Saturday, January 28, 2017

#249: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)

What a hellish nightmare of a week for the United States and humanity in general. The presidency turned into a white supremacist authoritarian dictatorship in a single week, and this country's worst impulses have become blazing neon signs. This is just a silly horror movie blog, and I won't be commenting much on politics in this space in the uncertain weeks, months, and years to come, but I fucking hate Donald Trump, his cabinet, the Republican Congress and everything they stand for and won't stand up for, and the weak-ass Democrats who are voting for his cabinet picks and not fighting for their constituents and a better future, and I'm sad, disgusted, angry, and worried. Being a straight white guy, I've had and probably still have plenty of blind spots and ignorance, and I'm in the demographic that is the least endangered by this administration's policies, but I want a world that welcomes and includes everyone and gives everyone a place at the table and a chance to participate and succeed in as even a playing field as we can get. I don't understand anyone who doesn't want these things. The only thing keeping me from total despair right now is that most Americans don't support this monster, either. Movies, music, books, (some) family, and friends have been a big help, too. Please, in any way you can, support the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and any other local, national, and global organizations fighting the good fight. And support your local arts, too. This could be a better world. It's on us. Rant over. Now an artless, awkward transition to this week's movie. 
Dario Argento's first film as a director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a lot less visually opulent than the horror classics he would soon make, but the seeds are definitely there, and a handful of scenes and images prove he had incredible imaginative skill from the beginning. This first film keeps one foot in the real world (or at least the movie version of the "real world"), especially compared to the baroque, hallucinatory dreamworld that most of his '70s and early '80s work inhabits, but it's packed with great movie faces, suspense, weirdness, and some pretty jaw-dropping set pieces, as well as 1970s Italian horror standard-issue sexism and homophobia that has aged pretty poorly.
Before he got the chance to direct his own films, Argento spent four successful years as a screenwriter, which seems a little odd to me. I love peak Argento, but I find his writing the least interesting thing about his work. He has great story ideas (one of which became the basis for one of Sergio Leone's greatest westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West), but his dialogue is pretty clunky and is generally perfunctory and expository, meant to keep the plot and narrative together and moving forward. I don't watch Argento for the sparkling writing. I watch him for his insanely awesome cinematic eye. His action sequences, shot compositions, odd visual details, eye-popping colors, and spectacular sense of where to put the camera and how to move it for maximum impact, these are the reasons why I'm an Argento fan. At any rate, he worked on the screenplays for comedies, westerns, gangster films, war films, sexploitation films, dramas, and psychological thrillers before putting his unique stamp on the horror genre as a director.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a fascinating take on an Italian subgenre most popular in the '60s and '70s that Americans call "giallo." In Italy, giallo is a broader term applied to any thriller. "Giallo" means "yellow" in Italian and was used to describe thrillers because postwar Italian mystery paperbacks often had yellow covers. Americans use it in a more specific way about a specific type of Italian horror film that is easier to recognize than describe. The characteristics of giallo as an Italian subgenre are as follows: A black-gloved killer murders beautiful women in particularly violent ways, usually with a knife, presented in highly stylized scenes and shots and accompanied by progressive, experimental music scores. The hero is often a witness to one of the crimes. Visual impact and formal inventiveness are prioritized over narrative coherence and logic. Characters generally behave in strange, illogical ways. These films tend to be misogynistic, but fortunately most of them don't include torture or rape and instead place their scares in menace, atmosphere, and suspense.
Argento's Plumage contains all the elements I mentioned in the previous paragraph, though the narrative is far more coherent than most of his subsequent films. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a struggling American writer preparing to move back to the United States who witnesses something strange while walking home one night. In the first of the film's many impressive visual sequences, Sam sees a woman struggling with a man in a black coat, hat, and gloves through the window of an art gallery. The woman is stabbed, and the man runs away, but not before hitting a switch and trapping Sam in the entrance to the gallery. He's surrounded on all sides by glass, and he can't get inside the gallery or back out to the street. Meanwhile, the woman is crawling on the floor, bleeding. Sam finally gets someone's attention, and the police and medics arrive in time to save the woman.
After a stretch as a suspect in which his passport is confiscated, Sam soon becomes a confidante to the detective working the case, helping him track down leads and growing more and more obsessed with catching the would-be killer, who has also been stalking and murdering a string of other women throughout the city.
Many intense, visually expressive scenes follow, including a chase through the streets that leads to a parking lot for buses and a hotel conference room full of ex-boxers having a union convention, the killer attempting entry into a top-floor apartment, an eccentric painter trying to make a sale who has walled off the entrance to his home, and a wild trio of scenes concluding the film. Argento was a gifted natural from the beginning, and he'd only get better from here (and then much worse, but I'll pretend his last several years never happened). Besides his own gifted compositional skills, Argento is masterfully aided here by the legendary Ennio Morricone, whose score is strange, intense, beautiful, and in some scenes, a kindred spirit to the electric improvisational music Miles Davis was making at the time. I like this movie, and even though some of its creakiness and stereotypical attitudes revealed themselves even more on this second viewing, its strengths did, too. A solid, scary film.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

#248: The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927)

It's been a real pleasure to see several Tod Browning silent films in recent months. One of that rare breed of director to make great films in both the silent and sound eras, Browning's silents are so perverse, funny, modern, and visual, so present, that I don't miss the dialogue. I don't feel like I'm taking a history lesson or looking at something archaic or outside my experience. Browning's silents float outside of time.
The Unknown packs a whole lot of weirdness, action, and beauty into its short 63 minutes, and Browning fills the film with great, memorable faces. Like a lot of Browning films, the principal characters are carnival performers and/or criminals, and there is much unrequited love, disguising of identities, outlandish schemes, and wonderful little details that great directors sprinkle throughout their work. 
The film opens with a performance by the traveling carnival, owned and operated by the brutal Zanzi (Nick De Ruiz). A man with no arms, Alonzo (Lon Chaney), assisted by little person Cojo (John George), uses his feet to light and smoke cigarettes, remove his cape, and throw knives at a lovely young woman, Zanzi's daughter Nanon (an early role for then-22-year-old Joan Crawford). Following this act, the strongman Malabar (Norman Kerry) comes out and lifts heavy weights and bends unbendable objects.
Both Alonzo and Malabar are in love with Nanon, but Malabar comes on too strong and alienates Nanon, much to Alonzo's delight. Nanon hates being touched by men, to the point of terror, so the only man she trusts is the armless Alonzo. The film implies that Zanzi has been sexually molesting Nanon, leading to her fear. (Kudos to my wife for pointing this out. It sailed right over my dim head.) Nanon gives an impassioned speech about how men have been putting their hands on her for her entire life, and Zanzi goes into a rage when he finds out Nanon has been spending time with Alonzo, whipping the armless man and verbally berating him. How did I miss that?
We soon learn that Alonzo is not the kindhearted fellow we think he is, and Malabar is a more sensitive guy than he first appeared. Alonzo has been using a corset to pretend he has no arms in order to avoid the police. He and Cojo are responsible for a string of robberies, and it is also implied that Alonzo has some murders in his past. The elaborate ruse is a clever one, for Alonzo has two thumbs on his left hand. He becomes obsessed with possessing Nanon, and his evil plans become even more evil when Nanon begins working through her fears and growing closer to Malabar, who begins to understand the source of her fear and drops the overbearing approach. Wild and crazy events ensue, including murder, blackmail, bizarre surgery, wild horses, and treadmills. 
Every one of these characters is more fascinating than the stereotypes they would have been in a lesser filmmaker's movie. Browning spent years working in carnivals, circuses, and the theater before his film career, and he always presents these characters as multidimensional people. Cojo's height is never used as a gimmick or a plot point, and it's his facial expressions and opinions that are Browning's focus in his scenes.
If you only know Joan Crawford as the tough older woman from baroque horror and melodrama, her status as a gay icon, or Faye Dunaway's delightfully cartoonish performance in Mommie Dearest, you'll get a whole new aspect of her here. It's such a treat to see her before she became a movie star and cultural symbol, though her charisma and screen presence are already fully in place. No wonder everyone in this film falls in love with her. She has a great screen rapport with Lon Chaney, too, who I've already written about many, many times on this site. He is, as usual, awesome. I love this movie.