The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970, dir. Dario Argento)
With his debut film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento came out swinging. An astonishingly confident first feature, Argento, surrounded by a fiercely talented crew, rarely puts a foot wrong, and in doing so, created not just a terrific thriller, but practically a whole genre – the giallo. Sure, there had been gialli on Italian screens before – Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace, and Umberto Lenzi’s Orgasmo and Paranoia name a few of many examples —but it was the success of Bird, both domestically and internationally, that truly set the giallo genre as-we-know-it in motion.
The film tells the story of American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), living in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall), who witnesses an attempted murder and finds himself embroiled in the ensuing investigation. Along the way, Sam finds that his own life is in danger, as the killer will stop at nothing to silence him.
It’s a deceptively simple story, loosely based on Fredric Brown’s 1949 pulp novel The Screaming Mimi. Unusually for a giallo, the first murder occurs offscreen, Argento perhaps giving the audience a false sense of security, his proclivity for gruesome murders as yet unknown by the cinema-going audiences of the early 1970s. In many films to come, Argento uses the opening sequences to shock the audience with his murder scenes, but here, he’s on slightly more restrained form.
Instead, we’re introduced to our hero, Sam Dalmas, played by likeable Italian-American actor Tony Musante. Reportedly, Argento did not get along with Musante during shooting, which thankfully does not come across in his relaxed but engaging performance. We meet Sam as he’s walking through some sort of museum for taxidermied birds, which serves not only as foreshadowing for the murder he’s about to witness (with Sam trapped behind glass), but also for the titular clue, which is revealed to be slightly less obscure than some giallo titles. The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire, I’m looking at you.
When Sam witnesses the attempted murder in the art gallery, it’s the audience’s first real glimpse of what Argento is capable of. An extraordinary sequence, in which Sam finds himself – like the audience – a helpless spectator as a woman is attacked with a knife, plays out like a strange and sinister dream, aided and abetted by Ennio Morricone’s nerve-jangling score, Franco Fraticelli’s sharp editing, and Vittorio Storaro’s luscious cinematography. Storaro, who would go on to shoot Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, sadly never worked with Argento again (though check out his work on Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord), but the other two men are worth a closer look at.
Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone would soundtrack the first three Argento movies, the so-called ‘Animal Trilogy,’ before returning in the 1990s for The Stendhal Syndrome and Phantom of the Opera. Morricone scored many, many gialli, and his deceptively easy-listening style, utilising the breathy vocals of Edda Dell’Orso, quickly became synonymous with the genre. Like a lot of his genre work, his score for Bird has one main theme with several variations and a few discordant themes for the suspense scenes. While perhaps not peak Morricone, it’s an excellent and highly appropriate soundtrack, with just the right amount of haunting melancholy.
Franco Fraticelli, on the other hand, would go on to work with Argento all the way through the 70s and 80s. Fraticelli edited most of Argento’s best movies, including Deep Red, Suspiria, Inferno, and Tenebre, which is a pretty stellar run. He keeps things pacy here, helping Argento tell the story in economical fashion, which, let’s be honest, isn’t something you can normally say about gialli, which are some of the most laid-back genre films out there.
Early on in the film, the police are introduced, which normally sets alarm bells ringing for me, because police investigations, with all their interrogation room antics and red-tape, are among the most boring conventions of crime and thriller cinema. Luckily, Argento has little interest in the police. In later films, they will practically disappear altogether, but here they keep popping in and out of the narrative, and Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) plays off Musante quite well, making them a rather charming double act.
The other element present in early Argento works that will slowly fall out of favour with him is humour. There’s a surprising amount of it here, so if you’ve only ever seen Argento’s supernatural horror films, be prepared. Some of it works…and some of it doesn’t. It was localised humour of the time, and certain jokes have not aged well, particularly a silly bit about Ursula Andress, transvestites, and perverts. Honestly, don’t ask. The film is at its funniest in the quieter moments, often the interactions between Sam and his girlfriend Julia, with Sam frequently distracted by his own investigation. It’s an idea that will reoccur to great effect in Deep Red, a film that takes all the lessons learned from Argento’s first three films and moulds them into the ultimate 1970s giallo. Also reappearing in that film is the idea of the witness misremembering or misunderstanding a vital clue, which Deep Red takes to its apotheosis, as well as some vague sci-fi elements, here represented by a ridiculous goofball sequence in which the police input all their clues into a computer database and narrow the list of suspects down to 150,000 people. The existence of this database suggests the police somehow know which citizens of Rome are left-handed (unlikely), which of them smoke (a bit silly), and which of them are ‘elegantly dressed’ (you’re just taking the piss now). It’s a preposterous moment, but it only adds to the fun, and if you think that stretches credibility, then you probably haven’t seen Phenomena…
But enough about jokes and science fiction…we’re talking gialli here. So what about the thrills? Well, inevitably, it’s here where Argento truly shines. There are several excellent set-pieces sprinkled throughout the film, and each seems to outdo the last in terms of visceral thrills and manic hyper-style. As previously mentioned, the first kill is offscreen…but not the second. Here, Argento grabs the viewer by the scruff of their neck, forcing them to watch as a helpless woman is held down on her bed, stripped, and brutally stabbed.
It’s an unexpectedly brutal moment, cold and cruel, and yet Argento follows it with an incredible sequence of a young woman menaced as she enters her flat. The tension escalates until the killer appears wielding a straight razor, in a scene that finally demonstrates Argento’s propensity for gruesome violence. Then, Argento manages to top even that scene with a harrowing attempted home invasion, the killer hacking their way through the door as Julia tries to escape, her increasingly desperate attempts thwarted at every turn in true Hitchcockian fashion.
And there we have the key…Alfred Hitchcock. Argento has been compared to the Master of Suspense for his entire career, even being publicised as ‘The Italian Hitchcock’ by the American distributors of Bird. It’s not an unfair comparison – Argento even acknowledges it by casting Reggie Nalder as an assassin, a role similar to the one he played in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – but despite both men directing thrillers, and the frequent (and not entirely unfounded) accusations of misogyny, their styles were very different, particularly as Argento’s career continued, and his films became increasingly baroque and dreamlike, as opposed to the rigid formalism of Hitchcock’s masterpieces. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is probably the closest Dario ever got to aping Hitchcock, especially in the climax, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here – Bird’s climactic reveal is handled better than Psycho’s. The last scene is a real nail-biter, but unlike Psycho, the audience actually gets a proper onscreen resolution, and even the final explanation is handled with some wry humour.
It’s a glorious start to an incredible career. Argento would go on to change the face of horror, but right out of the gate, he was clearly a force to be reckoned with. Swaggering and cocksure, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was a huge hit, and to this day remains not only one of the finest gialli ever made, but an excellent entry point for newcomers to both Argento and giallo cinema.
David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug.
Growing up, he was the kind of kid who collected rubber skeletons and lived for horror movies.
Not much has changed since then.
His first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018. This was followed by Night Shoot, a brutal throwback to the early 80s slasher movie cycle, in May 2019.
2020 will be Sodergren’s biggest year yet, with two new horror novels being published. Dead Girl Blues is a slasher-noir mystery, and it will be followed by a return to full-blown supernatural horror before the end of the year.
You can follow David on Twitter @paperbacksnpugs
To find out more about David please visit his official website www.paperbacksandpugs.wordpress.com
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The small Scottish town of Auchenmullan is dead, and has been for years. It sits in the shadow of a mountain, forgotten and atrophying in the perpetual gloom.
Forty-seven residents are all that remain.
There’s nothing to do there, nothing to see, except for a solitary grave near the top of the mountain.
MAGGIE WALL BURIED HERE AS A WITCH reads the faded inscription.
But sometimes the dead don’t stay buried. Especially when they have unfinished business.
A relentless folk-horror nightmare from the author of The Forgotten Island, Maggie’s Grave will disturb and shock in equal measure.
Dead Girl Blues
When a young woman dies in Willow Zulawski’s arms, it sets in motion a chain of events that will push her to the brink of madness.
A mysterious video is the only clue, but as Willow digs deeper into the murky world of snuff movies, those closest to her start turning up dead. Someone out there will stop at nothing to silence her.
After all, when killing is business, what’s one more dead body?
Part noir mystery, part violent slasher, Dead Girl Blues is the latest twisted shocker from David Sodergren, author of The Forgotten Island and Night Shoot.
The Forgotten Island
When Ana Logan agrees to go on holiday to Thailand with her estranged sister Rachel, she hopes it will be a way for them to reconnect after years of drifting apart.
But now, stranded on a seemingly deserted island paradise with no radio and no food, reconciliation becomes a desperate fight for survival.
For when night falls on The Forgotten Island, the dark secrets of the jungle reveal themselves.
Something is watching them from the trees.
Combining the cosmic horrors of HP Lovecraft with the grimy sensibilities of the Video Nasties, The Forgotten Island is an outrageous old-school horror novel packed with mayhem and violence.