[This October is "Gialloween" on Daily Dead, as we celebrate the Halloween season by diving into the macabre mysteries, creepy kills, and eccentric characters found in some of our favorite giallo films! Keep checking back on Daily Dead this month for more retrospectives on classic, cult, and altogether unforgettable gialli, and visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Gialloween special features!]

The beginning isn’t always the start; what appears to be fully formed still has branches screaming at the roots of whence it came. This is my florid way of saying that Dario Argento’s remarkable The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) may not be Giallo Ground Zero, but rather cemented the form in ways still felt today. This is one of the best feature debuts in all of horror.

Argento had already been involved with the Italian film industry before Bird; starting out as a film critic before moving on to screenwriting (he co-wrote the story for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West), and eventually wresting control for himself. The result is a film that not only captured audiences back in his homeland, but had some critics calling him the “Italian Hitchcock”. A little early in the game perhaps - but this happens when someone makes a mark right out of the gate; a scramble to label and compare in order to get a handle on the creator’s intent. And Argento is a noted Hitchcock buff, so that influence is there – thematically, at least.

American author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante - The Pope of Greenwich Village) has just finished a writing assignment in Rome. As he walks back to his rented apartment, check in hand, Sam sees a struggle within a blindingly lit art gallery across the street. As he reaches the gargantuan display window, a mysterious man in a black cape, hat, and gloves stabs a red-haired woman (Eva Renzi – Funeral in Berlin), leaps over the stairs and flees out a back door – but not before trapping our hero in between the glass partitions. All Sam can do is watch as the bleeding woman crawls across the white carpeted floor, begging for help.

The police arrive and Mrs. Ranieri is taken to hospital to recover, accompanied by her husband Alberto (Umberto Raho – Baron Blood), who happened to come by the gallery to pick her up upon closing. Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno – Candy) believes this attempted murder is tied to a rash of recent female homicides, and as such confiscates Sam’s passport thinking he may be able to help solve the case. Because Sam is positive that something is amiss with what he witnessed…

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage uses Hitch as a blueprint, and then proceeds to color all over it with lively side characters and detours that may or may not be helpful. While Sam is ruled out as a suspect early by Morosini, he is actively encouraged by him to do his own detective work since he isn’t going anywhere; and this is where Argento cuts ties with Hitch. 

Sam becomes de facto law enforcement and searches for the killer; no signs of paranoia or fear appear to cross Sam’s face, even after he is almost decapitated on a foggy street. As played by Musante, he is the epitome of laid back cool and indifference; while his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall – Tales That Witness Madness) waits (and waits) back at the apartment, Sam presses on with his investigation regardless of the danger it puts Julia in. 

This brings us to obsession, and certainly Hitchcock was fond of its wide ranging uses; here, Argento introduces us to a trope he would use in several of his other gialli – a man determined to prove that he knows the truth. The central mystery in his gialli is what does his protagonist see that he is forgetting? This tactic draws the viewer in closer. It involves them, which Argento realized from the start would not only create sympathy, but increase tension for the audience. And I say tactic, because Argento is very methodical in his gialli while playing more or less fair; eagle eyes are important when trying to decipher his puzzles, and he demands the audience’s full attention. 

Of course, one doesn’t have to follow the mystery to enjoy Argento’s gialli; to bathe in his aesthetic and visit his ancillary riff-raff alone is enough to know that this talent arrived fully formed. This and Deep Red (’75) are his most straightforward and cogent thrillers; that they still feature odd characters and detours is an Argento trademark. (His visit to an artist who did a painting the killer bought is a weird, humorous highlight.)

Although he wasn’t using color schemes yet to fully fuel his themes and narratives a la Mario Bava (certainly his biggest influence within the Italian horror realm) – who popularized this particular, growing market – Argento uses shadow and light to great effect. The attack at the art gallery is perversely lit like a display unto itself; one that ironically, only Sam manages to see. And when Sam isn’t being blinded by floodlights, he’s crawling down darkened alleys and stumbling through blackened rooms. Voyeurism (another rabbit in Hitch’s Hat) is often a giallo’s instigating offence; usually seedy and immoral, it gives the filmmakers a moral highroad on which to deliver their cargo of salaciousness and sin. 

But Argento, even in his first feature, makes sure his protagonist is accidentally drawn into the web, avoiding any moral turpitude and centering his film on someone who is, if not perfect, at least decent. (In 1982’s brilliant Tenebrae, he uses this against the audiences’ expectations to great effect.) His humor also serves to highlight Sam’s bemusement with these “foreigners” – whether that’s there to appease a broader audience or add local flavor, only Argento could say. Regardless, amplifying the marginalized would soon become an Argento staple. 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage still holds up today as one of Argento’s finest; yes, he would fine tune his themes and become bolder with his aesthetic, but it’s rare in film to find an artist fully formed and ready to be unleashed from the start. Or in this case, given his passport to conquer the horror world. 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video. 

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  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.

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