[Note that this contains spoilers]
The novel The Screaming Mimi, by pulp author Fredric Brown, was first published in 1949 and proved to be a popular seller. It inspired a 1958 film adaptation of the same name, directed by Gerd Oswald and starring Anita Ekberg, notable primarily for pre-dating Psycho by two years in featuring a shower attack scene. It would, however, seem that Bernardo Bertolucci was not aware of Oswald's film when he presented Dario Argento with the book with a view to having his friend prepare a screenplay which he would then direct.
In the event, however, Bertolucci became interested in other projects; interestingly both The Spider's Stratagem and The Conformist, although adapted from rather more culturally respectable sources than Brown, in the form of Jorge Luis Borges and Alberto Moravia, also have mystery-thriller elements. Moreover, whilst clearly taken by the novel, fragments of which would also find their way into his second and third films, Argento eventually produced a screenplay, ultimately to become his debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, that was less a straight adaptation of The Screaming Mimi than a new work inspired by it.
The first difference is simply one of setting. Brown's novel takes place in his native Chicago and makes considerable use of its locations (“He turned north on State Street. Past Erie. Huron” (p. 7)) whereas Argento's film is set in Rome. While he not go out of his way to defamiliarise the city, as he would later do in, he present it in the more touristic manner of Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
It is not a case of any of these films' approaches being better or worse than the others with each rather being appropriate to the world of their respective protagonists.
In the case of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, our protagonist is Sam Dalmas, an American author who has been living in Rome for the past few years, soaking up the culture but failing to find the inspiration that will overcome his writers' block. He is, that is, someone for whom touristic images no longer have any great significance. They are just part of the everyday background. In Brown's novel, meanwhile, our protagonist is William Sweeney, an Irish newspaperman coming off one of his periodic drinking binges. Both men are presented as needing something to happen to get themselves out of their respective ruts, a conscious or unconscious desire expressed in Brown's novel through Sweeney's friend God, that “you can get anything you want if you want it badly enough” (p. 5). With this need, both men then find something.
In the case of Sweeney, walking along in an alcoholic haze late at night, it is a small crowd gathered around a glass doors of an apartment building. Inside are a large, fearsome looking dog (“Dog? It must have been a dog, here in Chicago; if you'd seen it out in the woods you'd have taken it for a wolf”) and a prone woman whose white dress, as she gets up, is revealed to be bloodied. Sweeney, however, barely has time to register this before the dog leaps at the woman and somehow contrives to unfasten her dress, leaving her naked but for white gloves. After a moment of indecision / inaction (“For what seemed like minutes, but was probably about ten seconds, nobody moved, nothing moved”) a couple of the other onlookers take the initiative and manage to incapacitate the dog and send for an ambulance. Dalmas is also walking along at night, but in a normal perceptual state, when he notices a commotion in a glass fronted building opposite: a figure in black and a woman in white, struggling. He races into the building, a gallery, but finds himself trapped between its outer and inner doors by the figure in black, who escapes. Managing to raise the alarm with a passer-by, Dalmas can do nothing except endure an anguished wait until the police and ambulance arrive.
Whereas Dalmas's positioning within the scene immediately makes him a suspect to the police if not the audience, Sweeney's investigation into the “ripper” case – in both film and novel, three women have been murdered over the previous few weeks – continues without their path crossing his until considerably later. The two men's initial motives for investigating the case thus differ. Going over what he witnessed again and again in his head, Dalmas is tormented by the fact that there is something in the scene that does not make sense, that he cannot quite place. Solving the mystery becomes something of a matter of intellectual pride, a series of threats and attacks serving only to convince him that he is definitely on to something even after his passport has been returned and he is free to leave Italy. Sweeney is more interested in the opportunity the incident affords him for a juicy scoop – not least because of having been assent without leave as far as his employers at The Blade newspaper are concerned. But, as Brown's example of the wolf-dog – what is it, how is either meaning and understanding affected by the context in which it is situated – suggests, he too is also to find himself faced with the problem of recalcitrant data as his investigation progresses, of those things that simply do not fit into the pattern as he would like them to.
Indeed, in this regard both Brown and Argento are really dealing with the same theme, albeit in ways more appropriate to their respective media. Thus, whereas it the way Argento puts together the aforementioned gallery sequence which conveys this as much, if not more, than what Dalmas says by way of making it something entre nous, that “There was something wrong in that scene,” in The Screaming Mimi it is Brown's first-person opening address to his reader, one of a number that punctuate the narrative:
“You can never tell what a drunken Irishman will do. You can make a flying guess; you can make a lot of flying guesses.
You can list them in order of their probability. The likely ones are easy [...] You can work on down and down to things that get less and less likely, and eventually you might hit the rock bottom of improbability: He might make a resolution and stick to it.
I know that's incredible, but it happened. A guy named Sweeney did it, once, in Chicago. He made a resolution, and he had to wade through blood and black coffee to keep it, but he kept it. Maybe, by most people's standards it wasn't a good resolution, but that's aside from the point. The point is that is really happened.
Now we'll have to hedge a bit, for truth is an elusive thing. It never quite fits a pattern. Like – well, “a drunken Irishman named Sweeney”; that's a pattern, if anything is. But truth is seldom that simple.
His name really was Sweeney, but he was only five-eights Irish and he was only three-quarters drunk. But that's about as near as truth ever approximates a pattern, and if you won't settle for that, you'd better quit reading.” (pp. 3-4)
Likewise both Brown's and Argento's protagonists become increasingly involved with the respective victims of the attacks, Monica Ranieri and Yolanda Lang. But whereas it is Sweeney's desire for Yolanda that encourages him to think her manager, the ex-psychiatrist Doctor Greene, is in fact the ripper – a will-to-believe that ultimately proves to have clouded his judgement – Dalmas's interest in Monica and concomitant suspicion that her husband Alberto is the killer is less clearly sexual in nature. There are, inevitably, a number of reasons why this may be. First, Dalmas's intellectual detachment against Sweeney's pragmatic engagement. Second, that unlike the unattached Sweeney, Dalmas is in a long-term relationship – indeed, he is planning to take his Italian girlfriend Giulia “back to the States.” Third, and perhaps most importantly, the matter of the two authors' personalities and / or audiences, with the sense of a certain salaciousness in Brown's pulp against a sexual unease in Argento's giallo. (In the case of Argento, I would content that this discomfort is more specific to his gialli of this period, being less apparent in the contemporaneous work of Umberto Lenzi, for instance. And, as with the different uses of location discussed above, it is not a case of one approach being preferable to the other, but rather of each being suited to its film-maker's universe and / or the specific film text.)
Investigating the previous murders, Sweeney's first port of call is the Chicago jail, where Sammy Cole, the con-artist boyfriend of the first victim, Lola Brent, is being held. Confessing to a number of other crimes, he was in prison at the time of the second murder. Following this Sweeney visits the curiosity shop where Lola had worked on the day she was killed, Cole having explained how she was supporting him financially at the time through a little grift that they had worked out together: she would apply for a job in a small store, he would provide the impeccable references, and she would then surreptitiously sell stock or else leave it for him to secretly pick up for selling on. On the day Lola was murdered the owner, a homosexual named Raoul, noticed that a distinctive statuette, known as the Screaming Mimi, was missing and thus that his new employee had sold it off the books. Raoul has another copy of the statuette at home, which Sweeney persuades him to sell. “Made of a new plastic that can't be told from ebony unless you pick it up,” it is of a naked woman, “mouth [...] wide open in a soulless scream. [...] hands thrust out, palms forward, to hold off some approaching horror.” (p. 47)
Dalmas's investigations – preceded by an apparent attempt on his life and a fruitless police line-up that have no counterparts in Brown's novel – takes him on a similar path here. Rather than a con-artist, however, the Sammy Cole figure he questions is a pimp, Garullo. While his stutter, which he can only suppress by the ritualistic appending of “so long” to nearly every utterance, could be read as an example of Argento's penchant for quirky characterisations by way of Brown, this particular configuration feels unique to the director: Brown presents us with a smooth talker who momentarily said too much when under pressure, Argento with a man whose (male) authority is immediately undermined by his own lack of command over the “symbolic order” of language in the first place. This sense continues in a somewhat similar fashion as Dalmas then turns his attention to the curiosity shop where the first victim, identified as lesbian by her employer, had worked. Dalmas learns that she had sold a painting on the evening she was murdered, “a naïve yet macabre” scene of a black clad figure, dressed much like Monica Ranieri's attacker, stabbing a woman. The man, himself coded as gay, attempt to hit on to Dalmas, who manoeuvres the situation to his advantage to obtain a black and white reproduction of the painting before making a swift exit.
Sweeney then follows up on the manufacturer of the statue, learning the artist's name, Chapman Wilson – a factor which Dalmas will not consider until later in Argento's narrative, at almost the exact same point as Brown does in Sweeney's – and that only two were distributed in the Chicago area, both to Raoul's store. Both investigators realise they have one copy of the highly distinctive art object somehow crucial to their respective cases, the other likely as not in the killer's possession.
Whereas Dalmas barely manages to evade an assassin presumably sent by the killer – whose depredations also continue throughout the narrative – Sweeney is only momentarily concerned that he is the recipient of similar attentions, as he returns to his lodgings to find his straight-razor and knife missing; oddly his few more valuable possessions have not been touched. He soon discovers that the items were taken by by the police for testing and to see how he would react to their absence. That he did not flee and furthermore is happy to discuss the case with Captain Bline, who is leading the investigation, whilst visiting the El Madhouse strip club at which Yolanda performs with her dog, Devil, suggests his innocence. The equivalent scenes in Argento's film, meanwhile, sees Dalmas pay a return visit to the Ranieri gallery where Monica and Alberto are preparing a new exhibition. Cumulatively we thus also get a sense of the different social and economic positions of Brown's and Argento's characters. For Brown's money is always an issue, whereas with the exception of Needles, the assassin whom Dalmas tracks down only to find dead from an apparent drugs overdose, Argento's characters do not really need to concern themselves with such to quotidian concerns. Thus, whereas Dalmas simply gets the train to go visit the artist responsible for the painting – an admittedly shorter journey given the difference in size between Italy and the USA – Sweeney must first work some deals of his own to raise the money he needs.
In both cases the encounter with the eccentric artist responsible for the work seems a dead end. Dalmas learns that the painting was inspired by something Berto Consalvi was witness to, but that the maniac who attacked the girl is now in an institution. In Sweeney's case the story behind the Screaming Mimi is more personal and traumatic for its creator, Charlie / Chapman Wilson, being inspired by the sight of his sister, Bessie, terrified before the blood-soaked figure of an escaped lunatic. Though he killed the man with his shotgun, his sister's mind was shattered, with the result that she died soon after having had to be placed in an institution herself.
In Dalmas's case a parallel investigation conducted by a friend, with further complications arising through the recognition that the killer's voice recorded off the telephone is in fact that of two individuals, leads him to the zoo beneath the Ranieri's apartment, from which the sound of a commotion issues forth. He is thus on hand to witness a struggle between Monica and Alberto, which leads, with his direct involvement, in Alberto going out the window. Before dying Alberto confesses that he was the killer. In contrast Sweeney only hears of the parallel encounter between Yolanda and Greene. All that then remains is for both men to find the missing woman, a task each accomplishes without undue difficulty.
It is at this point that each man finally realises the truth and puts the pieces of the puzzle together correctly. The woman in the painting is Monica Ranieri. Bessie and Yolanda are one and the same. In each instance the encounter with the artwork modelled on the traumatic scene triggered a latent madness, in which they identified with their attacker. Alberto and Greene – Bessie's psychiatrist and the one responsible for sending Charlie the falsified death certificate – realised this truth, and attempted to shock their respective beloved out of this state by staging an attack themselves – the aftermath of which Sweeney was witness to and which Dalmas interrupted into the middle of, but failed to realise that it was Monica who was holding the knife because this piece of data did not fit with his or the police's interpretive schema.
The way Sweeney manages to extricate himself from his situation, facing both a now evidently insane Yolanda and Devil ready to attack him at the merest signal from his mistress, proves more heroic than the helpless Dalmas's last-minute rescue by the police. Realising that so long as he speaks Yolanda is unable to do anything except listen to the sound of his voice, he talks and talks through the night until, finally, morning and the police arrive to take Yolanda away.