Tuesday, April 8, 2014

L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

... aka: Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The
... aka: Bird with the Glass Feathers
... aka: Gallery Murders, The
... aka: Phantom of Terror, The
... aka: Point of Terror

Directed by:
Dario Argento

After serving as a newspaper columnist, film critic and screenwriter (most notably of spaghetti westerns like the Sergio Leone-directed classic Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]), Argento borrowed around 500,000 dollars from his well-to-do father, film producer Salvatore Argento, to make this: his feature film debut. Bird ended up becoming a huge success; doubling its budget in Italy alone and also doing well in numerous other European countries, which ensured more of the same for the father / son team throughout the decade into the 80s. Bird is also noteworthy as being one of the establishing films in the subgenre of giallo, stylish and violent Italian murder-mysteries heavily influenced by a successful series of German mystery-thrillers called krimi, which were usually based on the writings of Edgar Wallace and themselves heavily influenced by such precursors as Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircases (1945), Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les diabloques (1955), Arne Mattsson's MANNEQUIN IN RED (1958) and numerous Alfred Hitchcock films. While Bird had been preceded by well over twenty other Italian films of this same type - most notably Mario Bava's THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) an BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) - its international success helped ensure a massive Bel Paese output of similar films, which had a particularly strong run from 1971 until 1975.

Tony Musante (who passed away late last year) stars as Sam Dalmas, an American writer staying in Rome  who's just finished a book on birds, collected his paycheck and is about to head home to the states. As he's walking home, he passes an art gallery and notices two figures; a woman and a man dressed in a black hat, gloves and raincoat, in the middle of a struggle. The woman - Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi); co-owner of the gallery along with her husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) - is stabbed, stumbles down the stairs and lies bleeding on the ground. The man in black then runs off. When Sam attempts to rush to her aid, he becomes trapped inside two large glass doors and must wait there until he's able to flag down a pedestrian to phone the police. Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) and the rest of the police show up, Monica survives the attack and is taken to the hospital and Sam is taken to the station for questioning. Morosini promptly takes Sam's passport. You see, he's an important witness, the only witness, so he isn't going anywhere for the time being, especially since whoever attacked Monica may have also been responsible for at least three previous murders. After Sam leaves the station, the same black-clad attacker surprises him on the street; taking a swing at him with a large knife before fleeing into the night.

Sam's had quite the day. When he finally makes it back to his apartment, he recounts things for his model girlfriend Julia (British actress Suzy Kendall): "I just witnessed an attempted homicide, was given the third degree by the police, had my passport confiscated so now we can't leave and, uh, just now I had my head nearly decapitated by a meat cleaver. You know, the usual." He will also have quite the mystery on his hands to solve in the upcoming days and it'll need to be solved quickly before he (or Julia) become the latest victims. In the meantime, the killer keeps claiming new victims. Sam's dangerous quest to find out what's going on - which is actually encouraged by the police - leads to a stuttering incarcerated pimp (Gildo Di Marco), a flamboyant antiques dealer (Werner Peters), a yellow jacket wearing assassin (an unbilled Reggie Nalder), a goofy informant (Pino Patti), a reclusive, eccentric, cat-eating (!) artist (Mario Adorf) and others. Everything seems to be tied to a macabre painting depicting a woman being attacked and the killer, disguising their voice, taunts both the police and Sam with frequent threatening phone calls.

Bird is not the sex-and-violence sleaze-fest the later films would soon become. There's very little blood or violence, no sex and only one instance of partially-concealed nudity (a woman in a sheer nightie). In fact, this initially received a GP rating here in the U.S. The good news is that it doesn't need any of that to be perfectly entertaining and the direction and screenplay (which Argento based loosely on Fredric Brown's novel "The Screaming Mimi") are superior to most of what would come later. The actors play off each other well, the characters are enjoyable, the haunting score (composed by Ennio Morricone and conducted by Bruno Nicolai) is superb, there's a sense of humor that doesn't lessen the suspense or creepy moments and both the development of the mystery and the juggling of the red herrings are competently handled. It also manages to avoid crossing over into the realm of the ridiculous like most of the later films. All that said, this is neither inventive (conceptually, stylistically or otherwise) nor original enough to be the genre masterwork some make it out to be. It is simply a solidly-crafted, entertaining and above average film of its type.

The cast also includes "Raf Valenti" / Renato Romano (who appeared in many other gialli), "Rosa Toros" / Rosita Torosh as one of the victims, Fulvio Mingozzi and Giovanni Di Benedetto. The close-ups of the killer's hands are Argento's. UMC released a dubbed version in the U.S. in 1970 and it was later reissued under the title The Phantom of Terror by 21st Century in 1982. In Germany it was called Das Geheimnis der schwarzen Handschuhe ("The Secret of the Black Gloves"). There have been numerous VHS and DVD releases through the years and, in 2008, a Blu-ray from Anchor Bay.

Along with the follow-ups The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971), Bird comprised what would later be called Argento's "Animal Trilogy." Afterward, he worked on four episodes of the short-lived TV series "La porta sul buio" (filmed in 1971; released in 1973), then achieved even more commercial fame with Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977).

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