Dario Argento certainly isn’t the creator of giallo, as he is occasionally referred to, but his directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) did thicken and solidify a number of tropes and notions about what the cycle of films is supposed to embody. An American tourist in Italy gets caught up in a murder mystery and he alone can reveal the killer’s identity. Discussions of perversity abound among seemingly every character. Whimsical humor and comic relief pop up via a number of bit and supporting characters. Critiques of high art exist in this genre that is usually viewed as a form of lowbrow art. The killer’s identity should come as a surprise, even to those attempting to follow the action closely. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is the kind of film that should be viewed in classrooms, as it is so caught up in rich genre formulas and prime filmmaking.
We begin with a shadowy figure in black leather gloves, raincoat, and hat fingering a variety of sharp knives. This imagery starts to cut with a voyeuristic, telephoto shot of an attractive young woman in a bright, blood red blouse and jacket, freeze-framing periodically as our observer looks on. Argento’s debut is one of his most Hitckcockian, but Bird with the Crystal Plumage probably has more in common with Michael Powell’s perverse, scopophilic indictment of cinema and art spectatorship Peeping Tom (1960) than Psycho (1960). Furthermore, perhaps Argento’s film influenced Hitchcock’s forthcoming, most graphic, and final film about a maniacal sex fiend, Frenzy (1972).
Crystal Plumage follows an American named Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) who happens to be in Italy writing a book about the preservation of rare birds, when he happens by an art gallery, witnessing a woman stabbed and bleeding. He looks on helpless, trapped between the sliding doors. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Argento was a film critic before a maker, with something to say about this protagonist embodying an audience, fascinated by the violence and blood on screen. This long, wide glass frame Sam is trapped within is a screen in which we see things played out. The modern art inside the building, which at one point is referred to as “cosmic” by the gallerist, is just as loaded with meaning and vapidity as each spectator wants to find. Argento clearly has something to say about “art” in this film, and this is only the first example. Reexamining his early work, so many viewers have been left to wonder what the hell happened to the strong, nuanced, auteur-like qualities that are eventually left by the wayside mid-career? Films like this one, as well as Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977), Tenebre (1982), and Opera (1987) contain a vibrant luster that has worn off in his work released in the last thirty years.
As we watch Sam go from helpless witness to empowered amateur sleuth, it is almost like he has permission from the cops to deputize himself and track down the killer by any means necessary. Enrico Maria Salerno, as the pencil-mustachioed Inspector Morosini, seems like a strong enough character to hold a lot of screen time, but he fades into the background as Sam finds out that Alberto and Monica Ranieri (Umberto Raho and Eva Renzi) are a bourgeois art world couple who are not what they seem. This trope of the American overseas, getting into deeper and more exciting trouble with psycho killers, is seen in one of the earliest gialli The Girl who Knew too Much, directed by Mario Bava in 1963. Argento returns to this set up with the American musician tracking down insanity in Deep Red (1975), a film that many people think of as the definitive giallo. Deep Red and Bird with the Crystal Plumage are both tightly woven mystery stories that lay out the genre’s formula in an almost formal way, unlike a number of films to flood the market in 1971 that seem to run on a far more primal engine.
The film is like an exhaustive list of police procedures for what can be done to track someone down in the early 1970s. We start with extensive questioning, constantly pressuring Sam to try to remember more, a tactic which I don’t think usually works in real life. At one point there is a line up of all the usual suspect perverts around town. The latest cutting edge computer technology which takes up the size of a large room is put to work narrowing down statistics. Sam casually questions the gay antique shop owner who has the reproduction of a macabre painting which will be key. At one point a “ripped from the headlines” style scene occurs in which the killer calls into a live television broadcast to speak to Inspector Morosini–I can’t imagine this being a coincidental sequence, seeing as how the Zodiac killer called in to talk to Melvin Belli in TV just four months before Crystal Plumage was released. But really, the best character to come out of this goose chase is Berto Consalvi (Mario Adorf), the cat-eating hermit responsible for the aforementioned painting, who Sam encounters close to the end of the picture.
That being said, one of my favorite giallo sequences involves a yellow-jacketed assassin who runs down an undercover cop and then trails Sam on foot through the city, gun-with-silencer in hand. Once they enter into a well populated area, the chase turns a corner with Sam tracking the yellow man down–which frankly seems reckless and bizarre, but whatever–until he opens the door to a hotel convention hall filled with men all wearing the same jacket. This is probably one of the most Hitchcockian moments in the film. The man in the yellow jacket, who is apparently named Needles according to the credits, is played by Reggie Nalder, a character actor whose appearance is unforgettable, yet strangely elusive at the same time.
At this point in my giallo viewing experience, which is relatively advanced, having watched Bird with the Crystal Plumage–among others–multiple times, I have become most interested in what Argento and others are saying about the role of art in culture. Some directors absolutely churned out films at a swift pace for the sake of entertainment and money, but there are a number of instances in which artistry is not just present, but a defining fixture. In some of Argento’s early work this is clearly self-reflexive. What do the cosmic art gallery and macabre, expressionistic painting reveal? With the former, it at first appears like it has to do with the superficiality of the upper classes and how artsy flourishes attempt to hide the savagery underneath. Yet with Berto Consalvi and his childish murder–and of course “mystical”–art, we encounter a misanthropic yet provincial artist that captures the lurid qualities of violence in an authentic way. Yet who is equipped to define authenticity in these cases?
These questions arise again with Deep Red a few years later. Our protagonist there also sees a murder being committed through mirrors and among artwork hung salon style on the wall. The violence and murder is around and among the works of art, once again in a statement that can be considered critical yet also sobering and personal. With these films Argento knew what he was doing. Perhaps this says just as much about the films to come later in his career that he did not have as much control over.