The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

After Sergio Leone, Italy’s best known genre filmmaker probably remains Dario Argento, even though his heyday was a good three decades ago. He had already worked on several films as a screenwriter when he collaborated with Bernardo Bertolucci on a treatment for Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It was Bertolucci who introduced the budding director to Fredric Brown’s classic novel The Screaming Mimi, a retelling of the beauty and the beast in which a man gets involved with a woman after seeing her attacked by a mysterious assailant. Argento ultimately adapted the book, without credit, into his directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (originally L’Ucello dalle Piume di Cristallo), the success of which truly launched the Italian ‘giallo’ as a movie genre internationally.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

Dario Argento’s flashy, baroque movies are not for the faint of heart. This as true for ostensible whodunits like Bird with the Crystal Plumage and even more so in the case of such utterly terrifying horror movies like Suspiria (1978), a tale of witchcraft that is as visually stunning as it is narratively incoherent. Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red aka The Hatchet Murders) was released in 1975 and is perhaps the greatest and most flamboyant of his ‘Gialli’, Italian thrillers (in the broadest sense) that owe as much to Victorian melodrama conventions as they do to Agatha Christie, as I discussed in one of my first posts here.

But it all began with Crystal Plumage (and Fredric Brown, who I previously profiled here) as we see Argento assemble many of the tropes and motifs than continue to run through his cinema. A young and highly appealing Tony Musante stars as ‘Sam Dalmas’, a name derived from Hammett’s ‘Sam Spade’ and Chandler’s ‘John Dalmas’. He is an American writer living in Rome with his gorgeous girlfriend Julia (played convincingly by the gorgeous Suzy Kendall), a British model. One evening, while walking home, his eye is caught by a movement he sees though the large window to a modern art gallery – as he gets closer he sees that a woman (the late Eva Renzi) is fighting with a man sporting a trench coat and hat. She has been stabbed and as he comes to the window, the stranger escapes but then Dalmas himself becomes trapped between the two sets of sliding glass doors in front of the gallery activated by the unseen assailant. Dalmas is right there, next to the bleeding victim, but is unable to actually reach her. It’s a fantastic opening, very Hitchcockian, and one worth watching in full:

Ultimately Dalmas manages to attract the attention of a passerby and saves the woman’s life, much to the relief of her agitated husband, who owns the art gallery where the attack took place. Dalmas gets grilled by the local cops, headed by Enrico Maria Salerno, the well-known Italian director and actor (who had just directed Musante in the popular tearjerker, Anonimo Veneziano) who, for some obscure reason, in this film sports an unusually small and faintly risible mustache. None the less, in the course of the interview it becomes clear that Dalmas saw something important but which he can’t quite remember, a detail that just might help find the assailant. It turns out that this was the fourth in a series of attacks on young women in the city, and the only one not to have ended in the victim’s death. Rome is thus in crisis and although Dalmas and his girlfriend are due to fly out to the States, the Inspector is not about to let his only witness get away that easily, confiscating his passport. Dalmas will have to carry out his own investigation and solve the series of crimes.

Dalmas discovers that one of the victims had sold a copy of a painting just before being murdered, a disturbing picture of a woman being stabbed. This proves to be the link to the various murders, and stands in place of Brown’s ‘Screaming Mimi’ statue in his book. In one of the many terrific visual flourishes, we zoom in to a black and white photo of the picture, then dissolve to the full colour painting, tracking back to see, from behind, that the leather-clad killer is admiring it while getting ready to hunt again. While Argento’s script is clearly modeled on the book (which is to say the beginning, middle and end are all clearly based on it), he also drew on the German ‘krimi’ films (this was and Italo-German co-production, hence Renzi’s casting, as well as that of Mario Adorf as a highly eccentric painter and Werner Peters as a very gay antique dealer), especially the convention of having the murderer sport leather gloves and a foggy ambience more suited to Victorian England than the usually sweltering heat of the Italian capital.

There are also many references to Hitchcock, not least the casting of Reggie Nalder, who essentially reprises his hitman role from The Man Who knew Too Much (1956) in a chase through a bus repository at night, one of many extended suspense sequences that in the style of the ‘Master of Suspense’ are usually wordless and privilege a slow build-up of tension over narrative surprise. This is combined with Argento’s interest in creating fear as much as suspense in various scenes in which the murderer, who starts phoning the police and Dalmas, puts various people through the wringer. Thus we see the killer target female victims, stalk and utterly kill them, a tactic which we associate much more with the horror genre than the traditional whodunit.

Also unusual is the music score by Ennio Morricone, which is a veritable feast for lover of modern atonal music and which really does jangle the nerves. Just as impressive is the visual flamboyance of the film, with many of the director’s trademarks such as highly original compositions (such as the door opening into a darkened room as seen above) and long and elaborate tracking shots more associated with Antonioni and the avant-garde than the thriller, the use of special cameras (here to probe the mouth of a screaming murder victim) and the heavy use of the subjective camera in the ‘stalk and slash’ sequences. This is well served by the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, the Oscar-winning cameraman here making one of his first films in colour. But this is also a proper mystery in which we finally discover just what it is that Dalmas ‘really’ saw that night, what the meaning of the peculiar title is,  and how this will help solve the mystery after the apparent murderer plunges from a sixth floor window and confesses – only for this to prove to be a false solution in the best Ellery Queen tradition. The resolution is a proper surprise while the final explanations of motivation etc. are kept to a minimum – in fact largely take place as voice-over during the end credits. In a nice sardonic touch, we see the Inspector even fall asleep at this point!

Deep Red may be the best of Argento’s mysteries, but Crystal Plumage really does come a close second and, despite a couple of on-screen murders, these are pretty tasteful (especially by his later standards) with very little blood. This film would ultimately became the first in an informal ‘animal’ trilogy, known in English as Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). They are all available in decent home video edition and are well worth seeking out.

DVD Availability: Available on both Blu-ray and DVD, the latest high def version has been supervised by Storaro but unfortunately he has decided to tinker with the image considerably, cropping the aspect ratio to his preferred home video ration of 2:1 rather than the original 2.35:1 and also altering the grading to make the colours much more muted. The earlier releases from blue Underground Video, while getting scarcer (and more expensive) remain the ones to get in that they maintain the integrity of the theatrical release.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Director: Dario Argento
Producer: Salvatore Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento (from The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown)
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Art Direction & Costumes: Dario Micheli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Mario Adorf, Reggie Nalder

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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17 Responses to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Colin says:

    Argento, and the whole giallo genre for that matter, is an unknown quantity to me. You make this sound very good though so maybe it’s time I dipped into this (for me) new area.

    • Ah, well now, obviously very glad to provide fanboy opinions at the least provocation! (Stop me if you’ve heard all of this before …)

      Here are the basics:
      Giallo is the Italian word for yellow, which is still the preferred colour of paperback edition of mysteries and thrillers in Italy

      The Edgar Wallace thrillers popular in Germany from the late 50s had a big influence, as did the books

      The best ‘glialli’ often have strong literary credentials – Argento’s Cat O’Nine Tails has a long graveyard section taken straight out of Cornell Woolrich‘s Black Alibi (and the Letwon adaptation, The Leopard Man – the mixture of whodunit and horror is very clear here

      Mario Bava
      with The Girl who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye) and Blood and Black Lace in the 60s was a huge influence on Argento

      In the 70s there were dozens and dozens of copycat films made in the wake of Argento’s success – they get progressively more violent and more problemaic – Lucio Fulci for instance, having already concoted an intriguing Vertigo pastiche in Perversion Story got into Gialli and started with really intriguing films like Woman in a Lizard’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling to eventually descend into the frankly barbaric New York Ripper

      Argento’s Tenebrae from 1982 is for many the ultimate expression of the genre (not the best necessarily) and in effect capped the genre (it was a big commercial hit)

      Expect a ‘Gialli 101 / for Dummies / for beginner’s / Cliff Notes’ coming to a blog near you maybe sometime soonish …

      • Colin says:

        Cheers Sergio. That “potted history” was quite useful. What I can only term as total ignorance on my part has led to my avoiding the genre. However, it does sound like it ought to at least dip into it.

        • I’m not a big horror movie fan, so to a certain extent I hesitate to get too OTT about gialli which, into the late 70s and 80s onwards, were sometimes quite gory. But the best of them are just a very ‘sui generis’ approach to the traditional mystery. These are certainly the ones that I like anyway.

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, comments I’ve seen here and there gave me the impression the genre became quite horrific, and that’s not really my thing either.
            Your piece on this movie, however, suggests that there’s more of a Hitchcock vibe at play, and I quite like the idea of that.

          • Cheers Colin. Argento quite carefully marketed himself as the ‘Italian Hitchcock’ and there is certainly an emphasis on bravura filmmaking and on creating sustained suspense sequences, often at the expense of narrative logic. Like for De Palma, the existential cinema of Antonioni is as big an influence however. He is also a big fan of prog rock, which starts to dominate from the late 70s onwards, not always to beneficial effect though the score by the band Goblin for Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) is a real classic. If you like De Palma, then chances are you will like the Argento movies made beteen Plumage in 1970 and Tenebrae in 1982. Argento’s output since then has been extremely variable and I have not been able to bring myself to watch his most recent movies (including Giallo starrign Adrien Bridy). Of his subsequent efforts, Opera, The Stendhal Syndrome (starring his daughter Asia Argento) and Sleepless (Non Ho Sonno) with Max Von sydow, are the closest that come to capturing the style and spirit of his 70s work. De Palma’s Dressed to Kill does feel like an American giallo movie – if you like that one, you’ll be fine. If not, well …

          • Colin says:

            Sergio, I love De Palma’s Dressed to Kill so I reckon Argento’s 70s output may work for me.

          • Excellent – really look forward to reading what you make of gially in general and signor Argento’s work in particular …

  2. Todd Mason says:

    I usually have a problem with the way the term “genre” is used…nothing in the arts escapes genre…but I take it you’re segregating the Fellinis and the Pasolinis and the horribly overrated Bertoluccis…though I think Argento’s mentor, Mario Bava, might yet be a bit more famous than the younger man, even with all the display of Asia, et al., at least in the States. BLACK SABBATH and BLACK SUNDAY have played forever on US television, in a way even SUSPIRIA hasn’t yet matched.

    • Hi Todd – I meant to use it in the sense of movie genres (Westerns, thrillers, horror), as distinct from art-house and personal cinema or more straightforward drama. Which is all about selling I grant you, not artistic achievement. I don’t think Bava ever had the kind of commercial success that Argento has had, certainly not in his thrillers, which are cult items at best, even Blood and Black Lace, which more people have heard of than seen it seems to me. I think Danger Diabolik is the one title that more general audiences might know. He certainly never got the exposure and distribution, while some of Argento’s movies in the 70s got some fairly big names (Karl Malden, David Hemmings, Jessica Harper). I would imagine that Bava’s efforts from the early 60s are always going to get more airtime if nothing else because they are also much more straightforward as entertainments and going to suffer much less from censorship. I say all of this as a big Bava fan I hasten to add – I only wish I could afford Tim Lucas’ book on the great filmmaker (currently a snip at $260)

  3. Jeff Flugel says:

    Great review of one of the key Argento pictures, Sergio! Ironically enough, this (and FOUR FLIES) is one I haven’t seen. I have seen and enjoyed DEEP RED, CAT O’ NINE TAILS, INFERNO and especially SUSPIRIA many times, and agree with you on their merits and Argento’s visual flourish. Unfortunately, Argento seemed to lose his way in the 80s (OPERA was OK, but…) and the less said about his recent output the better, IMO. But at the height of his powers his visual style was quite impressive.

    I wonder if Argento’s hands “starred” in the killer’s POV shots in BIRD, as he was wont to do in his other films. I’m guessing probably so. His murders are usual spectacularly designed, if often cruel and gory, and of course always targeted at women (the first one in SUSPIRIA is pretty nasty). Makes one wonder about the man a little bit…he seems to have his obsessions, like Hitchcock but allowed to be taken to extremes.

    These 70s Argentos seem to get really pristine video releases, which is nice, as they’re such good-looking films. Thanks for the warning on the tampered-with presentation of the Blu-Ray.

    And all i can say about Suzy Kendall is, “Wow!”

    • Cheers Jeff. Apparently Argento’s hands were inside the killer’s gloves right from Plumage onwards. Kendall is great in the movie though her breathtaking good looks are really very hard to ignore leading to much ogling – I attach another image below … A lot of women do get targeted in these films, no question, though a lot of the men do too – in Profondo Rosso its almost exactly even in terms of body count by the end I think … plus a lot of the killers turns out to be women, which in a sense re-balances the sexual politics of the narratives quite often, especially as the male protagonists are often quite passive and under the thumb of women, sometimes without knowing it (though to say more would be cruel). Hemmings in Profondo Rosso for instance is a good example of this. Both Plumage and Quattro Mosche exhibit this tendency especially well actually so you really should get them if you can (the UK Blu-tay of Quattro Mosche is pretty good). Suspiria is an utterly incredible film in terms of its sou8nd and visual design, but I prefer the mysteries to the horror titles though I think they have made more money internationally. Apparently, Deep Red was released as Suspiria 2 in Japan!
      Suzy Kendall in bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argentophobia)

  4. mousoukyoku says:

    I was browsing your blog every once and then (the recent Carr-post was awesome btw), but seeing you also like Argento/Giallo was a nice surprise. Well, it shouldn’t be that surprising since those yellow magazines were the ones where in Italy stuff by Carr, Queen and Christie was published after all. Maybe being Italian (?) helped, because I for one only became aware of the “genre” thanks to a Japanese detective/mystery/horror author called Ayatsuji Yukito who implemented plenty of Suspiria- and Inferno-esque aspects into his main series and even wrote a homage to the former! Sadly his work is not available in the Western realm apart from his debut novel in French, which is a shame since exactly because of this Western influences they could be interesting for a Western audience as well.

    I love Argento’s movies, especially Profondo Rosso and Suspiria, but I still haven’t seen the one you reviewed here. Which I should probably catch up on as soon as possible. I also love the Prog-Rock Soundtracks used in this movies. You mentioned Ennio Morricone, which reminds me I still have to watch Lizard in a Woman’s Skin… somewhere between all those books.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words, greatly appreciated. I would rate Bird with the Crystal Plumage very highly of course, though i think it will seem very tame when compared with the sensory overload delivered by the likes of Profondo Rosso and Suspiria. Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is a nastier and more wilfully perverse film that Plumage and the dog scene actually got the director in court (he only got off because make-up maestro Carlo Rambaldi was able to bring in his puppets to show that no real animals were harmed in the making of the film. Or so the story gpes). It’s a bit of a shock when, at the end, it turns out that Fulci has actually gone to the trouble of creating a genuine whodunit with a proper ending! But, to give him credit, he does – but I did wince at some of the nasty bit. Didn’t mind the nudity one bit though – but that’s just me and presumably the exact opposite of what would have happened with a screening in Japan.

      • mousoukyoku says:

        Well, Profondo Rosso and Suspiria are ingenious for very different reasons. PR is actually a fine whodunnit with a false solution and a neat visual trick that is kind of reminiscent of more daring narrative tricks in novels. Suspiria is just… incomparable overkill. I know of said scenes in Lizard and the story around them and if you say there’s actually a genuine whodunnit behind all that I definitely have to give it a shot.

        Japanese audiences are used to nudity as long as it’s not the pornographic kind, which has to be (at least slightly) censored in any kind of… media. And Argento is well-known over there, especially among mystery and horror maniacs. PR was called Suspiria 2 because Suspiria was such a success and it still remains fairly popular.

        • I agree completely, Profondo Rosso and Suspiria will probably remain his masterpieces but work at quite opposite ends of the spectrum – Rosso is an abstract presentation of a complex and fairly-clued mystery while Suspiria takes a simple fairytale tale and deconstructs it into a genuine TechniColor nightmare. I’m not necessarily a big Fulci fan, but Perversion Story (aka Una sull’altra) and Lizard’s Skin really impressed me by their well-structured plots (despite their respective excesses). Obviously it’s all a question of degree, but I was pleasantly surprised shall we say?

  5. Pingback: » Movie Review: THE CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS (1972).

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