The Yellow Room: Argento's Animal Trilogy
Every genre needs a trilogy, and Dario Argento’s three consecutively released films starting with 1969’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1971’s Cat o' Nine Tails and 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet is just that. Commonly referred to as the ‘Animal Trilogy’, each of these has had an influence on horror films and murder mysteries made worldwide since the late 1960s, whether its Plumage’s highly stylized Hitchcockian mystery, Cat’s story driven/dialogue heavy investigation into stolen scientific formulas, or the darkly themed descent into wrong man madness and deception that oozes from Four Flies, these have all left an impact and remain genre staples while simultaneously launching Argento into fame as a filmmaker and not just that guy who helped pen Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West aka the greatest spaghetti western ever made.
I’d say the The Bird With Crystal Plumage is as fine a thriller as you're likely to come across during that time period. It’s hip, fast paced, and thrusted the genre forward in more ways than its predecessors… spawning countless similarly titled psychosexual romps drenched in mystery, J&B whiskey, razor wielding killers, and out of their element investigators trying to solve a puzzling mystery while immediately showing Argento’s prowess as a filmmaker with incredible shot composition, extraordinary lighting, and beautifully crafted murder set pieces. This format would go well into the 70’s and early 80’s where Argento would return to the giallo genre and tear down his own tropes, reconceptualizing them with a self reflective metafictional approach with the brilliant Tenebre, which in many ways acts as a swan song for the genre.
1969’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was written by Argento as an adaptation of Fredric Brown’s Novel The Screaming Mimi and focuses on American writer Sam (Tony Musante, who I really loved in this) living in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). While out and about one night Sam peers in the window of an art gallery and witnesses an unsuccessful murder attempt with what seems to be a mysterious figure attacking a woman. Rushing to help, he gets trapped between two sets locked glass doors—completely helpless as the bloody victim painfully clings to conciseness while he’s unable to help until the police eventually arrive. The tension is unnerving and sets the stage for a career of similar driven setpieces of macabre delight, as Argento gives us just enough of the pieces to lay out—but no clear direction which to start the puzzle. It’s his rollercoaster and we’re just along for the ride.
As the assailant is believed to be an infamous serial killer, Sam is quickly thrusted (with Hitchcockian mastery) into the investigation, becoming a key witness while his plans to head back to America are halted by lead investigator, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Salerno). Plumage shifts to what I like to call ‘full on gialli mode’… where our lead begins an investigation into the madness, with or without local law enforcement assistance. In this case, he begins working hand in hand with Morosini, searching for clues that eventually lead him to one fucked up painting, landing himself as a prime target for the psychopathic nut on the loose. Sam starts to receive menacing phone calls from the killer, from which the police manage to isolate an odd cricketing noise in the background which is later revealed to be the call of a rare bird from Siberia, often referred to as "The Bird with Crystal Plumage" due to the diaphanous glint of its feathers. From here on out it goes manic suspense mode, with a heart pounding home invasion attempt on Julia and a riveting finale that still gets me every time.
Argento's first Giallo (and feature film debut) Is anything but amateurish. It’s supremely confident and oozing with style, atmosphere and intrigue. The attention to detail, whether it’s a flash of the blade, the reddest of blood, or an exquisitely shot foot chase through the streets of Rome is top notch. Just about everything that Argento would touch on during his filmography can be found here, perfectly placed with style that still feels fresh, in fact this film has aged incredibly well and is a great introduction to one of the Italian Horror Masters. The recent Arrow Video Blu-ray is a fantastic package with a treasure trove of fine supplemental footage from some of the most intelligent and knowledge aficionados of genre cinema. The limited edition release sold out fast but you can still find it on the web, hopefully Arrow will release a standard edition so more folks can see the amazing work out into such a fantastic release.
Following the success of Plumage came 1971’s Cat o’ Nine Tails. Adapting a screenplay from a story penned by Dardano Sacchetti, Argento mainstay Luigi Cozzi, and an uncredited Bryan Edgar Wallace, Cat o’ Nine Tails is more discreet than its predecessor, the story is key here, focusing more on plot (no matter how crazy it gets) than mayhem and you can totally tell Argento loved writing scripts during this period, weaving a nifty little jam of cover ups, deceit, and murder with an astounding modern craftsmanship that, for 1971, eclipses many of his peers and fellow italiano filmmakers.
Cat begins at night, with two unlikely companions walking down a dimly lit street, a middle aged blind ex reporter named Franco ‘Cookie’ Arno (Karl Malden) and his young niece/ward Lori (Cinzia De Carolis). Cookie overhears a conversation involving blackmail in a nearby car and takes note, Following a break-in at the prestigious Terzi Institute for genetic research, one of the leading researchers (who was in the car participating in that blackmail discussion) ends up being pushed in front of a train and brutally massacred decimated after going under the wheels. After Lori recognizes the murdered man in the paper, Cookie teams up with newsman Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus), and it's only a matter of time before they're both in over their heads. While piecing together clues Carlo starts getting close to Anna (Christine Spaak), the daughter of the Terzi institute head honcho, while Cookie and Lori chase down several leads of their own… regardless of the garrote-wielding nutjob who's determined to keep a secret quite secret, eliminating anyone that gets in the way.
Tamer than what would come before and after, there’s still a person getting their face smashed as a train bulldozes over them, contorting the bloodied corpse as if it were set to tumble mode.
Cat has risen in praise from me over the last few years... bringing my kind of moody, tense, euromystery to the table with some great setpieces plus one of my favorite things in cinema: A rooftop finale. James Franciscus and Karl Malden standout big time, especially Malden as the blind crossword puzzle solving ex reporter ‘Cookie’. Oh... and that Morricone score, CURRENT SOUNDTRACK VIBE Y’ALL. Even though this is my least favorite of the trilogy, I still think it’s a great picture, and I love the early giallo run of Argento’s career and how different they were from the films before and the imitators (many which I also love) after.
Arrow Video’s upcoming Blu-ray is quite the looker, featuring gorgeous limited edition packaging, a tremendous new 4K transfer, and some informative supplemental footage that even includes a pieces together version of the original ending via the script. This is easily the definitive physical release of Cat o’ Nine Tails, and a fine addition to any collection. I hope arrow continues to put out these Argento reissues, the craftsmanship they put into these releases is second to none!
The final entry in this trilogy also happens to be my favorite of the bunch, Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Argento orchestrated such a coherently confidant debut with Plumage, brimming with style, but with Four Flies on Grey Velvet, his third picture, Argento writes and directs the Luigi Cozzi penned story firing on all cylinders, unleashing the visual stylistic flair as if these three films were just a testing ground for his next film, Deep Red right through Opera, one of the grandest directing runs in cinema.
The opening scene features a bands jam session and an exquisite shot of the camera peaking out through the acoustic guitars soundhole before shifting to drummer Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon), who soon discovers he’s being stalked by a shady looking man in sunglasses. Curiosity gets the best of him and Roberto follows the stranger to find out why he’s being followed, eventually confronting him inside an abandoned theatre where shit goes very wrong. The stranger pulls a knife and during a struggle Roberto inadvertently stabs the man to death, but not before another mysterious figure takes his photograph, linking him to the murder. Soon, Roberto is being blackmailed by the photographer. Wearing one creepy mask this blackmailer breaks into Roberto’s house numerous times, strangles his cat, and eventually starts murdering those around him. Unable to go to the police, Roberto is forced to take matters into his own hands, sending him even deeper into a world of deception and death, trying to uncover the killer’s identity before it’s too late.
Dario directs the fuck out of this excellent giallo with several phenomenal setpieces here including a rousing stalking sequence through hedges, numerous dream sequences featuring a decapitation, and a finale for the ages—a total jaw dropper. Gender politics play a role in this too, something that would be further examined in Deep Red with David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi’s characters. Optical viewing is a recurring theme throughout Four Flies, with numerous characters questioning what they may have seen and an reveal based on the last image seen in a murdered victims eye. Four Flies has risen up my list of Argento favorites over the last few years with its visual treats, solid performances all around, and damn fine Morricone score that accompanies this nifty mystery.
The Shameless Blu Ray released for its 40th anniversary is a massive upgrade from previous home video editions, the remastered transfer looks and sounds great except for a small audio glitch during the finale which seems to have some angry nerds whining, but the half a second static glitch isn’t a life or death situation and didn’t really bother me or my tv’s speakers so take that as a recommendation to scoop it up if you can. The cover to the shameless releases boasts: “Dario Argento’s Lost Masterpiece.” That quote isn’t wrong either as Four Flies (and Plumage) stand up with the best gialli films out there. With these three films Argento spent his time experimenting, honing his craft for Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebre, Phenomena, and Opera, all masterpieces in my eyes, but the roots for that creative run of visual madness starts with this important trilogy of oddly titled mysteries drenched in macabre atmosphere of a true genre pioneer.