Suzy Kendall in L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo (1970)

BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE (Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, L’)

(director/writer: Dario Argento; screenwriter: from the novel The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown; cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro; editor: Franco Fraticelli; music: Ennio Morricone; cast: Tony Musante (Sam Dalmas), Suzy Kendall (Julia), Enrico Maria Salerno (Morosini), Eva Renzi (Monica), Umberto Raho (Ranieri), Raf Valenti (Prof. Dover), Giuseppe Castellano (Monti), Mario Adorf (Berto), Pino Patti (Faiena), Gildo De Marco (Garullo), Werner Peters (Antique Dealer), Karen Valenti (Tina, 5th Victim), Gildo Di Marco (Garullo), Rosa Toros (4th Victim); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Salvatore Argento; Blue Underground; 1970-Italy/West Germany-dubbed in English)

“Short on ideas.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Former Italian film critic and screenwriter Dario Argento’s (“Deep Red”/”Suspiria”/”Tenebre”) debut directorial effort is in this slasher film with a twisty Hitchcock-like ending; it’s a well-crafted and well-photographed film thanks to the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; it’s Argento’s most accessible film before going all out for shooting gore and sleaze for shock effect; unfortunately it’s basically an empty experience that’s short on ideas. The story was loosely adapted from Fredric Brown’s novel Screaming Mimi. Argento was influenced by Mario Bava (it’s believed that his 1964 Blood and Black Lace was the first Italian giallo film). Giallo literally means yellow in Italian and is the catchy name for the subgenre that was based on using those popular yellow covered pulp mystery novels. The success of this film spawned during the 1970s a rash of similar slasher/giallo flicks.

Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a vacationing American writer with writer’s block who is living in Rome but all set to return home. Out for a stroll one night he witnesses an attempted murder at a locked art gallery; his presence prevents the murder even though he winds up trapped inside the glass anteroom, as his knocks on the glass at least chase away the attacker. The attractive Monica (Eva Renzi), the wife of the gallery owner (Umberto Raho), has just been wrestling for the knife held by her unseen male attacker wearing a black-coat; she will soon recover from her superficial knife wounds. Sam learns from Detective Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno), the lead investigator in the case, that there were three recent murders of women by the serial killer and the detective demands his help since he’s the best witness available. Sam thinks he knows something but doesn’t quite know what that is. The murder story gets the writer’s juices flowing again and despite his girlfriend Julia’s (Suzy Kendall) pleas for him to drop his sleuthing and go home, he becomes even more obsessed with it.

Because he does know something about the murder, Sam receives threatening calls from the killer with bird sounds in the background and is stalked by him; that results in an attempt on his life. But when the attack fails the would-be assassin runs into a hotel convention where everyone is wearing the same yellow raincoat and Sam loses him in the crowd. It follows along the lines of a conventional police procedural tale, and to throw us off the trail it throws out several red-herrings. It gets its kicks from its arty visuals, the brutal assaults and relies on its surprise ending to bring home the bacon. There’s an eccentric artist (Mario Adorf) who lives in a sealed-off house and eats cat meat, an effete antique dealer (Werner Peters) who befriends Sam for the cause and, of course, that strange title somehow gets worked into the story.

I’ve never been a fan of these slasher type of films and see no reason to change my mind after seeing this hardly inspiring early giallo film. The characters and the story never rise above being sappy, and no artsy-farsty camera work or smooth Ennio Morricone score is going to change that.