in Shocktober

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Initially, I was going to review the Vincent Price thriller, The Abominable Dr. Phibes for Shocktober Day 3, but I had a change of heart because I wanted to show that the 1970s were more than campy monster movies and splatter films. So instead I proudly present the directorial debut from Italian Giallo director Dario Argento “L’uccello dalle plume di cristallo” or in English, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.” What is “Giallo” exactly? Apparently, “Giallo” is Italian for “Yellow” which gets me nowhere. Digging a little deeper I found that in Italy you used to be able to purchase pulp murder/mystery novels with unique yellow covers. Though what makes a film distinctly Giallo? Let’s find out with my take on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Sam Dalmas (TV veteran Tony Musante) is an American writer living in Rome with his word-jumble named English girlfriend Giuilia (Suzy Kendall). Plagued by writer’s block, Sam is planning to head back to America in defeat when his life is brutally interrupted by witnessing an attempted murder. Sam sees a young woman in an art gallery struggling with an older man through two mechanically-operated glass doors, which is something I’ve never seen in reality but makes for a fantastic set piece. While trying to save the woman, Sam gets trapped between the two glass doors as the woman collapses, instantly making him look guilty. It’s perhaps the best inciting incident that Hitchcock never shot.

The woman survives and Sam manages to clear his name but becomes obsessed with a series of related murders around Rome. These grisly events inspire Sam’s writing but also leave him feeling trapped. Sam feels invigorated but worries that if he digs too deep, it’ll be his obituary in the paper. A series of cat-and-mouse chases between Sam and the killer ensue in this razor-sharp thriller with more twists than a pretzel.
My knowledge of Juno’s favorite “Master of Horror” is limited. I’ve seen Suspiria and although I admire it from an artistic standpoint, I simultaneously despise it as one of the flimsiest pieces of storytelling I’ve witnessed. Bird, on the other hand, is much more tightly constructed. All of the twists and turns are appropriate to the plot and never give me any reason to suspend my disbelief too far. The exception being this movie claims there is an actual bird from Serbia with crystal feathers. Yes, the title does work into the narrative and yes, it’s important, not some artistic Euro-Bullshit.

My only complaint is that the dubbing is jarring. Tony Musante sounds fine as it appears he actually spoke his original lines in English, but the rest of the cast sounds like they were all voiced by Mel Blanc. That aside there are few things I disliked about this film, which excites me considering Dario Argento will come up again on this year’s list.

Back to my initial question, “What is Giallo?” As far as I can tell it’s this: “A Hitchcock homage with Italian people.” Maybe that’s not the great epiphany you were hoping for, but it’s the best I can do. Perhaps no one is supposed to know, because the sooner you start asking questions, the sooner they’re answered by a knife in the neck.


P.S. The film’s haunting score is composed by Ennio Morricone! Is there anything that man can’t do?