Dario Argento’s directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), just released in a newly restored Blu-ray Limited Edition by Arrow Films, contains all the elements the director would eventually refine and reuse throughout his work, particularly in the films that cemented his reputation in the 1980s. Argento’s a key figure in the Italian genre cinema that emerged at the end of the 1960s, and was a born cineaste, developing a passion for film thanks to the influence of his father Salvatore Argento’s work as a producer.
Although Argento eschewed film production and initially started out as a critic for newspaper Paese Sera, he was eventually tempted into the world of film production. He co-wrote a number of westerns and war films, before collaborating with Bernardo Bertolucci on the screenplay for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), which was produced by his father.
Although he stated he was “rather bored with people going on about Mario Bava”, nonetheless he followed in the footsteps of Bava when he made The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Although by 1970 Bava was tiring of the genre, he had brought what many regard as the first true giallo thriller to the screen with The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963.
Connected to the popular krimis, German and Italian crime film co-productions of the 1960s, this new sub-genre was named after the yellow covered Italian translations of English ‘whodunnits’, American hard boiled crime novels, and pulps written by indigenous writers, introduced by Italian publishing house Mondadori in 1929. The giallo became a prolific film genre that reached its peak in the 1970s and mixed crime thriller, mystery, slasher, and horror elements together in the work of Bava and Argento, as well as Massimo Dallamano, Sergio Martino, Pupi Avati, Luciano Ercoli, Lucio Fulci, Aldo Lado, and many more.
Argento borrows certain giallo characteristics from Bava for his debut. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage features an amateur investigating brutal, violent crimes, rather than offering a straightforward police procedural, as featured in that other Italian sub-genre the poliziotteschi. Ways of seeing and modes of perception are also central to interpreting the narratives of the film and the killer is an ambiguous, black gloved Oedipal figure. These reflected similar elements present in Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
Argento’s film was influenced by Fredric Brown’s 1949 novel The Screaming Mimi, a book recommended by Bertolucci, who had sought out the rights but never made it into a film. While away in Tunisia, Argento thought the book would make the basis for a great psychological thriller, and he merged this with observations he’d made while watching fish swimming in circles in an aquarium. The latter would become a central image in the film’s stylish murder sequence. He wrote the screenplay in collaboration with the help of Aldo Lado, who’d become his uncredited assistant director on the film, but initially had no intention of directing it.
Producer Goffredo Lombardo, head of Titanus Studios, had been impressed by Argento’s screenwriting skills on the very successful comedy Love Circle (1969), and the screenplay for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was eventually brought to him. He and Argento then discussed possible directors, such as fellow Italians Italo Zingarelli and Duccio Tessari, to helm the film. With neither agreeing on who to hire, Lombardo considered Terence Young who had just directed the internationally successful Wait Until Dark (1967).
For Argento, this was the final straw and, after encouragement from his father, he decided that he was the person best placed to direct his screenplay: “I had just written it myself to see if I could do justice to a noir-type thriller set in Italy. It was an uncommon genre at the time but I followed my heart and went with the flow. The only thought I clung to was, if I knew cinema in theory through being a film critic, all I had to do was apply myself. Uppermost in my mind was that if I didn’t want my screenplay ruined I would have to bite the bullet.”
The film, budgeted at $500,000, was shot on location in Rome and at the Incir-De Paolis Studios between August and October 1969. Argento cast American actor Tony Musante in the lead, having seen him in The Incident (1967) and after recommending him to Giuseppe Patroni Griffi for Love Circle while writing its screenplay. He probably wished he hadn’t as the friendship that had developed during their experience on Griffi’s film soon deteriorated.
There were constant arguments, interference, and calls in the middle of the night from Musante demanding motivation for his character. Sadly, it was a clash of egos that tainted Argento’s relationships with actors from then on. Joining Musante was German actress Eva Renzi, who had just starred in Funeral in Berlin (1966) with Michael Caine and The Pink Jungle (1968) with James Garner, and Suzy Kendall, fresh from roles in the Bond film Thunderball (1965), exploitation horror Circus of Fear (1966), To Sir, with Love (1967), and Up the Junction (1968).
Argento, unsure of what he was doing, managed a rather haphazard shoot with the help of storyboards and a complete shot list. Lado advised him this was no longer a necessity but Argento used them as a guide to complete the film. He then clashed with Lombardo, who was unhappy with the dailies he was shown and moved to replace him with another director.
However, Argento had a robust contract, originally drawn up on the advice of his father, and despite Lombardo’s attempts to pay him off, he completed the film. The screening for the Titanus board and Lombardo was a disaster and nobody appreciated the film, save for Cesarina, Lombardo’s secretary. Argento recalled her describing it to his father, who was present at the screening, as “one of the most disturbing, unsettling movies she’d ever seen.”
Released in February 1970, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was initially not well received in Milan and Turin, until it became a word-of-mouth sensation at screenings in Florence and Naples. When UMC picked the film up for US distribution in the summer, it became an international success and Argento was dubbed ‘the Italian Hitchcock’. Production on giallo films increased and Argento followed up his own success with two more films The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), in what became known as the ‘Animal Trilogy’.
The film opens with Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) walking home at night and contemplating his future as a writer living in Rome. He then witnesses the attempted murder of Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) by a black-coated killer in an art gallery. Trying to help the gallery owner he finds himself trapped between two sets of glass doors and only the intervention of a passerby brings the police and saves Ranieri’s life. As their only witness, Sam is prevented from leaving Rome by the police and they fear this assault is connected to serial murders across the city.
Sam grows ever doubtful about what he did witness at the gallery, replaying the assault in his mind to try and isolate his concerns. He sets out to investigate and the trail takes him and his girlfriend Julie (Suzy Kendall) to a naive but strange painting of an assault that seems to have affected or inspired the killer in some way. He finds the artist of the work and learns that the incident in the picture was based on a real event.
A threatening phone call offers a clue to the location of the killer that takes Sam to a particularly rare bird in a nearby zoo and, coincidentally, back to the apartment of Monica and her husband Alberto Ranieri (Umberto Raho). Eventually, Sam returns to his apartment and finds Julie at the mercy of the real killer and, going in pursuit to the gallery, is caught in a revealing, sadistic encounter.
The striking thing at the time was Argento’s fresh approach to the sub-genre. It’s a modern and very stylish thriller, reflecting the social and political changes affecting Italy at the end of the ‘60s. This was a period of student protests, strikes, terrorism, and counter-cultural political movements. Post-war conformity was coming under huge stresses and tensions, and people no longer felt secure and assured.
As Andrea Bini noted in her essay in Popular Italian Cinema: Culture and Politics in a Postwar Society, Argento sensed these changes and situated his narratives in “cities that were unmistakably Italian” and where “communities had undergone such rapid growth and change that they had become unfamiliar and threatening places.” This is a trope that reoccurs in Argento’s work, particularly in the city streets of Deep Red (1975) and Tenebrae (1982) that host their own reiteration of the psycho-sexually confused killer.
Interestingly, in the film Sam traces the painter of the strange work of art, that triggered the killer to emulate its trench coated assailant, to a rural farmhouse. The artist has retreated here to make work that only involves mystical scenes. It suggests that the repressed power in the painting is something primal connected to a landscape and its remote village in counterpoint to the materialist, urban sprawl of Rome where the rest of the film takes place. It’s a primal carnality that’s underlined by the black humour expressed by Argento when Sam is shocked by the artist’s recommendation that fattened up cats make for good eating.
Painting and sculpture seem to be possessed of occult meanings and harm in Argento’s films. They can either inspire the transgressions of a killer, as the painting does here, and again in Deep Red and The Stendhal Syndrome (1996), or put the ‘hero’ in jeopardy, as in the film’s conclusion when the killer pins Sam underneath a vicious looking spiky sculpture. The same fate befalls the killer in Tenebrae and we see Suzy Bannion use, self-referentially, a sculpture of a bird with the titular plumage as a weapon to fend off the witch Helena Markos in Suspiria (1977).
Modernist attitudes are also applied to the police’s methods in the film. Whereas Sam follows his instincts to track the killer, the police throw everything they have at their computer banks to find a solution. Sifting through forensic data using algorithms they are given 150,000 potential suspects by the computer. This idea of science attempting to unpack crime scenes and identify the quirks of potential suspects crops up again in The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Phenomena (1985).
Compositionally, the film uses striking angles to frame the modernist environment, turning stairways into expressionist triangular spaces of unease and contemporary art galleries into frame-within-frame glassy, white boxes of implied violence, exuded by the strange sculptures exhibited there, and the actual violence of the ‘attack’ on Monica Ranieri and its sadistic reversal in the film’s twisted conclusion.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Argento use abstract framing and compositions to set the world of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage off-kilter, suggesting it is a modern society on the edge of a precipice. When Julia’s trapped in her apartment by the killer, Storaro plunges much of the scene into shadow save for the moment the killer chisels with a knife through the front door and then peers through the hole at Julia. Eyes, the intention of their gaze and the potential damage inflicted by and on them are another recognisable Argento motif, coupled with the recurring themes of voyeurism and spectatorship.
Similarly, there’s disorientation when Sam pursues the killer at the film’s conclusion. An entire scene is completely black save for the doorway Sam has entered until the lights come on, revealing that he is stood in the gallery. Argento and Storaro skew subjectivity too and there’s no better example than in Albert Ranieri’s point of view plunge from his balcony when Sam and Julia trace the bird calls, heard in the background of the killer’s phone messages, to the Ranieri’s apartment and thereby elicit a dying confession from him.
At the same time, Storaro and Argento litter the film with symbolic colours. Red is a particular signifier, from the bright red of the cloth against which the killer displays a collection of knives and the red costume of the intended victim in the opening titles to the red dress of transvestite ‘Ursula Andress’ in the police line up and the spilled blood during the murders. There is a sumptuous blue palette punctuated by yellow and red when Sam visits the gay antiques dealer (Werner Peters). Here, the strange painting identifies the killer and is why the dealer’s assistant was murdered in the opening of the film.
Immediately after this scene, Argento uses a remarkable shot of the painting, in monochrome and closes in on it, on the wall of Sam’s apartment, as Julia is looking at it, to then reverse away from the original colour version hanging on the killer’s wall. There’s also a terrific Hitchcockian joke as Sam pursues a yellow-coated marksman (Reggie Nalder), hired by the killer to dispose of him, through a coach park full of empty coaches at night. Sam loses the killer in a room full of similarly yellow coated delegates meeting for a boxing convention.
Running throughout The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is Argento’s own acknowledgement that the changes in post-war society were also reflected in the film’s depiction of gender and sexuality. As Kat Ellinger acknowledges in her analysis on the disc, much has been written and said about Argento and the misogynist and anti-feminist credentials of his work. There is no doubt that Argento’s work is something of a battleground regarding these questions and many make the same accusations that continue to be levelled at Hitchcock about the misogynistic and sadistic way women are treated in his films. Arguably, Argento responded to these accusations within at least two of his later films, Tenebrae and Opera (1987), exploring the nature of the author’s responsibility and culpability within the spectatorship of violence.
While the violence against women in his films continues to remain problematic, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (which in this regard is certainly less explicitly stylised than his later films) manages to extend its themes to explore the notions of masculinity and patriarchy and finds both wanting. That the killer is not of the gender we are actively asked to accept from the start of the film is one thing but we are also presented with several male as well as female victims.
The film shows Monica Ranieri briefly throwing off the status of ‘victim’ to become a sadistic psycho-sexual murderer acting out of her own repressions and siding herself with the attacker depicted in the painting. Like Psycho (1960), the film attempts to qualify the tragedy of its killer — “the victim of an aggression which traumatised her severely” — in psychoanalytical terms with the concluding scene featuring television psychiatrist Dr. Renoldi.
It also, as Ellinger notes, presents the male protagonists as fairly ineffectual. This fits in with Frank Burke’s view in Dario Argento: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Caging Women’s Rage that Sam, in particular, is symbolically impotent in the face of women reasserting their rights, their visibility and their agency in a post-war male dominated world. Argento understood that “male-female relationships had become ambiguous and dangerous” in light of the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s and from his debut onwards he increasingly played on the ambivalence of identity and gender.
A final word then on the score. Ennio Morrione provides a particularly skin crawling lullaby musical motif, sung by Edda Dell’Orso for the film, and the score is one of many that ushered in avant-garde compositional styles for mainstream Italian films. The score is as angular and expressionistic as Storaro’s photography and skitters along on a wave of jazzy cornets and plucked strings. It’s a great example of his experimental style married to a film that, at the time, was itself a modernist interpretation of the gialli film.
Arrow Films’s restored 4K 2.35:1 transfer is excellent and offers superb details, vibrant colour, and showcases Vittorio Storaro’s striking cinematography to great effect. Grain is present and correct and the transfer offers a rich, thick film-like texture.
Arrow’s limited edition also contains a wealth of special features:
- Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis is a great new analysis of the film by Kat Ellinger and covers Fredric Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi, the 1958 Gerd Oswald film adaptation and its parallels with Psycho, the themes of gender, voyeurism, sexuality and masculinity in the gialli of the late 1960s that Argento would pursue further in his career.
- The Power of Perception sees Alexandra Heller-Nicholas explore aspects of the narrative puzzle, the sadistic gaze, symbolic objects and visual representation in Argento’s work.
- Crystal Nightmare is a new interview with Dario Argento that covers the origin of the film, his decision to write and direct, working with Lombardo and Storaro, how Morricone improvised his score, filming on location in Rome, his relationship with Musante and seeing films as “a psychoanalytic gesture.”
- An Argento Icon is an interview with actor Gildo di Marco who played Garullo the pimp befriended by Sam in the film. He chats about working with Argento, Musante and Storaro and the impact of the film.
- Eva’s Talking offers an archival interview with the late Eva Renzi from 2005. It’s a fascinating look back at her career and covers her work on Funeral in Berlin, turning down Bond and abandoning John Guillermin’s film House of Cards (1968) and, on the rebound, joining the cast of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
- Commentary by Troy Howarth is a chat track full of details on the making of the film and the significance of its themes and is well worth listening to.
- The limited edition release is also accompanied by a 60-page booklet featuring writing on the film by Michael Mackenzie, Howard Hughes, and Jack Seabrook.
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Dario Argento.
starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno & Eva Renzi.
As ever I am indebted to several resources:
- Dario Argento, L. Andrew Cooper (University of Illinois Press, 2012).
- Dario Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic, Alan Jones (FAB Press, 2016).
- Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento, Chris Gallant (FAB Press, 2000).
- A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry M. Benshoff (John Wiley & Sons, 2017).
- Killing Women: The Visual Culture of Gender and Violence, edited by Annette Burfoot, Susan Lord (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011).
- Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult, Howard Hughes (I.B.Tauris, 2011).
- Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960–1980, Danny Shipka, (McFarland, 2011).
- Popular Italian Cinema: Culture and Politics in a Postwar Society, edited by Flavia Brizio-Skov (I.B.Tauris, 2011)