The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Director: Dario Argento
Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Renato Romano, Giuseppe Castellano, Mario Adorf, Pino Patti, Gildo Di Marco, Werner Peters
1/2 (out of 4)
Can’t stay out of the Heinz.
By 1969, Dario Argento was already writing pictures (he had a hand in developing Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, considered one of the best westerns ever made) but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was his first turn as director (the film was an adaptation of the Fredric Brown novel The Screaming Mimi, which inspired another version in 1958 starring Anita Ekberg). It is said that Argento wanted to direct the film himself because he didn’t want anyone else messing up his screenplay. The result is an artistic success right out of the starting gate and the first of his “animal” trilogy of gialli (the other two being The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet). The Bird with the Crystal Plumage also kickstarts the second phase of giallo films (arguably started by Mario Bava with 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much) and sets the style he later perfected in films like 1975’s Deep Red (Profondo rosso).
The opening credits show an unseen killer (wearing the trademark leather gloves and dark coat) stalking a woman, and carefully perusing his collection of instruments (before choosing the largest weapon, of course). This leads in to the introduction of Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer living in Rome with his model girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). Sam is broke and ready to fly back to the states, but he comes across an art gallery and witnesses a knife attack on a woman (Eva Renzi) by a black-gloved assailant. Trapped between glass doors, Sam can only watch the incident in horror. Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) arrives and informs Sam that the woman victim is Monica Ranieri, wife of the gallery’s owner (Umberto Raho), and that her wounds were not life-threatening. However, there is something about the crime scene that irks Sam, but he can’t put his finger on it. Morosini takes this to mean Sam may be an important witness and confiscates his passport so he won’t leave town. An attempted murder on Sam’s life while walking home suggests that Sam definitely saw something he wasn’t supposed to.
Respect the plumage, bitch!
I enjoyed Tony Musante’s performance as the lead – there’s a “regular-guy” quality about him, which made me more involved in what happened to him. I liked the character’s obsession with solving the case, despite the constant dangers, and found Enrico Salerno’s performance as the inspector most amusing – here’s a policeman quite content with giving all the grunt work to some vacationing writer from the states (I guess Roman detectives are in short supply). Alongside the stalking, murder, and chase sequences is some well-placed humor (in a lineup featuring a crossdresser named Ursula Andress, Morosini says “What’s this character doing here? How many times did I tell you Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts?”, while a gay shop owner, played by Werner Peters, says “Rumor has it she was into girls, but what do I care? I’m no racist!”) In addition, the few murders that are depicted are suitably vicious without being overly gory. One of them – an elevator slashing – seems like it directly inspired a similar murder in 1980’s Dressed to Kill (on a related note, some critics call Argento “the Italian Hitchcock”, other critics have called him the “The Italian De Palma”, but I think maybe De Palma and Argento influenced each other).
Speaking of influences, there’s something of Antonioni’s Blow Up in the way a certain macabre painting plays a key part in identification of the killer (a copy of which is placed on Sam’s wall) and something of Hitchcock’s Psycho in the ending that features a psychiatrist explaining the killer’s motivations. But there’s a certain stylistic touch that is uniquely Argento’s. While it is almost impossible to figure out the identity of the killer ahead of time, I don’t think that’s the point of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage – this is a visceral experience. I did ultimately enjoy the reveal of the killer’s identity, though – the first instance of the director upending certain expectations related to gender roles. While this is still mostly style-over-substance (typical of the genre) it still remains one of Argento’s most logically-plotted pieces. This is a great first effort and a must-see for his fans (and fans of giallo films), not to mention those who want to dip in the pool of the genre without wallowing in too much blood (that’ll come later in the decade).
– Bill Gordon
Knife salesmen are so pushy.
Pre-order The Bird With the Crystal Plumage on Blu-ray (This new Blu-ray from VCI will be released on September 10, 2013)
Pre-order The Bird With the Crystal Plumage on DVD (This new DVD from VCI will be released on September 10, 2013)
Buy The Bird With the Crystal Plumage on DVD (VCI Edition)
Buy The Bird with the Crystal Plumage on Blu-Ray (Blue Underground Blu-Ray, out of print)
Buy The Bird With the Crystal Plumage on DVD (2-Disc Special Edition from Blue Underground)
PS: The soundtrack to the film, by Ennio Morricone, is rather interesting. You can sample that here and here.