Friday, March 5, 2010

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)
The film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) tells the story of Sam Dalmas, an American writer in Italy preparing to return to the United States. After witnessing an attempted murder believed to be connected to a recent murder spree, Dalmas becomes involved in trying to solve the mystery of the crime, and find the murderer. In this unlikely scenario, Dalmas becomes an obsessive detective with considerable investigative skills. Inspector Morosini provides the high-technology of the day, and the usual trappings of crime-solving; computer calculations of crime evidence, the expert opinions of a psychiatrist, and an audio analysis of recordings of the suspected killer. However, while the technology provides clues, it takes a detective to solve the crime.

The local police do not find the success that Dalmas does in both investigating, and in becoming a target for the murder. Dalmas methodically investigates every possible lead, and just as he is about to return to the U.S., he investigates an artist connected to the murderer via a macbre painting. After an unfruitful investigation, he returns to his girlfriend, who has been stalked and is about to be murdered. He finds that the mind behind the killings is that of the woman who he initially rescued. This twist, while predictible, is only the surface of the film. If carefully considered, the issue of colonialism can be read into the weave of the film.

The website called “Kinoeye” has an essay by Frank Burke that identifies a theme of containment in the film as a metaphor for colonialism – (“Intimations and more of colonialism,” Indeed, containment is repeated a number of times; the opening where Dalmas is contained between two glass doors at the gallery, the prisoner who helps Dalmas find leads, the painter who is self-contained out in the country, and the bird with the crystal plumage within the film, who is extremely rare and contained in a cage. This sense of containment sets the stage for both physical and psychological entrapment, as well as serving as a metaphor for colonial oppression. Sam Dalmas becomes fixated with the case, which becomes it's own form of containment.

Once Sam Dalmas is obsessed with the case, he is in a way, trapped by it psychologically, even leaving his girlfriend to investigate the painter only hours before they are to fly to the United States. The theme of containment is also associated with aesthetic values. The art gallery, the painter, and the caged bird all pose contradictory values, in that as people and things representing aesthetic beauty and its creation, they are also physically entrapped within their respective environments. While Argento may not represent his Marxist political values on the surface of his film by directly representing an oppressed character, he does present a metaphor for colonial oppression, whereby things of value are appropriated or held captive by an outside force. This metaphor raises the film above that of the “whodunit?” formula, however, the film does contain classic thriller elements.

A glove found at the scene of the crime serves as a classic “Mc Guffin,” an object that provides a clue which may or may not be pertinent to the crime. Upon careful analysis, the police lab and inspector identify the glove as belonging to a left-handed male who smokes Cuban cigars. While this level of detail leads the viewer to expect a male murderer, by the end of the film, the opposite is found to be true. This red-herring technique is common for thriller cinema.
While there are a few lapses in narrative logic in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film is compelling enough to sustain the viewer through the action of the film via its suspense, and this is the film’s strength. While there are obvious comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock, Argento is truly his own filmmaker who avoids the sense of Hollywood kitsch that sometimes appears in Hitchcock’s later films. Argento is indeed a film auteur, and it is unfortunate that his standing in Italian National Cinema has concealed the influence of his artistry outside of his home country.

Useful links on Dario Argento:
Kinoeye: “Intimations and more of colonialism” by Frank Burke

Senses of Cinema: Biography on Argento

Offscreen: “Dario Argento, Maestro Auteur or Master Misogynist?”


kelco411 said...

I completely agree with the point that containment is an important theme in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. There is the example of Dalmas being stuck between those glass doors or the artist who is all alone in his home, but I think the biggest thing to prove this theory is how this murder case is consuming Dalmas' life. He is letting it take over his life. He is neglecting his girlfriend and completely forgetting that he is supposed to be leaving the country. Even when the killer calls him and tells him that he should just leave now, he can't do it. These murders are containing him in the place that he is. He is obsessed with figuring out who is behind all of these murders. He is so consumed by it that he lets his girlfriend and himself be in danger many times. Only at the very end of the film when the murderer is revealed is Dalmas set free from his confinement. He can finally go back to America, and he is no longer contained within this murder mystery.

I also really liked how the music was used in this film, especially since it was meant to be a scary/mystery/suspense film. The music was always used at the right time to make the audience feel nervous or scared. It did that for me, at least. Sometimes scary movies can get it all wrong just because of where they place their music or sound, but this movie did a pretty good job with that. It definitely added a lot to the film.

Emirjona85 said...

I think that Argento has not only made a Giallo horror movie. His intention I think was to show the artistic way of expressing his feelings. The metaphor of colonial oppression as you mentioned for example shows a good value of art in the movie. Dario Argento loves showing art and poetry in his movies. The art gallery is one way of showing art. The entrapment of Dalmas and the bird with the crystal plumage is also one way of showing art. As you said as Dalmas was entrapped between doors, he got involved with the murder cases. He could not let it go. His mind and his body was entrapped and he could not leave to go to United States. The painting that led one of the girls to death is art. The fact that Dalmas is not a detective but a writer is art. All of these show Argento's artistic way of showing his dreams depicted into movies.

Jessica said...

Interesting observations! I hadn’t thought about the concept of containment throughout the film, but I agree, Argento does seem to use the metaphor of containment for colonial oppression. Something else that I found interesting in the film was the non experienced detective attempting and eventually, succeeding in solving the murder. Although it is an unlikely reality to find the average “ Joe” involved in solving a murder mystery , it does seem to be consistent with other Italian “gialli” that I have seen as film and read.

Cinepresa87 said...

Argento's Film successfully engages the viewer to continually ask the question "who is the murderer?” Although, it may have not been the most artistically done film in Italian cinema, it does contribute many artful elements including skillfully filming scenes to reveal very little about the killer (limited views of faces, surroundings, mismatched clues, and darkness).
The idea mentioned of containment in the film is an interesting method Argento's utilizes. Not only is Sam Dalmas contained in particular scenes and caught up in the murder, but us as a viewer become fascinated and begin participating (contained) in the mystery to try and solve the 'who done it' question.

elisa6690 said...

This movie was particularly interesting to me, due to the fact that "horror/suspense" genre films aren't necessarily ones that I enjoy. This being said, Argento pleasantly surprised me. It wasn't all too gruesome, but it definitely didn't lack the "spook factor". I think Argento cleverly provided enough small details for the audience to somewhat involve themselves in the investigation. We are misguided, confused, and left trusting our intuition, up until the very end. The music by Ennio Morricone was also a great part of this film. It created a chill down my spine just at the right moments. Argento used all the right techniques, beautifully tying all aspects of this film together. Again, this film was enough to spark my imagination and spook me, but didn't go overboard by causing terror.

Un Amico said...

i agree with emirjonas85 about argento not just making a horror film. i think dario does have an attraction to horror, but not just for the scary elements. of all the argento films i've seen, they're not scary, really, but they are beautiful and highly visual. that is the element i believe argento to be most concerned with. the scripts for most giallos are not very good, but these are arbitrary. there only purpose is to string along the film and provide scenarios and situations to be exploited and embellished with art.

tots288 said...

Very interesting! Definitely didn't even think of the containment theme. Very well thought out and definitely makes a lot of sense. Even the mention of Alfred Hitchcock is very good observation because I too did see similarities in the two directors way of cinema. Very strange and almost creepy movies and actions scenes are definitely something that is a nice comparison between the two.

Tani said...

I didn't think of the concept of containment in this movie more than I though of the different signals and clues. I felt that Argento develops his movies in a way to keep the viewer guessing. I felt the biggest clue in the film was given by the red flower on the building and by how nervous the lady's husband was each time Sam would go to interrogate her. Argento made the film like a novel that unfolds peace by peace . I think his main point was to get the viewer to constantly keep guessing who is guilty, and I think he does a good job at it.

Cool Italian Pics said...

Great observations here.
Part of what I think makes a suspense/thriller engaging is the absence of useful information. By constructing the narrative with holes and not trying to make it a perfect work of art, it engages the viewer more closely with the story. This film was a surprise, as the genre films are not fully represented in the canon of Italian Film literature published in the English language.

Mr Hooster said...

As in most horror/mystery movies, the music played an important role here. The scenes in the movie were not all that shocking or scary (back when this came out they may have had a more dramatic effect) but the music created an atmosphere that gave goosebumps! Argento did a good job using lighting to help set the mood in some scenes and in others to mask what different characters or actions taking place. For a Gillo, I believe that this movie was able to do what it is intended for, to scare and keep the audience on the edge of their seat!