The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Other than the films of Mario Bava (Blood and Black LaceThe Girl Who Knew Too Much), there’s no other film that has no influenced the giallo. In fact, the most well-known version of the form starts right here with Dario Argento’s 1970 directorial debut. Until this movie, he’d been a journalist and had helped write Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer suffering from an inability to write. He’s gone to Rome to recover, along with his British model girlfriend (yes, everyone in giallo can score a gorgeous girl like Suzy Kendall). Just as he decides to return home, he witnesses a black-gloved man attacking a girl inside an art gallery. Desperate to save her, he can only watch, helpless and trapped between two mechanical doors as she wordlessly begs for help.

The woman is Monica Ranier and she’s gallery owner’s wife. She survives the attack, but the police think Sam may have had something to do with the crime, so they keep his passport so he can’t leave the country. What they’re not letting on is that a serial killer has been wiping out young women for weeks and that Sam is the only witness. That said — he’s haunted by what he’s survived and his memory isn’t working well, meaning that he’s missing a vital clue that could solve the crime.

As you can see, the foreign stranger who must become a detective, the missing pieces of memory, the black-clad killer — it’s everything that every post-1970 giallo would pay tribute to (perhaps rip off is the better term).

Another Argento trope shows up here for the first time. It’s the idea that art itself can cause violence. In this film, it’s a painting that shows a raincoat-clad man murdering a woman.

Soon, Sam is getting menacing calls from the killer and Julia is attacked by the black-clad maniac. The police isolate a sound in the background of the killer’s conversations, the call of a rare Siberian “bird with the crystal plumage.” There’s only one in Rome, which gets the police closer to the identity of who is wearing those black gloves (in truth, it’s Argento’s hands). It’s worth noting that the species of bird the film refers to as “Hornitus Nevalis” doesn’t really exist. The bird in the film is actually a Grey Crowned Crane.

Alberto, Monica’s art gallery husband, tries to kill her, finally revealing that he has been behind the attacks. Ah — but this is a giallo. Mistaken identity is the main trick of its trade. And even though this film was made nearly fifty years ago, I’d rather you get the opportunity to learn for yourself who the killer really is.

I may have mentioned before that my parents saw this movie before I was born and hated it to a degree that any time a movie didn’t make any sense, they would always bring up “that weird movie with the bird that makes the noises.” Who knew I would grow up to love Argento so much? It’s one of those cruel ironies that would show up in his movies.

An uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi, this film was thought of as career suicide by actress Eva Renzi. And the producer of the film wanted to remove Argento as the director. However, when Argento’s father Salvatore Argento went to speak to the man, he noticed that the executive’s secretary was all shaken up. He asked her what was wrong and she mentioned that she was still terrified from watching the film. Salvatore asked her to tell her boss why she was so upset and that’s what convinced the man to keep Dario on board.

The results of all this toil and worry? A movie that played for three and a half years in one Milan theater and led to copycats (and lizards and spiders and flies and ducklings and butterflies and so on) for decades. Argento would go on to film the rest of his so-called Animal Trilogy with The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, then Deep Red before moving into more supernatural films like Suspiria and Inferno.

24 thoughts on “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)”

  1. […] The second tale — that witnesses madness — is Penny Farthing. Here, an antique store owner Timothy inherits an odd portrait and a penny farther bicycle from his aunt and uncle. Soon, he travels through time and romancing an earlier love interest of his uncle who looks exactly like his girlfriend in our time. That’s because they’re both played by Suzy Kendall (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage). […]

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  2. […] 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage became a worldwide hit, bringing giallo to the world. But by 1972, in its native Italy, the films had already become self-aware parodies of the genre. Witness 1972’s The Case of the Bloody Iris (originally titled Why Are There Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?), directed by Giuliano Carnimeo (Exterminators of the Year 3000). Yes, I lied when I said I’d be watching all Sergio Martino movies. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. […]

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  3. […] After The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat o’Nine Tails, Argento had one more movie left in his “Animal Trilogy.” Luigi Cozzi (Starcrash) would both write and assistant direct the film and the results are…interesting. It’s a lot funnier than his other giallo and was considered his swan song to the genre until his movie The Five Days failed at the box office. […]

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