Why The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a Hidden Giallo Gem

[Written by Robert Salusbury]

When a director is graced with labels like the “Master of Horror” and the “Master of the Thrill,” it’s fair to assume people may be going a tad over the top with their praise. When it comes to the Italian veteran filmmaker Dario Argento though, it’s fair to say he’s earned these honorary titles. Few directors can say they were as influential in the 1970s and 80s horror scene as Argento, a figure who helped define the characteristically splashy gore and vivid colour palettes of the giallo sub-genre that would become one of Italian cinema’s most successful exports. 

Although giallo had been a popular genre in Italian literature since the 30s, named after the yellow covers of pulp fiction crime novels, it wasn’t until the 60s that Italian filmmakers began to experiment with the lurid colours, extreme murders, and twist heavy plots that would go on to define the world of giallo cinema. And with films like Suspiria, Deep Red, and Inferno, Argento became the figurehead for the sub-genre, combining horror and thriller elements in new and endlessly exciting ways.

One Argento film that seems to have been strangely sidelined however is his debut feature from 1970, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. This is odd considering the huge influence that the film had in kickstarting the genre, being a major box office success in Italy and Spain upon its release. Filmmakers like Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, and Umberto Lenzi had been key early pioneers of the genre, but it wasn’t until the smash-hit success of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that audiences and critics really took notice, and so it is definitely worth re-assessing, on its 60th birthday, exactly why Argento’s debut was such a landmark film.

It is a film that gleams with Hitchcockian influences, from its wildly twisty-turny murder mystery plot involving a stocky, determined American (here played by the rugged Tony Musante) to its shadowy rooms and impossibly foggy street scenes. The story joins said stocky American Sam Dalmas (Musante) as he is finishing his holiday in Rome. Having recovered from his writer’s block, Sam is planning to return to America with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall), until late one night he witnesses an attempted murder taking place in an art gallery. Sam becomes obsessed with hunting down the killer, who continues his murder spree much to the frustration of the police.  

It may be a relatively simple mystery story, but Argento’s debut is an innovative and hugely riveting thriller bursting at the seams with style. Giallo films are most often characterised for their use of colour, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who would go on to DP for Apocalypse Now) and production designer Dario Micheli’s work is masterful here. Characters are dressed in neutral earth tones and the film is populated by black and white rooms to exaggerate the shock factor of the splashes of bright red blood. 

But what is arguably more significant about this early pioneering giallo is its brilliant use of sound, something which would become a key part of later films of the genre. Ironically enough, its score was composed by Ennio Morricone, who had previously scored all of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western films and so became a strange sort of connecting link between the two very different sub-genres. Morricone has penned a staggering 400 scores for film and television, showing a huge amount of versatility in both his range of genres and instrumentation.

It is this electrifying versatility that Morricone brings to Argento’s film, injecting it with a simmering, almost nervous sense of mounting suspense that bubbles over on screen in typically bloody fashion. The film’s main theme that recurs throughout is a dreamy proto-psychedelic piece filled with gently jangling bells and a female-sung “la la la” refrain that perfectly captures the film’s dream-like feel, a vibe that Argento and Morricone would further explore in The Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Morricone covers a huge range of instruments and styles throughout the rest of the film too. The attempted murder that Sam witnesses early on, pulling him into the hunt for the shadowy, black-coated killer, is accompanied by a slowly building ominous motif played first on the piano, then joined by an array of other instruments. As Sam struggles to help the victim, struggling to get into the gallery through the huge french window entrance, the sudden sound of a saxophone cuts through the scene, immediately injecting the scene with that same dreamy air that Morricone had established in the main theme. 

It is easy to imagine Angelo Badalementi being inspired by this score, both composers showing a similar skill at orchestrating a film’s dreamy atmosphere, the latter in his collaborations with David Lynch. Later on in this sequence, Morricone throws another sudden twist into the works by returning to a chorus of bells that ring out a hypnotic rhythm, adding an intense sense of hopelessness as Sam helplessly watches Monica (Eva Renzi) bleed out on the floor of the gallery. 

It is this vibrant mix of sounds and styles that makes Morricone’s soundtrack, and Argento’s film, such a thrilling journey and makes it so clear to see why The Bird with the Crystal Plumage became such an important chapter in early giallo lore. Sound plays a key role in the film’s narrative too. In their desperate attempts to track down the killer, the police use speech analysis technology to pick apart the killer’s whispered phone calls, tracing his cadence and speech patterns in dazzlingly white labs filled with technicians in similarly blinding-white lab coats. And the key breakthrough later in the film comes when Sam picks up on a background sound in one of these phone calls, and ultimately uses this to trace the killer to his home. 

This focus on sound analysis and Sam’s attempts to pick apart his own memory of the murder creates a fascinating triangle of influences with Antonioni’s 1966 thriller Blow-Up (in which a photographer realises he has captured a murder within his photos) and De Palma’s later spiritual remake Blow Out (where this time a sound effects technician inadvertently records the sounds of a murder). Argento’s emphasis on sound in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s narrative brings us in a full circle back to Morricone’s score and the undeniable importance of that most exciting of the five senses in establishing the film’s dreamy, abstract air and the increasing desperation of Sam.

Though Argento has gone on to make a number of badly misfiring films in recent years in an attempt to recapture the magic of his 70s and 80s golden streak, we will thankfully always be able to remember the great Italian maestro at the height of his powers. And with Arrow Video having recently released a beautifully restored blu-ray of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, there is no better to return to perhaps the most influential film in all of Italian horror cinema. 

Essays

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