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Friday, October 31, 2008

Argento Week: Bird with the Crystal Plumage 

I've mentioned how Argento like to exploit the voyeuristic aspects of horror films, and a key example of that is in the film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. In this early scene from the film, Tony Musante plays Sam Dalmas, an American writer living in Rome and forced to write books about the care of exotic birds in order to make a living. While walking home after picking up his final pay-check, the pay-check which will allow him and his girl-friend to move back to America, he walks past an art gallery and sees an altercation inside:

Moving closer, Sam can see a woman struggling with a man in a dark coat, a knife close to the woman's face:

Momentarily distracted when a car nearly runs him over, Sam looks up to see the woman has been stabbed, and the man in the dark coat is leaving the art gallery through a back door:

Sam rushes into the building to help the woman, only to discover that the interior doors to the building are locked from the inside. He is unable to reach the injured woman and aid her:

Unseen by Sam, the man in the dark coat presses a button from inside the building, sealing the exterior doors as well. Sam is now trapped between two sets of doors, unable to go for help, unable to reach the woman, able to do nothing, in fact, but watch the woman slowly bleed. It's a harrowing sequence, conjuring up strong claustrophobic imagery appropriate to a horror film, as the woman tries to escape the building, only to see Sam and turn to him, apparently unaware that he is as trapped as she is:

A man comes by the gallery, and Sam mimes for him to go get help. The man mimes back that he is unable to hear Sam and leaves, giving Sam no indication whether or not he has understood Sam's plea for help and seemingly unaware of the injured woman:

Again, Sam is unable to take any actions, other than watch the woman slowly bleed. He paces the small corridor, alternating between watching the woman and looking for possible help:

Finally, the police arrive, and Sam is finally able to indicate the injured woman to someone. He, however, remains trapped in between the gallery and the street. Again, there is nothing he can do but watch:

It's quite a neat trick Argento pulls here. He takes the criticism of horror films as sadistic, voyeuristic entertainments, and puts his hero into the same position as the audience. The audience, in a horror film, is invited to see something that should not be seen, and as a consequence is unable to look away. Sam is put into the same position. He has seen something he should not have seen, and now he is quite literally trapped, unable to do anything except watch, even as another person's life is on the line.

It's also worth noting, that as the police arrive, Sam moves from viewer to viewed. Now he is an object of scrutiny for the police, now they must watch him, and the camera shift away from Sam, placing him in an actual spot-light within the gallery, only emphasizes this. Since Sam is the figure the film has invited the audience to identify with, both by making him the protagonist and by placing him into the same voyeur role as the audience, this shift to being the object of study himself also turns around on the audience. Sam is looking back at the audience in these final frames as much as he is looking at the police.

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