The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno
A writer is stalked by a serial killer after witnessing a murder attempt on one woman’s life.
Dario Argento’s 1970 directorial debut, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage may not be the first giallo film but it is still considered by many to be the one that defined the genre – the first one to obtain massive critical and financial success. The same way that John Carpenter’s Halloween was not the first slasher film – it was just the first one that really made a difference.
What is Giallo?
“Giallo” is the name used to describe a particular variety of Italian mystery-thrillers. The word “giallo” means “yellow” and describes the cheap yellow covers of paperback mystery novels; similar to the way we describe the pulp genre using a word for the cheap paper mystery-suspense paperbacks were printed on. Giallo films are very stylistic thrillers, owing a lot to the style of Alfred Hitchcock, with a focus on gory kills used as the main set pieces. It’s important to note the keywords here with giallo: stylistic and gore. Not just any mystery or gore flick fits under the banner of giallo. The genre began in the 1960s as literal film adaptations of giallo novels. As cinematic techniques developed, however, it became much easier (and more rewarding) to create original films that walked that fine line of thriller and horror. By cinematic techniques, of course, I mean that Dario Argento made The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. In the United States we use the term giallo to specifically refer to Italian films fitting this description while in Italy they used the term to describe ANY mystery-thriller fitting this description. Films like Psycho, Vertigo and Peeping Tom are considered giallo. The specific style that defines giallo is on full display in Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. (It’s a fun title to say, okay!)
Argento was already successful as a screenwriter when he set out to direct his first feature. Drawing a lot of inspiration from Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace as well as Fredric Brown’s novel Screaming Mimi and character types from the works of Raymond Chandler, Dario Argento created a film that was fresh and awed audiences and critics alike. A bulk of funding came from German backers wanting an Edgar Wallace type of story which were popular at the time. Argento provided that, in a way, but injected plenty of violence and sexual themes. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage fits Mario Bava’s philosophy that “film is a sensory illusion” without being a Mario Bava film. In short, one could describe the nature of giallo, made popular with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage as gory mysteries for art-house geeks.
Every noted filmmaker in the sub-genre of giallo had their own style that was uniquely their own. Films like Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood look like a Mario Bava film. Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling looks like a Fulci film. Joe D’Amato’s giallo films such as Beyond the Darkness, are definitely D’Amato films. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, while drawing inspiration from so many different sources, has a style that uniquely belongs to Dario Argento. It is the presence of a unique style that separates giallo from any other film with gory mystery. Sex, murder and mystery are just themes that can be present in any film. It’s the combination of these themes under one artistic vision that truly makes a giallo film.
What is the Story?
An American writer, Sam, is in Italy for a vacation. One evening, while walking home, he passes an art gallery and witnesses a woman being attacked. The assailant gets away while Sam stands, banging on the window and screaming for help. The police tell Sam they believe this is the work of a serial killer that’s been targeting young women throughout the city – this is his only surviving victim. Though Sam can’t clearly remember who he saw, the police hold on to his passport and request his help in solving the mystery. As Sam aides the police in the investigation, the killer begins to target Sam and his girlfriend.
The story itself is nothing particularly original, at least not until the stunning twist ending. It is the way that the story is told which makes it unique. The characters Sam encounters during the course of his investigation are far more colorful than the incidental characters of other mysteries and are more memorable than Sam himself. There’s a transvestite going by the name of Ursula Udders whose pulled in for questioning by accident. There’s a gay antique dealer whose almost predatory in the way he flirts with Sam. There is a lonely artist in a shack full of cats – cats which are his meals and he tricks Sam into eating as well. The world of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is populated by plenty of fascinating and unique characters.
Spoiler Alert… the film’s title is a reference to a clue later on, one of those “It all makes sense now” kind of reveals that leads the film into its third act. The story is laid out in a very rigid three act structure with plot points coming at regular and predictable intervals. What makes the story of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage a giallo despite its rather standard plot is the way it’s told, with plenty of violence and sexual themes… and of course its own visual style.