Argento April: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1971)

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Loosely defined: Giallo is a popular 20th century genre that specialises in mysteries, thrillers and occasionally supernatural horror. The Italian word translates to yellow and the genre gets its name from the yellow coloured paperback novels that dominated bookshelves in post war Italy. While there were many Giallo movies before 1970, Dario Argento popularised the genre (with Crystal Plumage) and kick started its resurgence in post 70s Italian cinema.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is about an American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Mustane) whose been on a long holiday in Italy. Grappled with writer’s block as he’s about to leave the country: Sam’s world is turned upside down when he witnesses a woman in an art gallery being stabbed. Soon after, the writer finds himself in an investigation and race against time with a black gloved figure, whose been on a murderous rampage of local women.

Crystal Plumage’s greatest trick is its distortion. Much like Sam is convinced that he’s seeing the opening attack in one way, the audience is likewise led to believe that what we’re seeing is real. Part of this comes from genre expectation and who we typically see as the victim in similar stories. Argento also brings this aspect to some of the sequences.

One has Sam being chased by a gunman wearing a yellow jacket (an amusing reference to the genre’s roots). Sam eventually tracks the lone man to a sports convention where the majority of people are wearing yellow jackets.

In contrast to other Argento films I’ve seen, the direction is less bombastic and assaultive. Instead, the director in his first film favours opulence and dread. Many scenes have the characters slowly realising their impending doom in lavish surroundings. One scene that comes to mind is when a woman is walking back up to her apartment. As she climbs the staircase, the lights start to go out until she is met with complete darkness and has to resort to using a match.

Argento’s use of the top down shot that shows all the staircases aligned looks like a surreal panting. It evokes tension and the pervasive nature of the killer. Ennio Morricone’s eclectic score made up of gloomy bells, low male choral chants and a moaning woman provide the scene with its electrifying horror.

Despite this, the film’s central problem comes from the handling of Sam’s character. Conceptually, it’s fascinating to see someone who starts out as helpless in aiding a victim of the black gloved killer, becomes obsessed and end up helping to bring the notorious figure to justice. However, I don’t get any sense is grappling with anything (other then trying to remember details about the killer) and instead strung from one plot element to the next.

With Sam being a writer whose is in the midst of writer’s block, it would have been interesting to see him wanting to stay because it inspires him to write again. Or he has to solve the mystery, due to wanting to write a story about his experiences. Instead, it just feels like he stays because it’s convenient to the plot.

As it stands, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a scorching debut from Dario Argento. He plucks the strings of the Giallo genre with finesse, a black comedic streak (particularly with some of the secondary characters) and subversive wit. However, I can’t help but feel that the film could have soared and become something far more interesting, particularly with the exploration of Sam and his further entrenchment into the central mystery.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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