Director: Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento
Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Mario Salerno, Eva Renzi
After writing a few films in the 1960s, Dario Argento moved to directing with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, before going on to direct classics such as Deep Red, Inferno and one of the greatest horror films of all time Suspiria.
Before all of that, there was The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a crime/thriller about Sam Dalmas, an American writer in Italy, who witness an attempted murder in an art gallery. His passport is kept by the police because they can’t rule him out as a suspect. He then starts his own investigation, along side the police to try and get to the bottom of a series of recent murders.
The sequences towards the beginning where you see the attempted murder tells you everything about the film. The twist that will come later is revealed early on in a way that’s so well done you will still be guessing about it later. Even though for the next few scenes Sam will keep saying there’s something about the incident that doesn’t add up, but he can’t quite figure it out, as he relives the attack over and over. It’s one of the best things a crime story can do, it gives you everything you need to let you work it out alongside the main characters.
With cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (who would go onto win an Oscar for his cinematography on Apocalypse Now) The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a really stylish film. It’s a little rough around the edges, but still has some striking images and beautiful sets. Watching this, it’s no wonder that Argento would go on to create such deliberate sets with specific colours, framing and lighting in future films like Suspiria.
Like many of Argento’s films, this one is very violent with lots of up close and personal stabbings. The murderer kills with a knife, and through several brutal murders throughout we get to see the depraved nature of the murderer before all is revealed. It’s worth bearing in mnd that this is a fifty-one-year-old film, so the effects do look dated. It doesn’t distract from the overall story, so it’s not that big of a deal, but the gore is nothing shocking by today’s standards
Despite that though, there is still a creepy and unsettling tone throughout: A score, by Enrico Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) that haunts every scene, a murderer on the loose who tries to attack the main characters on multiple occasions and there’s a painting that one of the victims sold, potentially to the murderer, that depicts a violent and sexual attack like the murders taking place. All of this is used by Argento to create a suspenseful and tension filled atmosphere.
The murder painting, leads Sam to the artist, trying to piece together the puzzle. While the scene is odd and memorable, with the painter living in the second floor of a house that you have to enter through the window, it does feel a little pointless. There are a few moments throughout that feel like they are there just to pad the run time, the painter scene being just one. The film isn’t that long, but it does have moments that drag.
Unlike Argento’s later work, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is less of a horror film and more of a crime/thriller. The violence, death and tension is still there, but for the most part you join Sam on the journey to uncover the mystery. It’s a good mix of a detective narrative, with gadgets used by the police to narrow down their suspect, and suspenseful horror you would expect from Argento.
Like most Italian Giallo (pulpy horror films with lots of gore. Giallo is Italian for yellow – The name comes from the colour of pages on cheap fiction paperbacks) films, the acting is a real mixed bag. It’s common with Italian films from that time for people to speak in their native language, whether that’s English, Italian or anything else and the dialogue would be dubbed in later. It does mean the acting takes a hit, with some unnatural dialogue and awkward moments. It isn’t that noticeable in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but it’s still there. There is definitely a lot worse out there and while there is no award winning performances, they are all good enough to make the film gripping.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage stands the test of time and is still worth watching over half a century later. It’s a great precursor to everything Argento would go on to create, and a good film in its own right. This is definitely something worth visiting, or re-visiting if you’ve already seen it.