Around the same time that Alfred Hitchcock’s career began to wane, potential successors for his “Master of Suspense” title emerged in Hollywood and abroad. In America, director Brian De Palma laced several films with overt homages to Hitchcock. Overseas, Italian director Dario Argento won a fleeting sort of international fame with his first three pictures, all of which have unmistakably Hitchcockian elements.
Argento’s debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, benefits not only from the self-assurance of a youthful talent eager to strut his stuff but also from extraordinary collaborators. Having proven himself as a screenwriter on pictures including Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Argento secured the services of composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Their unnerving music and stately photography elevate the contrivances of the script Argento adapted from a 1949 novel by Fredrick Brown. The film opens with a bravura visual flourish—while living in Rome, American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) happens upon an attack inside an all-white art gallery, so he watches from behind the gallery’s glass façade as a beautiful woman struggles to survive a stabbing. Luckily, he’s able to call for help. Afterward, police detective Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) confiscates Dalmas’ passport and forces the writer to remain in Italy until the investigation concludes. Dalmas then starts an investigation of his own, even as the killer attacks others who get too close to the truth.
Despite myriad lapses in credibility and logic, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage moves along fairly well. Unfortunately, so many scenes feature the brutalization of women that Argento left himself vulnerable to charges of misogyny, just as De Palma did with his Hitchcockian shockers. That said, most of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is vivid. Expertly staged jump scares complement unpleasant scenes including a horrific razor-blade attack. Salerno’s world-weary portrayal, while clichéd, is fun to watch, though Musante is far less impressive. In his defense, he’s burdened with some wretched dialogue (“What’s happening to me? This damn thing’s becoming an obsession!”). All in all, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an impressive first effort, its rough edges attributable to inexperience and its highlights indicative of promise.
Argento’s follow-up, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, is made with just as much confidence but slightly less panache. Morricone returns, but the movie suffers for Storaro’s absence, because the imagery in Argento’s second film is pedestrian instead of painterly. Also miring The Cat o’ Nine Tails in mediocrity are distasteful themes of child endangerment, homophobia, and incest. Once again, Argento uses the device of a witness who becomes an amateur sleuth. This time, blind typesetter Franco Arnò (Karl Malden) overhears a suspicious conversation and then makes a connection when he learns about a murder that happened near where the conversation took place. Franco enlists the help of newspaperman Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), and they search for the killer’s identity. Things get convoluted fast, because the plot involves, among other things, cutting-edge genetic research and the use of a whip as a metaphor. Still, the plotting of The Cat o’ Nine Tails is no more ridiculous than that of the typical Hitchcock picture, except perhaps for the sheer number of McGuffins pulling the story down blind alleys.
Logic is even more of a problem in Argento’s sophomore effort than it was in his debut, since the police in The Cat o’ Nine Tails seem both ineffective and weirdly tolerant of amateur detectives. Like Musante in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Franciscus cuts a handsome figure but offers little else to the proceedings, though Malden’s avuncular charm makes all of his scenes watchable. Argento’s apparent desire to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock gets a bit tiresome, as during a long scene involving poisoned milk, but Morricone saves the day with his offbeat score, all eerie wails and spidery syncopation. Furthermore, Argento comes through with a fun chase at the end as well as a colorful final death. So even though The Cat o’ Nine Tails doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it’s the most entertaining installment of Argento’s so-called “Animal Trilogy.”
Four Flies on Grey Velvet lacks the elegance of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and the pulpy energy of The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Worse, Four Flies on Grey Velvet tacks in a grotesque direction by fetishizing violence with close-ups of foreign objects penetrating skin. It’s as if Argento, upon reaching maturity as a storyteller, suddenly forgot the lessons about understatement he’d learned from Hitchcock’s work. Anyway, Four Flies on Grey Velvet gets underway when rock-music drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) confronts a man he perceives as a stalker, then accidentally kills the man while another person photographs the incident. Blackmail ensues, so Roberto half-heartedly investigates with the assistance of artist friends and a PI. Meanwhile, Roberto navigates romances with two women. Four Flies on Grey Velvet is one of those befuddling thrillers in which the protagonist seems fearful of mortal danger in one scene, then seems untroubled in the next. Further muddying the viewing experience are brief attempts at comedy, such as a scene featuring Italian-cinema funnyman Bud Spencer. It’s hard to reconcile the lighthearted stuff with scenes of slow-motion mutilation, especially since the plot deteriorates into endless explanations of far-fetched motives sprinkled with cut-rate psychobabble.
After making Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Argento took a break from the rough stuff and made an outright comedy, which flopped. Thereafter, he doubled down on gore and weirdness with Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977). Exit the would-be Master of Suspense, enter the Master of Horror. While none of Argento’s early thrillers remotely approaches the quality of Hitchcock’s best work, all three are creepy and imaginative, with moments that would have made the master proud.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: GROOVY
The Cat o’ Nine Tails: GROOVY
Four Flies on Grey Velvet: FUNKY