The Bird with the crystal plumage

Year: 1970



While Blood & Black Lace defined Giallo horror’s visual style, it wasn’t until Dario Argento’s 1970s thriller that the movement would develop plots past the body count genre, where story takes a backseat to imaginative violence, and into something new. In fact, it was the trilogy of films that began with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, known as the Animal Trilogy that would cement Argento’s reputation as the “Italian Hitchcock”. A loose adaptation of The Screaming Mimi by Frederic Brown, The Bird... became a touchstone of gialli and an important development in thriller cinema.

While Bava’s previous expedition into the f. gialli explored the psychology of its victims and the fear/distrust they displayed against the gory chaos that followed, Argento carved a way forward into the m. gialli. Standing for male gialli, these films had male protagonists but tended not to focus upon the emotional turmoil or development within their leads, rather playing as homages to Giallo’s detective novel origins. M. gialli are based upon accidental investigators, who witness some horrific act and find themselves hunted by the killer while pursuing them. These were films that archetypically used a fish out of water narrative to illustrate their unique fears, everyday occurrences framed in the surreal due to a lack of familiarity. Our reluctant sleuth, this time an American called Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), who witnesses a brutal murder that plagues his mind as he himself unwittingly becomes the target of a vicious killer.

The Bird was Argento’s directorial debut and it heralded a high level of studio uncertainty due to his reliance upon guerrilla filmmaking - a POV shot near the end of the film that destroyed a camera proved good justification for studio anxiety. Argento’s brutal script takes aim at the bourgeoise and the art world, while including themes of voyeurism and colonial presence of 20th century Italy (more can be read about this in Frank Burke’s excellent analysis for Kino Eye). The decadence of the rich intrudes the plot through motifs like a sinister painting that acts as a clue, and the meticulously designed locations that put an empirical value on wealth. Argento’s presentation of artists and rich obsessives is a macabre swipe at the culture, illustrated by an eccentric artist side character who surrounds himself with cats that he feeds to the point where he deems them edible. They are disconnected from humanity, which allows the weird world of The Bird to develop to extreme levels throughout the runtime.

As the bizarre elements of his surroundings, and the number of similar murders, increase, Sam begins to question his recollection of the attack, which builds to a conclusion that would have felt ridiculous in any other film but is held together by Argento’s confident direction. Despite the fact it was his debut, the film contains no compromise. Zachary Paul notes in an article for Bloody Disgusting that The Bird saw Argento go against tradition by implementing a shot list, which was completely against common practise at this time. He believed his story had to be told in a tight, condensed fashion to capitalise on its complex story and to be correctly realised.

There is also a constant switch between humour and brutality that could have been jarring but instead plays into the twisted world the film creates. The plot revolves around themes of obsession and voyeurism, and as the viewer we take the place of the watcher and are presented a view of Italy that is overwhelming in its decadence, but engrossing through its surreal nature. The cast of secondary characters are all eccentric caricatures, and chase scenes drenched in lurid yellows create a dreamlike turn to the horror elements. These would be presented time and again in the Giallo genre, and arguably more interestingly in Argento’s later wilder films, but it remains interesting to see what these were built off.

Where to watch

Further Reading

Intimations (and more) of colonialism by Frank Burke, featured in Kinoeye

'The Bird with the Crystal Plumage' and the Unreliable Eye by Zachary Paul, featured in Bloody Disgusting


Patrick Dalziel

Patrick Dalziel

Patrick is a freelance journalist working in Edinburgh, currently writing for ShortCom. He has always been interested in cinema, but developed  particular obsessions for horror and Studio Ghibli. He post written reviews on his social media platforms and will soon be starting a podcast.

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Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.

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