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Schlock & Awe: THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE

Schlock & Awe: THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE

Before slasher movies, there was a movement of detective, whodunit fiction in Europe that focused on the murders to a rather salacious degree, and the discovery of the murderer in a rather bafflingly complex way. In Germany, there were the “Krimi” films, a kind of procedural crime movie almost always based on the books by British novelist Edgar Wallace, but in Italy, these movies became an art form unto themselves, often incredibly lurid and the murders intensely grotesque.

These films were called gialli, the plural of giallo which was named for the yellow paper of pulp novels, and the first proper giallo was Dario Argento‘s 1970 debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Crystal Plumage might have been the film that launched the genre (hundreds of films like this were produced after 1970), but it had its antecedent a few years prior, with Mario Bava’s film Blood and Black Lace. That movie introduced a mystery plot where a black-clad, black-gloved man was killing models living in a house, but what Crystal Plumage added to that, and would become staples of most gialli, was a modern-day setting in very real locations, in this instance Rome. A twistier narrative was also key. Later films in the cycle (like What Have you Done to Solange?“) would make the narratives almost incomprehensibly complicated, but in the case of this movie, it’s just twisty enough to keep you guessing. But you can still figure it out.

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Argento — who’d worked as a screenwriter for a few years following a stint as a journalist — took his (uncredited) inspiration for the plot of the movie from the Frederic Brown novel, The Screaming Mimi, and made his lead character the typical outsider. Here, it’s American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) who is in Rome with his fashion model girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall), attempting to cure some writer’s block, because people told him Rome is boring and great for clearing the mind. However, very early on in the movie, Sam is walking by an art gallery when he sees through the giant picture window a woman struggling with a man in a black raincoat and hat.

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As he rushes to intervene, he finds that the glass door is shut, then after the woman falls to the ground, with a stab wound, the man in the hat runs away and closes the exterior glass door, trapping Sam in an atrium, helpless to do anything but watch the woman crawl toward him with a bleeding abdomen. This is one of the best and most excruciating ways to begin a movie, with our hero witnessing a murder but being unable to do anything about it. It even takes him a long time to alert the police.

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Following the incident — the woman survives — Sam becomes obsessed with what he saw that night, and how something about it seemed off. He keeps thinking he’s missing a key flicker of memory, and Argento spends a great deal of time showing us flashes of the attack as Sam remembers. The police confiscate Sam’s passport to keep him from leaving (he’s an important witness after all) and they believe the attack is related to a series of murders that have been happening in Rome, some of which we see at the hands of the same black-clad, black-gloved individual. As Sam gets closer to the truth, or what he perceives as the truth, he gets himself and Julia closer to the killer’s black hands.

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Sam investigates other victims — he speaks to the pimp of a murdered prostitute, and visits the workplace of a murdered shop girl, who sold on her last day before her murder, a stark landscape painting featuring a man in a raincoat murdering a young woman. Sam then receives threatening phone calls from the killer, and the police set up a recording device, eventually isolating a particular sound in the background: a bird call. It’s a very specific bird, a rare Siberian crane, given the nickname “the bird with the crystal plumage” thanks to its diaphanous tail feathers.

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Crystal Plumage is a movie that constantly keeps you guessing, and features some of the tightest plotting in any Argento movie. In the next several years, Argento would turn more and more frequently to gore and the abdication of plot coherence (such as in his masterpiece, Suspiria, does), but here the violence is largely off screen or implied and the blood is fairly mild. This is also well before Argento turned to loud prog rock for his scores (Goblin would first work with Argento in 1975’s Deep Red) and thus Crystal Plumage has a classily creepy jazz score by none other than Ennio Morricone.

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With Crystal Plumage, Argento absolutely established himself as a filmmaker to watch. He proved that with his next two movies, The Cat o’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, both in 1971. The three movies, though unrelated, formed what people call Argento’s “Animal Trilogy” given their titles, giving way to most gialli having titles of that length and nature. I’ve already covered The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, but other great gialli titles include Five Dolls for an August Moon, The Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, and perhaps my favorite title ever, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.

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It’s pretty weird to watch a movie and realize that it’s the one that launched an entire subgenre. John Carpenter’s Halloween did. Obviously Star Wars did. And, unlikely as it may seem, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is definitely on the same level, and there’s a reason why: it’s still incredibly good. The movie is now available in a fancy schmancy Blu-ray from Arrow Video. Highly recommend.

Images: Titanus

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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