The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage

"What's happening to me? This damn thing is turning into an obsession."

Sam Dalmas (Tony Mustane), an American living in Italy, is walking home one dark night when he sees two figures struggling inside a brightly-lit modern art gallery. He is able to scare off the shadowy attacker, but the victim, gallery owner Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) is badly wounded. Sam tells the police what he saw, but he can't shake the notion that one detail is missing – one important clue that could change everything. He becomes fixated and, with the help of his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) begins investigating the three other murders attributed to the attacker. The trail leads him to a reclusive painter, a stuttering pimp, and a rare Russian bird, but the closer he gets, the more danger he is in, as the killer tries to make Sam the next victim.

Director Dario Argento burst onto the Italian movie scene in 1970 with this incredible feature – one of the finest gialli ever made. We see that from the beginning of his career, Argento's talent was to take the predictable conventions of the genre and turn them on their head. Brightly-lit scenes can be as scary as shadows and darkness, ultra-modern settings can be as eerie as gothic mansions, and modern technology and scientific methods can take the place of old-fashioned sleuthing. Plus, the script is peppered with great little character moments and some very clever mis-directs. There are several great suspenseful moments of dramatic irony where the audience discovers a clue before the characters see it. If The Bird With the Crystal Plumage were better-known among mainstream audiences in the U.S., I think it would rank high on lists of the best twist endings in movie history, along with The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, and The Sting.

Another enormous influence on early Argento films (and especially this one) is Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1966 art film Blow Up, in which a fashion photographer (Deep Red's David Hemmings) slowly realizes that he inadvertently witnessed a murder. While this basic plot can be seen reflected in Crystal Plumage (and several subsequent Argento scripts), it's Antonioni's stylish direction, modern flair, and cool hipster characters that Argento really took to heart. Perhaps The Bird With the Crystal Plumage could be seen as a synthesis of Mario Bava's classic structure with Antonioni's ultra-modern sense of style.

  • Legendary composer Ennio Moriccone composed the jazzy, noisy, avant-garde score. Cues from this score can be heard in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof and Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell.
  • Near the beginning, Sam is startled by an old lady in the street. That old lady is Maria Tedeschi, who would go on to play scowly Mrs. Moss in The Case of the Bloody Iris.
  • A work of art holding a major clue in the case is a theme that would re-appear in a lot of Argento's films, including Deep Red, Four Flies on Gray Velvet, and Susperia.
  • In regards to the tally above, it should be noted that three of the murders and one attempted murder occur before the action of the movie starts.
  • Argento's whole approach to the giallo was so startlingly new and exciting that it has been copied over and over by successive film makers. Many of them bow to the master with a similarly wordy title involving an animal, an adjective, and a body part.  Some such films include The Cat with the Jade Eyes, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, and The Black Belly of the Tarantula. Argento's own follow-up, Cat O'Nine Tails, also follows this trend.

What the Hell am I Watching?
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage seems to be about breaking with the conventions of thriller cinema, which include dark houses, helpless women, and black cats. I think maybe Sam is literally destroying the conventions when he is tricked into eating cat stew.

Fashion Moment
I covet Sam's brown leather jacket, but I have to give it up to costume designer Dario Micheli for putting the hit man in a windbreaker of bright yellow (or in Italian, giallo). He's literally an asassino giallo (a "yellow killer" or a "giallo killer") in every sense. It may not be practical, but it sure is stylish. And it's a great wink to the audience.