Film: L’uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.
See enough movies, and eventually, you see something from pretty much every genre. I’m not terribly familiar with the giallo style, despite having seen a few. I know the basics, but I can’t really tell you what is derivative versus original in the style because I’ve only seen those few. It’s an interesting style, though. With gialli, it’s all about murder and sex, even if the sex isn’t explicit. The more lurid the sex and the more awful the crimes, the better. All of this led me to L’uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), the first film from Italian stylist Dario Argento.
Like most gialli, the film plays with our expectations of what we think is going to happen and with twists at the end. This is pretty standard fare for the genre as I understand it. I wasn’t caught terribly off guard by the twist, even though it’s a good (if standard) one. Part of this may well be Argento’s novice status behind the camera at the time, which may also account for the relatively linear plot. The twist, in fact, feels a little forced, like it was put there because the audiences expects it in the genre, not specifically because it will make the movie better or more interesting. So the good news here is that the film is interesting almost in spite of its simplicity.
An American writer named Sam (Tony Musante) is in Italy where he had hoped to become inspired to write. It hasn’t panned out for him, though, so he’s all set to return to the States with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) when he witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery. A woman named Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), who happens to be the wife of the gallery owner, Alberto Renzi (Umberto Raho), is stabbed by a gloved and trenchcoated figure. Sam sees the attack but doesn’t get much of a look at the attacker, and the woman lives. Unfortunately for Sam, he’s now a bit of a suspect, and is forced to hand over his passport. And it turns out that there have been several such murders recently, leading the police to believe that they have a serial killer on their hands.
It soon becomes evident that Sam is not guilty, though, when new suspects turn up. Additionally, Sam gets a disturbing phone call from the apparent killer, a call that he manages to get on tape. His passport is returned by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno). Sam decides to stay on for a few more days since his lease isn’t quite up to see if he can aid in the investigation in any way. Slowly, clues come to him, as do increased threats. And throughout the film, he tries to remember the attack on Monica as clearly as he can, with replays changing slightly as the film continues. Eventually, there is a showdown, and then a twist in which Sam faces down the actual threat and (of course) all seems lost.
For a simplistic plot and some strange dubbing and voice work, L’ucello dalle Piume di Cristallo is surprisingly engaging. There are some excellent moments in the film that are surprising and work extremely well. For instance, when it becomes evident that Sam and Julia are targets of the killer, they are given a police escort who tails them at a given distance. In one scene, Sam and Julia are walking down the street with their escort behind them. Suddenly, a car approaches and with no warning, simply runs down the cop escort, which leads to a pretty good chase sequence through the streets of Rome. It was sudden and disturbing because of how quickly it happened, and it still works like a charm.
It also indicates to me that Dario Argento has always had a thing for creepy, disturbing soundtracks. This one seems to consist of moments of people singing “La la la” over and over in a way that doesn’t quite sound like vocals, but sort of does. When it’s not that, it’s more or less the sound of women in the heat of sexual passion. It doesn’t hold a candle to the Goblin soundtrack for Suspiria, but it’s still pretty weird and fun, and I rather liked it in spite of myself.
I’ve no doubt that there are other gialli worth my time and attention out there, but it would not surprise me if someone who really knew the genre told me that this one ranked as one of the better ones. The plot is a bit too simple, but still engaging. The characters act in logical ways that don’t leave me scratching my head as to their motivation. And I like the strange sexual tension that seems to exist in at least a few of the killings. There’s definitely more going on under the surface than we are allowed to see, so I appreciate the fact that the film is quite a bit deeper than it lets on at the start.
As a final note, a film that is this influential deserves a decent DVD copy. The transfer is good, but the DVD itself is punishing. There's no menu, no subtitles (and no ability to watch in Italian with subtitles) and no options or extras. The film deserves better treatment. Someone tell Criterion.
Why to watch L’uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo: A surprisingly effective thriller, even after 40+ years.
Why not to watch: Is it too much to ask for a decent DVD version?