ICFIFC: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

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Monday, January 6, 2014

ICFIFC: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a 1970 Italian giallo1.  film directed by Dario Argento, in his directorial debut.  The film is considered a landmark in the Italian giallo genre.  Written by Argento, the film is an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown's novel The Screaming Mimi, which had previously been made into a Hollywood film, Screaming Mimi (1958), directed by Gerd Oswald.

The original novel is an over-the-top and much-beloved thriller starring Bill Sweeney, an ace reporter with a other-worldly drinking problem who gets mixed-up with a naked woman as the latter is trying to avoid becoming the fourth victim of a local serial killer ("The Ripper").  Surprising elements include an insane asylum, a bum named "God," and the little statue that ties everything together.  The book was adapted for the screen in 1958, in a B-movie classic that's remembered for the prototype shower-scene later re-used in Psycho.

Screaming Mimi is a 1958 film noir2 directed by Gerd Oswald, and based on the novel by pulp novelist Fredric Brown.  The film features Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey, Gypsy Rose Lee, among others.  It has never received an official video release in the U.S.

In the opening scene set in Southern California, while Virginia Wilson is taking an outside beach shower, an escaped madman from the sanitarium shows up.  He stabs her dog, Rusty [Devil was the name of her second dog], attacks her and is then shot to death by her stepbrother, Charlie, with a rifle.

After the attack, Virginia is committed to a sanitarium.  The psychiatrist falls in love with her.  He fakes her death, and they go on the lam.  Virginia ends up dancing at the El Madhouse night club run by Gypsy Rose Lee.  Lee performs "Put the Blame on Mame," the classic noir theme from the film Gilda.  All the while Virginia is being stalked by a serial killer.

 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

  • Original Title: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo
  • Genre: Mystery – Thriller
  • Directed: Dario Argento
  • Produced:
    • Salvatore Argento 
    • Artur Brauner
  • Written:
    • Fredric Brown (Novel "The Screaming Mimi") 
    • Dario Argento (Screenplay)
  • Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Renato Romano, Giuseppe Castellano, Mario Adorf, Pino Patti, Gildo Di Marco
  • Music: Ennio Morricone
  • Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
  • Editing: Franco Fraticelli
  • Studio:
    • Central Cinema Company Film  
    • Glazier 
    • Seda Spettacoli
  • Distributed:
    • Constantin Film  
    • Universal Marion Corporation  
    • Columbia Broadcasting System  
    • 21st Century Film Corporation  
    • Blue Underground  
    • United Video  
    • VCI Entertainment
  • Rated:
  • Release Date: 12 June 1970 (USA)
  • Running Time: 96 minutes
  • Country:
    • Italy 
    • West Germany
  • Language: Italian

Sam Dalmas is an American writer living in Rome with his model girlfriend Giulia.  Suffering from writer's block, Sam is on the verge of returning to America, but witnesses the attack of a woman in an art gallery by a mysterious black-gloved assailant dressed in a raincoat.

Attempting to reach her, Sam is trapped between two mechanically-operated glass doors and can only watch as the villain makes his escape.  The woman, Monica Ranieri, the wife of the gallery's owner, Alberto Ranieri, survives the attack and the local police confiscates Sam's passport to stop him from leaving the country; the assailant is believed to be a serial killer who is killing young women across the city, and Sam is an important witness.

Sam is haunted by what he saw that night, feeling sure that some vital clue is evading him, and he decides to help Inspector Morosini in his investigation.  He interviews the pimp of a murdered prostitute and visits a shop where another of the murdered women worked.  There, he finds that the last thing she sold on the day she was murdered was a painting of a stark landscape featuring a man in a raincoat murdering a young woman.  He visits the artist, but finds only another dead end.  On his way back to his apartment, Giulia is attacked but Sam returns home in time to save her and the assailant escapes.

Receiving menacing phone calls, the police manage to isolate an odd cricketing noise in the background, which is later revealed to be the call of a rare bird from Siberia, called "The Bird with Crystal Plumage" due to the diaphanous glint of its feathers.  This proves important since the only one of its kind in Rome is kept in the Italian capital's zoo, allowing Sam and the police to identify the killer's abode.  There they find Monica struggling with her husband, Alberto, who is wielding a knife.  After a short struggle, Alberto is killed.  As he dies, he confesses to the murders and tells them he loves his wife.

Finding that Giulia and Monica have run off, Sam goes after them, eventually coming to a darkened building.  There he finds his friend Garullo murdered and Giulia bound, gagged and wounded.  The assailant emerges and is revealed as Monica.  Sam realizes that the attack he witnessed in the gallery was not Monica being assaulted but rather her attacking her husband, who was wearing the raincoat.  She flees and he pursues her to her art gallery. There, he is trapped, pinned to the floor by the release of a wall-sized sculpture of wire and metal.  Unable to free himself, he becomes the prey of the person he was pursuing—the attractive, deranged wife of the gallery owner. This climax to the mystery, with strong sado-masochistic elements, has the knife-wielding Monica teasing Sam as she prepares to kill him.  As she raises her knife, the police burst in and apprehend her, notified by Giulia who had escaped.  Sam is freed and Monica is taken to a psychiatric hospital.  The victim of a traumatic attack ten years before, seeing the painting drove her mad, causing her to identify not with the victim but with the assailant.  Alberto likewise suffered from an induced psychosis, helping her to cover up the murders and committing some himself. Sam and Giulia are re-united and return to America.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has been very well received by critics.  On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 91% based on twenty-two reviews, with the consensus "Combining a deadly thriller plot with the stylized violence that would become his trademark, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage marked an impressive horror debut for Dario Argento."  The New York Times wrote, "[It] has the energy to support its elaborateness and the decency to display its devices with style.  Something from each of its better models has stuck, and it is pleasant to rediscover old horrors in such handsome new d├ęcor. "  Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, writing, "it's a pretty good [thriller]", but that "its scares are on a much more basic level than in, say, a thriller by Hitchcock."

Notes:

1.  For Italian audiences, giallo has come to refer to any kind of thriller, regardless of its origin.  Thus, American, British or other thrillers such as Psycho, Vertigo or Peeping Tom are considered gialli.  For English-speaking audiences however, the term has over time come to refer only to a very specific type of Italian-produced thriller which Italian audiences have historically referred to as "thrilling all'italiana" 'thriller, Italian style' or, sometimes, "spaghetti thrillers".  So, for Italian audiences, the term "giallo" denotes the broad genre of thrillers, while in English, it denotes specifically thrillers produced in Italy.

The film subgenre that emerged in the 1960s began as literal adaptations of books, but soon began taking advantage of modern cinematic techniques to create a unique genre which veered into horror and psychological thrillers.  The giallo film genre proved to be a major influence on the later slasher film genre.


2.  Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.  Hollywood's classical film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s.  Film noir of this era is associated with a low-key black-and-white visual style that has roots in German Expressionist cinematography.  Many of the prototypical stories and much of the attitude of classic noir derive from the hardboiled school of crime fiction that emerged in the United States during the Great Depression.

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