Wednesday Editor’s Pick: The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)

by on April 5, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed April 11 at 7:00 at Museum of Art and Design [Program & Tix]

In March, MAD kicked off its three-month family retrospective Argento: Il Cinema Nel Sangue/Argento: Cinema in the Blood, and this week celebrates auteur Dario’s Giallo debut Animal Trilogy; The Cat o’ Nine Tails screens Friday the 13th, and Four Flies on Gray Velvet Saturday the 14th.

The story goes that Hitchcock himself stumbled out a Plumage screening muttering “”that Italian fellow is starting to make me nervous.”


Nick Pinkerton thinks the series is good for the cinemagoer’s soul, for the Village Voice:

With the rise of found footage and you-are-there handheld, contemporary horror movies seem increasingly concentrated on simulating artlessness. It is invaluable, then, to have the example of the grandiose artifice of Dario Argento’s films on display in a two-month series at the Museum of Arts and Design—projected before a public that has grown accustomed to crude nerve-end assault and hopefully some aspiring filmmakers.
In many respects, Argento is the Italian Brian De Palma: Both adapted Hitchcock’s master-builder cinema to their own far-out personal obsessions. Argento’s favored vehicles for his formal experiments were giallo thrillers, beginning with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and horror-fantasies like Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the ne plus ultra of Argento’s cinema. The location is apposite, for Argento’s movies are nothing if not designed. Where today’s reality-horror film seeks to cover authorial tracks and eliminate the audience’s awareness of the director, Argento’s is a cinema of exhibitionistic, ornamental virtuosity, not only wrought, but also deliciously overwrought.
I have watched probably a dozen shaky-cam horrors in the past year, and hardly one frame from any of them has stayed in my mind. I can, however, effortlessly call to mind the above scenes and many other Argento images besides, particularly the stained-glass, theatrical-gel colors of Suspiria and Inferno, the endless, dream-logic nonsense interiors of their hell houses. It’s the difference between the sort of nightmare cinema that looks only to deliver a jolt in the moment and the movies that linger in the mind for a lifetime.


Time Out Film Guide:

Now king of the spaghetti slasher, Argento made his directorial debut with this tightly constructed thriller in which an American writer is witness to an attempted knife attack, and then finds himself obsessed with tracking down a serial killer whose next victims could be himself and his lover.. There are some extravagant false leads, but tension is well sustained with the aid of Vittorio Storaro’s stylish ‘Scope photography and a Morricone score. Particularly effective are the opening attack, viewed through a maze of locked windows, and a scene with the victim caught on a stairway suddenly plunged into darkness. Certain elements seem to have been an influence on Dressed to Kill and The Shining, but Argento himself zoomed into more and more abstract shock effects, neglecting the Hitchcockian principles observed here.

Lawrence P. Raffel for Monsters at Play:

Though there are those that have come before it, and (certainly) those that have come after it, there seems to be a general consensus that The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is the granddaddy of the giallo as we know it today.
There’s no denying the fact that Bird With The Crystal Plumage offers up several doses of charm for those of us who either grew up with it or hold a warm place in our hearts for either Argento or gialli in general. That being said, it’s worth noting that Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a great introduction to the genre. Setting the cinematic blueprint for many films to follow, Bird With The Crystal Plumage is, simply stated, a great introduction to the black-gloved killer run amok sub genre. Argento paints his usual horrific picture here in grand style.


Todd Konrad for Independent Film Quarterly:

What allows The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to hold up as well as it has is not the actual violence itself, for which there is a fair amount but the psychological underpinnings within the story. Central to the plot is Sam’s witnessing the attack itself and the constantly shifting details he recalls from memory. In this capacity, one does not feel as though Sam is recalling events but rather creating them as so often happens with memory itself. This trope of fractured and invented memory easily predates its later usage in such films as Memento.
Besides that, Argento handles the murders themselves with a clean, precise style that elevates them to near macabre beauty. Like Hitchcock, Argento uses precise film cuts and inserts so that while one never witnesses the entire act in one shot, the accumulation of details communicates the action quite clearly, from the downward slash of a knife to the jagged flash of red as blood splatters across the frame. In terms of performance, the actors play into their parts well, essentially acting out standard roles within a thriller with little to distinguish them outside of their place within the story. Yet once again like Hitchcock, Argento’s film works because the cumulative effect is ultimately greater than the value of its individual parts. Aided by shadowy, evocative photography by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and an effectively sinister score by composer Ennio Morricone, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a dazzling, satisfyingly gothic thriller by one of Italy’s most valued directors.


Bill Gibron for Pop Matters:

With his first film as a director Argento was out to prove that he was more than just a Mediterranean copy of the Master of Suspense. Using innovative camera work and a novel twist on the standard thriller type, he invented the language of the “giallo” – the Italian crime film based on the famous ‘yellow’ novels that provide the genre’s moniker. Bird itself was actually an un-credited adaptation of Fredric Browne’s The Screaming Mimi, but as he would throughout the rest of his illustrious career, Argento takes the basics of the artform and transforms them into something original and wholly unique.
As a first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a startling achievement. It’s technically proficient, visually arresting, and quite suspenseful. It features remarkable work from Tony Musante (a truly underappreciated American actor) and Suzy Kendall and a script that does a decent job of keeping the last minute surprises in check. As he does with many of his films, Argento employs an unusual combination of found locations and studio set-ups to create his uncomfortable worlds. When Sam sees the assault, it takes place in an art gallery overloaded with baroque and downright surreal pieces. Toward the end, our hero visits a hermit who lives in what looks like a broken down barn. Always a stickler for detail, you can practically smell the rot surrounding the cat-eating recluse.



Walter Chaw for Film Freak Central:

Argento’s scary polish and cunning for film language bridged the cultural, mainstream/arthouse gap with agility and audacity. He’s not just borrowing from Hitchcock, he’s filtering the Master’s work through his own sensibilities. Argento did for the slasher genre with his “supernatural” pictures like Suspiria and Inferno what Sergio Leone did for the Western, making them dirtier, sexier, rhythmic, and more acceptable to the literati; and he does here for the police procedural/neo-noir a similar kind of post-modern hipster reinvention. But it’s not merely an intellectual exercise (in fact, the obscurity of the clues (its title at once revealing the identity of the killer and referring obliquely to the red herring of The Maltese Falcon) makes deciphering the procedural improbable at best)–rather, it’s the visceral nature of the exercise that delights. It’s Argento’s revelry in one part in the unrelieved nihilism and delicious confusion that would characterize the best of the ’70s’ paranoia cinema–and in the other part, in the joy of great genre filmmaking.
Perhaps boasting Argento’s tightest and funniest script, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is fleet and modern. It’s all about flair and confidence, its set-pieces assured and its subtexts orderly and consistent. Argento’s stuff arguably favours style over too much substance, and if that’s so, it’s never made as much sense as it does here. Far from gory, it’s a way to access Argento’s portfolio without a lot of hands over the eyes–a way to appreciate how this director, for a short period of time, was redefining the thriller and the slasher by assimilating then reconstituting familiar images and clichés (from genre and legendary genre artists alike) into something alive and new. Beneath its cosmopolitan cool, it has the teeth to do something like have Sam stumble around in a dark room while his girlfriend, bound and bleeding, tries to reach out to him from under some furniture. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is seminal, textbook, and, for serious students and fans of the genre (and of the study of film as a whole), indispensable.


Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

The title is a poetic non sequitur, one of countless shards of sights and voices brought together in the minds of the investigating hero and of Dario Argento, whose debut is his foundation from which to build, expand, enrich. A half-lit room presents the first instance of obfuscated vision, freeze-frames in the opening credits (a mini-skirted girl furtively photographed) introduce the aspect of voyeurism, or, rather, vision; an arsenal of daggers is contemplated by the maniac, who dons black gloves and trenchcoat and murmurs tauntingly over the phone. “Peace, tranquility… that’s Italy,” says Tony Musante, the blocked American writer, who in the film’s linchpin witnesses a struggle inside an art gallery, encased between glass doors while victim Eva Renzil bleeds on the marble floor from her stab wound — the incident becomes a loop played over and over in his head, and, as the shredded corpses proliferate, he launches an enquiry of his own. A trip to the police station separates transvestites from perverts, a porcine fop chases Musante around his antique shop before lending him a clue: a painting of a murder, “naïve but macabre,” reproduced in black-and-white until the camera tracks back to reveal the original hanging in the killer’s wall as color flushes back into it. Stalled elevators and jabbing blades anticipate Dressed to Kill, with an element of rigorous geometry (triangular dread glimpsed down a flight of stairs) and, later on, a judicious dab of Saboteur. A water pipe ejaculates upon being slashed, a cut from a handheld POV to a close-up comments on Suzy Kendall’s resemblance to Monica Vitti, the shaggy Mario Adorf pops up as a painter (“going through a mystical period”) with a casserole full of kitties — the director’s most muted work? Argento is too busy to worry about classification, staging vivid mayhem in galleries and studios to ensure that giallo horror can remain an art form every bit as valid as the Gothic modernism on display in them.



Roger Ebert
for the Chicago Sun-Times:

“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is billed as a thriller, and it’s a pretty good one. But its scares are on a much more basic level than in, say, a thriller by Hitchcock. It works mostly by exploiting our fear of the dark. We keep following the hero into dark rooms, dark alleys, dark parks, dark corridors and dark basements. And that makes us very uneasy. I looked around the theater and found people unconsciously leaning forward in their seats and sort of squinting, as if they could vicariously spot any danger to the hero. That’s what thrillers are all about, of course, and that’s why this one works.
Every so often someone gets killed, but actual violence is never what a thriller is really about. Thrillers employ anticipation, fear and a feeling of impotence; they work best when we’re afraid for the hero or his girl friend, and can’t help them, and they can’t help themselves. One of the most effective scenes In “Bird,” for example, comes when the hero’s girl is alone in their apartment and the killer starts hacking away at the door. The lights are out (again) and the phone is dead, and the girl collapses into hysteria and crawls around on the floor. And we desperately want her to pull herself together and do something. But she doesn’t. And the killer keeps hacking away.


James Gracey for Eye for Film:

Cutting from extreme close-ups to wide angle shots, Argento perfectly conveys the heady panic experienced by the characters and the gradual piecing together of the fragmented puzzle. The film is laced with flashbacks to the scene in the gallery as Sam becomes obsessed with solving the case. To further drive home the protagonist’s attempts to remember what he saw, Argento highlights the deceptive nature of ‘vision’ and things not appearing to be what they seem in a number of scenes.
In one instance, the killer’s stealthy advance on a scantily clad victim is masked by the smoke from her cigarette as it obscures her view in an already darkened bedroom. Argento’s ‘sexualisation’ of violence comes into play in this scene too, as the black leather-gloved killer suggestively strokes the victim with a blade before slashing her to death: her face contorted in an almost orgasmic expression of terror.
The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is not only regarded as a genre-defining classic, but it also unfolds as one of Argento’s most accessible, compelling films – a great introduction to his work, and a must have for any fan of giallo all’italiana.



Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Though Bird With the Crystal Plumage may not invoke active spectatorship, the two-killer theory popularized by Argento in films like Tenebre and 1996’s Stendhal Syndrome makes its first appearance here. During the film’s infamous set piece, a bloody Monica crawls toward a caged Sam only to pass out on the gallery’s floor. Above her rests a large sculpture of a bird’s talons, a visual conceit that fascinatingly blurs the bird/prey relationship that develops between Sam and Monica throughout the film. Through a gap between two of the sculpture’s claws, Monica is able to stare at the trapped Sam—a stunning composition that evokes Argento’s obsession with sightnessness while prefiguring the rigorous architectural terror of Tenebre. Thematic comparisons to Psycho are perhaps unavoidable though Argento’s visual stylings are most certainly his own. And while Argento’s fondness for all things psychological may not out-Freud Hitchcock, the film’s ending brings to mind Psycho‘s own. If Hitchcock’s ending needlessly showcases the Hitchcock’s fascination with psychoanalysis, Bird With the Crystal Plumage‘s ending is at least tidier and more poetic. A TV show announces Monica’s capture and a newscaster bemoans her husband Alberto’s sacrifice: “Her husband, who loved her wisely but not too well, lost his life in an attempt to turn suspicion away from his wife.”


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