Sunday, March 4, 2018

There's Always Room for Giall-O :: Murder Never Looked So Good in Arrow Video's Dual Release of Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Cat o' Nine Tails (1971)

Suffering from a terminal case of writer’s block, author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) goes for a post-midnight stroll in the darkened, labyrinthine streets of Rome to try and clear this mental logjam. Currently living abroad with his girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall), a frustrated Dalmas is ready to chuck it all and just return home to America but his ruminations are suddenly and violently interrupted when his attention is drawn to an art gallery -- more specifically, what appears to be an attempted murder on the other side of a large picture window. Moving to help the victim, a woman, currently fighting for her life against a black-gloved and raincoat adorned assailant, whose face we never see, Dalmas winds up stuck between two panes of display glass and can only watch helplessly as the wily killer presses his attack.

Luckily, though trapped, the author raises enough of a ruckus to scare the killer away, saving Monica Ranieri (Renzi), whose husband, Alberto (Raho), owns the gallery, from certain death. Deemed a material witness by Inspector Morosini (Salerno), Dalmas’ passport is confiscated, forcing him to stay put and become a reluctant part of the investigation into a most probable serial killer, who has been murdering a string of women all across the city. Haunted by what he saw, and certain he is mentally blocking some vital clue witnessed during the attack -- lost in the confusion and adrenaline rush of coming to the rescue, Dalmas soon launches his own investigation to maybe help jog this elusive memory, which leads to a curio shop where one of the killer’s victims used to work, where he learns the last thing she sold was a disturbing painting featuring a man in a raincoat viciously murdering a young woman.

But this lead soon fizzles, allowing Dalmas to return to his flat just in time to save Julia from the killer, who once again escapes unidentified. Then, several more clues lead them back to the art gallery, where Monica is once again fighting for her life -- this time with her husband, who winds up falling off the roof as he was pursued by the police. But before he dies, Ranieri confesses to all the murders. And once that’s seemingly settled, Dalmas returns home to a darkened flat and makes a grisly discovery. And with this shock, he also finally remembers what he saw that first night -- more like misinterpreted, but it might already be too late for him, and for Julia, as the real killer finally reveals their true identity...

Like a lot of famous filmmakers, Dario Argento’s love affair and storied career in moving pictures began life as a film critic. Soon switching sides, Argento officially broke into film production as a screenwriter; most notably teaming up with Bernardo Bertolucci on the script for Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). And it was Bertolucci who gave Argento a copy of Fredric Brown’s novel, The Screaming Mimi, for which Argento wrote a spec-script for, even though the novel had already been adapted once before by Gerd Oswald as Screaming Mimi (1958).

In the novel, a killer known as The Ripper has been terrorizing the city of Chicago for months. Enter Bill Sweeney, ace reporter and ace lush, who manages to get his act sobered-up long enough to help the only surviving victim -- Virginia, an exotic dancer, who was saved by persons unknown, who shot the killer before he could stab her to death. (“Ripper vs. Stripper!” the promos for Columbia screamed.) But even with the killer dead, more bodies keep piling up and most clues point to the traumatized Virginia and her repressed memories being the killer until Sweeney finds the linking clue, a contorted statue of a screaming woman (--hence, the Screaming Mimi), which points the guilty finger elsewhere. Oswald’s adaptation is kind of amazing in a bawdy good-bad way, with Anita Ekberg in the title role and Gypsy Rose Lee as her boss at the strip club. And in both the novel and the film, you can kinda see the seeds and characters that germinated and bloomed in Argento’s “unofficial” adaptation, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970).

Argento wrote the script in just five days, and originally, Artur Brauner wanted Terence Young -- who had helmed the first three James Bond films, to direct for his Central Cinema Company (CCC). But when he proved unavailable (or not interested), the film’s producer, Salvatore Argento, in perhaps a fit of nepotism, or perhaps not, got Brauner to agree to let his son, Dario, direct his own script -- a decision Brauner would come to regret once filming commenced. Not liking what he saw in the dailies, Brauner was ready to kick the novice director off the picture altogether but fate intervened when, as the legend goes, the elder Argento went to fight for his son’s job and found Brauner’s secretary visibly shaken. Seems she had seen the same footage but found it terrifying and extremely unsettling. And when his new star witness confessed this to her boss, the younger Argento kept the job and finished the film with an assist from noted cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro -- Apocalypse Now (1979), The Last Emperor (1987), in just under six weeks.

Now, the title, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, comes into play when the killer keeps calling and tormenting Dalmas (-- played by Musante, a method actor of the highest order, whose constant motivational pestering drove his director a little nuts), who always hears a strange, cricket-like noises in the background, which the police later identify as the call of a rare Siberian bird, whose “diaphanous feathers” glint like crystal. And it’s this vital clue that finally gives them the killer’s home and, eventually, their identity after an extremely harrowing, slightly sado-masochistic, and one downright helluva climax.

Upon its release, with its intoxicating production design, blunt violence, and a pulse-pounding and seductive score by Ennio Morricone, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage proved a smash success in Italy -- allegedly playing in a certain theater in Milan for three and half years straight. It also did surprisingly well in other countries, including the United States, where it had both box-office success and a positive critical response. This, of course, helped revitalize the gialli -- a certain style of Continental genre film that concerned byzantine plots, massive body counts, violence, and sex, all wrapped up in a candy colored, pop-art shell. And of this type, Argento would prove to be the master, and so, other studios were soon clamoring to have him do a follow up feature for them.

And so, Argento obliged with Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), a similar but slightly more grounded thriller as Franco "Cookie" Arnò (Karl Malden), an elderly blind puzzle-maker with an ear for intrigue, is out for a night-time stroll with his young niece, Lori (Cinzia De Carolis). And while he can’t see, Cookie’s other senses are finely attuned, allowing him to overhear an argumentative conversation between two people in a parked car concerning a blackmail scheme. And once the pedestrians have cleared off, the driver gets out and breaks into a nearby medical complex that houses the Terzi Institute.

The next day, ace reporter Carlo Giordani (James Fanciscus) is on the scene to cover the break-in, runs into Cookie, and fills him in on what happened. Then, these two cross-paths again when a Dr. Calabresi (Carlo Alighiero), an employee of the Institute, dies quite horrifically when he falls in front of a moving train. Seems Cookie has a nose for mysteries and feels the break-in and the death might be connected to something bigger. Giordani wrote the article about what is being deemed an accidental death, complete with gruesome pre- and post-mortem pictures courtesy of a paparazzo. But on Cookie’s suggestion, Giordani checks with the photographer and discovers the photo had been cropped and the full picture shows someone off camera most likely pushed the victim onto the tracks. However, when these amateur sleuths arrive at the photographer’s apartment for a closer look they find him strangled to death and all the photos and negatives of the incident gone.

Here, Cookie and Giordani officially join forces to untangle this sticky web of intrigue, with the reporter going to see the owner of the Institute, Fulvio Terzi (Tino Carraro), to talk about the death of his colleague. He also meets Terzi’s daughter, Anna (Catherine Spaak), and goes for a ride. And romantic sparks fly during a harrowing chase sequence when Giordani realizes the police are tailing them -- as to which one they are actually following, well, that’s up to the audience. Meanwhile, Cookie and Lori go to visit the late Calabresi’s fiance, Bianca (Rada Rassimov), curious if she knows if anyone wanted him dead. She knows he was the one who broke into the institute but denies any knowledge, but then later discovers a slip of paper that reveals what Calabresi stole as blackmail material. She hides the note inside her locket and agrees to reveal its contents to Cookie and Giordani but will only do so in person. Too bad the killer got to her first, but whoever it was they failed to find the incriminating evidence.

Meanwhile, further digging shows the Terzi Institute was working in eugenics -- more specifically, chromosome alteration via a new miracle drug in service of the long debunked theory that those with an extra Y-chromosome in their genetic make-up were prone to violent and criminal tendencies. Meantime, as our heroes try to piece all the seemingly unconnected clues and leads into a coherent theory, the killer, thinking Bianca might have already given them the damning evidence, and after failing to kill them both, sets another trap for them at the cemetery as they are lured to Bianca’s crypt in search of the pivotal note, thinking it might be buried with her since the police could find no trace of it. And while the masked killer gets away with the note and destroys it, Giordani manages to critically stab him during their struggle. But while those two are safe, the same cannot be said for young Lori, who suddenly finds herself in the wounded and desperate killer’s clutches...

I’d say until the release of Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005), Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) was probably Argento's most conventional thriller. Well, "conventional" might not be the right word as I read back through that summation of the simple yet highly convoluted plot thus far and smile ruefully, knowing I have barely scratched the surface and am omitting a ton of plot points, twists and knots in several overlapping story threads as our mismatched trio of sleuths try to unravel the mystery. Once again, the title actually refers to something in the movie; a whip with nine lashes, which Cookie alludes to, comparing their nine clues that make no sense separately but when placed together can solve the mystery once they untangle them.

Despite the slightly lethargic pace and those myriad false leads and red-herrings as they make their way down a trail of murder, incest, and money-grabs, I really do like this film a lot, honest, but it’s mostly due to the usual visual and audio noise of Argento and the excellent chemistry between the three leads -- and I would’ve loved to have seen the mystery solving team of Malden, Franciscus and Carolis franchise out for more adventures -- but the film's director doesn't really agree with me. Apparently, this is Argento’s least favored film, feeling it was too conventional -- too American, which I find odd because after the success of his first unconventional thriller, Cat o’ Nine Tails completely failed to ignite Stateside.

As I said, the plot definitely could’ve used some tightening up because as like with all gialli the suspect and motive our protagonists are doggedly chasing down proves to be the wrong one. And like with all of his films, Argento is once more concerned with being stylistic over sweating the dramatic elements of the plot. Yeah. This round, Argento definitely seemed more focused on the look of the film, which is gorgeous, and employing some wild editing techniques, giving us the normal feast for the eyes while not making our brains hurt as the plot pretzels itself like it did later with the likes of Deep Red (1975) or Tenebre (1982), proving once again sometimes less is more as the killer is finally identified and Lori is saved from certain death by some kick-ass heroics from my m’man, Franciscus.

Now, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat o’ Nine Tails are, of course, parts one and two of Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” along with Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). And one can only hope that someday the fine folks at Arrow Films can secure the rights to that final feature -- judging by what we get from their recent releases of the first two films. Both have been given a brand new 4K upgraden, and both look amazing. The colors just really pop off these things. Both are also available to watch in English or Italian (with subtitles). And it’s Arrow, so of course they’re both jam-packed with bonus features.

On Bird you get a new audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films; a new visual essay on the cinema of Dario Argento, The Power of Perception, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of Devil’s Advocates: Suspiria and Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study; along with analysis by film critic Kat Ellinger; and brand new interviews with Argento and actor Gildo Di Marco. The release also comes with 6 lobby card reproductions and a limited 60-page booklet illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie and new writing by Howard Hughes and Jack Seabrook.

The big highlight on the Cat release is a fantastic audio commentary by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman -- I could listen to those two talk film all day and night long. There’s also another interview with Argento, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti, production manager Angelo Iacono, and actress Cinzia De Carolis, who played young Lori. (Alas, there was a glitch on the screener I received so I could not see this last interview but I understand it has since been rectified.) Here, you also get a two-sided poster, plus four lobby card reproductions; and if you order quick you’ll get a limited edition booklet illustrated by Matt Griffin, featuring an essay on the film by Dario Argento, and new writing by Barry Forshaw, Troy Howarth and Howard Hughes.

Now I know Argento has his “style over substance” haters and detractors out there but I’m not one of them. I do, however, think the old maestro has kind of lost his touch a bit -- I think he’s been scuffling pretty badly since the likes of Opera (1987) and The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), and the less said about The Phantom of the Opera (1998) and Giallo (2009) the better. But you don’t have to worry about any of that, here, with these two fantastic releases.

Buy The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:

Buy The Cat o' Nine Tails:
At Amazon :: At Arrow Films

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) Central Cinema Company Film (CCC) :: Glazier :: Seda Spettacoli :: UMC Features / EP: Artur Brauner / P: Salvatore Argento / D: Dario Argento / W: Dario Argento, Fredric Brown (Novel) / C: Vittorio Storaro / E: Franco Fraticelli / M: Ennio Morricone / S: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho

The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) Seda Spettacoli :: Terra-Filmkunst :: Labrador Films :: National General Pictures / P: Salvatore Argento / D: Dario Argento / W: Dario Argento, Luigi Collo, Dardano Sacchetti, Bryan Edgar Wallace / C: Erico Menczer/ E: Cesarina Casini, Sergio Fraticelli / M: Ennio Morricone / S: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Cinzia De Carolis, Rada Rassimov

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