1970s Horror Films #2 – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Legendary Horror director Dario Argento.
Legendary Horror director Dario Argento – Shutterstock.

1970 was a good year for horror and in particular, giallo fans as horror maestro Dario Argento directed his first film, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.” Often credited as the first commercially successful giallo, the film is thrilling and exciting, and recent video prints are crystal clear, illustrating Argento’s vision as a director. He would go on to have a string of successful and amazing horror flicks over the next few years, and this one sets the tone for what’s to come next.

Tony Musante as Sam Dalmas.
Tony Musante as Sam Dalmas.

The film stars Tony Musante (“We Own the Night,” 2007) as American writer Sam Dalmas who lives in Rome with his girlfriend Julia, played by Suzy Kendall (“Torso,” 1973). Sam goes to an art gallery, but gets trapped between glass walls and can do nothing but witness a killer attempting to murder a woman named Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi). The mysterious assailant is thought to be a notorious serial killer, with Sam as a key witness in the investigation. He starts to help the police and tries uncover clues as to the murderer’s identity, but may be in over his head as he could very well be the killer’s next target. And what exactly is a “bird with crystal plumage,” and how does it fit into the story? You’ll have to watch and find out!

The victim reaches out for help.
The victim reaches out for help.
Sam trapped, unable to help the murder victim.
Sam trapped, unable to help the murder victim.

Musante gives a great performance here as Sam is drawn into the mystery, and the twist at the end is a very good one, drawing comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, “Psycho” (1960), as well as Mario Bava’s “Evil Eye” aka “The Girl Who Knew Too Much,” from 1963. Sam gets frustrated as police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) continues to try to jog his memory about what he saw that night at the gallery over and over again. But Sam can’t get the images out of his head and it replays in his mind as well, trying to come up with a detail that he may have missed. Julia is not happy as Sam’s interest in solving the case grows, putting them both in danger. At one point, an assassin named Needles (Reggie Nalder, “Mark of the Devil,” 1970) pursues them, but Sam manages to turn the tables and chase down the would-be killer who’s wearing a yellow jacket, and runs into a convention of ex-prize fighters who are all hilariously wearing the same coat! Nalder resembles Robert Donner who played Exedor in “Mork & Mindy,” so fans of that show will have a good laugh.

The gloved killer stalks his prey.
The gloved killer stalks his prey.
Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno).
Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno).

Argento’s camera work is great here, illustrating his fine eye for well-framed shots, and even though it’s in color, he uses the shadows and colors to his advantage to create effective, tense shots. The movie was produced by Argento’s father, Salvatore Argento, and several changes were made on the fly during filming. Argento didn’t intend to direct the film himself, but after several prominent directors turned it down, he took on the mantle, and history was made. He’d written the script based on an American novel from 1949 by Fredric Brown called The Screaming Mimi, which had previously been made into a film in 1958. Argento changed a few things around including moving the setting from Chicago to Rome. In true giallo fashion, the killer wears a black raincoat, hat, and gloves. Because Argento isn’t really an actor’s director and focuses more on the technical aspect of things, he ran into issues with Musante who was a method actor.

The killer strikes again!
The killer strikes again!

The voice dubbing is excellent here, and its fast pace makes it easy to see why the film was an international hit. The score was composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone (“The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” 1966), creating his first giallo soundtrack with “Bird,” evoking a sense of dread throughout. I’ve attached newspaper ads from when the film played in America below, and it was rated GP at the time of its release. In 2009, Blue Underground released a remastered Blu-Ray of “Bird,” with a re-release in 2013. In 2011, Arrow released a Blu-Ray version in the UK, then in 2017 made a limited edition combo pack BluRay/DVD available in both the US and UK. However, the version I watched was on Tubi and may have been from one of those remastered prints, because it’s impeccable and beautiful to look at. 

Can you see the silhouette of the killer in the foreground?
Can you see the silhouette of the killer in the foreground?

All in all, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is a thrilling mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and I highly recommend it as a starting point for getting into giallo films!

Below are newspaper ads from the film’s US release:

From: The San Francisco Examiner, Saturday, October 10, 1970.
From: The San Francisco Examiner, Saturday, October 10, 1970.
From: The Record, Tuesday, October 13, 1970.
From: The Record, Tuesday, October 13, 1970.
From: The Record, Tuesday, October 13, 1970.
From: The Record, Tuesday, October 13, 1970.
From: The Boston Globe, Thursday, September 10, 1970.
From: The Boston Globe, Thursday, September 10, 1970.
From: The Boston Globe, Saturday, September 19, 1970.
From: The Boston Globe, Saturday, September 19, 1970.
From: The Boston Globe, Saturday, September 5, 1970.
From: The Boston Globe, Saturday, September 5, 1970.
From: The New York Daily News, Thursday, July 23, 1970.
Review From: The New York Daily News, Thursday, July 23, 1970.
From: The New York Daily News, Friday, August 21, 1970.
From: The New York Daily News, Friday, August 21, 1970.
From: The Los Angeles Times, Thursday, August 27, 1970.
Review From: The Los Angeles Times, Thursday, August 27, 1970.
From: The El Paso Times, Sunday, April 18, 1971.
From: The El Paso Times, Sunday, April 18, 1971.
From: The El Paso Herald Post, Saturday, November 7, 1970.
From: The El Paso Herald Post, Saturday, November 7, 1970.
From: The El Paso Herald Post, Friday, June 4, 1971.
From: The El Paso Herald Post, Friday, June 4, 1971.
From: The El Paso Herald Post, Friday, April 16, 1971.
From: The El Paso Herald Post, Friday, April 16, 1971.
Collection of related ads from: The Chicago Tribune, Thursday, December 17, 1970.
Collection of related ads from: The Chicago Tribune, Thursday, December 17, 1970.
Collection of related ads from: The Chicago Tribune, Thursday, December 17, 1970.
Collection of related ads from: The Chicago Tribune, Thursday, December 17, 1970.

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