While walking down the street late one night, Sam (Tony Musante), an American freelance writer living in Rome, spies a man and a woman struggling inside a modern art gallery. The woman is stabbed and the man, dressed in a black trench coat, black hat, and black leather gloves slips out the back. Sam rushes in to help her but is trapped between two automated sliding doors and is thus forced to watch helplessly as the woman, bloody and dying, screams for help. A passerby calls the police and they are able to resuscitate the woman before she dies.
Sam is initially suspected by the police but as more murders keep happening, he is released. Something about the attack continues to bother him but as he continually plays back the memory, he can’t quite put his finger on it. He launches his own investigation into the crime and soon is involved in a cat-and-mouse game with the killer.
Along the way, he runs into a cavalcade of interesting characters, including an isolated artist who eats cats, an imprisoned pimp who has to say “so long” at the end of every sentence to keep from stuttering, and an association of retired boxers. There are more stylish murders of beautiful women, more attempts on Sam’s life, and a few eerie phone calls from the killer himself. In the film’s best sequence, Sam’s lover (Suzy Kendall) is trapped inside her unusually large studio apartment while the killer cuts the phone lines, the electrical lines and slowly hacks a hole into the front door. The apartment becomes increasingly clausterphobic, the score's increasingly discordant tones intensifies the horror, and Argento's use of light and shadow create an intense, terrifying moments.
The final solution is a bit clumsy and the plot doesn’t always make sense even after the credits roll (or perhaps even more so after the credits roll) but it's filled with visual flair, a jarring avant-garde jazz score from Ennio Morricone, and some truly terrifying scenes.
Dario Argento’s debut film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage didn’t invent the Italian Horror genre of giallo (that award usually goes to Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much) but it sure as hell popularized it and cemented what we’ve come to expect in the genre. If you are familiar with giallo at all, the image that immediately comes to mind is likely one that was created by Argento.
The shadowy killer all dressed in black, the lurid murders, the pov shots, the psycho-sexual motives - again none of these things were invented by Argento but he refined them and tied them all neatly into singular films influencing the genre for decades to come.
Argento would continue to perfect the genre and his craft with such films as Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Suspiria and quintessential Deep Red. He went on to make several better films than (and more than a few worse ones) but this is a startling debut. Few directors have had such impact with their debut films than Argento did with Crystal Plumage. Few horror films are as good or distinctive.
Arrow Video has gone all out with this release. Set in a sturdy box with new art by Candice Tripp, this two-disk DVD/Blu-ray combo comes with six collectible lobby cards, a 60-page full-color book filled with photos and three essays about the film and Argento’s career.
The film itself is a 4K restoration from the original negative. It looks and sounds great. I didn’t notice any debris or damage to the video. Colors are bright and beautiful (some other reviewers have noted an overpowering of red tones, but I noticed no such thing.) Audio sounds great as well especially Morricone’s intense score which comes in loud but is not overpowering.
Extras are a-plenty with a new commentary by by Troy Howarth, and a new visual essay on Argento’s career. Then there is an interview with critic Kat Ellinger about the film and a new interview with Dario Argento, and a new interview with star Gildi Di Marco, plus an archive interview with Eva Renzi.
For lovers of Dario Argento and the giallo genre, the Arrow Video release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage will make an excellent edition to your library. For those looking to see where to start with the genre. this is a wonderful place to begin.