The Bird With The Crystal Plumage Was A Behind-The-Scenes 'Nightmare' For Dario Argento

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One of director Dario Argento's first jobs was writing the script for Sergio Leone's celebrated Western "Once Upon a Time in the West." Argento also wrote multiple other thrillers and genre films in his native Italy before directing his first feature "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" in 1970. It proved to be the first of three amazing gialli that would prove to be Argento's calling card. The other two would be "Cat o' Nine Tails" and "Four Flies on Gray Velvet," completing what is now called The Animal Trilogy. 

"The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" is about an American couple vacationing in Rome, when one of them (Tony Musante) witnesses a murder in an art gallery. The man is so shaken by what he saw that he ends up joining the police investigation. There are many plot reveals involving who was buying and selling paintings from the gallery, as well as a notable clue heard over a telephone line. The cry of a rare breed of bird — a bird with crystal plumage — ends up revealing the location of the criminal. Overall, the film has thrilling individual sequences, a creepy tone, and a great score by Ennio Morricone. It also established visuals and tropes that the filmmaker would come back to time and time again. Notably, the black-gloved killer whose hands are the only visible part of him. Argento infamously played the hands of most of his on-screen killers. 

Putting together "Crystal Plumage" was a chore for Argento, and, as noted in a 2022 retrospective in Filmmaker magazine, he didn't get along well with Musante. To an alarming degree, it seems. Argento spoke on a particular memory of his first directorial effort, remembering a moment that felt like a genuine nightmare.

Stalked by Musante

Argento, 82, recalls the arguments more than anything. He doesn't reveal what he and Musante argued about, but remembers with clarity the animosity. Starting the work day filled the director with dread as he knew he was, once again, going to have to work with his leading man. The hostility between the two led to a dark and frightening moment that Argento recalls with relish. The director said: 

"I don't have a particularly good memory of that strained relationship. It's an awful memory, actually. I remember that every morning going to set was like a nightmare—the fact that I was going to run into Tony Musante. On the set, we would argue and argue. When the film was over and he had to return to the United States, I went home. It was 10 at night, and then I heard this knocking at the door. I look through the peephole, and it's him! And he kept knocking, louder and louder on this big heavy door, yelling, 'Argento! Open the door! Open the door!'"

Anyone familiar with Argento's movies knows well that this is the way they typically start. A loud invader pounding on a door. Musante doesn't seem to have been wearing black gloves. Although the director never said that their shared animosity ever leaned into violence, or if Musante was perhaps intoxicated on the night in question, he was naturally terrified in that moment. The pounding and terror didn't last because Argento hid. In a rather sane plot twist, he never opened the door. 

Please don't ever phone me again

Why didn't Argento answer Musante? Would you? Weirdly, Musante seems to have completely ignored the event. There doesn't appear to be a version of this story from Musante's side printed anywhere, so one will never know his motivation for pounding on Argento's door late at night. The director continued his story, pointing out how Musante turned creepily warm after "Crystal Plumage" became something of a hit. Argento wasn't fooled by his lead actor's "schmooze" talk, and put in no uncertain terms how he felt. He said:  

"I didn't open it. It's ten o clock, why should he even think that I'm home? So, I just kept quiet and he finally left. When the film came out and it was a big success also in the U.S., he gave me a phone call about how great it was and how great it had been to work together, and I said, 'No, it was not great to work together. Please don't ever phone me again.'"

The two of them never worked together again. Argento would go on to an extended filmmaking career, making some of the scariest movies of all time. Musante's career would continue to be prolific up to his death in 2013. He appeared on "As the World Turns" as well as "Oz," "Acapulco H.E.A.T.," and the 1970s cop drama "Toma." 

Argento's newest film, "Dark Glasses" recently debuted on Shudder. "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" is on the Arrow Video streaming channel, as well as Plex, Kanopy, Prime Video, and several others.