After starting out writing screenplays, Dario Argento made his directorial debut with the influential giallo "The Bird With The Crystal Plumage" (TBWTCP). The film was a major success, both at home and abroad, and kick started an Italian craze for warped psycho-thrillers featuring perverted black gloved killers chasing scantily clad Euro-babes with an assortment of dangerous weapons. It is also undoubtedly the best of Argento's earlier films; many plot elements and stylistic flourishes would be revisited and expanded upon in the directors later gialli rebirth "Profondo Rosso".
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer on holiday in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) - hoping that the change of scenery will cure his writer's block. One night, while walking home, he notices an altercation in a trendy art gallery between a black leather clad man and a beautiful woman. Sam attempts to come to the woman's aid, but gets trapped between a double set of glass doors and is unable to do anything but watch as the woman is attacked, while a passer-by calls the police. The leather clad man leaves the woman injured and makes his getaway through a back door. The police interrogate Sam and confiscate his passport while they continue their investigations. It seems that the attack may be connected to a series of murders that have been afflicting the city, and the police are convinced they are the work of a maniac.
Sam cannot shake the feeling that there is something odd about the scene he witnessed in the gallery, but he can't put his finger on it. He decides to look into the mystery himself with the unofficial blessing of Inspector Morosini, the man in charge of the murder investigation. Sam connects the murderer to a painting sold in the shop where the first victim worked, and learns from the artist that it was based on a real life incident. But as the body-count continues to rise, it isn't long before Sam and Julia themselves become targets for the killer.
Argento has taken up the baton from Mario Bava in a quest to highlight the perverse power of cinema, when guided by a unique vision, to transform viewers' perceptions through the stylish depiction of extreme violence — something that has always caused problems for him with the various bodies responsible for film censorship around the world. His violent set-pieces offer more than just the usual attempt to provoke shocks — although they are more than adequate in that department — and indeed, this film's opening scenes of it's leather clad assailant typing out details of their next killing and lovingly surveying and cleaning a collection of knives, make a telling symbol for the director's own career long obsession with the artistic representation of murder and the choreography of violent death.
For the fetishization of the accoutrements, the practice and the aftermath of murder has become a perennial motif in the films of Argento. It is present here, but largely in an embryonic form. "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" is a stylish debut, but Argento's visual language is not yet fully developed — the camera does not roam quite so freely and often shies away from dwelling on the worst of the killer's excesses (Ironically, Mario Bava would up the anti the following year when his "Bay of Blood" unflinchingly depicted all of the atrocities of it's cast of rapacious killers), and certainly not with the kinetic abandon we see in later films. Like Argento's next couple of movies, TBWTCP is dependent on a conventional narrative structure for it's progression; it is a fairly straightforward murder mystery, and, although streets ahead of many of its imitators, it never reaches the vertiginous heights of "Tenebre", "Opera" or "Profondo Rosso". These films function on a higher level than their often perfunctory plots would tend to suggest, whereas "Bird..." never quite transcends it's origins. Although it has far more staying power than it's follow-up "The Cat-O-Nine Tails - viewing it now, it often seems to come across as a demo for "Profondo Rosso" but lacking the "spark' of its more accomplished cousin. But, one of the most noteworthy themes from Argento's later work — that of the power of cognitive habits to influence human perception — gets its first outing in this debut. A vital piece of visual information revealed at the end of the film leads to a gestalt-shift in the interpretation of the earlier scene at the art gallery. There is a certain amount of 'cheating' in how Argento goes about this though, since we, the audience are never privy to that vital piece of information -- the scene is edited so that we cannot see events clearly, unlike the protagonist, who misinterprets what he sees because it does not fit his preconceptions. Argento would develop a similar idea more fully in his masterful "Profondo Rosso" where the killer's face is shown on screen for a split second, but both we and the protagonist are tricked into missing it through Argento's cinematic misdirection.
Still, it has to be said, the killer in TBWTCP is most definitely one of Argento's most successful creations - a character who first establishes the connections that the director would go on to exploit and disrupt, in later work, between psychotic, murderous impulses and dark, twisted sexuality. As is usually the case in gialli films, the murderer is revealed to be a fairly minor character who's everyday 'normal' persona is rather bland and uninteresting. Perversely though, once their alternate identity as a murderous sexual-psychotic is exposed, they are transformed from dour, meek, nervous 'victim' to exotic, radiant and vivacious predator. The character's appearance is much more sexually alluring in their 'psycho' incarnation than in their 'normal' one, and this is especially confusing for the viewer, who has been led to associate it throughout the movie with menace and horror. This bizarre connection between wild, untamed sexuality and disruptive acts of malevolence contrasts starkly with the ineffectual and seemingly impotent nature of the film's protagonist.
Indeed, Argento often has a rather ambiguous attitude towards the "heros" in his movies. They are often left in a far worse state psychologically for having "solved" the mystery than they were at the start. At least this applies to the male protagonists — females are often both more sympathetic and more resilient. In "Bird...", Sam Dalmas starts the film suffering from writers block; he is unable to help the woman in the art gallery and has to signal to a deaf man for help through soundproof glass doors (meaning the deaf man's disability is nullified, making Dalmas seem all the more ineffectual). Later on, when making love with his girlfriend Julia, his passions are continually interrupted by images from the art gallery, while a metronome ticks away behind them -- as if they are engaged in some clinical, clockwork act. As Dalmas' investigation proceeds and the mystery seems to be drawing toward a resolution, his writers block begins to lift -- only for everything to be turned on its head when the nagging doubt about what exactly he witnessed at the art gallery finally comes into focus.
Tony Musante is adequate in the lead role as the amateur detective, but his character is not hugely charismatic; Suzy Kendall, meanwhile, simply doesn't get enough to do as his girlfriend Julia, and represents a wasted opportunity since she has a captivating screen presence which could have been utilised more effectively. Once again, one cannot help but be reminded of the much fuller relationship that Argento develops, between the lead male and female characters in "Profondo Rosso".
Music has always played a major role in the films of Dario Argento; his relationship with the Italian group Goblin is legendary, and the combination of the amazing music they created when they worked on "Suspiria", and the assured visual style of a director operating at the peak of his form, led to one of the most perfect marriages of image and sound ever put to celluloid. For my money though, Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" comes a close second in that regard. Unlike Goblin, it is not music I would personally choose to listen to that often when divorced from it's visual context - but as part of the film it works admirably to set up an edgy mood with it's montage of whispering, raspy voices (a forward nod to Goblin's "Suspiria" soundtrack) underpinned by the faltering, 'heartbeat' thump of the percussion track. The killer's macabre, twisted psychology is represented by a frail nursery rhyme of childlike melodies embedded in a web of wind chimes, tinkling bells and unnerving la-la-la-las, while the fragile acoustic beauty of "Julia's theme" and the robust rhythms of the title track offer a poignant counterpoint to the more abstract pieces.
Morricone's soundtrack is included as an extra on VCI's DVD presentation of the movie. Aside from this magnificent feature though, the DVD is rather light on the extras front. You get the original theatrical trailer and short biographies of Dario Argento, Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall. There is also a link to the excellent Argento website, Dark Dreams. The picture quality is pretty good for a thirty year old film and the re-mixed Dolby surround sound is fine.
"The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" knocks spots off most seventies thrillers and most modern thrillers as well. Only when held to the same standards as Argento's later classics like "Profondo Rosso", "Inferno", "Tenebre" and even "Trauma" can it be found wanting. But it represents the beginnings of one of the most unique visions in European horror, and displays enough pointers of what was to come to make it an essential purchase for any fan of the genre.