Friday, November 7, 2014

Before I Die #523: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Original Italian Title: L'ucello dalle piume di cristallo

Director: Dario Argento

It's a good movie, to be sure, but one that didn't quite live up to the cultist hype, in my view.

To be fair, my expectations were rather high, given how highly touted this film and director are by some cinephiles and film critics. Perhaps it is due to director Dario Argento's body of work and solid reputation as a solid suspense and horror filmmaker. I can't be sure, as this was the first of his films that I've ever seen. Therefore, I can only give my thoughts on this film based on its own merits, rather than where it fits into Argento's career arc.

The movie is often compared to several of Hitchcock's most famous suspense films, with good reason. There are Hitchcockian elements throughout the film - a bystander witnesses a brutal murder attempt (a la Rear Window), and he then gets wrapped up in a cat-and-mouse game with a psychopathic killer on the loose in Rome. There are plenty of well-executed moments of tension and fear, including a few pursuits through and around the winding streets of the ancient city.

Probably the most obvious strength of the movie is the visual technique. It's amazing to me just how many Italian filmmakers seem to have an innate knack for framing shots. Whenever I see a Da Sica, Leone, Fellini, or other Italian director's film, it's obvious that they have a portraitist's eye for composing a four-sided picture in the most beautiful manner. Dario Argento is another fine example. So many of the scenes are just enjoyable to drink in, thanks to a keen photographer's eye and some vibrant costumes and set designs.

Alas, the film wasn't what I would call a "masterpiece." There are some actions by the main characters that defy logic to a certain extent, and some of the dialogue is stilted and artificial (though I must admit that one line was hilarious - when a police inspector, without a trace of irony, asks for a suspect lineup with the line, "Bring in the perverts."). The acting was also a bit spotty, being what you would expect from a low-budget spaghetti Western. Somehow, I'm used to the amateurish acting in those more mythical Leone Westerns, but it seemed out of place in this more modern, realistic, urban setting.

One of many haunting, visceral, and masterfully framed shots
in the movie. The cinematography is an inarguable strength.
Those criticisms aside, I must confess that the movie did offer me something pleasantly unexpected - an interesting theme on human memory and psychology. In something one might ponder after reading or seeing Rashomon, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage finds its resolution to the mystery in a way that relies very heavily on the mental state of the witness - a mental state that can apply to many of us. It is this ultimate reveal that sets the movie apart from the great Hitchcock movies, though these latter may be superior in terms of coherence and overall execution.

I'll be eager to see some more of Argento, as I've heard some enthusiasts say that they consider a few of his other films even better than this one. If they are, then I expect some very impressive things.