47 years after its release, Dario Argento’s premiere film is still just as haunting and contemplative as it was when it debuted
“Nothing serious. Just a flesh wound.”
Horror is a genre where the term “master” and auteur are thrown around constantly. Every fan of the macabre has an opinion on who’s the scare supreme, whether it’s Carpenter, Craven, Romero, or whoever. While many of the usual suspects are examples of homegrown horror, Dario Argento is a case where a foreign voice has made a mark stateside and brought the style of Italy over to American horror audiences. Argento’s filmography is littered with the bodies of classic, accomplished horror, with the director being responsible for titles like Suspiria, Deep Red, Tenebre, and Phenomena (Creepers). While Argento has continued to turn out impressive work, with his latest film coming out as recently as 2012, his directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is still one of his strongest, most chilling works to date and the perfect title to revisit.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage not only marked American audience’s first taste of Dario Argento’s precise filmmaking, but also their first experience with the giallo subgenre of horror. Giallo horror, a style that Argento not only excelled in but also helped popularize, is a brand of horror that is particularly gratuitous when it comes to the blood and hack-and-slash violence. It’s easy to see how Argento’s early examples with the style would be an inspiration for John Carpenter’s iconic slasher film, Halloween, which would go on to inspire many a horror film itself. A lot of it stems back to what Argento is bringing forward to the public here in Crystal Plumage. The film’s success made it a lot easier for producers to accept the eventual boom of giallo horror that would take place.
While Crystal Plumage might have marked Dario Argento’s first time in the director’s chair, he was hardly a novice when it came to film. Argento had a healthy career as a screenwriter, with him even contributing to high profile projects like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. It was during production on West that Argento would work alongside Bernardo Bertolucci who would be the person responsible for putting the Fredric Brown novel, The Screaming Mimi, on Argento’s radar. Argento might not have gone as far as listing Brown’s book in the film’s writing credits, but the connections are numerous and quite clear. Both tell the story of an ill-advised relationship that’s ignited after the man watches the woman get attacked. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is also the first film in Argento’s stylistic “Animal Trilogy,” which is filled out by The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, both of which Argento made during the following year.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage revolves around an attempted murder, a powerful set piece that Argento orchestrates, which is impressively stumbled upon within the first five minutes of the film and is wonderful all around. The scene is a masterpiece due to its spontaneity, how the villain is in plain sight and just gets away, as well as demonstrating how they hold power above everyone else. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), the film’s protagonist, gets introduced as an individual that’s as helpless as the victim, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi). He’s unable to get inside or summon any help here. This entire scene is shot in beautiful wide and high angles that slowly shift to a chaotic handheld perspective as Monica begins to lose her strength. In this art gallery Monica is also surrounded with relics of the past like dinosaur bones and petrified trees, as she nearly becomes a piece of history, like them.
This scene also cleverly plays behind sound-proof glass where Sam is unable to hear what’s being discussed, which only furthers his feelings of helplessness. He’s without any information of what’s going on here, just like the audience. The long, intricate tracking shots that punctuate this scene also feel somewhat out of place in a thriller from this time period. Argento continues to rage against the norm by exploding the genre in creative ways. There are shots going on inside the mouth of murder victims which require specific cameras to pull off properly. Oscar-winning cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, is behind the lens here and helping bring a lot of Argento’s innovative ideas to life. Even something as simple as shifting to a handheld, subjective perspective during the murder scenes—something that’s completely taken for granted now—is new and different at this point in cinema. The film toys with the idea of active spectatorship and the premise of a two-killer solution, both concepts that Argento would only become more interested in with films like Stendhal Syndrome and Tenebre. One of the best things about the film is the very strong bird/prey relationship that goes on between Sam and Monica. During her first scene in the art gallery she’s even very clearly positioned between the talons of a giant bird. Argento wants you to pick up on all of this. In fact, a lot of the ideas that populate Argento’s later films see their inception here.
As a result of all of this, Crystal Plumage ends up feeling very De Palma-like, not only in its plot and subject matter, but also in the way its filmed and in the serial killer’s black leather get up. Many people cite Hitchcock as a reference point for Crystal Plumage, which isn’t incorrect, but specific touches in tone and style end up making this feel more like an ode to De Palma, even if that’s still extremely similar to Hitchock’s aesthetic. Touches like the extreme ornamentation and degree of pomp and circumstance that is given to the killer’s daggers feel especially like De Palma. On top of all of this, there’s a fairly phenomenal score in place by Ennio Morricone of all people! Morricone’s work is usually something to get excited about, but Crystal Plumage’s soundtrack has a weirdly pop-like quality to it that works in a strange way.
After Sam gets away from the incident at the art gallery, something feels off about this crime right from the start. The film uses this level of intrigue to get you hooked and along for the ride as you attempt to unravel this mystery, much like Sam and Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) are trying to do. Argento succeeds here with Crystal Plumage probably being his second-best mystery, right behind Deep Red. Sam naturally finds himself as the prime suspect initially, even though one of the few things we as the audience know here is that Sam is innocent. The story becomes even more twisted when it’s revealed that this attempted murder is in fact the work of a serial killer who’s already killed three women in the community. It’s strangely satisfying to see Sam doing so much detective work on his own here and trying to solve this murder mystery with so little evidence to work off of. It makes for a very infectiously entertaining film. Meanwhile, Sam is tormented by images of Monica’s attack as he tries to go about his normal life. It’s not long before this sliver of tension is completely taking him over.
Throughout all of this, the serial killer’s murders manage to be genuinely unnerving content. Argento composes upsetting scenes where a defenseless woman can be pleading for her life as the killer is shown with no hesitation or remorse. They’re brutal, scary moments that show you that this guy isn’t fucking around. There’s one murder that’s particularly effective where the film puts you in the victim’s point of view while the killer repeatedly slashes a straight razor in your face. It’s a very aggressive visual punctuated by the victim’s screams of terror. The serial killer that moves in the shadows of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is also the bold sort of murderer who just outright calls Morosini and Sam in order to taunt them. Not to mention, his perpetual whisper is the perfect touch to make this murdering enigma feel even creepier. This all translates to a great slow burn of a horror film with a killer that calls all the shots, but is still remarkably simple. The film moves in the direction that you might expect, with Sam’s girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall), and Sam himself being the ultimate targets of the killer. The set piece towards the film’s end as Julia finds her home turned into a tomb that she’s unable to escape from is masterful. The killer hammers a knife through the front door in a literal representation of the fear that’s penetrating Julia at the moment. It’s also such a slow building piece of horror as the killer slowly whittles away at the door, building a greater entry point. Later on some particularly well composed chase scenes help build on the tension and suspense that this slower material helps establish.
The film ends up curiously coming down to a bizarre, upsetting painting. Things even get to the point where Sam tracks down the eccentric painter to consult him on all of this. This features an especially weird tangent in the film where the painting’s artist eats cat and Sam ends up inadvertently eating some too and freaking out. The cat eating doesn’t amount to anything greater or some deeper symbolism in the picture, but it’s an effectively strange vein of humor found in the second half of the film.
The ultimate reveal of who Crystal Plumage’s killer is at the film’s conclusion ends up feeling so casual, with its resolution happening so quickly that it’s almost a little bewildering. A chaotic final scene is created in the process (with some great cinematography by Storaro in the form of dropping the camera off the building to simulate Alberto’s fall), but it also feels a little bit like, “What? How’d we get to this point?” What follows is just as off-putting where Sam goes off to find his missing girlfriend, while an expansive overhead shot pulling out from above him once again reiterates his powerlessness in all of this. The camera shot ultimately reveals that the killer—or the other killer, rather—is still at large. This conclusive ending just as quickly gets unraveled and illustrates that everything is not always as it seems. Just like the initial scene at the art gallery. In the end, this lack of answers and the questions that you’re forced to resolve on your own accumulate in a rather haunting ending where you feel just as uneasy and uncomfortable as Sam. As the film ends he’s positive that the killer is dealt with, yet he still acts with hesitation like something is off. This ending is all about diving into that uncertainty and watching it bloom in what makes for a powerful final few minutes.
It’s at this point that yet another twist irrevocably ravishes the film, as the movie reveals that the entire premise has been a set up. There were two killers, but neither was the person who got arrested, but rather it being Carlo and Monica. In fact, in one final brilliant example of misinterpretation, it’s revealed that the attack that Sam encounters at the beginning of the film was actually Monica terrorizing her husband. The set piece at the end is truly creative with Sam getting pinned beneath a wall of spikes that looks like it’s out of The Pit stage in Mortal Kombat. She rains stabs down around his head as his body is restrained down and he’s unable to move. In spite of Sam making it out at the last minute, it’s a deeply satisfying ending that plays off the overused genre of plot twists and last-minute reveals, while also managing to say something about mental health and abuse. The film concludes by explicitly explaining why Monica would commit these crimes (in a bout of exposition that’s not unlike the informative end of Psycho), with the solution being provided being a very pointed answer: it chalks everything up to a history of abuse and the painting acting as a mental trigger to the violence. The scene is edited in an effective way to imply this too could happen with Sam, making his happy ending with Julia merely an ellipsis until the eventual carnage.
All of this is a lot to take on for one’s first film, with Crystal Plumage also displaying a patience and confidence that is typically reserved for more seasoned filmmakers. As touched on above, a lot of Argento’s trademarks and the topics that would fascinate him through the later works of his career begin to emerge with this film. In that sense, Crystal Plumage is a worthwhile piece of horror to revisit not only in the sense of admiring how much Dario Argento has grown through the years, but also how well this film manages to hold up in today’s climate of modern horror. It’s nearly half a century since the film’s release and it’s still just as terrifying as when it came out in 1970. Few films can claim such a feat. Even fewer that have the words “Bird” and “Plumage” in their title.