I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage

tn_birdwithcrystalTHE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is a Dario Argento movie I hadn’t seen before. This is his directational debut, so it shows what he was up to before the ones I’m most familiar with, DEEP RED, SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. He’s not yet the sicko artiste who made those three, but you can see him headed in that direction.

An American writer (Tony Musante) visiting Italy happens to be walking across the street from an art gallery one night when he sees a struggle going on inside. He runs over but can’t get into the large, plate glass storefront. He knocks on the window but is forced to just watch as a stabbed woman lays bleeding on the floor inside. Then he gets trapped behind another wall of glass. Another passerby brings cops in time to save the woman, but this American at the scene of the crime, and planning to leave the country soon, that doesn’t look too good. So they confiscate his passport.

Let me tell you, I’m a little scared of you, Italy. I feel comfortable in a crowded urban environment, but being out where it’s quiet and lonely, out in the middle of nowhere, that can be creepy to me. I have this false image of Italy from these movies, it’s a real beautiful place, full of beautiful women in hip 70s clothes. There are ancient buildings and artifacts, big libraries, wine, cigarettes, art, nice people. But you never know where some gloved-sicko or ancient evil is waiting for you. You can get into some shit and the police aren’t gonna help you that much. You’re on your own.

It’s like this girl who lives in Seattle, I never met her but several years ago she worked at a coffee shop some of my friends frequented, they liked her, thought she was cute. She was a student at the University of Washington and then went to study for a year abroad in Perugia. I think she was working at a bar there, she had a boyfriend and friends and everything, having a good time, then one day she comes home and her roommate has been stabbed to death. Well, they arrested the guy who apparently did it, but also they arrested this girl and her boyfriend, accused them all of killing the poor woman during an orgy. The prosecutor and the Italian media pulled some West Memphis Three type shit, smearing her as an alleged slut, saying because she smoked pot and wrote some violent short stories she must be a murderer.

After serving 4 years of a 26 year sentence and having Hayden Panettierre play her in a Lifetime TV movie the conviction was overturned and she’s back in Seattle, but now they’ve overturned the overturning and are currently double jeopardying her in absentia. Can you imagine that? Stay out of Europe, young Americans. Either you’re gonna get HOSTELed or you’re gonna get TAKEN or you’re gonna get set up for a murder. Boycott Europe, I say. Go somewhere else nice, like Wolf Creek or somewhere.

mp_birdwithcrystalBut this guy in THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is a dude, so they don’t call him a slut and they don’t arrest him. After the incident he keeps getting attacked on the streets and at home, so he decides to investigate the previous murders that the art museum attack was linked to by the police. It’s one of those movies: he investigates various clues, goes out to talk to different people, records the threatening phone calls he gets. He goes to an antique store to inquire about a painting one of the victims bought – a nice winter scene with a girl getting stabbed. He tracks down the painter, and since this is an Argento movie and not Murder She Wrote the guy is a weirdo whose house is only accessible by ladder and who traps cats in cages to use for meat. He is a hairy guy with a beard, but I think he’s supposed to be a human, not ALF.

Another memorable scene is where a mysterious dude starts shooting at him on the street. He tries to catch the guy, who is wearing a very distinctive yellow hipster leather jacket with lettering on the back. He chases him into a hotel, and into a banquet room… where there’s some kind of race car driver convention where everybody wears that same jacket! What the fuck, man. Not fair.

In the ’80s, many horror movies were about debauchery, young people who love to drink and sneak out and have sex somewhere, maybe smoke a joint. You’re kinda supposed to relate, it’s supposed to be a fun time, but then they get killed in kind of a judgmental way, it often seems like maybe they were supposed to deserve it for being naughty. Sex = death, just like in the Italian prosecutor’s fantasy of the murderous orgy. This was 1970 though, so it was more of a hippie mentality. This guy Sam stays with somebody that seems like his Italian girlfriend, but I notice she’s wearing a wedding ring. At one point they get on the bed and start taking their clothes off while their friend is still sitting in the room. But it’s supposed to be cute, not scary. Ha ha, you guys. They also have a poster on their wall that says something about Black Power. They had more on their mind than partying.

The music is by the great Ennio Morricone, with some eerie vocals. Good stuff, though not as memorable as the Goblin scores on the later Argento movies. This is more of a traditional giallo, a normal murder mystery without the dream logic or extreme stylization Argento would soon master. Comparing it to DEEP RED really emphasizes how important the GOBLIN music and visual style are to that movie’s success. This one’s not full Argento, but it does have some glimpses of his fetishes: murders where we only see the leather gloves worn by the killer, knives laid out ritualistically, an all white art gallery, secrets hidden in artwork, past traumas that trigger insanity. There’s a scene where the killer stabs a hole through a wall and chips away at it as if tunneling through. Trapped in a room on the other side, his target sees an eye looking through the hole, runs toward it and stabs back through the hole. But she gives herself away by screaming as she approaches.

Note that the protagonist is an American writer visiting Italy, in DEEP RED it’s a British musician, in SUSPIRIA it’s an American dancer. Lots of visiting artists in his movies.

The title is so weird and kinda creepy in the way it conjures up a strange image with no obvious meaning. It turns out to relate to a pretty standard mystery trope, the “sound heard in background of recorded phone call that eventually identifies the location of the caller” (see also COOL AS ICE). His buddy hears the recording and says he recognizes this clicking sound, but can’t place where he’s heard it. Later he figures out that it’s the sound of an extremely rare bird. This is the big break in the case because one of these birds lives in a zoo and they figure out that the call came from next door to the zoo. But the way he explains it is not “it’s this bird they have at the zoo!” Instead he says how it’s the sound of a bird that only lives in Siberia. It is impossible to live anywhere else. He makes it sound useless for a while before oh yeah and also there is only one in captivity and it’s nearby here. Such a drama queen.

Pretty good. I would like to see a remake from the bird’s point of view. Found footage but with a bird in the zoo instead of a video camera. Other than that it doesn’t need improvement.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Friday, October 25th, 2013 at 8:52 pm and is filed under Horror, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

22 Responses to “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage”

  1. Thanks for reviewing this. I love this movie.

  2. I would just like to say that fellow Vern commentator Dan Prestwich has the original poster seen here framed in his home, along with a postcard written by Argento. He’s a cool dude.

  3. Woah, I think I saw this movie a long time ago, most likely before I knew who Dario Argento was, because I didn’t know it was by him. But the painter who eats cats triggered my memory and if I remember right, he was played by Mario Adorf, who is one of the most popular actors here in Germany (and IMO perfect for the role of Dr Light, if they ever make a MEGA MAN movie).

  4. Americans making fun of the European justice system is always good for a laugh. But seriously Vern, you should never comment on an ongoing case like that, you might just look foolish in the end. Other than that, nice review of a good film.

  5. Also in terms of the weird title: After doing some research, I found out the movie’s German title translates “The Secret Of The Black Gloves”.

  6. Here in Norway it’s called FUGLEN MED KRYSTALLFJÆRENE, but that just means the same as the English title.

  7. Why does that poster say “70%”?

    Is the movie 70% Eastmancolor, and black-and-white the rest of the time like The Wizard of Oz?

    Or is it 70% Techniscope, then switches to something else like the end of the silent Napoleon?

  8. Wait, did Vern just say he’s a couple of degrees from knowing Amanda Knox? I didn’t expect that revelation in a Dario Argento film review.

  9. Pegsman – I mentioned the West Memphis 3 in the review, didn’t I? I might’ve also said a thing or two about the George Zimmerman case here before. Obviously I am aware of flaws in the American justice system. But acquitting somebody and then trying them again is strange to us. I mean, to me it doesn’t seem like an ongoing case when she was already acquitted and sent home. Am I supposed to wait for some new evidence to come out before it’s okay to say that?

  10. I love the cat guy. I recall he tells our hero that he sealed up the doors and windows on the first floor because his fans kept bothering him. Seems a little extreme to me, as does eating cats, but I guess when in Rome (literally).

  11. Vern, I know that you have been critical of the justice system in your own country before. And I got the jokes about HOSTEL and TAKEN. But it’s not that unusual here in Europe that the Supreme Court sends a case back to the lower Courts, and Knox have been given a lot of favours. I Guess it’s the “Can you imagine that?” remark that made me react. Like we’re dealing with some NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER type story. I’m sorry if I sounded a bit harsh.

  12. Yeah but Pegsy… you think it’s real likely that they’ll find some previously overlooked bit of evidence that suggests that she actually DID murder her roommate as part of a Satanic orgy? I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the whole case was patently ridiculous on it’s face from the get-go. Reminds me of the whole “Satanic Panic” we had here in the Sates in the late 80s, where for a few years before they came to their sense everyone believed that there was widespread ritual sacrifice of children by Satanists. Our justice system is far from perfect, but the “case” against Knox could not possibly contain more wild, baseless insinuations. I think Vern is pretty safe to call it like it is, a case of a prosecutor trying to further his own career by making outrageous, unsubstantiated headlines.

  13. I reckon you’re spot on about the Meredith Kercher case Vern. The book Monster of Florence is about an earlier series of killings, but instead of looking for a – well – serial killer, the chief prosecutor tries to convince everyone it’s the work of a gang of high society satanists. The books’ authors even get arrested and accused of being part of the conspiracy. And this is the same prosecutor as in the Kercher case. What’s especially scary is how people around the world buy into these outlandish giallo tropes.

  14. I’m not really that interested in the details of case against Amanda Knox. The Italian Supreme Court has reopened the case to find out if Knox lied to police interrogators about her boss Patrick Lamumba in an effort to derail their murder investigation. And that’s it. What I’m reacting to is the medias take on this. That this is some crusade against an innocent and beautiful (what the hell has that got to do with anything?) American by an incompetent police and an evil prosecutor. This is Italy in the real world, not in some Dario Argento movie.

  15. Surely whether Knox sacrificed someone to the Dark Lord Satan during an orgy or not is completely irrelevant. Satanism is a religion like any other and I for one think that it’s disgusting that the authorities in this case willfully encroached upon her rights to practice her religion as she see’s fit.

    We might not understand or practice the Dark Arts ourselves but I believe that in the name of tolerance we all have a responsibility to safeguard the rights of others to believe and/or do whatever crazy shit they want for as long as they remember to call it a religion.

    The amount of hate Satanism gets really has gotten out of all proportion and I implore all of you to take a good long look in the mirror and ask yourselves how those few hundred people sacrificed to beelzebub each year compare to all the thousands lost in Iraq/Afghanistan.

    That’s what I thought – Not so cut and dry, is it?

  16. Just for the record, it was vampirism not satanism they were accused of role playing.

  17. The Original... Paul

    October 27th, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Well I liked this one as well somewhat – reviewed it not long ago on this very forum, in fact – but it is definitely an early work by Argento. It’s no “Suspiria”.

    The thing I remembered most about it, and the thing I’m surprised Vern didn’t comment on, was the fact that the investigators establish pretty early on that the murderer is a guy wearing a long dark overcoat who is (I think) left-handed and smokes cigars; and from that point on, literally EVERY male character except the protagonist (who we know from the start is innocent) is seen holding a cigar in his left hand or wearing a long dark overcoat. It gets pretty hilarious after a while.

  18. Yeah, this isn’t as stylish or memorable as DEEP RED or SUSPIRIA, but I like this movie a lot. I think it’s worth seeing as both as a milestone in Argento’s career as well as being a very good giallo in it’s own right.

  19. I assume everybody has seen the trailer for WOLF CREEK 2? Looks pretty cool, heavy on the chases which I thought were very well done in the first one. I was really annoyed when WOLF CREEK got lumped into the ‘torture porn’ debate, as the film had very little violence and gore and was more about the cat-and-mouse aspect, even more so than HOSTEL. February can’t come soon enough.

  20. While we’re talking giallo Short Night of Glass Dolls (La corta notte delle bambole di vetro) is another good one, filmed in Prague so the locations are more interesting than usual.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067384/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

  21. Curt,

    I think it reads “70mm”? Not sure if it was ever released on 70mm though.

  22. Looks like there might be a sequel to AMANDA KNOX: MURDER ON TRIAL IN ITALY.

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