By Wade Wainio
November 23, 2018
Dario Argento worked on “Sspaghetti westerns” in his past. Did that experience influence his modern Giallo thriller, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage?
Dario Argento and the Wild, Wild West
Dario Argento is a man of diverse talents. Not long ago I watched The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Looking up information on him, I was reminded of his involvement in so-called “Spaghetti westerns.”
I can’t help but wonder if the director’s unique background cemented his interest in making mostly horror films. The way I see it, creative people are often inspired to veer elsewhere when they get tired of the same approach. This may have been the case with Dario Argento.
To begin with, let’s get to basics. What is a Giallo film? By definition, it’s an Italian thriller film blending themes of mystery, crime, horror and “exploitation.” It occasionally features supernatural elements.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage features many of these aspects, and was also Dario Argento’s directorial debut! Prior to this, he had been involved with films as a writer, and the diversity of his content may surprise some people.
For example, he co-wrote a comedy called Pardon, Are You For or Against?, which debated the merits of divorce (which was illegal in Italy at the time). Then he co-wrote Today We Kill…Tomorrow We Die!, a Spaghetti western directed by Tonino Cervi.
After that came Alfio Caltabiano’s Commandments for a Gangster. Although that was a gangster movie, Wikipedia notes that it contains “an unseen murderer with black gloves,” which is a classic Argento touch.
His biggest early co-written film was Once Upon a Time in the West, a revenge-themed western directed by Sergio Leone. I don’t wish to get sidetracked, but one should consider how interesting Leone’s own influences were, and how these Italian movies were quite international in scope and imagination.
Leone was inspired partly by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. In other words, there was a Kurosawa-influenced writer-director shooting American-style Westerns, often with international stars.
The result was a unique, fascinating, gritty and quirky cocktail just crazy enough to work. With Argento, this background certainly blended with his previous work as a film critic. Basically, he was someone primed to combine genres and styles, simply by being around such people and projects.
Similarities between (some) Western and (some) Horror Films
While horror and westerns are considered distinct genres, there are certainly some thematic crossovers. As an obvious example, practically all Westerns feature an outright villain (or villainous gang), and usually certain lives are dispensable along the way. There can be some brutal scenes in both genres, or at least heavily implied violence.
Also, as suggested before, most westerns are gritty, in both senses of the word. They show characters who seem covered with literal grit, while some show courage and resolve. This obviously lends itself to horror films, and not just those by Argento (as an obvious example, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre contains plenty of grit, and filth).
One of the main differences (aside from standard gore level) is that, quite often, horror films have a greater sense of mystery and, well, horror. Still, Once Upon a Time in the West comes close to feeling like a horror film, and that’s at least partly Argento’s touch (though the dark harmonica parts were Ennio Morricone).
His production of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was praised by critics and horror fans alike. I think it’s partly because its director had these diverse roots, which informed rather than overshadowed his future work.
Argento seemed to have found his groove in horror. After all, westerns tend to be more limited than horror (which, despite being criticized, more easily blends with science fiction, mystery, suspense…you name it!). The results were obvious.
Once Upon a Time in the West seems pre-aged and traditional, like it was almost cemented in time. In contrast, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has a decidedly modern look and feel, and seems a bit more fluid. Its energy is often frenetic, driven by sheer madness.
Two of the main characters, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) and Julia (Suzy Kendall) seem like a modern couple, and the movie has more of an urban than rural feel. For another example, the movie starts with a woman (Eva Renzi) being attacked in an art gallery by someone in a raincoat. I’m no historian, but there probably weren’t many art galleries in the Old West, and no cowboy villain is likely to wear a raincoat around!
In fact, when Sam is trying to rescue the woman from her attacker, he is powerless to do so after being trapped between mechanically-operated glass doors. Stupid modern gadgets! This is more of a look forward at modernity, suggesting that we can literally be trapped by it.
Afterwards, Sam is considered an important witness and his passport is confiscated, meaning he’s basically stuck where he is. Obviously, claustrophobia and inability to escape are regular themes of Argento’s horror work, and this is no exception.
In the past, both villain and hero alike traveled freely most of the time. Nowadays, your movement can be restricted seemingly at will. There’s a resulting impression that “everyone’s out to get you,” and damn near anyone could be the villain.
Quite simply, there’s more going on with a story like this because it’s modern. In a western you tend to know who the bad guy is, and have an identifiable hero. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is shrouded in mystique. Ultimately, it becomes an investigation into everything from an exotic bird call to, let’s just say, an influential art piece.
This isn’t to say Argento simply repudiated his older stuff. In fact, he’s occasionally strayed from the horror path into more conventional terrain. While he’s largely separated from his Western roots, it’s no doubt informed other films.
Similarly, a lot of his horror elements could probably be seen in his non-horror work. The point is: Dario Argento isn’t the simplest man with the simplest conceptual roots, and that’s what makes him a horror legend. While his horror films risked becoming formulaic, he still took chances on many occasions. What more could you ask of a filmmaker?