Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Profondo Argento - L'Apertura

It took almost two years but Giallo finally saw a tiny theatrical release in England. It was the filmmaker's fault, they didn't pay Adrian Brody, for one, and as the man plays two roles and is basically the reason it got made, I for one don't have much sympathy for the moneymen. It got trashed, critically, of course. There was no way it wouldn't. It's not very good and suffers from the same things that have plagued Argento since he stopped making movies about witches. He's insisted on making, or at least releasing, every film in English. This means either terrible dubbing or directing in a language he doesn't know all that well. He may know what makes audiences squirm but lately he's been doing it unintentionally. Now I can't say I disagree with popular opinion, that he's past his prime, but where I do take exception is that they don't see that his prime ended directly after Inferno. Argento's worst movies, to my eye, are the movies were made in the 80s. I like Phenomenon well enough but he wasn't the man to direct it. Demons is vile and nonsensical. Opera is incredibly misguided and must be the only movie set in an opera house that has a score composed entirely of shitty 80s hair metal. How anyone puts up with it is beyond me. And Tenebrae is so screamingly, indefensibly awful it must surely be called his greatest failure. So while I absolutely agree that Giallo and really anything he made in the last decade isn't quite up to snuff, it's time to correct any misgivings about what that used to mean. Argento didn't rise to near legendary status without at least partially deserving it right? On this day, which coincidentally is also the very day that shooting has wrapped on his newest film, Dracula 3D, let's start from the very beginning and figure out how high he set so high the bar that his critics now use to beat him. Let's get back to basics.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage
By Dario Argento
While walking home one day, journalist Sam Dalmas witnesses an attempted murder. The police show up and question him endlessly but all he can tell them is what little he's certain of. He saw a man in a black leather coat and hat stab a woman in white on a staircase, then the man fled the scene. The cop in charge of the investigation, Inspector Morosini, keeps his passport all the same as Sam's the only witness and they have no other leads. This bothers him, as I'm sure you can imagine, as he doesn't think he can be of any more use, but on his way back from the station the killer shows up again and tries to cut his head off with a big-ass knife. So maybe he knows more than he thinks. After a few days of being pumped for information and continually reliving the murder in his head, Sam decides he's going to try his hand at solving the crime. He figures out that the girl was one in a long line of shopgirls who've been killed in Rome over the last few weeks. Monica Ranieri, the woman he saved, was only exceptional in that she survived. The killings resume a few days later and Sam increases the intensity of his investigation with his girlfriend Julia serving as his aid. Sam interviews a whole host of subjects, each stranger than the next, and the attempts on his life continue all the while. A man tries gunning him down in the street but gets away. Interviews with a pimp, a shop owner and an artist all bring him closer to the truth, but will it be too late?

The most remarkable thing about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is how unremarkable it seems today. The plot is totally by the numbers, especially if you've seen as many serial killer films as I have. It's slightly more effective than most gialli and/or Italian policiers of the day and certainly easier to sit through, but next to The French Connection or Frenzy, it looks naive. Ok, maybe that's not fair. Maybe hip or modern is the right word. It's a product of its time, and I don't mean just because of its being stilted or politically incorrect - only rarely does it fall into either trap. It's far more vigorous and youthful than either film, but it's combination of antique editing gambits, jazzy score and comic interludes prevents it from being anywhere near as terrifying as its most terrifying elements. Every single person that Tony Musante's character interviews is played for comic relief, which wouldn't be an issue if Argento had a better sense of humour. Although there are a few things here that still make me laugh. When picking perverts out of a line-up at the police station, a man in drag steps out, only to be recalled by Morosini. “How many times do I have to tell you Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!” To which the disgruntled queen replies: "Well I should hope so!” Never not funny. But the one thing you don't ever feel is the kind of oppressive mean spirit you get from most Italian horror movies. The comedy might be heavy handed but the rest of the movie is comparably light. It's fleet enough that it escapes the same class of brute that the Italian film industry was producing at the time. In fact there are moments where you could mistake its intelligent staging for an American film. The one thing you almost wouldn't mistake it for is the work of its director.
Having watched everyone of his movies (admittedly in the wrong order) I was ready for full-on rape and gore and screaming and crying and gnashing of teeth and to tell you the truth I was sort of dreading watching it. But this was Dario before he'd had his heart broken. The Dario Argento I like is the one who started as Italy's golden boy and turned into a real artist when he tired of what the genre could offer him. He'd worked as a critic and scenarist in the industry for many years until he finally got his big break. His dad was something of a mogul at the time and so when Dario stepped up to bat he had the keys to the kingdom. Working the camera was Vittorio Storaro, future DP of Apocalypse Now among other things. The score was written by none other than Ennio Morricone, to whom Argento had the audacity to suggest avant garde music as an influence. It obviously worked because the music's minimalist percussion is gripping and ahead of its time. The young turk had all the resources he could ever need and did things his way. The result is everything you'd expect from a cinephile with a particular affinity for Edgar Wallace and Hitchcock. The filmmaking is energetic and fun. The use of the POV cam is so in-your-face it's almost percussive; North Americans wouldn't use it in this way for another few years. He took the principle from Peeping Tom and the MO from Mario Bava and shot it like he imagined Alfred Hitchcock would have, but this is definitely its own beast. There are splendidly executed tracking shots. There's the famous scene where Argento put a camera on a bungee cord to simulate a victim falling to his death. The action moved so quickly that the focus puller was often too slow. Chances were being taken. The Italian film industry is so paint-by-numbers that you're lucky to find anything as exciting or demented as the best of Sergio Martino or Joe D'Amato, and they all followed Dario's lead. For a few years anyway, he wasn't making films like an Italian. Tony Musante makes for a much more likable hero than we usually get, someone not tainted by some ancient crime or other. His relationship to Suzy Kendall's character is also breezy and believable; a breath of fresh air, to be sure. The editing is straight out of Hitchcock; he even replicates the shower scene in a closet and makes it even more ghastly. Reggie Nalder even shows up, essentially reprising his role from The Man Who Knew Too Much. The scene where Sam is trapped between two glass doors for the murder and its aftermath is truly wonderful. After a certain period, no one in Italy would give over this much time to someone simply being anxious and powerless. Unless a knife is being brandished the camera doesn't care. Here Argento lets Musante's helplessness sink in and lets us feel the seconds tick by as the woman bleeds and the killer gets away. It's exactly the sort of thing the master of suspense would have done in his heyday. The shot is also beautifully composed; like the rest of the movie it's far prettier than most of his peers ever cared to try for.

Dario was a crucial figure because like Mario Bava he was the filmmaker that the rest of the world saw and associated with Italy. Unlike Bava, he seemed to understand that he was part of film history. The referential quality of his images and editing put him in the same company as Corman's brats, but unlike Coppola or Scorsese he started out with total control. Look at the chase scene with Reggie Nalder. He shot it in such a way that conventional editing was impossible, so we are meant to draw conclusions. Its interesting to look at and he gave his audience far more credit than most directors, or rather understood that film required suspension of disbelief. It's better than real, or at least more fun. The police line-up, for instance, looks more like a movie screening for executives than an actual police headquarters. Mario Bava was the first director in Italy to make full use of the redness of blood and the mechanics of filmmaking to such an unreal degree, but he was far more interested in set dressing and gore. Dario would adopt this approach later but at first what he cared about was craft. How to edit together a stalking scene cleverly rather than deliver the most gruesome death scene. In fact all of the deaths in Crystal Plumage are either cheats or off screen, something I didn't pick up on the first time I saw it, a testament to their effectiveness. The pace and tension are also maintained with a preternatural sureness. It is a detective story, not actually too dissimilar from the sort of thing Graham Greene used to write (Argento is not nearly so curtly eloquent, but that’s not the point), the largest difference being that we see things from the killer’s perspective. Which itself was not a new development but its intensity was second only to Bava and would become the norm for serial killer films, albeit indirectly.

All this is one way of saying that Bird isn't the best movie you'll ever see but it's absolutely worth watching and absolutely better than most of the American slasher films that would steal from it indirectly in the decades that followed. Argento's enthusiasm is infectious and carries the film through its few weak spots. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage contains all the elements of the gialli - black gloved killer, knives a plenty, wrongfully accused man, characters solving the murders along with the audience, last-minute bait-and-switch - but they're all a canvas for his homages and sly rule-breaking. He was essentially trying to fuse every kind of cinema that Italy was known for and influenced it in turn. Lord knows how many gialli came out in the years following its box office success with some animal in the name. I'm hesitant to call his technique new - though if I had to guess, I'd say it was at least novel - because he wouldn't truly come into his own until Suspiria, but Argento's methods were at least new to Italy. He took something shop-worn and slapped a beautifully lavish coat of red paint on it. I'm glad the world responded as well as it did because he had a few more brilliant little movies in him, even if the giallo would eventually be his undoing.