Dario Argento's 'Animal Trilogy' in Retrospect

Italy, at the time, was not unfamiliar with the Giallo. Il Maestro, Mario Bava, had created the thriller sub-genre in films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much and the seminal Blood and Black Lace. Others followed the trend throughout the 1960's, but it would be Bava's young protege who would step in to perfect the conventions of this purely-Italian art form. His name, of course, is Dario Argento, and he would pave the way for countless other directors with his breakthrough feature film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Today, we present Dario Argento's complete 'Animal Trilogy' in Retrospect.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnesses an attempted homicide from outside of a small art gallery, but he isn't able to call the police in time to stop the culprit. Now, he must work to piece together the clues from his shattered memory in order to help the authorities catch their killer.

All of the basic blueprints for the modern Gialli are laid out quickly as Sam sets out on his quest, from the mysterious black-gloved killer, to the gradual revelation of forgotten events and the grandiose murders that decorate the convoluted plot in blood. Argento demonstrates the same incredible sense of style and originality in design as his mentor. His fluid camera movements and strategic framing paint a visual tapestry that is able to tell the story without the need for dialog. Having yet to dive into the extraordinary world of color and sound that would later be found in SUSPIRIA, Argento uses much more muted tones, focusing instead on the play of light and shadow against the darkened streets of Rome. If any fault could be found in the film's design, it would have to be in the questionable explanation behind the killer's motives, a common problem that would resurface in countless Gialli to follow.

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is an intelligent film, it is an important film, but most of all, it is a good film. A very good film, and one that holds a very strong historical significance in reshaping Italian cinema forever.

Rating: 9/10.

Cat 'o Nine Tails (1971)

When a series of murders strike the local genetics laboratory, it will take a cunning reporter and his blind but capable companion to sort out the nine twisted leads that were left by the killer in CAT O' NINE TAILS, the second of Dario Argento's stylish thrillers. Often disregarded by fans as being one of Argento's lesser films and even disavowed by the director, himself, CAT O' NINE TAILS is none-the-less a fun and engaging Gialli with a strong cast and a sharp wit. From a technical standpoint, Argento continues to refine his craft, introducing an exhilarating car chase and a number of point-of-view shots that are used to identify the killer. Though lacking in gore, the deaths are really quite brutal, with one man being torn apart by a train, and several other victims suffering from painful strangulations. James Franciscus is charming and handsome in the lead, while Oscar winner Karl Malden wins the audience's over as the loveable 'Cookie' Arno. The sexual taboos and violence that the film displays resulted in its extreme censorship when it finally reached America in the 1990's. It is only too bad that the killer is so hard to identify even after the grand explanation in the end. With several wildly intense moments of suspense and an interesting if not troubled plot, CAT O' NINE TAILS is sure to please many fans of the genre.

Rating: 7/10.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

Though commonly cited as being a strict improvement over Argento's second film, CAT O' NINE TAILS, his third Gialli is found to be much more strung out by comparison. Its significant role in defining the director's style cannot be overlooked, however. FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET follows a young musician who is framed for murder by a masked madman, and it will be up to Roberto to expose the true killer before the police are able to identify him. FLIES is never lacking in style or mood, and in fact excels in both. It is perhaps the pacing and repetitive storytelling that detract the most from its enjoyment. The underlying sexual ambivalence inherent in the characters and plot add an interesting note of androgyny that leaves the killer a complete mystery up until the end. Rather than plastering the screen using excessively bloody murder sequences, Argento remains far more reserved in this entry, with intricately designed deaths that center around location and atmosphere rather than gore. Not the director's finest work, but a worthy addition within the genre and another important step in his career.

Rating: 7/10.

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