“It gives me the shivers.”
The giallo didn’t begin with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but Dario Argento’s 1970 debut did give the idiosyncratic genre an invigorating shot in the arm, initiating a string of excellent and uneven successors as the cult-favorite form reached international distinction. Not only was this a good film in its own right, heralding the arrival of an exciting visionary, but it laid out the fetishistic depiction of familiar icons—sharp, glistening blades; tight, black leather gloves—and reimagined a storyline that was quintessentially giallo—a series of murders, a police inquiry, a protagonist’s peripheral pursuit. As far as these fundamentals go, maybe The Bird with the Crystal Plumage doesn’t appear to be an earth-shattering trendsetter. Even in 1970, viewers had seen this before. But these were just a handful of the base ingredients Argento had at his disposal, and what makes this film exceptional, and what made it the launchpad for even better gialli to come, was how he implemented such essentials with his own distinct flair.
In Rome with his girlfriend Giulia (Suzy Kendall), American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) happens upon the attempted murder of Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi). He is questioned by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) and describes what he saw. But something doesn’t click; there’s a detail he can’t put his finger on. As he conducts his investigation, the kind but skeptical Morosini wants to keep Sam around as a valuable witness, holding on to his passport just to make sure he stays. In the meantime, Sam inevitably begins his own review of the incident, actually making more headway than the officers; not exactly bumbling Keystone Kops, the police are surprisingly inefficient. So effective is Sam’s solitary quest, however, that additional threats emerge—his sleuthing obviously strikes a nerve with the guilty party—and more bodies start to pile up. It’s just a matter of time before he and Giulia are next in line.
In terms of narrative, this is pretty standard stuff. The wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time scenario has obvious antecedents with Alfred Hitchcock, for example, and like Hitch, Argento shares an inclination for voyeurism, a staple of the giallo. On the new Arrow Video special edition of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas devotes an entire visual essay to “The Power of Perception.” She does an extraordinary job unpacking this vital trope, noting the consequential impact of the first-person vantage point. She touches on the pioneering critical work of Laura Mulvey, the technique’s centrality in the horror film, and its sophisticated recurrence in Argento’s cinema in particular. As in his later pictures (see 1975’s Deep Red), Argento gets The Bird with the Crystal Plumage on the move by having Sam see something he shouldn’t, something he doesn’t quite comprehend. It’s a good thing he did, of course (especially, so it seems, for Monica), but the perceptive door swings both ways, and the thwarted assailant sets his/her sights on the unwitting eyewitness.
It’s not just about characters watching, though. Interpretation is crucial, and so is what Argento calls the theme of “deceptive memory” (the director himself is thoroughly interviewed for the Arrow Video release). He also capitalizes on the inherently voyeuristic capabilities of the movie camera itself, implementing long takes to fully expose a certain location and adopting a subjective point of view—usually the killer’s—to both enhance and limit insight and awareness. He employs the first-person POV and amplifies it with sinewy maneuvers and a hauntingly melodic score by Ennio Moriccone. And when Sam sees the assault but is structurally prevented from direct engagement (he’s trapped between two glass doors), the visual association of helplessly observing an atrocity is in many ways the very appeal of the horror/thriller film.
Continuing with the Hitchcock connection (this was the film that assigned Argento the ultimately misleading “Italian Hitchcock” moniker), Argento also adopts the Master of Suspense’s propensity for striking set-piece action. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage finds Sam in peril several times, and twice he is endangered within a notable setting: first when he is attacked along a fog-shrouded street, second when he is pursued in a packed lot of parked busses. Both locations serve the suspenseful purpose of obstructing vision, and both look fantastic in terms of scenic-character choreography. Certainly, Argento’s treatment of Rome as a pictorial backdrop also affirms the influence Michelangelo Antonioni had on his work (though the latter’s use of Italian architecture and landscape is far more oblique).
Along with Heller-Nicholas, critic Kat Ellinger, who is also interviewed, and author Troy Howarth, who provides a commentary, each provide a deep dive into Argento’s work at large, using The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to illustrate the early appearance of his persistent motifs and recurrent themes. This includes gender politics and the debatable handling of sexual outcasts (Bird features an odd lineup of social deviants and “perverts”); the integration of other art forms (this film contains a near death-by-modern-art and a perplexing painting that may hold a key to the killings); and the way past trauma frequently activates homicidal tendencies (in this case, domestic violence). Compared to what Argento would unleash in the years to come, however, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is relatively mild with regards to graphic content (just some minor blood splatter) and when it comes to tone and imagery. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is balanced but not exceedingly beautiful, just as the film’s pacing is steady but not particularly intense and Argento’s visuals are bold (lots of shadowy lurking; a slashing straight razor wielded right at the audience) but not overtly operatic. Sure, Argento had worked as a critic and screenwriter before making this movie, and his father was a prominent figure in the Italian film industry, but as Michael Mackenzie points out in his essay (the Arrow package has two others as well), “by far the most remarkable aspect of Argento’s directorial debut is its assuredness.” For this being his first time behind the camera, there is an evident fondness for cinema, not just as a preferred method of storytelling and not just the conventions of the thriller/giallo genre, but for the medium itself, the technique and the photographic possibilities. Even in the director’s most recent films, his often-maligned post-Opera (1987) output, this aesthetic passion remains a constant.
Very loosely adapted (uncredited) from Fredric Brown’s novel “The Screaming Mimi,” The Bird with the Crystal Plumage became the first film in Argento’s so-called “Animal Trilogy,” to be followed by The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972). He took a solid but hobbling genre and infused it with a thoroughly modern finesse (he was nearly taken off the film because his style was so unusual). Unfortunately, with the widespread critical and popular attention came a too-much-of-a-good-thing crop of sub-par variants (such had habitually been the case with Italian cinema, from the Maciste films of the silent era to the proliferation of Spaghetti Westerns). Nevertheless, while there was giallo before Argento and before The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, that was something quite different than what emerged on the other side, and excluding Mario Bava’s contributions, it was also generally quite inferior. This film may not stand out like some of Argento’s subsequent work, but its importance is undeniable.
In addition to the 4K restoration, the Arrow Video set also includes an interview with Gildo Di Marco (he plays Garullo the pimp), an archival interview with Renzi, who does not speak very glowingly about the film (she keeps mentioning her career getting killed), a poster, and lobby card reproductions.