Dario Argento is one of those “stylish” directors who, at some point in his career, allowed the style to completely overtake the other elements of his filmmaking. His stories became less coherent, character motivations murkier, and dialogue dull or even senseless while the scenes he really cared about, the thriller scenes or the horror scenes, seemed to take up the whole of his creative efforts. Some of Dario Argento’s mid- to late-’70s films have some of the most memorable scenes of violence and murder in movies, without necessarily having the stories to back them up.
His directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, doesn’t suffer this problem. It resides firmly within the giallo genre of Italian thrillers about murderers, the genre Dario would later push more into out and out horror. Here, his film exhibits all the aspects typical of the genre – an ordinary man is wrapped up in a murder case. The killer wears disguises and focuses his violence on young, attractive women. The story is structured like a whodunit, with the amateur detective gathering clues until the final revelation, which involves some sort of psychological perversity.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hits all these marks to the letter. Our amateur detective is Sam Dalmas, an American writer stuck in Rome. Walking home at night, he witnesses an attempted murder through the window of an art gallery. The setup up of this scene is memorable, probably the cleverest in the film: the art gallery’s front is entirely made of clear glass, with a clear glass anteroom leading in. Sam gets into the anteroom, but he’s locked out of the gallery itself, where a woman has been stabbed.
Then the door shuts behind him, so he’s locked both away from the victim, unable to render her help, yet also unable to run away and call the police while she’s crawling, bleeding across the floor. It’s a genius set-up, beautifully shot and staged. The woman survives, but she is only one of the victims of the knife-wielding maniac dressed in black. The police decide Sam is a person of interest and take his passport. So, with nothing else to do in Rome, he decides to investigate the murder himself.
It’s a gleefully contrived scenario. Even though the police apparently suspect Sam is involved, the chief investigator happily shares all his evidence with him. He takes Sam on a tour of all the scientific gadgets they use to solve crimes in 1970s Italy. The investigation, which takes up the bulk of the film’s running time, isn’t terribly interesting in itself. The mystery of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is not a puzzle for the audience to solve along with the protagonist. It’s an excuse to string along scenes of intrigue and thrills, and occasional weak comedy.
But the thrills are there, and they’re genuine. Once the killer knows Sam is on the case, he improbably sends an assassin to kill him. This leads to a foot chase through a wrecking yard, which ends up in a hotel convention where everyone is dressed in the same clothes as the would-be assassin. Not realistic, lacking in logic, but it’s tense and it looks cool. That’s the real meat of the giallo film: the feel, the style. And right from his debut, Dario Argento had it.
In terms of violence, especially compared to Argento’s later films, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is remarkably restrained. Besides the attack in the art gallery, there’s three on-screen murders in the film: one in the opening, another following a girl into her house, and one in a striking attack in an elevator. But there are more suspense sequences than that, and the film’s climax with Sam searching for his kidnapped girlfriend, and being inches away from her without knowing it, is a masterpiece of filmic tension.
Several weaknesses of Argento’s that become almost crippling in later films are present here. There’s no great sense of character beyond rather broad stereotypes. American actor Tony Mustane’s performance as Sam is fine, though not revelatory or overly charismatic. The story, though relatively coherent, is episodic and primarily an excuse for hanging several admittedly bravura sequences together rather than making a tight integrated whole.
But so what? It entertains. Dario Argento’s understanding of camera movement and staging are remarkably strong in a debut film. And it’s a beautiful looking film, shot by Vittorio Storaro, who would come to be Coppola’s DP on Apocalypse Now half a decade later. Ennio Morricone’s score is another highlight, mixing the ’70s-era fetish for vocalizations in film scores with his own explorations of atonality to contribute mightily to the film’s tension. This was the first of three films the two collaborated on in the ’70s, before Argento enlisted the work of Italian prog rock group Goblin for his more horror-oriented films throughout the decade.
I have misgivings about much of Dario Argento’s horror filmmaking. I think he tends to sacrifice the whole for its parts, and strives for effect, no matter the damage that might due to the overall fabric of the story. But these are deficiencies that came later in his filmmaking career. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an assured debut film. Argento had much of his aesthetic already fully formed when he began his career. It’s a little amazing that this somewhat extreme film was the tame version of what would be his ultimate filmmaking output. But on its own, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a decent mystery, and an engaging, always interesting and tense thriller.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has been released on 4K Ultra HD by Arrow Video. One should note, this release only has the 4K disc, not a standard Blu-ray disc with the film. Extras on disc include an audio commentary by Troy Howarth. Video extras include “The Power of Perception” (21 min), a visual essay on Dario Argento by Alexanda Heller-Nichols; “Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis”, (32 min) an interview with Kat Ellinger about the film’s connection to the novel The Screaming Mimi; “Crystal Nightmare” (32 min), a 2017 interview with Dario Argento; “An Argento Icon” (22 min), an interview with actor Gildo Di Marco who has a brief role in the film; and “Eva’s Talking” (11 min), an interview with actress Eva Renzi. Trailers and other promotional material are included. With the limited edition release, there are also included a poster of the cover art, six postcard-sized lobby cards, and a booklet containing writing on the film by Howard Hughes, Jack Seabrook, and Rachael Nisbet.