The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Dario Argento, before becoming internationally famous for his horror films, had made a name for himself in the Italian giallo genre. Giallo is a specific type of Italian crime movie, usually dealing with a serial killer, combining amateur detective work and police procedural with a number of gruesome murders and, as the genre went on, buxom victims. While Argento did not invent the genre - Mario Bava pretty much worked out the bare bones of it with Blood and Black Lace - he became the one that popularized it and, eventually, mastered it, becoming known as the "Italian Hitchcock". That all started with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer that has come to Italy to attempt to get over his writer's block. He is about to return to the United States with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) when he witnesses a woman named Monica (Eva Renzi) struggling with a black-clad figure in an art gallery. He begins working, reluctantly at first, with Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno), who believes that the attack may be linked to a series of unexplained homicides.
Soon Sam becomes obsessed with cracking the case, convinced that there is something that he missed when he witnessed the assault on Monica. His involvement is not without risk as several attempts are made on his life as well as Julia's. Though the ordeal has finally started him writing again it becomes more and more a question of whether or not he will make it out of Italy alive.
Later Dario Argento films - at least those during the period where he was making his best films - are known for a number of twists and turns, to the point where much of his horror material begins to enter the surreal side. With The Bird with the Crystal Plumage it seems like Argento decided to stick largely with the Hitchcock formula, giving us clues and a bit of a twist ending (which is a bit too obvious) as well as the usual eccentric characters, like a reclusive artist that will anger cat lovers. While his later films contain a lot of visual flash, with this early film he is more concerned with following the plot.
That doesn't mean some of the usual Argento tricks aren't here. The kills are interesting (though we don't get the fountains of blood like we would in Deep Red) and the way it is shot often raises the tension, with close-ups of Sam's eyes and one scene that is a point-of-view shot of a man falling out a window and hitting the concrete. The latter was accomplished by tossing the camera out the window, and somehow the footage survived and was usable. It's an original way of doing things and is one of the ways Argento creates a unique atmosphere. He also, particularly with the grey and white space of the art gallery, gives a subdued hint on how he would use colors in his future films to great effect.
While it is a great giallo film, right down to the black-gloved killer that would pretty much become a cliché in these films, it is still a bit on the rough side. There are the usual problems with the dubbing being a bit off, and the acting in the English-language version coming across as a bit melodramatic. Even though the run-time is not too long it still has some parts that seem to drag on a bit. Still, for a first movie this is pretty much a success, and was financially for Argento as well. The only one that wasn't too happy was Eva Renzi, who was afraid that her role was career suicide. Whether she was right or not she still gives a decent performance toward the end, although it may be unintentionally humorous for some.
Argento would release two more giallo films, both with animals in the title, before starting to add horror in the mix as well as give us Deep Red, which is pretty much the defining movie of the whole genre. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a great glimpse of what was to come.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Time: 96 minutes
Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi
Director: Dario Argento