing and luridly entertaining, and I look forward to continuing my foray into the depths of the giallo.

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