Bird with the Crystal Plumage – A Retrospective Review

EDITOR’S NOTE: As Cole, the reluctant time traveller played by Bruce Willis in TWELVE MONKEYS notes, time changes our perception of movies. When you re-view a film, it seems different, but it is the viewer, not the film, that has actually changed. This observation prompts our posting of this review. Dario Argento’s directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was reviewed by John R. Duvoli in the very first issue of Cinefantastique magazine (Fall 1970). With the title being released on Blu-ray disc today, we offer this reappraisal by Keith Brown of the excellent Giallo Fever website.

A Spanish poster for the film

A Spanish poster for the film

It’s difficult to know where to start with this film, which has something of the character of an obsession for me and whose influence has reverberated through nearly 40 years of horror and thriller productions, in Italy and internationally.

A remarkably assured début, it has few of the characteristics of calling card or apprentice-work, with an ending that Argento has arguably never quite managed to equal in terms of shock and surprise, if not necessarily absolute, overall impact.

The truly remarkable thing, in fact, may be to learn that at the time of the film Argento regarded himself primarily as a screenwriter, being more interested in showcasing his abilities in that field than as a director, on account of having become frustrated with the way in which his scripts were (mis)handled by others. The film’s critical and commercial success and the rapid calls for more of the same charted an unexpected course for his subsequent career.

Though his films are sometimes accused of being empty formalist exercises in which style supplants substance, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage helps demonstrate that, from the outset, Argento’s cinematic universe is in fact one in which the two are more often than not inextricably intertwined, each informing the other and unimaginable without it.

Sam Dalmas, an American writer currently residing in Rome, is witness to an attempted murder in an open-plan art gallery. Rushing to Monica Ranieri’s assistance, he manages to frighten off her attacker, but is then trapped between the gallery’s inner and outer doors and rendered helpless until the police, in the form of Inspector Morisini and his men, arrive.

Confiscating Dalmas’s passport, Morisini informs Dalmas that he believes the same attacker to have murdered three young women in the past month, and that Dalmas’s eye-witness testimony could prove to be the crucialbreak needed.

The killer obviously seems to think so, too, first trying to scare and then kill Dalmas off. Unexpectedly, however, this only has the effect of compelling the amateur sleuth to delve ever-deeper into the shocking truth of the case, a compulsion that serves to place those around him, most notably girlfriend Giulia, in grave danger.

Sam Dalmas (Tony Mussante) witnesses a crime

Sam Dalmas (Tony Mussante) witnesses a crime.

The key theme in the film is in fact how expectations and preconceptions can lead us astray. This is most obvious in the centrepiece gallery sequence that impels the narrative (what lies behind this nagging doubt that Dalmas has about what he witnessed?) but also runs through the likes of the police procedural scenes, as Morisini endeavours to fix (in both senses of that term) the meanings of various clues to the killer’s identity, and the delicious punchline to the yellow-jacketed assassin’s unsuccessful attempt on Dalmas’s life.

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this, however, is the singular failure of Dalmas’s obsessive attempts to resolve the enigma by understanding what he actually saw, these proving a red herring for both character and audience alike when considered in the light of the titular McGuffin and the vital aural clue it provides for his friend Carlo.

The irony is compounded by the fact that Dalmas has just spent the last few months working on a book on the preservation of rare birds, like that with the crystal plumage, for Carlo and his associates. Perhaps if he had been more genuinely committed to this project, and not treated it as a work for hire – i.e. the difference between Argento and Dalmas, if not Argento and Musante (the actor’s method approach and need to know what was motivating his character at every stage is famously a source of friction between the two) – he would have been able to solve the case himself?

Hitchcock also, of course, famously experienced difficulties with method trained actors – an incidental detail, perhaps, but another one that helps further establish connections between the “master of suspense” and his Italian counterpart. Equally, however, while there is no doubt that the “Italian Hitchcock” sobriquet that soon became attached to Argento was useful to his career, it can also be seen as a limitation. Read as a Hitchcock imitator, it is naturally the case that Argento’s films could never hope to equal those of the original.

Something is missing, as John R. Duvoli astutely recognises in his review – even if in his criticism of the putative illogicality of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage he fails to apply the same standards to Hitchcock’s Psycho.

But read as his own film-maker Argento, borrows not only from Hitchcock but also from Lang, Antonioni, Bava, Freda and others and, more importantly, plays these filmmakers off against one another, establishing his own distinctive identity and aesthetic.

In terms of the giallo specifically – a form that Duvoli does not mention, his reference to the krimi perhaps serving to indicate what was on the cultural radar at the time and, in retrospect, the moment at which the initiative passed from the German to the Italian Euro-thriller – the key to the importance of  The Bird with the Crystal Plumage lies in the way in which it combines the modernist and the populist, moving from A(ntonioni) to B(ava) and back again to tell a story that engages the spectator intellectually and emotionally.

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About the Author

Keith Brown

Hailing from Edinburgh, Midlothian, in the United Kingdom, I'm a PhD student and self-employed computer guy who likes films, especially those that are a bit off the beaten track. My blog Giallo Fever is dedicated to "Taking Eurotrash seriously - but not too seriously."

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