The trailer for L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, better known in the U.S. as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, explicitly references Alfred Hitchcock, who supposedly said that Dario Argento, “That Italian fellow,” was beginning to make him nervous. Plumage was the first film directed by Argento, who was already relatively well known as a screenwriter, and the reference to the Master of Suspense in the film’s advertising is well placed, as the traces of Hitchcock’s influence are all over this film like fingerprints at a murder scene; this is not a criticism, per se, but it is nonetheless true. Specifically, I found myself thinking of Psycho from the film’s first onscreen murder, which featured no flesh to blade contact and instead focused on slashing motions and splashes of blood. The connection to that most well known of Hitchcock’s works moved from subtext to text at the film’s conclusion, which featured a voice-over from a mental health professional explaining the psychological motivations of the killer, just as the 1960 film had used an expert to explicate Norman Bates’s madness.
If one must steal, it’s smartest to steal from the best, and Argento’s homages did not end with Hitchcock, as he also lifted the appearance of the killer in Plumage from fellow Italian horror master Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. I mention all this not to imply that Plumage is a retread of other, better films; in fact, Plumage would be an excellent movie at any point in a filmmaker’s career, and the fact that it was Argento’s first feature is, frankly, astounding. There is a lavish attention to detail in composition, color, and framing that is already on display in this freshman effort, and although he would refine this palette over the course of his career (at least until his latter day works, which leave much to be desired), there is a rawness, a viscerality, to those elements here that works in the film’s favor. Plumage is just as much a precursor for and inspiration of the slasher genre as Psycho, precognitions of a style and type that were freshly emerging from the depths of the subconscious and which would be codified a few years later in John Carpenter’s Halloween. And, to a modern audience, Plumage has something that neither of those films has: a surprise ending that hasn’t bled into the mainstream via pop-cultural osmosis, meaning that you, dear reader, are much more likely to find a surprise here.
The film follows handsome American Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante, most recognizable to a modern audience as Nino Schibetta from the first season of Oz) as he prepares to return home from Rome, where a series of young women have been murdered, to New York with his model girlfriend, Giulia (Suzy Kendall). Walking home from collecting his paycheck for a completed project, he passes an art gallery wherein he witnesses a struggle between Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) and a figure clad in a dark latex jacket and hat. She is stabbed, and Sam is trapped in a glass enclosure when he attempts to help. The police arrive, and suspicion is cast on both Sam and Monica’s husband, gallery owner Alberto (Umberto Raho); Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) initially confiscates Sam’s passport, but eventually realizes that he is innocent when Sam becomes obsessed with finding the killer. Sam’s investigation leads to being stalked, objectified by an aging antiques dealer, attacked by a former boxer with a heroin habit, and fed cat meat by a mad hermit painter, but he eventually finds the truth… in a surprising place.
There are some moments in the film that are distinctly odd or unsettling when compared to modern sentiment, although I must admit I cannot be certain whether this dissonance is the result of cultural differences between nations or eras. Morosini has Sam view a line-up of perverts, whose crimes include such heinous items as contributing to the delinquency of a minor alongside presumably consensual “sins” as sadomasochism and sodomy; it’s a scene which is ultimately pointless, and its inclusion is puzzling. There is undoubtedly a sexual undercurrent to all slasher films that feature, completely or simply in large part, victims of a feminine persuasion; that has been discussed in many essays by more academic minds than mine, but suffice it to say that this is present in this film as well, although the revelations of the film’s final third call into question some of the assumptions that could otherwise be made about the sexual politics of this specific film. In order to preserve the viewing experience, I won’t get into that here, but I will say that the sexual violence of the film is no more intentionally titillating than that of Psycho, and is relatively tame by current standards. More disappointing, in my opinion, is the utter victimization of Giulia when she is trapped in her apartment by the killer; she is utterly helpless, and she does make several stabs (pardon the pun) at defending herself, but her hysteria while doing so reflects the contemporary sexism of the era a lot more clearly than when the killer rips a victim’s undergarments off.
All in all, Plumage is an excellent movie, and well worth tracking down if you get the chance. There are several different versions floating around, but the differences between them are minor and inconsequential; I recommend the two disc release from Blue Underground for its faithfulness to the 35mm print and the wealth of special features. The film has a rapid pace that horror movies of the era are not generally known for, and the kind of attention to cinematic technique that most films in general fail to capture. It’s a classic for a reason.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond