Noted Italian director Dario Argento’s directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo) (1970), is not the first giallo, but it is one of the prime examples of that genre. An American author in Rome witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery, which may be tied to a serial killer stalking the city. He has seen a vital clue but cannot recall it. Now, as he mounts his own investigation, the killer is closing in on him and his girlfriend. Hitting most of the tropes associated with the genre, the film is an archetypical giallo. At the same time, it leans away from some of the more lurid aspects of these films, concentrating more on mystery and suspense than violence. Touching on the theme of perception and laced with avian and artistic imagery, the film stimulates the viewer both visually and intellectually.
In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American author living in Rome. He has just finished helping to write a book on ornithology. Walking home one night, he spies someone being attacked in an art gallery. Sam gets trapped in the gallery’s glass entryway and is helpless as he watches the struggle. A dark figure escapes out the back as a young woman lies bleeding on the gallery floor, reaching out to Sam. Luckily, help arrives in time and the woman, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), the wife of Alberto the gallery owner (Umberto Raho) is saved. The police let Sam know that the attempted murder appears to be related to a serial killer who has been attacking young women around Rome. Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) confiscates Sam’s passport, wanting him to remain in the city during the investigation. Both Sam and the inspector are convinced that he has seen a vital clue, but Sam is unable to recall just what it is that he saw. The memory of that night haunts him to the point where he begins his own investigation into the string of murders. Unfortunately for Sam and his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall), this brings them the unwanted attention of the murder.
While The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be the first giallo – that distinction usually goes to Mario Bava‘s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) – it does mark the beginning of the genre’s heyday in the 1970s. Argento’s directorial debut has most of the hallmarks of the genre: American/English actors in an Italian production, a mysterious killer with a hidden identity, black gloves, multiple murders, a foreigner roped into a police investigation, dogged police detective, flashbacks, madness, a touch of nudity, and more. The score is by none other than noted film composer Ennio Morricone, and it is near perfect a score for a giallo as one can get. It is haunting, menacing, playful, occasionally funky, much like the genre itself. Multiple future Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now (1979), Reds (1981), The Last Emperor (1987)) lenses the film and brings a stylish beauty to the horrific goings-on. Loaded with style and suspense, it is no surprise that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is one of the essential films to watch for fans of giallo.
Writer/director Argento is well-known to be an admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, and that definitely shows in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Gialli, in general, often share many traits with Hitchcock’s films of suspense, but Argento makes the connection between the two even stronger. On a superficial level, there is the fact that the yellow-jacketed assassin in the film is played by character actor Reggie Nalder, who is most famous for playing a similar role of the assassin in Hitchcock’s remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). More substantially, Argento plays with the audience in much the way Hitchcock does, teasing them with legitimate clues and red herrings. While gialli often have gruesome and graphic murders, Argento plays down these more lurid depictions. Several of the murders occur off-screen. Those that do appear on-screen are more subdued than usual for the genre. Argento’s interest lies more in creating an air of mystery and suspense than one of shock.
One of the most striking and fun aspects of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is directly related to its theme of perception versus reality. The main character and the audience both see a vital clue. They know that they have seen it, but they do not know what they have seen. Argento plays with their perception of the key attempted murder scene, allowing them to witness it multiple times via flashbacks. It is only in the end, once Sam and the audience have abandoned their presuppositions about the situation, that they are able to figure out just what is going on. Even the eponymous bird of the title relates to the misperception of a key clue to the mystery. Argento takes this misidentification from the source material – the film is an unofficial version of Fredric Brown’s pulp novel The Screaming Mimi (1949) – and he adds to it with multiple layers of mistaken identity/mistaken motivations. The characters and the audience can never be 100% sure of what they are seeing and what they are hearing.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is rightfully considered one of the quintessential examples of giallo, launching the golden age of the genre in the early 1970s. Writer/director Argento hits almost all of the well-known giallo tropes, and he covers them in style and class. He concentrates more on the mystery, suspense, and noir origins of the genre than the lurid sex and violence also associated with it. That is not to say that those elements are not included in the film; they are, but they are handled in a tasteful and almost unstated manner. Playing with the idea of perception versus reality, Argento teases both his characters and his audience with things that are not always as they seem. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is one of those films that should be on the “must watch” list of every giallo fan and of all film lovers, in general.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L’uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo) (1970) (4.8 / 5)