Argento’s first output ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ isn’t likely going to sit at the top of anyone’s list, especially considering some of the more acclaimed titles which followed, but it doesn’t mean the film should not be lauded for what it helped to start, nor have its own merits overshadowed by a formula which would be refined and then perfected over the next decade or so.
On paper ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ is a straight up who-done-it crime caper, albeit with a somewhat creative twist, however stylistically, it laid the foundations for what would become something of a formula to follow for a whole rash of ‘giallo’ movies that would dominate Italian cinema through the 70s and 80s.
In this film an unsuspecting Italian/American author ‘Sam’ witnesses a violent assault on a young lady in one of Rome’s smaller galleries. As the girl lay bleeding on the ground, the author can only helplessly look on as the would-be killer, dressed in black (hat, gloves) makes a hasty escape. Upon arrival the police are quick to link this assault to series of other murders which has had them baffled. Initially they are quick to point the finger at the author himself, but they are clearly just clutching at straws. Upon working with the lead inspector, the author rekindles his own artistic flame, and his enthusiasm for solving the case builds with every breadcrumb clue dropped by the cryptic killer.
The plot of the movie is fairly linear, and to for me, this was something of a refreshing plus. After spending many years of my life watching giallo movies its quite clear to see that, in order to push or define themselves in the genre, the films simply became more and more convoluted; here, the balance between intrigue and exposition is just right. The brisk pace of the film is welcome, and there is scarcely a scene wasted as padding. The story itself is interesting enough, although whilst there are odd clues left for us here and there, its very difficult to establish who the perpetrator might actually be as new characters are introduced in small clusters throughout and its almost impossible to eliminate anyone from suspicion. That said, the film flows nicely so that you constantly feel that you are edging closer and closer to a reveal, even if you’ve no idea what that reveal might look like!
The characters are fairly generic, but the acting is certainly passible with only a few oddly placed scenes and underwhelming reactions to break the façade of a looming peril. Whilst the killer’s creepy phone-calls, voyeuristic tendencies and (not so) brutal slayings have been seen countless times now I can appreciate that at the time it would have been enough to have shocked and surprised audiences sufficiently to remind viewers that the film was that little bit more than a mainstream cinema effort. As typical as such scenes might be now, they still help cultivate a somewhat grisly atmosphere, despite the films lavish locations. Despite the film not leaning on a vibrant pallet of colour as say ‘Susperia’, ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ is still a feast for the eyes with many of the films key scenes filled with imagery and creative angles which deepen the story and convey emotions without the need for words or prose.
The film manages to get a nice balance between violence and maintaining a credible plot. The killer is pretty handy with a straight razor, but overall the sequences themselves are pretty tame by the standards set by the directors’ successive movies. For example, see the director’s late 80s effort ‘Tenebrae’ for some distinctly more graphic and elaborate kills which have similar parallels to those found in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’.
Whilst we are on the subject of parallels, I don’t think its going to come of too much of a shock that there are some other aspects influenced by this film which are carried over into his later flicks. Indeed, the films plot twist, which relies on our author remembering a subtle detail from his initial encounter with the killer, is something fans will recognise from the superior ‘Profondo Rosso’.
Overall, Argento’s creative flair and attention to detail, help to elevate a somewhat average premise into a film which surpasses the many similar efforts at the time. Whilst ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ might be his most conventional movie (and dare I say a slightly less refined effort from a director honing his craft), there is a passion and style which oozes from every scene that gives this film that extra something.
Not essential, but its more than recommended. Oh, and if you are new to Argento, there’s no better place to start.