Dario Argento, 1970
Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi
Sam, an American writer in Rome, witnesses the attempted murder of a woman in an art gallery. A black-gloved attacker nearly kills Monica Ranieri, the beautiful wife of the gallery’s owner, Alberto. The police, suspicious of Sam and in need of his help, confiscate his passport and prevent his return flight to American while the investigation is still underway — they believe that the same person murdering women around the city is responsible for the attack on Monica. Sam has the sense that he’s seen something he can’t quite put his finger on that’s a critical clue, and soon the murderer begins targeting Sam, trying to kill him before he solves the mystery.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was Dario Argento’s very impressive debut as a director. He had been working as a film critic and a screenwriter up until then and, thanks to some family connections, was able to make this highly influential first film. Though it is obviously inspired by Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and borrows much of its plot from Frederic Brown’s uncredited novel The Screaming Mimi, Argento brought a blend of sadomasochism, violence, and exaggerated style to the screen that is obviously all his own. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage effectively synthesized the German krimi films based on Edgar Wallace’s mystery novels, Bava’s candy-colored horror films, and Hitchcock's psychosexual thrillers to create something new and unusual.
The film not only strengthens the tropes introduced by Bava — which would carry on throughout the genre — but it also introduces a number of themes that would obsess Argento throughout his career. For starters, the protagonist is a foreigner who is not a detective or police officer, but who is forced to solve the case because a) he is targeted by the killer, b) the police are ineffectual, and c) he has some perverse passion, an innate curiosity, that propels him onwards. The victims are primarily beautiful women, and the killer wears leather gloves and a raincoat. The killer is murdering because of an unresolved past trauma not revealed until the film’s conclusion, and characters surrounding the protagonist are depicted as in someway morally compromised, perverse. These are all standard giallo fixtures.
One key theme that would carry on throughout Argento’s work is the problem of vision, the concept of the seen but wrongly interpreted or not yet understood clue. Sam witnesses the attempted murder, but realizes that he has seen something important that he can’t quite put his finger on. This same scenario occurs in later films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Tenebre, and it is this device that sets Argento so far apart from the Agatha Christie-style mysteries that came before him and the slasher films that would come after. Works of classic detective fiction often revolve around a clever amateur detective, such as Holmes or Poirot, and a Everyman partner like Watson or Hastings. Mysteries are solved when the detective reveals the missing links between a series of elaborate clues — links that he has figured out often due to some information not available to the sidekick or the audience. But in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage the genius detective is cast aside for a far more suspenseful tale where a modern Everyman — and the cinema goers following him — must try to solve the crime through primarily visual evidence.
Another theme with a strong presence in Argento’s work that was introduced in this film is the use of animal imagery. His first three films were dubbed the “Animal Trilogy’ thanks to their titles — The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet — despite the tenuous connection to animals. Many of his films include at least one scene with an animal (a lizard, dogs, insects, birds, and even a chimpanzee), and here a key clue is figured out by the call of the titular rare bird, a guest at the local zoo. This is entwined with the film’s larger motifs of hunting, collecting, and imprisonment. When Sam witnesses Monica’s attack, he’s trapped between two glass doors like a fish in an aquarium (which was allegedly Argento’s inspiration), which looks into a gallery filled with terrifying metallic art, including a bird claw. The film’s living spaces are prison-like — Sam’s one room dwelling, Monica’s high rise apartment, and the artist’s loft, which can only be accessed by a ladder — and key sets include the zoo and a hall filled with taxidermy.
Art is another important theme. In addition to the fact that the initial crime scene is set at an art gallery, an antique store, a deranged painter, and an eerie painting provide an important clue, and art actually becomes a weapon. Many of Argento’s early protagonists were artists: Sam is a writer and his girlfriend is a model, while later examples include musicians, photographers, journalists, dancers, novelists, and opera singers. This theme can be found throughout the genre, as the characters are often expected to be hip or fashionable, or artists with unstable dispositions.
SPOILERS AHEAD (for many of Argento’s movies): Finally, this is also the first of many films where the killer is given an unusual identity. There is something Hitchcockian about this and I can’t help but be reminded of Psycho, where the killer becomes quietly insane after years of repressing a past trauma. While we believe the killer is Mrs. Bates, it is really Norman in disguise. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an inversion of this in the sense that we believe the killer to be male (it is even presented that Monica’s husband is guilty), until we discover that Monica has been in disguise in androgynous garb. Many of Argento’s subsequent films follow this pattern: Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red also have female killers, while Tenebre and Phenomena each have two murderers.
It is difficult to examine The Bird with the Crystal Plumage on its own, as I’ve seen most of Argento’s classic films (from this first entry through Opera in 1987) many times throughout the years. It is an incredibly strong directorial debut and has very, very few flaws. Thanks to his aforementioned connections, Argento was able to get some exceptional talent working on the film, such as composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Bertolucci’s regular collaborator). There is likely much more I could say about the film, but little that hasn’t already been said. It comes with the highest recommendation and is one of my favorite of Argento’s works. For obvious reasons, it’s also a great introduction to giallo films — certainly more accessible than Blood on Black Lace — and if you don’t own it already, pick up the special edition DVD or Blu-ray.