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