As much as I’ve been looking forward to the Giallo Fever! film festival at the Anthology Film Archives, I’ve almost been more curious to see who the primary audience for these films would be. The intriguing combination of violence, cliche, and nudity that comprises the giallo is not for everyone, but that doesn’t tell me who the genre does currently appeal to. The presence of a strong auteur following for giallo directors like Dario Argento made me think that the crowd would be relatively young and artistic; however, the fact that the giallo peaked in the 1970s means that anyone who fondly remembered watching these movies in theaters would be closer to middle-aged. If you had asked me to guess at the turnout for the opening night of the festival, I probably would have guessed a medium showing of the young and artistic variety, with the festival slowly gaining traction by the second week.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the audience was not only lined up around the corner of the building prior to the showtime, but was also one of the most diverse groups I’ve see at any screening in recent memory. Yes, there were more than a few of the young and artistic types, and yes, I also counted a fair amount of middle-aged cinephiles in attendance. However, try as I might, I am incapable of painting the audience in anything resembling broad strokes. There seemed to be at least as many female genre fans as there were men, and the age diversity ranged from (what appeared to be) several groups of teenagers to more than a few elderly couples. The only thing they seemed to share was their enthusiasm for the subject matter. They were a boisterous crowd in the hallway and an appreciative audience in the theater, laughing in all the right places and cheering more than a few of the more blatant stereotypes of the genre. Unlike myself, the crowd was obviously not new to what they were watching.
However, the movies were likely not the only reason attendance was so high. One of the late additions to the festival lineup was The Bird with the Crystal Plumage star Tony Musante. Musante joined the audience for the movie and answered questions from the moderator and the audience for about 30 minutes between screenings. Musante came across as a little long-winded and unfocused, half-answering several questions and simply missing the point on one or two others, but his enthusiasm for the project was undeniable. His discussion of Argento and Bird came across as sincere and heartfelt, and while people may appreciate his film for its role in helping establish the giallo, his appreciation for Bird was not tied to genre. Musante remarked on several occasions that it really was just a good movie – a sentiment I can appreciate – and also managed to offer a few good insights into the making of the movie.
On his relationship with Dario Argento during the movie:
Dario and I got along very well, because we didn’t speak the same language. We’re shooting the same script, but we’re not speaking the same language! And Dario would smile at me after a shot, and I’d smile back at him, and Don Dunaway, who had done the English translations, probably didn’t translate some of the stuff we spoke to each other… (A)nd I would disagree with Dario sometimes, and he would smile, and I would smile, and I think Don didn’t translate the things we were saying to each other. So we finished the film in great fashion, but later on, three or four years later, I became very good friends with Don. Don said to me, “You and Dario really didn’t get along.” And I said, “Don, of course we did!” He said, “No, I know the real story.” So whatever went down between the two of us, I have no idea. But what’s on screen is what is important.
On the feelings of the cast and crew while making The Bird with the Crystal Plumage:
There I am, in my early thirties; there’s Don in his early thirties; there’s Dario in his early thirties; there’s Vittorio in his early thirties. And we’re all doing something new. Dario’s directing his first film, Vittorio is shooting his first film in color, I’m shooting my first film as a non-psycho (I’m not kidding you), and Don is doing his first film as an AD. And Vittorio had us out to dinner at his apartment on the outskirts of Rome, and, it was like, we’re going to DO something. And we did! We did this film. And I think that was very exciting, and I’m very happy to be a part of it.
On some of the changes from the script to the screen:
I gotta tell you a funny story, and Dario won’t like this. In the original script – remember the scene where my friend Renato is in the room and he’s been stabbed in the back, and he falls off the chair? Well, in the original script, it’s Suzy’s character who’s sitting in the chair, and her head is chopped off. And it rolls down the floor. And I read that, and I said, well, of course, we’re not going to do that… (S)o Dario rewrote it to have Renato stabbed in the back. Which I think is a better ending. I like getting on the plane with Suzy at the end.
And as for the movies themselves? The people behind Giallo Fever! could not have chosen two more fitting films to begin their festival. Both movies – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Girl Who Knew Too Much - represent an origin story of sorts for the genre. Girl director Mario Bava would originate the giallo template with his tale of an amateur female detective who is addicted to murder mysteries and determined to solve a murder that she witnessed; and Bird director Dario Argento would build on Bava’s template by raising the stakes on the set pieces (more gore! more sex!) and helping to create the visual language of the genre that would help define its presence between the murder mystery and the slasher film. Students of the genre would also appreciate the presence of actors who would appear in multiple gialli, including John Saxon (Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Argento’s Tenebrae), Suzy Kendall (Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage , Martino’s Torso) and the wonderful Mario Adorf (Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls).
As a first time viewer of both films, I found myself ticking off the factors that indicated that both films were gialli. The presence of an amateur detective who is an international traveler? Check. An unhealthy obsession with solving the crime? Check. A few establishing shots of the beauty of Italy? Check. An unhelpful police force who dismisses the killer as just another lunatic? You betchya. Awkward caricatures of homosexuals and women? In spades. Several weeks of research leading up to the festival have taught me vaguely what to expect going in, but I was still impressed with how much room the sub-genre allows for interpretation. Both Bird and Girl present very different takes on the giallo, and while each is impressive in its own right, the two films are almost night and day in terms of violence and sexuality. Each movie does seem to possess a wicked sense of humor, especially in their efforts to play the murder-mystery against itself, or poke fun at the established genre (in Argento’s case). There are more similarities that warrant discussion, but as they would include spoilers, I’ll leave them to you to discover.
One final note on the presentation – I don’t pretend to be an expert in the art of print restoration, but I did spend over six years as a movie theater manager and projectionist, and one year of that required the delicate handling of older prints. I have worn my fair share of white gloves in my time, meticulously hunting through a print for discolorations or sprocket damage, so I want to make note of the fact that these prints are in pretty strong condition, especially considering their age. There are almost no issues with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage; while I can’t say the same for The Girl Who Knew Too Much – a few scenes near reel changes appear to have lost a bit of screen time over the years, which causes both auditory and visual hiccups – it is a fair price to pay for seeing these movies on a 35mm print.
Thanks to Giallo Fever! you can still catch The Bird with the Crystal Plumage on the big screen on September 24 at 9:15 PM and The Girl Who Knew Too Much on September 23 at 6:45 PM or September 29 at 7:15 PM. Be sure to check out their full schedule of screenings!