Dario Argento’s debut film is an astonishing piece of work.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an astonishing debut film. As a reviewer who has seen all but one of the director’s movies (1973’s comedy drama Le cinque giornate [The Five Days], which remains unreleased in America and the UK) and both of his episodes of the TV series Masters of Horror, I have to admit that I was beginning to doubt the director’s talent in recent years: my memories of his excellent early films began to fade and were replaced by his recent output, which has gone from the below average Do You Like Hitchcock?, The Card Player and Non ho sonno in the first half of the last decade to the actually unwatchable - Giallo and Mother of Tears: The Third Mother - in the last three years. However, returning to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage after a gap of several years has revealed a film that is still fresh, innovative and deserving of its status as a seminal giallo.
Having not read the uncredited novel by Fredric Brown, I don’t know whether any of the striking set-pieces, costumes and characters can be attributed to Brown, but the plot is significantly different from the novel’s (filmed previously in 1958 by Gerd Oswald), so it’s possible that Argento only kept the book’s basic premise of an artist obsessed by a traumatised woman who is being stalked by a serial killer. There are numerous memorable scenes in the film: the powerless spectator trapped behind glass as he witnesses a murder, the police pathologist who wears dark glasses while a bank of open reel computers process the evidence behind him, a couple having sex while a metronome ticks, the protagonist throwing a cigarette packet to a suspect to see which hand he catches it with, and bizarre lines of dialogue such as ‘How many times have I had to tell you that Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites not the perverts’!
This is a film that provides a segue from the noir genre that inspired it - the femme fatale and the amateur detective following her - to a new form of filmmaking and storytelling that seems equally inspired by Ennio Morricone’s jazz score (Argento often cut his films to his musical scores) and Freudian dream logic. While Mario Bava can stake a claim as the progenitor of giallo cinema, Argento also looks elsewhere to international filmmaking (he was a professional film critic before becoming a script writer) with chase scenes reminiscent of The Third Man, featuring close-ups and characters lit by car headlights, the familiarity of those elements made strange by Morricone’s discordant strings and the director’s fast zooms and cuts.
Only the final scene of the movie disappoints, as a police expert explains the motives and psychology of the killer; Argento doesn’t have the blank stare of a comatose Norman Bates to juxtapose with the banal monologue, so instead cuts to random shots of planes on runways as the hero sits waiting to leave the country.