Thursday, May 9, 2019
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
In response to my recent viewing of Dario Argento's first directorial effort, I wrote this ARCHIVE essay, RATIONAL AND IRRATIONAL PROBLEMS, in which I argued that Edgar Allan Poe gave birth to two complementary attitudes toward the mystery genre-- one being an attitude which feels that the rational capacity can pretty much solve all problems, while the other projects the sense that even if some problems are solved, the world remains essentially enigmatic.
According to the DVD extras for THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, Argento didn't admit until late in his career that he based his script for BIRD on Fredric Brown's 1949 novel SCREAMING MIMI. I have never read the Brown novel, but I have seen the 1958 Gerd Oswald film adaptation, which is said to be reasonably close to its source. Based on my memories of the movie, I would say that Brown's story falls into the category I call "the riddle," in which the mystery is totally cleared up by some detective's ratiocinative activities.
BIRD, in contrast, falls into the category I call the "enigma," for even though the story's main character does solve one mystery, Argento's world seems even more enigmatic than ever before, rather than being more rationale. I don't know all of the Italian gialli that preceded BIRD, so I can't say whether or not Argento was substantially different from them in his aesthetic approach.
The titles of the Brown book and the Argento film might be seen as one signal of their different approaches. In the former, the meaning of the phrase "screaming mimi" is central to the revelation of a serial killer's identity. In the latter, the meaning of "the bird with the crystal plumage" is only indirectly related to the killer's identity. In fact, even though protagonist Sam Dalmas starts off the film talking about he, a blocked writer, put out a hack nonfiction book about rare birds, it's one of Dalmas friends who reveals to Dalmas the relevance of the titular bird with the weird plumage. I'll note that before the success of Argento's film, there were a handful of gialli with enigmatic titles, not least Mario Bava's influential 1964 BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. However, after BIRD's success weird, hard-to-fathom titles became a regular thing in 1970s gialli, such as LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN and THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS.
Like the protagonist of the Brown novel, Sam (Tony Musante) becomes a detective by accident. He's passing an art-gallery when he sees two figures, a woman and a man, struggling inside the building. He sees the woman fall wounded, while the man, his identity obscured by a black raincoat and black gloves (a visual trope swiped from Bava), escapes. Sam, already suffering from writer's block, is literally blocked during this scene, since someone sees him coming and seals Sam between two automatically-operated glass doors in the museum's front. However, thanks to his calling out to passersby, the police arrive and the woman, gallery-owner Monica Ranieri, survives the wound she took from her assailant. Neither she nor Sam can tell the police anything about her attacker, who may be guilty of three previous killings (shown in gory detail via flashbacks). Perhaps because there was no obvious connection between any of the women, the cops don't grill Monica about the attacker, but the chief inspector does try to make Sam plumb his memory as to what he saw. In part because Sam himself feels like he missed something, he starts his own investigation of the serial killer, which results in both Sam and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) being targeted by the killer.
Though I often don't have any problem with issuing spoilers for these type of films, in this review I'll forego discussing the revelation of the serial killer's ID, except to mention that Argento's been complimented for the way BIRD plays against gender stereotypes. But this is less interesting to me than the way Argento's vision transforms 1970s Italy into a place of weird, brooding presences. Both the natural world, as represented by the scenes with various rare birds, and the world of human art are equally weird and perverse, and remain weird (and occasionally funny) despite the amateur detective's attempt to make sense of his experiences. Unlike most such amateurs in film, Musante endows Sam Dalmas with a strong sense of empathy for the victims, even while Argento starts off his long career of transforming female bodies into canvases of destruction.