In Dario Argento’s masterful directorial debut, an American writer living in Rome is drawn into a grisly mystery after witnessing an attempted homicide. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage heralded a major new voice in genre cinema and would become an influential picture inspiring countless riffs and knock offs.
Argento may not have invented the giallo but he might as well have done. Not only did he announce his own cinematic intentions but, arguably, helped cement the iconography and narrative devices for an entire subgenre.
Another noteworthy aspect was the decision to plant the story firmly on Italian soil. The Rome setting would be a daring move on the director’s part. Gialli, despite creative Italian origins, usually featured plots set in foreign locales. It felt European as opposed to distinctly local.
Argento changed this fundamentally. It might have been unbelievable for home grown audiences to accept such outlandish tales taking place on their own doorstep, culturally, but such was the skill of Argento and his production team, the genre never looked back.
This exquisite Blu-ray release by Arrow Video is a must-have. Firstly, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has withstood the test of time and aged with grace. Period details and quirks mar some old films but none of that occurs here.
Argento’s world is arty and sophisticated. There are no crazy hairdos, clothes or cheesy pop synthesiser soundtracks to mark it. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a neat modernist thriller which echoes with influences yet remains equally influential.
The cinematography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro is sharp and startling in its use of symmetrical designs and tableaux. The digital transfer is naturally sharp and crisp given Blu-rays capabilities. The sound mix is layered and clear as bell. The lush aesthetic of Argento suits this format well.
Ennio Morricone’s iconic score provides another revolutionary facet of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s overall design. The soundtrack is quirky and utilises experimental compositions to great effect. You’ll likely have the theme tune in your head for days.
Argento wrote the screenplay based on Frederic Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi. An American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), witnesses a murder in an art gallery and becomes embroiled in a great mystery which may cost him his life. Surprisingly the gore quota is minimal compared to later works painted in all the colours of blood.
The gallery sequence remains one of Argento’s most famous. Dalmas runs to the aid of a young lady being attacked by a black-gloved, trench coat clad killer yet trapped between two automatic doors. He looks upon the grim scene in desperation, but something isn’t quite right. The subsequent plot is wrapped around the lead character attempting to unravel the clue obscured by his mind.
Argento brazenly gives the game away very early but like Sam we are distracted from the truth. It is a brilliant twist and a devious one at that. The staircase murder sequence is another visual treat displaying the confidence and sadistic relish which would become hallmarks of Argento’s style. A young lady is slashed to death in her apartment block by the razorblade-wielding fiend. It features superb use of subjective camera work. The effect being the murderer swipes a cut-throat razor at the audience.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is not without weaknesses. On psychological grounds, the motive for the murder spree is absolutely bonkers, to say the least. Yet the power of imagery and its effects would become a fascination for Argento and appear in other works. The plot too, at times, feels a little bit too mechanical and contrived, especially the red herrings.
The bonus features on the disc include a retrospective interview with Argento, who openly rejects the ‘Italian Hitchcock’ label, informing us that, aside from shared Catholicism, the two directors are entirely different.
Elsewhere an interview with Argento’s collaborator and friend, Luigi Cozzi, takes the viewer into the movie’s surprising origins. The material was suggested by none other than Bernardo Bertolucci. Cozzi also highlights the giallo aspects of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West (1968). He does have a good point despite the seeming differences. Argento and Bertolucci both worked on the story with Leone.
The bonus material gets better and better with a retrospective featuring another giallo legend – Sergio Martino – in which he discusses the origins of the genre and their impact. An informative commentary by film critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman finishes off an excellent and worthy batch of extras.
The menu screen is rendered in graphic novel-like panels with scenes from the movie playing behind. There’s the option of watching in dubbed Italian, English subtitles or dubbed English. The choice is yours.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage might not be the maestro’s best film, nevertheless it is an astonishing debut enriched by Vittorio Storaro’s photography, Franco Fraticelli’s whip-tight editing and Ennio Morricone’s experimental and original score.