Things could have been very different without the bird. Dario Argento’s directorial debut is based on a book called The Screaming Mimi that had already been adapted into a Hollywood movie directed by Outer Limits luminary Gerd Oswald in 1958. But instead of re-using that title, Argento devised one so floridly memorable it fired the imagination of audiences, lit the blue touch paper on his Animals Trilogy and unleashed the torrent of ultra-sadistic gialli that were the defining product of Italian cinema in the first half of the 1970s. And we still haven’t worked out what it means.
American actor Tony Musante plays Sam Dalmas, a down-at-heel writer shacked up in Rome with the UK’s delectable (© the 1970s) Suzy Kendall. While wandering the streets one night pondering his own literary failure and the plan B option of returning home to take up an offer impersonating Lindsey Buckingham out of Fleetwood Mac, he finds himself witnessing what appears to be a bloody attack on a woman in an art gallery - the latest in a long line of local slashings, as it turns out. Remarkably, she survives and recovers well. Prevented from leaving Italy as a key witness by a genial police chief with a Gerry Anderson-style computer room, he becomes obsessed with uncovering the masked stalker.
It’s sobering to witness Argento in his very first film effortlessly pulling so many trademark rabbits from the hat. Peek-a-boo framing, seeded sound clues, disarming comedy characters and Hitchcockian rug-pulls are all so effortlessly delivered here you can only frown anew at his more recent, clunky attempts at career revival.
Although apparently a bit of a prima donna on set, Musante’s performance is strong. By no means a conventional hero, his character’s motivation to investigate the murders is driven less by a need for justice than by the disturbing sense of impotence inflicted on his fragile ego at the start when he can’t help the poor woman in the art gallery due to being helplessly trapped between two panes of glass like an insect in a bell jar. His odyssey through a series of encounters with unusual, often playfully rendered characters marks this one out as a less bloody dry run for Deep Red (1975). And that opening remains immortal. Riffing upon Rear Window and Blow Up and photographed by the great Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Last Tango in Paris), its stylised depiction of forced-voyeurism burned itself into the giallo template and reverberated far beyond.
A shame the extras on this pleasingly grainy 4K restoration from Arrow don’t extend to a full retrospective but we’ve been spoiled with those on the Argento front of late. The man himself does pop up for an extended 2017 chat but the real highlight is a delightfully bitchy 1995 interview with Eva Renzi, sadly no longer with us. It’s always refreshing to hear an actor tell it like it is. As successful as the film was for Argento, it was career poison for Renzi whose turn as the female killer (and don’t forget how innovative that was in 1970) gave her little to do apart from fake her own death and cackle madly. Turns out she didn’t even get to do the gloved close-ups with the knives - that was Argento too, the jammy git.
Nearly fifty years down the line, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a slice of absolute cool from a director relishing his first shot at the main prize.
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE LIMITED EDITION / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: DARIO ARGENTO / STARRING: TONY MUSANTE, SUZY KENDAL, EVA RENZI / RELEASE DATE: 19TH JUNE