In the wake of Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), the two films that are rightfully credit with launching the giallo genre or style (however you may define it), several movies were made that more or less fit within the giallo wheelhouse, either by conforming to the formula established by Bava or by adding some additional key piece to the puzzle that would eventually form the complete giallo picture. For many, the final piece of that puzzle was placed into the now complete picture in 1970 when screenwriter Dario Argento settled into the director’s chair for the first time. His debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is the Goldfinger of giallo. Goldfinger wasn’t the first James Bond movie, but it was the one that synthesized all the elements into what was recognizable as the iconic “James Bond film.” It became and, in fact, remains, the template for subsequent Bond adventures and for what people stereotypically think of when they think of a James Bond film. In much the same way, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is the film in which all of the raw material pioneered during the 1960s was forged into the finished formula that would define giallo throughout the 1970s and beyond.
Tony Musante (from the Frank Sinatra film The Detective, the saucy Argento-scripted Metti, una sera a cena, and the superior spaghetti western The Mercenary) stars as Sam Dalmas, an American writer living a quasi-Bohemian lifestyle in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, also in the Eurospy spoof The Liquidator , the excellent British horror film Circus of Fear, and two more giallo: Sergio Martino’s Torso and Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo). They’re prepping to leave their current apartment when, on his way home one night, Sam passes by a brightly lit art gallery and stumbles upon an attempted murder in progress. Unlike many people in later giallo, he attempts to help, but the gallery’s security doors won’t allow him to enter. In fact, he becomes trapped in a little alcove between the inner and outer doors, unable to physically intercede in the struggle between a figure in a black trenchcoat and the desperate young woman (Eva Renzi, Funeral in Berlin) while also unable to run for help. With nothing else to do, he bangs helplessly on the glass until the trenchcoat-clad figure flees, leaving Renzi’s Monica wounded but alive.
When police are finally summoned, they quickly dismiss the idea of Sam as a suspect but want him to stick around since he’s the only eye witness. Sam agrees, but he’s not as confident in his eyes as he would like to be. He can’t shake the feeling that he witnessed something, some small detail in the scene, that is of importance. But try as he might, he can’t conjure up what it might have been, no matter how often he replays the scene in his head. Hoping to jostle free the elusive detail, Sam launches his own investigation parallel to the official inquiry by the police. His sleuthing begins with a disturbing painting connected to the murder of another young woman whose death might be connected to what Sam witnessed that night at the art gallery. No sooner has Sam started digging into the case than he and Julia are getting threatening phone calls and, as he refuses to let go of finding that one detail that could unlock the entire case, actual attempts on their lives.
The idea that human perception of events is often faulty, or at least incomplete, is a core concept of many giallo films, including a few others by Dario Argento, who uses it to great effect here as well as in his later, highly regarded giallo masterpiece Profondo Rosso (Deep Red). At times, “things are not what they seem” is something of a cheat for the director, but even when that’s the case, it’s not terribly important. It’s the core concept that is important, and anyone whose heard a story about a particular event told by different people, all of whom were present, knows how common it is for the details to differ in sometimes dramatic fashion, or for someone to be convinced utterly they saw or experienced something they did not. Science, both pop and real, is full of experiments that reveal how easy it is to get the human brain to conspire against itself, for senses, perception, and memory to be out of sync. And for anyone who has been aggravated by having something “on the tip of their tongue” — which is probably just about everyone — yet stubbornly impossible to force into remembrance, Sam’s predicament makes him an easy character with which to sympathize, especially since he genuinely wants to help but finds himself stymied by his own particular brand of lethologica.
Sam’s inability to worry that detail from his memory is symptomatic of the film’s greater subversion of the classic male hero and the “man of action” archetype. In a country and a time when machismo was treasured, Sam is a man who leaps into action and proves incapable of getting the job done. His attempts to be the hero are undercut at every step by Argento, beginning with Sam witnessing a crime he is impotent to prevent. From there, his frustration continues, bordering on the sexual, as he struggles and fails to remember that elusive something from the gallery. When he does finally recall it, the release comes far too late and barely even matters. Even during Sam’s final showdown with the killer, he is rendered helpless, pinned under a sculpture and only amble wriggle around in distress. Conversely, the film’s two most prominent women, rendered powerless by traditional socially enforced gender roles, who prove much more effective. Two women, Julia and Monica, who have been marginalized and preyed upon accomplish what the men in the film — Sam, the police, Monica’s husband — fail to do.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his inefficacy as a macho hero, Sam is a reasonably likable lead, his occasional flashes of arrogance and sexism tempered by the fact that he rarely succeeds at what his male hero status has him attempt. He’s like a sidekick who wandered into the lead role by accident and is doing his best to play the part. Even when a man does contribute something significant to the plot — solving the film’s most important clue, and the one that lends the film its ornate title — it’s not Sam or the police, but a superfluous buddy of Sam’s. However ineffectual they may be, however, Argento never stoops to the level of making us feel contempt for Sam or the police. They’re not malicious and incompetent the way they would be in many later giallo. They genuinely want to help, and they’re written as well-meaning and sympathetic; but they are locked into a certain way of thinking, a certain set of assumptions, that prevent them from doing so.
Tony Musante is good in the role of Sam, a giallo-typical foreign artist thrust into a bizarre situation full of strange characters (including, most outrageously, an eccentric artists who eats cats and, most offensively, a cartoonishly flamboyant gay art dealer who, at least, isn’t portrayed as a pervert or scumbag). It was common for giallo to feature British or American leads (the better to sell the film overseas). It was common in Italian film in general, since the popularity of filming at Cinecittameant there were always Hollywood stars hanging around Rome, and since many US distributors (as well as Italian producers) wanted an internationally recognizable name and face. It didn’t even matter if you ended up with a cast that spoke half a dozen different languages. Italian films were rarely shot with synchronized sound, so you could have, for example, Jessica Harper speaking English while someone else spoke German and someone else spoke Italian, and by the time it was complete, it would all be dubbed into whatever language was needed (sometimes by the same cast, but often by a crew of voice actors, lending an additionally surreal layer to many films).
Argento excelled at picking talent that maybe wasn’t at the apex of their career but still had marquee value and skill (Musante in this; David Hemmings in Deep Red; Tony Franciosa is Tenebre). He surrounds Musante with a solid supporting cast, with British actress Suzy Kendall as Sam’s put-upon and preyed-upon girlfriend Julia. Her big scene, and perhaps the film’s most memorable outside of the gallery murder, demands a lot from her emotionally as she finds herself stranded in an apartment alone, with no power and no phone, as the killer chips away at the cheap front door with a knife. She is required to be both resourceful and hysterical, verging on the edge of collapse but still able to defend herself as the audience screams for her (perhaps unreasonably) to pull herself together. The viewer is thus rendered an impotent spectator yelling at the movie screen, a reflection of Sam trapped behind the glass in the beginning of the film. It’s one of the few instances in which a giallo succeeds not just because it’s shocking, but because it’s gotten the viewer emotionally invested. This tense scene again illustrates the basic failure of both Sam (who is out of town on a fact finding mission, leaving Julia alone despite knowing they are both being stalked) and the police (who are dutifully standing guard downstairs but still fail to prevent the killer from gaining entry and fail to hear Julia’s screams for help). When Sam does sort of save the day, it’s purely by accident.
Argento would go on to direct bolder, more visually dynamic films, including Deep Red and Tenebre, and arguably reaching his candy-colored crescendo with the supernatural chiller Suspiria, but he would rarely achieve the same level of empathy as he does in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Visually, the film is nothing to dismiss despite not possessing the same degree of flamboyance as some of his later work. It lacks the psychedelic excess of Suspiria but is still an inventive film, looking much of the time like and using the same stark color palate with splashes of vibrant color as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, also released in 1970.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a remarkably assured directorial debut. Argento was no cinema neophyte, having worked on scripts for Sergio Leone among others, but first-time directors, especially ones coming to the job with a specific cinematic vision and budding visual flair, can tend to overdo it on their first outing, overindulging to the point where their visual language overwhelms the film rather than serving it. Argento, however, exercises an impressive degree of self-discipline, allowing his film to flourish without succumbing to excess (when he did finally go overboard, in Suspiria, it was still in the service of the film and, within that context, made perfect sense). The Bird with the Crystal Plumage might not have been the first giallo, but it is one of the most completely realized and best executed. It’s position as the template, as the face that launched the fleet, is rightfully earned. It remains to this day a highly regarded classic, and rightfully so. Decades after it’s release, and decades after legions of imitators, it still feels fresh, inventive, and shocking.