The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)
The film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) tells the story of Sam Dalmas, an American writer in Italy preparing to return to the United States. After witnessing an attempted murder believed to be connected to a recent murder spree, Dalmas becomes involved in trying to solve the mystery of the crime, and find the murderer. In this unlikely scenario, Dalmas becomes an obsessive detective with considerable investigative skills. Inspector Morosini provides the high-technology of the day, and the usual trappings of crime-solving; computer calculations of crime evidence, the expert opinions of a psychiatrist, and an audio analysis of recordings of the suspected killer. However, while the technology provides clues, it takes a detective to solve the crime.
The local police do not find the success that Dalmas does in both investigating, and in becoming a target for the murder. Dalmas methodically investigates every possible lead, and just as he is about to return to the U.S., he investigates an artist connected to the murderer via a macbre painting. After an unfruitful investigation, he returns to his girlfriend, who has been stalked and is about to be murdered. He finds that the mind behind the killings is that of the woman who he initially rescued. This twist, while predictible, is only the surface of the film. If carefully considered, the issue of colonialism can be read into the weave of the film.
The website called “Kinoeye” has an essay by Frank Burke that identifies a theme of containment in the film as a metaphor for colonialism – (“Intimations and more of colonialism,” http://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/burke11.php). Indeed, containment is repeated a number of times; the opening where Dalmas is contained between two glass doors at the gallery, the prisoner who helps Dalmas find leads, the painter who is self-contained out in the country, and the bird with the crystal plumage within the film, who is extremely rare and contained in a cage. This sense of containment sets the stage for both physical and psychological entrapment, as well as serving as a metaphor for colonial oppression. Sam Dalmas becomes fixated with the case, which becomes it's own form of containment.
Once Sam Dalmas is obsessed with the case, he is in a way, trapped by it psychologically, even leaving his girlfriend to investigate the painter only hours before they are to fly to the United States. The theme of containment is also associated with aesthetic values. The art gallery, the painter, and the caged bird all pose contradictory values, in that as people and things representing aesthetic beauty and its creation, they are also physically entrapped within their respective environments. While Argento may not represent his Marxist political values on the surface of his film by directly representing an oppressed character, he does present a metaphor for colonial oppression, whereby things of value are appropriated or held captive by an outside force. This metaphor raises the film above that of the “whodunit?” formula, however, the film does contain classic thriller elements.
A glove found at the scene of the crime serves as a classic “Mc Guffin,” an object that provides a clue which may or may not be pertinent to the crime. Upon careful analysis, the police lab and inspector identify the glove as belonging to a left-handed male who smokes Cuban cigars. While this level of detail leads the viewer to expect a male murderer, by the end of the film, the opposite is found to be true. This red-herring technique is common for thriller cinema.
While there are a few lapses in narrative logic in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the film is compelling enough to sustain the viewer through the action of the film via its suspense, and this is the film’s strength. While there are obvious comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock, Argento is truly his own filmmaker who avoids the sense of Hollywood kitsch that sometimes appears in Hitchcock’s later films. Argento is indeed a film auteur, and it is unfortunate that his standing in Italian National Cinema has concealed the influence of his artistry outside of his home country.
Useful links on Dario Argento:
Kinoeye: “Intimations and more of colonialism” by Frank Burke
Senses of Cinema: Biography on Argento http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/argento.html
Offscreen: “Dario Argento, Maestro Auteur or Master Misogynist?”