The Bird With The Crystal Plumage/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Before starting his career as a director, Dario Argento was a film critic for Rome's Paese Sera newspaper and later became a screenwriter. One of his most famous screenworks was an original story which he co wrote with Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone. That film was Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Growing up, Dario never had really wanted to be a director. His father, Salvatore Argento was a big producer in Italy and Dario found he didn't like the intensity of the film sets, especially all the yelling and craziness that went on.
After working on the script for Once Upon A Time In The West, Dario decided he would try and direct his first film. He worked very hard on drawing precise storyboards for the film's elaborate sequences. Dario knew exactly what the film would look like in his head before he shot one roll of film. This gave him more of a positive sense of what was going to be done when he got on the actual set.
The genre of this film was called "giallo" (yellow) in reference to the color of the paper the cheap Italian pulp novellas were printed on. The gialli were murder mystery stories that quickly became a big rage in Italian Cinema. Director Mario Bava had started the giallo craze with 60s films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace and directors such as Dario, Sergio Martino and Lucio Fulci among others really explored the genre even more in the 70s.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer living in Rome. After spending time with a friend one night, on the way back to his flat, he notices something strange happening in a museum across the street. It is two figures, a man and a woman wrestling on the staircase. As Sam focuses he sees that the two are violently arguing and suddenly the woman is stabbed and the dark figure in black runs quickly out of the museum. Sam runs up to the large plate glass window and tries to get into the museum but then gets caught in between two separate sliding glass partitions. The woman (Eva Renzi) in the museum reaches out to try to let Sam in to help her but she can't. She's bloody and in a state of extreme pain. Out of the dark, a man shows up and Sam tries to tell him to open up the doors from the outside, but the man can't hear him. This adds a bit of comedy to the extreme scenario which clues us in to Dario Argento's style. The police finally arrive and Sam is questioned in the crime, but he is angry when Inspector Morosini (Enrico Salerno) begins to suspect him as part of the attempted murder of the woman. Sam tells them exactly what he saw and they confiscate his passport and let him go, but tell him not to leave Rome. The police later hold a lineup and ask Sam if he recognizes any of the suspects. Noone fits the bill, and we get another laugh when a transvestite shows up, is thrown out and redirected to another room.
Sam decides to do his own investigation and try to find out who the killer in black really is. The killer has been murdering women around Rome for several months so he visits each of the previous victims places of work. This leads him to an art gallery where one victim worked. The night of her death, her last sale was a portrait of a woman being murdered (watch for the gay gallery owner who provides some more laughs). Sam continues to do more research on the previous victims and he gets deeper and deeper into the web of murder and mystery. While walking down the street on a very foggy day, Sam is almost taken out by the killer. Luckily an old lady tells him to look out and the killer just misses his head with a large cleaver. Sam chases after the figure, but he speeds off in a car. Now Sam knows he's on the killers hit list too, so the police place bodyguards on him and his girlfriend Julie (Suzy Kendall).
Meanwhile, the killer makes a call to the police where we hear his voice for the first time. He snickers as he whispers and taunts the police. They record his voice and special audio equipment is used to try to help narrow down the suspects. With all their technology, the police still can't find out who the killer is. They seem to be lost on this case, but Sam is actually learning more by doing real investigations.
One night while out walking, Sam and Julia hear a car driving up behind them. The driver rolls up onto the sidewalk and runs over their bodyguard who is several feet behind them. Sam and Julia run around the corner and we see theres 2 people in the car not one! A man in a bright yellow jacket hops out of the car and begins chasing Sam and Julia down. Julia hides in an alley, but Sam is trailed by the yellow hitman through the dark. They get into a game of cat and mouse in a city bus parking lot, but Sam manages to make it out onto the busy street, he tells some people that he's being chased, but when the man in yellow shows up he heads in the other direction. Now in a twist, Sam begins to trail HIM. Sam follows the man into a building where he ducks into a door. Sam opens it and sees a room filled with men in the same yellow jackets the hitman wore. When the police show up, they can't find the man Sam saw, so that closes that lead.
Sam tries to find more clues that will lead him to the killer, but while he is caught up in the hunt, the killer in black strikes again and again using an array of sharp knives and straightrazors. Look for the sequence when Sam visits the cat loving artist of the "killer painting" (yep, its Italian crime film heavy Mario Adorf!) Also watch for the violent razor slashing sequence in an elevator (then watch DePalma's Dressed To Kill). Another highlight is when Julia is in her apartment and the killer shows up and carves a hole in the door. It's one of the most thrilling parts of the film! Just when you think you know who the killer is, you will be shocked to learn the real truth. It's really one of the best giallo film twists.
Dario Argento utilizes all kinds of great camera tricks in this film. The use of POV shots, bright and muted colors, shadows, freeze frames and zooms add a cinematic dynamic which really makes the film pulse with energy. You can see in 'Bird' the influence of Hitchcock's thrillers as well as Antonioni's Blow Up (1966) one of the most single influential films on the Italian gialli.
Dario Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a brilliant debut. The film is directed masterfully and the creative, fluid camerawork is exciting to watch. The music by Ennio Morricone is a perfect aural accompaniment to the film. It has an eerie, childlike sound which gives an extra thrill to the sequences its featured in. Highly recommended!
Peter Roberts is the co-founder/editor-in-chief of the Grindhouse Cinema Database (GCDb) and contributor to the GCDb's sister site Furious Cinema. A Massachusetts native, he is an avid film fan that has been immersed in the world of entertainment and pop culture his entire life. He is currently majoring in Communications and Interactive Media Design.