Dario Argento’s directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo) was released in Italy on 19 February 1970, followed in quick succession by Cat o’Nine Tails (Il gatto a nove code, 11 February 1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 Mosche di velluto grigio, 17 December 1971). Although not a trilogy in terms of reoccurring characters, there are enough links between the three films that make them worth considering as a sequence that is linked thematically and stylistically, even if the middle film is only an ‘animal’ film in name alone.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an astonishing debut film. As a reviewer who has seen all but one of the director’s movies (1973’s comedy drama Le cinque giornate [The Five Days], which remains unreleased in America and the UK) and both of his episodes of the TV series Masters of Horror, I have to admit that I was beginning to doubt the director’s talent in recent years: my memories of his excellent early films began to fade and were replaced by his recent output, which has gone from the below average Do You Like Hitchcock?, The Card Player and Non ho sonno in the first half of the last decade to the actually unwatchable – Giallo and Mother of Tears: The Third Mother – in the last three years. However, returning to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage after a gap of several years has revealed a film that is still fresh, innovative and deserving of its status as a seminal giallo.
Having not read the uncredited novel by Fredric Brown, I don’t know whether any of the striking set-pieces, costumes and characters can be attributed to Brown, but the plot is significantly different from the novel’s (filmed previously in 1958 by Gerd Oswald), so it’s possible that Argento only kept the book’s basic premise of an artist obsessed by a traumatised woman who is being stalked by a serial killer. There are numerous memorable scenes in the film: the powerless spectator trapped behind glass as he witnesses a murder, the police pathologist who wears dark glasses while a bank of open reel computers process the evidence behind him, a couple having sex while a metronome ticks, the protagonist throwing a cigarette packet to a suspect to see which hand he catches it with, and bizarre lines of dialogue such as ‘How many times have I had to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites not the perverts’!
This is a film that provides a segue from the noir genre that inspired it – the femme fatale and the amateur detective following her – to a new form of filmmaking and storytelling that seems equally inspired by Ennio Morricone’s jazz score (Argento often cut his films to his musical scores) and Freudian dream logic. While Mario Bava can stake a claim as the progenitor of giallo cinema, Argento also looks elsewhere to international filmmaking (he was a professional film critic before becoming a script writer) with chase scenes reminiscent of The Third Man, featuring close-ups and characters lit by car headlights, the familiarity of those elements made strange by Morricone’s discordant strings and the director’s fast zooms and cuts.
Only the final scene of the movie disappoints, as a police expert explains the motives and psychology of the killer; Argento doesn’t have the blank stare of a comatose Norman Bates to juxtapose with the banal monologue, so instead cuts to random shots of planes on runways as the hero sits waiting to leave the country. While the director doesn’t seem to know how to end his first film, in the third film of this unofficial animal trilogy, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, it seems like he doesn’t know how to continue beyond a fascinating beginning, as will be seen below.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was a massive hit, making twice its budget back in Italy alone, so it’s unsurprising Argento made a follow-up within a year and would make his third film another six months later. The Cat O’Nine Tails starts with a similar premise: a vulnerable man – this time blind, rather than trapped behind glass – is the only witness to a murder when a laboratory break-in leads to the death of a security guard.
Bird, Cat and Flies‘ lead protagonists were American TV actors Tony Musante, James Fransiscus and Michael Brandon respectively, Bird‘s lead actress (and former ‘Bond girl’) Suzy Kendall is British, while Cat‘s witness (who ends up as Fransiscus’s sidekick when he starts investigating the crimes) is Czech-American film star Karl Malden, whose post-Argento career would mainly be on television. The casting of Americans as the leads shows the director’s international aspirations – understandably, following the popularity of Leone’s Westerns with American leads, who would be dubbed into Italian for the local releases. Cat in particular is a slick thriller in the American mould, Argento keeping his own stylistic flourishes to a minimum compared to the other films in the ‘trilogy’, and including an exemplary car chase and cross-cutting between scenes in the style of American spy shows such as Man in a Suitcase and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Other international affectations include a climactic rooftop chase that recalls Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a Morricone score similar to the music of Lalo Schifrin, as well as references to Edgar Allan Poe, who would inform much of Argento’s work. The opening credits of Four Flies on Grey Velvet would make this explicit – a beating heart against a black background – and here we have grave-robbing, someone trapped in a locked tomb, and rats menacing a bound child. German cinema also gets a look in, with an uncredited rewrite by ‘Krimi’ scribe Bryan Edgar Wallace and Teutonic star Horst Frank.
Argento may have also looked to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni – another Italian director working with English-speaking actors at the time – as many of Cat‘s twists and turns recall the obsessive nature of the photographer investigating a crime in that director’s Blow-Up, made five years earlier. In contrast with the frustrating endings of Blow-Up and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento and his three collaborators provide The Cat o’Nine Tails with a satisfying conclusion: the killer tries to convince Malden’s character that he murdered his little girl and should be executed at his hands in revenge, which recalls the beginnings of the previous and next film by the director.
The fact that all three of Argento’s films made in 1970-71 contain an animal in their title suggests that at some point during production of his second film, he or the producers decided to brand them as a trilogy. But although the titles of Bird and Flies refer to clues that lead to the discovery of the killer, The Cat o’Nine Tails doesn’t feature a cat anywhere on screen or in the foley recording, nor does it feature the 17th-century torture device. One explanation of the title is that it refers to the number of suspects that Franciscus investigates, while I prefer the idea that it suggests the multiple chromosomal combinations that get discussed in a scene about the genetic psychopathy of the killer. Either way, since the title has no reference to the plot, this suggests it was added to the film late in production, to tie it to its predecessor and thematic sequel, which Argento would have already started work on before Cat arrived in cinemas.
Watching a director’s films in chronological order, you expect trends to dovetail, and in this sense Argento’s first three films almost feel like they were made in the wrong order. Bird mixes a traditional thriller with the director’s more surrealistic leanings, Cat is the most conventional and least Argento-like of the three films, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the most surrealistic of the three, with a negligible plot that exists purely to superficially connect the gory murders. So instead of the third film recapitulating, or elaborating on, the first two, it feels like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was separated into its constituent parts in the next two films.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet is the weakest of Argento’s early output, but in comparison to films he would make three decades later, it’s an underappreciated gem that provides the template for much of the director’s later work – theatrical, random and bizarre deaths that serve mainly to indulge the voyeurism and fetishes of horror aficionados. The opening features a rock/jazz band at practice being observed by a mysterious man in sunglasses who leaves a trail of burning cigarette butts on the floor. When one of the musicians leaves and eventually realises he’s being stalked, he follows the mysterious figure into a theatre; there, he gets maneuvered into inadvertently murdering the stalker while being photographed by a character in the shadows, who’s wearing a pig mask and talking in whispers. This striking and memorable set-piece isn’t really followed up in the plot – the musician isn’t blackmailed to any notable degree for a start – but is echoed in scenes that are artistic and thematic reflections of the opening, showing how unconcerned the film is with telling a traditional narrative.
The progression of violence on screen is also noticeable in Argento’s first three films – Bird is fairly tame by today’s standards, Cat contains a few violent deaths, in particular a character hit by a moving train, captured in slow motion, but Flies seems to exist purely for the depiction of violent deaths that are almost dreamlike at times – a reoccurring scene shows the lead character dreaming of his own decapitation in a bleached-out arena, which seems like a lost scene from an Italian ‘swords and sandals’ movie. The disjointed nature of Argento’s third film isn’t helped by Morricone’s shortest score to date – apparently he and the director fell out during the film and wouldn’t work together again for another 25 years. It segues from repetitive minimalism (which predicts John Carpenter’s score for Halloween) to strange comedic counterpoints to the action, such as a chorus of ‘Hallelujahs’ accompanying the arrival of Bud Spencer’s character, who helps the musician with the murder investigation. This musical sting is presumably an in-joke aimed at Italian audiences related to Spencer’s reputation playing a deus ex machina in B-movies, or even an obscure reference to the pseudo-religious 1968 album The Book of Taliesyn by Deep Purple, who were Argento’s first choice to score the movie, but it stops the film in its tracks by bruising, if not breaking, the fourth wall. Due to the crumbling relationship between Argento and Morricone, several scenes unfold with no music whatsoever, and these are the ones that tend to drag, in between the lurid and bloody executions on screen.
Perhaps encouraged by recent success, Argento uses the film as a way to experiment with his craft: a scene where an otherwise useless private detective stalks the killer is framed mainly in shots of arms and legs on a crowded metro train, and there are jump cuts during a sex scene (which may have influenced Nic Roeg when he travelled to Italy to shoot Don’t Look Now three years later). Without a complete score to fill the running time of the film, Argento uses the absence of music experimentally in one scene where we hear the sounds of driving juxtaposed with the lead character’s thoughts of travel. The nightmarish plot just about allows for the absurd pseudo-science where the four flies of the title are revealed when a bright light is projected through the severed retina of one of the victims.
As I suggested at the start, this is a trilogy of films that is linked through visual and thematic motifs. Each film is concerned with the act of looking and being seen; for example, in Cat, the killer cuts a hole through a door to look through it, and the hero’s girlfriend tries to stab his eye. There are also strange characters on the periphery that alternately aid and retard the investigation, for example the homeless man in a shack who keeps cats in cages for food in Bird. To this is added unusually honest (for the time) portrayals of homosexual characters on screen (which were cut as much as the violence in early English-language prints), the use of the P.O.V. of the murder weapon (pace Peeping Tom), femmes fatales, city-based locations and the jazz-like riffing on a central theme.
While neither The Cat o’Nine Tails nor Four Flies on Grey Velvet are quite as good as Argento’s first film – the second being slightly too slick and anonymous, the third a little too free-form and under-plotted – the three complement each other and are all worth watching for fans of giallo as they are among the best examples of the genre. As Arrow Video are releasing lavish new DVD / Blu-Ray editions of Bird and Cat, one can only hope they obtain the rights to Flies as well, to allow British audiences to see one of Argento’s rarest films and complete the set of three.