Sunday, October 11, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: Painting with Black Gloves in Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Sam Dalmas is an American writer looking for inspiration in Italy. After two years of writing very little, he is nearly broke and planning a return to the U.S. Passing by an art gallery one night, he sees a woman struggling with a man in black. The woman is stabbed, and the man runs away. Sam is inadvertently locked between giant glass doors and is unable to help the wounded woman. The police arrive, and Sam is questioned all night, but he cannot recall much about the man in black. In spite of this, the police consider the writer an important witness, and his passport is taken from him. Apparently, someone else believes Sam knows more, as an unknown assailant swings a cleaver aimed at his head while on his way home. When other young women start being murdered, and realizing that the killer may very well be the one who wants him dead, Sam begins investigating the killings on his own. This leads to a mysterious painting and a close examination of a recorded phone call from the killer, with a strange sound in the background (and an explanation of the title).

Director Dario Argento was a screenwriter for some years (including co-writing Sergio Leone's classic,
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), and Don Taylor's 1970 Western, Five Man Army). The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969) was his directorial debut and marked the beginning of what would become his trademarks. These include: a killer who threatens people with a creepy, whispering voice; focusing on the killer's weapon(s) of choice with extreme close-ups; and frequent point-of-view shots of the killer donning black leather gloves (Argento has stated that, in his films, the killer's hands always belong to the director himself, who believes that no one else can move the hands the way that he wants). One of the more significant and original trademarks that Argento first employed in his debut is a character who believes that he/she has seen something that may be important, but cannot be recalled at the present time. Sam says just that in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, that there was something about the attack that was a little "off." Argento did this again in films such as 1975's Deep Red (aka The Hatchet Murders), 1982's Tenebrae (aka Unsane), and Trauma (1992). In each film, the character invariably remembers what exactly he/she was seeing, and it eventually leads to the killer's unmasking.
With this movie, Argento proved adept at combining scenes of suspense with humorous sequences. There are many instances of the killer stalking potential victims, and one attack in particular is truly terrifying, as the murderer tries to force a way into Sam's loft, while Sam's girlfriend, Julia, is alone. But comic relief abounds, as Sam visits a man in prison who tackles a speech impediment by saying "So long" (initially making Sam believe the interview has prematurely ended), as well as tracking down the artist of the aforementioned painting, a burly man surrounded by cats who lives on the second floor of a remote cottage, accessible only by a rickety stepladder.

The unveiling of the murderer is shocking and quite clever, and it's important to note that Argento never cheats in hiding the killer's identity. He is fair in his presentation to the audience. Much like the protagonist, Sam, the viewers see what they need to see and are allowed to form their own conclusions. Although many Italian horror films are mocked for weak and illogical stories (as well as shoddy English dubbing),
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has a solid plot with strong, likable characters. Tony Musante is very good as Sam, but he is outshined by Suzy Kendall portraying Julia. The real star, however, is Argento's camera, which simply refuses to sit still, creating beautifully fluid shots.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
is reportedly an uncredited adaptation of Frederic Brown's novel, The Screaming Mimi (officially adapted in 1958 in the U.S. as Screaming Mimi). This movie is the start of a reputed "Animal Trilogy," as the director followed this with The Cat o' Nine Tails (1970) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). Many Italian directors, hoping to achieve similar success, began including animals in the titles, such as Sergio Martino's The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971), Paolo Cavara's Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971), and Lucio Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971) and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972).


  1. Sark, this is a very strong analysis of one of Dario Argento’s most important movies. I think you do an outstanding job of identifying plot elements and stylistic techniques that Argento would repeat in subsequent films. As for the film itself, it’s hard to believe that this was Argento’s directorial debut. The film exhibits a dramatic flare—an example is the point-of-view shot as a victim falls to his death—indicative of a filmmaker with far more experience. But though Argento is known for his fluid camera, his use of lighting is equally impressive. Often, his characters move from light to utter darkness in the same scene, creating a disturbing, almost strobe-like effect (he uses this in the chase scene among the parked buses in BIRD). It’s just another way that Argento keep viewers off-balance and uncomfortable. His films are definitely not for the weak of heart!

  2. Thanks for the compliments, Rick! In reference to the POV fall to death, I read that reportedly Argento achieved that shot by literally dropping the camera out of a window. He got his footage, but the camera was destroyed!

  3. Sarkoffagus, this is an very interesting post. I must admit I have not seen this movie, but will definitely check it out. I have seen several of Argento's films. I own SUSPIRIA on DVD. I have seen the two other films Argento made following the SUSPIRIA story: INFERNO and THE TEARS OF THE MOTHER. I like his films and your review is so good, I really want to see this one.

  4. This was truly an excellent post about a very visual sounding film. I haven't seen it, nor do I plan to, because it sounds more potent than what I can tolerate these days. The photos were frightening enough for me! Sark, you write in a very compelling, descriptive manner. Thank you for sharing with us.

  5. Sark, that's pretty funny about Dario dropping the camera for that shot--anything for art! Is the Argento film TENEBRAE the one with the incredible tracking shot, where the camera begins at the window of an apartment, tracks up the building, over the roof, and down the other side to another window of the same apartment? That has be, from a technical standpoint, one of the most difficult camera shots in cinema history.

  6. Yes! That's TENEBRAE. A beautiful shot and, as you said, likely very complicated. He also did the ravens' POV in OPERA, which didn't look as good as TENEBRAE but Argento claims was very difficult to pull off. All this talk of his movies has got me jonesing for an Argento marathon!

  7. Sark, you freaked me out once again with your wonderful review..

  8. This review really got me interested in seeing this film. So it is in my Netflix queue in the number one position. I look forward to seeing it. I am glad I read this great review, Sark.