The Family That Stays Together
Influenced by Hitchcock and Leone (with whom he and Bertolucci had coscripted Once Upon a Time in the West) and in turn leaving his mark on De Palma, Carpenter and Craven, Dario Argento made his directorial debut with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage/L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo aka The Gallery Murders, a 1970 giallo (Italian pulp policier) that, as was to be a constant, he also thought up and scripted. Later reissued as The Phantom of Terror, it opened the Animal Trilogy, tenuously named for title references -- The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Gray Velvet, both the following year and also mystery thrillers with twists and psychological aberration terror.
More known for dreamlike, overwrought, bloody but stylish horror fantasies like Suspira, he is being rivaled by daughter actress-director Asia, while producers father Salvatore and brother Claudio are arguably more respected among the proper. Still, spaghetti slasher-splatter Dario has a convinced coterie following.
Three generations of this cinema family are getting their propers at the Museum of Arts and Design. Eight-week “Argento: il cinema nel sangue” (Argento: Cinema in the Blood) has Salvatore’s first producing credit, eleven by director Dario, including the Animal and Three Mothers trilogies, and four with actress Asia, one of which she also directed. All but the final two of Dario’s are 35mm prints, some scratchy and faded from lush Cromoscope/Technostampa color to near sepia but primitively exciting on a big screen.
Each in this initial triptych takes off from murder, investigated as much by bystander amateurs as the police. But BCP also looks ahead to the director’s 1975 Deep Red, in which an artist, a pianist, cannot bring to conscious surface the answer he has but cannot exactly grasp. That pianist is David Hemmings, whose Blow-Up Thomas owes something to the same concept, a clue like a dream that recedes just as, even making love, BCP’s artist, writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), obsessively visualizes the scene of the crime but cannot get the missing link into focus.
Sam is an American who has finally sold a book and so in two days will leave “peaceful” Italy for home with girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). On the way to the flat they share in a condemned building with no other tenants, he glances through the glass front of a statue gallery. Inside, a woman struggles with a man in black, who stabs her and, seeing the onlooker, flees.
The bloodied redhead is not seriously hurt, but Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) suspects the attack is connected to several knife or razor murders of women in Rome and that their only witness has seen more than he realizes. Accordingly, Sam’s passport is confiscated, and, canceling his and Julia’s flight, he begins to investigate alongside the Inspector.
The start is the flat of the wounded Moncia (Eva Renzi), where her gallery-owner husband Alberto Ranieri (Umberto Rano) insists she is too distraught for an interview. The amateur sleuth narrowly escapes a knife attack himself and, with Julia, another by a gunman in a yellow ex-prizefighters’ club jacket (Reggie Nalder). Obsessed, he looks up the antique gallery where a homicide victim had worked and borrows a photo of a painting she had just sold -- a man stabbing a woman in a landscape like that of Brueghel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow -- and tracks down its painter (Mario Adorf), a now-spiritual recluse who eats cats.
The police receive taunting phone calls in a faked whisper -- those are Dario’s gloved hands dialing, and knifing -- and soon Sam gets one threatening Julia’s life. His reel-to-reel of it catches unidentifiable clicking sounds in the background, but experts determine that the disguised voices are different, indicating two killers, a copycat, accomplice or prankster. Still, for all his footwork and flashbacks, Sam is unable to pinpoint what it was he saw in the gallery that will unravel the knot.
The jazzy score by Ennio Morricone, another Leone connection, is far from the heavy experimental level in Dario’s later work; and, certainly in this faded print, the palette is subdued compared to the lush signature reds and blues to come. With some humor, and relative straightforwardness despite dead ends belying the director’s “there’s nothing gratuitous,” BCP is a watchable serial murderer-search movie even if not the stuff of cult status.
(Released by Universal Marion Corporation and rated "PG" by MPAA.)