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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

A Dario Argento Giallo Sampling: ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970), ‘The Cat o’ Nine Tails’ (1971), & ‘Deep Red’ (1975)

Directed by: Dario Argento || Produced by: Salvatore Argento

Screenplay by: Dario Argento [13], Dardano Sacchetti [2], Bernardino Zapponi [3] || Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi [1], James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak [2], David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Macha Méril, Clara Calamai [3]

Music by: Ennio Morricone [1, 2], Giorgio Gaslini, Goblin [3] || Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro [1], Enrico Menczer [2], Luigi Kuveiller [3] || Edited by: Franco Fraticelli || Country: Italy, West Germany || Language: English, Italian

Running Time: 96 minutes [1], 112 minutes [2], 126 minutes [3] || 1 = The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 2 = The Cat o’ Nine Tails, 3 = Deep Red

For the longest time, the only Dario Argento film I had seen was his most famous one, Suspiria (1977), a surrealist nightmare dominated by harsh shadows, eerie primary colors, and esoteric witchcraft mythology further explored in Argento’s own Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007) — collectively known as “The Three Mothers” trilogy — as well as Luca Guadagnino’s polarizing 2018 remake of the same name. Much like with directors Joseph Kosinski and J. A. Bayona, I rediscovered Argento’s earlier works years after checking off the filmmaker’s biggest credit. Well before his contributions to supernatural horror in Suspiria, Argento worked as a screenwriter and script doctor on various native Italian dramas, gangster pictures, and Spaghetti Westerns, including on Sergio Leone’s seminal Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) with then fellow up-and-comer, Bernardo Bertolucci. The filmmaker’s original claims to fame as a director, however, were in the giallo movement that came into prominence in the 1970s.

Top: Tony Musante observes two struggling, shadowy figures in a public art gallery in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Bottom: James Franciscus discusses the identity of a cryptic murderer with female lead Catherine Spaak in The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Also, that milk is poisoned!

Giallo, or “yellow” in Italian, is a genre of murder mystery, psychological horror, and thriller fiction so named after cheap, paperback pulp-novels that originated in late 1920s Italy, many of the earliest of which were direct translations of Anglo-American works. The spines and covers of these pulpy crime thrillers were most always colored bright yellow, after which they were named, and from the 1960s-1980s they succeeded on film thanks to the talent of filmmakers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento. Given their peak in popularity during the 1970s, their stylized, almost experimental direction combined with their lurid subject-matter makes giallo murder mysteries an identifiable, quintessential film movement of the Counter Culture era.

Three of Argento’s films that provide a good summary of not only his auteur style, but the broader focus of the giallo movement are The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code), and Deep Red (Profondo rosso). All three share Argento’s love for bright, striking colors and charismatic music (Ennio Morricone’s score for Crystal Plumage and Nine Tails, a score by the progressive Italian rock band, Goblin, for Deep Red), so these movies are nothing if not eccentric from an audiovisual standpoint.

The central mystery plots of these films are solid, involving various stock characters, a twist here and there, and entertaining third act revelations that escalate narrative tension into satisfying conclusions. Little in Argento’s giallo screenwriting is innovative, but the script base is most always ironclad and allows the cinematography in each film (Vittorio Storaro, Enrico Menczer, and Luigi Kuveiller as directors of photography for Crystal Plumage, Nine Tails, and Deep Red, respectively) to take centerstage. A notable trademark of giallo stories is how the detective work is often completed by private individuals (i.e. non-law enforcement) who get drawn into webs of criminal intrigue thanks to happenstance, personal curiosity, or outside pressure — usually some combination thereof — which helps the audience better relate to their investigation. The characters of giallo filmmaking, while functional, are more vessels through which the audience can enter their creepy, unsettling stories than identifiable movie stars. As cinephiles may recall from my discussions of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, all Italian films of this era, to my knowledge, were shot without synchronized sound (i.e. audio recorded on set), and thus all performances were dubbed via automated dialogue replacement (ADR) in post-production. No “primary language” of these films exists thanks to a general lack of diegetic language within Italian cinema through at least the early 1980s. Enjoying the lead performances of American actors Tony Musante, James Franciscus, and Englishman David Hemming requires turning the camp-switch off in your brains, therefore.

While I won’t further parse the stories of this sampling of giallo films to preserve whatever surprises they may hold for future viewers, some directorial flourishes between the three of them are worth mentioning. My favorite of the bunch, Crystal Plumage, boasts the most creative inciting incident, where lead Musante witnesses the attempted murder of a women by a figure in black (a common giallo trope) in a public art gallery from across the street; much of the action takes place in slow-motion, and Musante has to navigate multiple glass airlock doors that prevent him from rescuing the damsel in distress; Nine Tails begins with the most striking point-of-view shots of the three, portraying a criminal breaking and entering into a private genetics research laboratory, a POV style that’s repeated across multiple murders later in the film; Deep Red, last of all, opens with a creepy nursery rhyme and a silhouetted murder in the background before a bloody knife falls at the feet of a child, thereafter transitioning to funky yet unsettling Goblin music whenever the unknown black-gloved killer strikes.

Protagonist David Hemmings retrieves French actress Macha Méril’s corpse from the bloodied glass of the latter’s apartment in Deep Red.

In hindsight, I wish I’d started with Dario Argento’s giallo works before I saw Suspiria, as his stylistic evolution as a director grows more fantastical the deeper one gets into his filmography. Watching The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and Deep Red back to back to back illustrates how effective the giallo suite of tropes is in the hands of a capable filmmaker, as this collection of features are differentiated by the slightest of audiovisual touches; none of these films feel derivative of one another, though, as their individual set-pieces, exemplified by the aforementioned opening sequences, make each film memorable despite their strict adherence to subgenre formula. Some overacted melodrama and bad dubbing are small prices to pay for the pulpy creativity of Argento’s early days.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Stylish, bloody, and highly efficient, the 1970s giallo films of Dario Argento, “The Master of the Thrill,” are charismatic ancestors of Hollywood’s slasher films of the 1980s, and are packed with entertainment value. If you prefer your thrillers and psychological horror full of color, striking visuals, and violent kills, yet could take or leave the slow, pretentious commentary of A24-style horror movies (e.g. The Witch [2015], Hereditary [2018]), you should check these out.

However… all three of these movies’ main cast are stock characters, only, and require the right mindset for Italian film production ADR.

—> All three films come RECOMMENDED for your murderous pleasure.

? Don’t you just love those verbose, baroque titles? Why do those work and subtitled sequels don’t?

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