Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Films of Dario Argento: The 'Animal Trilogy'

For LAMBS in the Director's Chair for February, the focus is Dario Argento. I had previously watched The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Suspiria as part of my Halloween special last October, but I decided to work through some of his other films too. Here is Part 1 of my Argento special:

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) (Capsule review originally written on October 30, 2011)

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is an excellent horror/thriller debut from writer/director Dario Argento (Deep Red and Suspiria). An American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), is living in Rome. Suffering from writer’s block, he considers returning to the United States, but witnesses an attempted murder late one night through the glass doors of a museum. He sees a woman being attacked by an assailant wearing a raincoat. In the days that follow he can’t shake the thought that there was something odd about the whole affair and gets lured into the case when he is instructed to remain in Rome, with the police believing him to be an important witness in the hunt for the serial killer they believe has been terrorising the city.

He begins obsessing over the case, with his life (and his model girlfriend’s also) eventually threatened by the killer. There is a great pace to this film with Argento crafting a compelling mystery, building a tense atmosphere and punctuating it all with several terrifying sequences. Many would have been proven to be very shocking at the time. The photography from Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now) is stellar and this is certainly influential work within the genre. It is a landmark in the Italian giallo (crime fiction/mystery) genre – and the first in Argento’s “Animal Trilogy”.

Rating: A-

The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971)

The Cat o’ Nine Tails is the middle entry in Argento’s “Animal Trilogy”. Following a break-and-enter and suspected theft at a pharmaceutical facility, a series of murders tied to the company and their top-secret experiment, are investigated by a blind but intuitive ex-journalist (Karl Malden) and a newspaper reporter (James Franciscus). As they delve deeper into the mystery, which is accompanied by a growing body count as the killer tries to eliminate loose ends, they both become targets themselves.

Like Crystal Plumage, there is a stifling level of suspense to just about every sequence. We begin with a lengthy shot through the eyes of who we assume to be the story’s primary villain, as they knock out a guard, and then infiltrate the medical institute in search of something. There is something very unsettling about the use of POV, and the fact that our visibility in a lot of sequences is skewed because of the dark interiors, focused lighting and heavy shadow, creates an uneasy feeling in the audience. There are some jump scares, but most of them emerge through clever restraint and timing. Again, Argento is committed to keeping the identity of the killer hidden until the final reveal, which, admittedly, is a surprise.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails, perhaps a bit tighter in the heavily edited 90 minute version (I watched the 112 minute version), features several sequences that deserve mention. There is a grotesque man vs. train decapitation, an exciting car chase through the streets of Rome, several gruesome strangulations, a nail-biting late night visit to a cemetery and an impressive climactic rooftop chase sequence. Numerous suspects are considered, and there is one attempted mislead that doesn’t work quite as well as intended, while another chief suspect is too obvious, and eliminated too quickly to have piqued our attention. Still, the central mystery is intriguing, the lead protagonists are a unique pair (an intuitive blind ex-reporter, and a young upstart journalist), and when linked to a groundbreaking scientific discovery that could alter criminal behaviour in Italy, it becomes a densely themed film.

While I preferred The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, this is still an exceptionally accomplished film. Despite some unexplained subplots (why one of the suspected scientists had to be revealed to be a homosexual seems irrelevant), and some holes (how the killer manages to stay so informed, and conveniently eliminate each of the witnesses, becomes a touch ridiculous) this is a terrifying film.

The Cat o’ Nine Tails is again stunningly photographed (Argento worked with Erico Menczer not Vittorio Storraro this time), utilizing an array of stylistic experiments – including graceful steady-cam, inventive angles and chilling POV. Scenes are often composed together through quick jump cuts, while Ennio Morricone’s terrifying score, like in Crystal Plumage, perfectly accompanies the film’s twisted tone. Argento sure knows how to create suspense. I was on the edge of my seat.

Rating: B+

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

True to his first two films in the "Animal Trilogy", the highlights in Four Flies on Grey Velvet are the scenes of terrifying suspense, and there are a handful of wonderful sequences again. Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), a drummer in a rock band, has recently recognized that a stranger is following him. Frustrated, he follows the man to an abandoned theatre one night – where he claims to have no idea what Roberto is talking about. He pulls out a blade and in the scuffle Roberto stabs the man and he falls into the orchestra pit. But, it seems like Roberto has been lured there on purpose because someone (wearing a puppet mask) is lurking in the upper wing of the theatre taking incriminating photos of the scene. The dead man’s wallet turns up at Roberto’s address, and the photos appear throughout his house. Someone wants to make Roberto’s life a living hell. Perhaps they are a maniac, or perhaps they are interested in the money inherited by Roberto’s wife, Nina (Mimsy Farmer)? Roberto, convinced it is someone who knows him well, enlists the help of some friends, and an eccentric private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle) to help him uncover the mystery.

With an unlikely protagonist again playing detective, there is a lot of intrigue to this story, but I feel like this is Argento’s weakest screenplay so far. Unfortunately, the story gets sidetracked a lot (making the film feel much longer than it is, and tests a viewer's patience), taking odd tangents that don’t relate at all. A meeting between Roberto, Godfrey and The Professor at a coffin exhibition is just one example – with the scene punctuated by odd attempts at humour. There are also a couple of romantic scenes between Roberto and Nina's cousin, Dalia (Francine Racette), who comes to stay. Nina, fearing for her safety, leaves town, and Roberto wastes no time seducing the younger woman still staying at his house. This has no bearing whatsoever, except making Dalia a new target for a gruesome demise. It also makes it hard to care for Roberto.

I felt like the performances were all pretty average, but this might have been due to some weak dialogue. Again utilizing POV photography to brilliant effect, there is a brutal beating (which is as shocking as some acts of violence today, except this is 1971), and an unforgettable sequence in an attic. The way this latter sequence is directed draws as much suspense as possible – and though you expect the worst for the character, what happens still comes as a horrifying shock (not to mention highly innovative filmmaking).

My favourite sequence, though, involved the detective. He has begun to put the pieces together – and during a journey on the subway, it is revealed he has recognized someone (likely the target) further up the crowded carriage. We never see who he is looking at, only a close-up of his concerned face. He hops off at the same stop and walks through the station looking for them, eventually deciding that they must have escaped into the toilets. It is nail-biting stuff, and one of the finest sequences I have seen Argento direct so far. The final twist (and how it is revealed) is a doozy, and though the film’s pace is all over the place and there are features that are poorly done, this rare film still has enough moments of greatness to please giallo fans. Anyone interested in a unique and gripping mystery, really.

Rating: B


  1. I've only seen The Bird with the Crystal Plumage of these, and I agree with this assessment completely. I loved it.

    1. Yeah it is brilliant. One of the best-looking serial killer thrillers I have seen. The others are worth a look too.

  2. Timely, cos I just got Four Flies on DVD today. How far into his career are you going to look?

    1. That is a coincidence. There are some brilliant moments in Four Flies. I'm going up to Tenebrae - so from here Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebrae. Loved Suspiria, but heard great things about Deep Red and Tenebrae especially.

    2. It's probably worth persisting up to Opera, which I gather is the generally accepted cut-off point for Argento. I've seen some of the later films and they're just not worth the effort.

    3. If I have the time, I might persist. Though I can always come back to them another time. I just got sent some French Film Fest. screeners, so got plenty to see. Thanks for the info re: OPERA. Loving them so far, and looking forward to DEEP RED tonight.

  3. Good stuff Andy. I'm glad you enjoyed this trilogy. Have you seen Deep Red yet?

    1. I'm going to watch it tonight. Next on the list.

    2. Excellent! I just finished revising my old post on it, and look forward to reading your thoughts on the film.

    3. I loved Deep Red - probably the scariest film I have ever experienced. Incredible how much you hold your breath through all the tension, only to be relieved for a second, before being made to jump out of your skin. The Doctor's death was such a well directed scene. Amazing photography, and a score by Goblin not as instantly memorable as Suspiria's main theme, but better overall, I think. My favourite Argento so far. Still deciding whether I have time to re-watch Suspiria or just finish with Tenebrae.