Postcards from Gialloville

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)

illustrated by Marc Aspinall

A man’s fist hammers a green pepper to pieces, as his voice—offscreen, mid-story—explains that “his head split open like a watermelon!” Zooming out reveals that this is his market stand, and that he’s narrating to a young boy; our frame’s expansion coincides with the appearance of a man in a leather jacket, who asks if the salesman has seen a girl in a raincoat go by.

Situated on the left third of the frame, the man in leather points rightwards, towards the great expanse outside our purview. For that brief moment, the three of them are all in profile: a quaint midday tableau.

The film is Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), and the man is Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), a man at the interminable tail end of his vacation in Italy. You see, he was a key witness to an attempted murder; the assailant, a serial murderer at large for the past ten years, now has his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) as bait. This is a film in which scenes abut each other, a pulp detective picture that’s stochastically pensive. Yet Sam approaches the climax as if he has time to spare; day ellipses into night as he continues to wander.

Sam, is a writer who’s been suffering an unbearable dry spell. A friend advised this trip; Sam quotes him mockingly: “‘Go to Italy,’ he said, waxing poetic, ‘you need peace, tranquility, that’s Italy. Inspiration will come to you. Nothing ever happens in Italy.’” All he’s managed to cough up so far is a mercenary gig on an ornithologist’s encyclopedia, thanks to his friend Carlo’s (Renato Romano) referral. While walking home from picking up his paycheck for that book, he spies a woman whom we’ll later know as Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) struggling with a knife-wielding, trenchcoated figure. The police seem to think that he saw something else in that moment—and soon he, too, is convinced. The constant restaging of this scene in his mind proves key not to solving the mystery, but to finding the energy needed to write again.

The obsessive side of mourning is the same motivation that Roland Barthes describes in his monograph on the magic of images, Camera Lucida (1980). In what could have been a book of rigorous art theory, the French essayist/critic/philosopher explains that he “was interested in Photography only for ‘sentimental’ reasons; I wanted to explore it not as a question (a theme) but as a wound.” Death is a constant presence in that book, a motif elucidated in the second half when Barthes describes a picture of his mother that retains a camp excess in its earlier opaque repetitions: “Photography’s inimitable feature […] is that someone has seen the referent (even if it is a matter of objects) in flesh and blood.” Thus, the feeling of a photograph’s reality beyond the frame is its punctum, Latin for “puncture.”

Here’s a neat fact: the pop-environmentalist idiom “take only photographs, leave only footprints” originates from the Baltimore Grotto’s motto, “take only photographs, leave only footprints, kill only time.” The quote has circled the rounds to such a degree that it may as well mean nothing—or, rather, it’s long since been reduced to a platitude extolling the positive impact of tourism. The one thing you “take” only adds to the beauty of the world! What it “gives” is inspiration, which is limitless! Somehow, Baltimore’s morbid allusion didn’t catch on nearly as well.

Nobody wants to conceive of themselves as capable of murder; capability leads to inclination, followed by utter pathology … it seems that you can either be a killer, or normal. The night Sam is first detained by the police, the police inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) dissipates this idea straight away: what makes this killer difficult to catch is just how normal they are.

The killer’s gloves—which, when displayed in close-up, seem to say “wish you were here”—cast a shadow of suspicion onto everyone. They come, too, as a message: to tip off devotees that we’re watching a giallo, a distinctly Italian cross between the exploitation film, the supernatural slasher, and the detective thriller, one occupied not just with guts, grime, and sex, but its own baroque aesthetic. More than tools, paraphernalia are gilds for the lily. This pair of black leather gloves could make any murderer positively chic while carrying the deed out. 

Crystal Plumage popularized giallo films on a global scale, and so it is fitting that it came with a ready-to-wear iconography (while Mario Bava’s early 60’s contributions to the genre are also laden with suspicion, it’s a mood which feels far more targeted). Black never falls out of style, anyways.

Argento constructs a world that, more than simply inviting the average voyeur in, gives you the impression that it’s already home. Never mind that the collective memory is too ephemeral for something so stable. 

When looking at how Crystal Plumage pierced its way onto the world stage, one would be remiss not to factor in the use of dubbing, even if it was still the norm in Italy. (Recording the entirety of a film’s dialogue in the studio was a star-making industry in its own right, one which had its hand in imported titles—as a concession to the illiterate masses, and a carryover from Mussolini-era censorship practices). Italian audiences seeing Crystal Plumage in 1971 would hear fluent Italian come out of Tony Musante’s mouth. Watching the film’s English dub, Sam sounds truly American, though everyone else he encounters is just as much a foreigner as he is. During a 1975 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma on the heels of Moses and Aaron, a stripped-down film adaptation of Schoenberg’s opera, French filmmaker duo Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub discussed their use of direct sound. The amphitheater they were shooting at, near Avezzano, was selected for its acoustic, and when the performers start walking around the halfway mark, the sound of feet on gravel is its own character. They’d been living in Italy for some time, and were thus outliers within the nation’s film industry. They found dubbing to be detestable; Straub referred to dubbed film as “the cinema of lies, mental laziness, and violence, because it gives no space to the viewer and makes him still more deaf and insensitive.” Dubbing is universal, not as a symbol but as a commodity. It sacrifices aesthetic precision for fungibility. Just as Barthes is enamored solely with the sound of the photographer’s finger flicking the shutter “as if, in the Photograph, they were the very thing […] to which my desire clings,” the loss of direct sound de-eroticizes the image. So in Crystal Plumage when we look at the camera from the killer’s POV, the camera sitting at the knife’s hilt, the feeling is just as clinical as it is titillating. The first thing we see those gloves do is type out a future victim’s daily routine. They put a life to paper the same way a script makes its way into a recording booth.

The object of both Sam’s and the killer’s obsession turns out to be mutual: a painting depicting a man plunging his knife into a woman’s stomach with one hand while the other pulls her hair back, blood dripping down her exposed crotch as the Italian countryside’s snow-covered hills roll behind them. The killer apparently saw this painting at an antique shop right before taking their first victim, and so it spurs Sam’s amateur sleuthing. As Sam hangs a shrunken photograph of the image above the couch, Julia walks into the apartment, her body freezing as she glances upon it. “Looks a little perverted to me.”

Nevertheless, Julia turns to kiss him. Their romance will be continually interrupted by Sam’s obsession, and this time it seems to infect her; she can’t help but turn towards that painting. Over a close-up of her face, a stripped-down version of the film’s theme begins to play—just a guitar’s faint hum for now. Cut back to the painting and the vocals come in: a fragment of a child’s lullaby. Is it coming from the attacked woman’s agape mouth? A match cut between the painting’s reproduction and the original hung in the killer’s apartment: perhaps when we pull back, behind their trenchcoat, it is towards the lullaby’s source.

Later in that Cahiers interview, Straub called the method of shooting Moses and Aaron “the opposite course of the Taviani brothers or Pasolini, who look for pretty spots, postcards such as you see in magazines, in which the subject of the film is dissipated instead of being localised.” This postcard style, indeed, is what gives Crystal Plumage its status as a seminal giallo: whereas the narrator in Bava’s 1963 The Girl Who Knew Too Much would tell us that Nora Davis is on vacation in Rome, Sam is only ever stated to be, vaguely, somewhere in Italy. Of course, I can go on moviemaps.org to find four of Crystal Plumage’s shooting locations, all in Rome. The city streets are memorialized with curt descriptions of their corresponding scenes—character and plot often dropped in favor of pure action. Drawing a straight line between Crystal Plumage markers labelled “Fourth Victim” and Hiding,” “Chase,” and “Walking,” one finds locations for The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Spectre, Jumper, and Bicycle Thieves littered in between. One can speak of a city “playing itself” rather than doubling for another, and Rome is too alluring a symbol not to do so. But a symbol—of the past’s riches, or man’s wealth—is still a disguise.

Giallo, Italian for “yellow,” originated as a metonymic gesture towards the yellow covers that detective novels would sport (the same way “pulp” refers to a cheap paperback book’s paper). Further into the 70’s, Argento would push for more and more magical plotting and liquid expressionism, as if he was trying to live up to the label. The essence of giallo is pure color, in a sense, prioritizing action for action’s sake over methodology; it’s best to assume that every “clue” is a red herring.

At one point, a man in a yellow raincoat chases Sam down the street. After losing his pursuer, Sam tails him into a hotel, only to find a room full of ex-boxing champions dressed in yellow, holding a worker’s rights conference. Sam will eventually track the man down and discover that he’s a boxing champ named Needles, only to realize that he’s not the killer, but a hired gun—and a dead one at that. We’re let into Italy’s boxing world just long enough to know that Needles must have needed the job; as it turns out, you don’t have to be an obsessive to be a stalker.

I’ve been using the singular “they” to refer to the killer, but perhaps that does an injustice to giallo mystery. Sex’s polarity is always exploited; the killer whom we assume to be a woman is revealed as a man, or—as in this case—vice versa. While Monica’s husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) has been a suspect since day one, it turns out that it was Monica all along—it was she who was trying to kill him when Sam stumbled upon the two. And it is she who was the subject of that painting: a doubled woman making others play herself.

Monica is dealt a karate chop to the neck just as swiftly as her reveal, and there’s hardly room for Sam to breathe before we cut to a recap talk show. The shot is presented in wide—behind the glass, with the soundboard in view: the studio mechanisms which make a set feel like home. The host tells us that “the final curtain has fallen at last on this tragic affair.” We need an impartial voice to reassure us that yes, after Monica’s death, the mystery has been cleared. The abrupt denouement’s indication that the story’s over is an ironic gesture; Sam and Julia, finally free to leave, can never truly free themselves of the Italian landscape.

As Professor Rindaldi (Giovanni Di Benedetto), the police’s psychiatric consultant, explains Monica’s trauma, his voice overlaps into a series of brief shots showing the couple boarding their flight home. At first we only see the airplane in pieces: close-ups of wings, engine, fuselage; then in full, then from the back, then from the opposite side (each cut is accentuated by the swelling and plummeting of the engine’s noise) … yet this turns out to be only part of one final red herring. Suddenly, we are following the airline that sports a red stripe, instead of the one that sports a blue one. We have no sense of direction, nor of subject. Rinaldi explains that when Monica saw the painting depicting her attack, “she identified not with the victim, but with her attacker.” In the pause between sentences, we see a close-up of Julia, seated, glancing downwards pensively. Then, while Rindaldi explains how Alberto was suffering from an “induced psychosis,” we see Sam arriving through the cabin door to meet Julia. Rinaldi’s last word on the matter echoes Sam’s friend: “I can hear him saying it now: ‘Go to Italy, it’s a peaceful country.’” Everything points to the fact that our young couple could follow the same path as Monica and Alberto at any moment. 

Sam might’ve gotten a best-seller out of this trip, though it isn’t likely to rise above the status of airport novel. He simply has no eye for detail. Whether talking to “So Long” Garullo the pimp (Gildo Di Marco), the foppish art dealer (Werner Peters), or Consalvi the reclusive cat-eating painter (Mario Adorf), he is an incurious interlocutor, sticking only to the facts of the case. He is barely ankle deep in Italy’s true character. Both Needles’ corpse and Julia, bound and gagged under Monica’s bed, spend an excruciating amount of time under his nose—it is, in fact, the police who find Julia, not him. Yet when Monica reveals herself he exclaims, “That’s what I knew I’ve seen!” Past tense, as if he was never lost to begin with.

The fight in the art gallery is yet another postcard, its punctum the ambiguous hand wielding the knife. Just as Barthes theorizes the punctum to be created with “the kairos of desire,” our relationship to photography is always on a delay—and so the path from referent to spectator can be a marathon. (Barthes again: “Despite its clarity, the punctum would be revealed only after the fact [….] I may know better a photograph I remember than a photograph I am looking at, as if direct vision oriented its language wrongly.”) The ending’s quick cutting is, in this sense, merciful. We are given only enough time to take the images in, never enough for them to enter our conscious memory, and we must remember before the forgetting proper to the punctum can happen; so quickly are Sam and Julia able to leave Italy behind them for America.

“In order to preserve for photography the purity of an affect unsullied by any signification,” says French philosopher Jacques Rancière, “Barthes erases any genealogy of the that was.” So, if any portend violence does ripple into America and get traced back to events in Italy from a decade-plus before, the eureka moment will surely say nothing about Italy’s reality—only about Sam and Julia’s version of the country.

The titular bird with the crystal plumage is a late arrival—the fantastical hornitus Nevalis, native only to Northern Siberia. The only specimen in captivity is housed in the local zoo, overlooked by Alberto’s apartment window. Its song is present as background noise over a pair of threatening calls: a wild beauty captured twice, first literally, then metaphorically. The loss of art and beauty, the reduction of truth to evidence. You bring back a slideshow from your vacation: “I was here!” they say. And nothing more. “Nothing happens in Italy,” which is somehow the greatest horror of all.