It’s not easy to popularise an entirely new subgenre almost single handedly, but it’s even tougher to do it with your debut movie – however, that’s exactly the feat Dario Argento accomplished with the splendidly named The Bird Of The Crystal Plumage. While movies set in the “Giallo” genre had existed prior with the works of Mario Bava in particular (Giallo being the Italian word for yellow and used to describe stylistically stunning horror/thriller/suspense movies), in 1970, Dario Argento not only made this kind of movie a box office sensation, but also used it to spring board him into an entire career that produced some of the finest horror films Italy had to offer.
While his stylistic flourishes increased with every movie until it arguably peaked with 1975’s Deep Red, his impressive debut is still worthy of substantial praise.
Sam Dalmas, an American merican writer about town, is chilling in Rome with his model girlfriend Julia (it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it a suppose), but his vacation takes a startling turn after he witnesses a woman being stabbed in an art gallery as he walks back to his holiday home at night. Trapped between planes of glass, Sam is rendered as helpless as a centipede with gout and can only watch as the attack escapes and the victim, wife of the gallery owner Monica Ranieri, drags her bloody self across the floor, but luckily he manages to flag down help and the police arrives soon enough to save the woman from bleeding to death. Pressured relentlessly by Inspector Morosini about what he actually saw that night, Sam has his passport confiscated, but the author remains convinced that he witnessed nothing about the raincoat-clad attacker that is at all helpful. Still, that doesn’t mean his overexcited girlfriend doesn’t suggest they should try and figure things out and so the couple start looking into a serial killer who’s sliced their way through at least three women that the press know of.
Unable to leave Rome, Dalmas soon finds himself the target of someone who wants him dead at any cost and after narrowly avoiding being decapitated by a random swipe of a cleaver in the street or shot at by a yellow jacketed assasin, both Sam and Julia realise they must be on to something. Reasoning that he must have witnessed something more than he first thought, Sam wracks his brain to work out that missing piece of the puzzle that was most likely under his nose the entire time, but he’d better hurry as the bodies continue to pile up and the attempt on him life become more frequent.
So what details do that clicking sound in the background of the killer’s taunting phone calls, a stark painting of a woman being stabbed and Sam’s own skewed perception of events all have in common that could nail this maniac for good and can it all be decoded before it’s too late?
While I’ll readily admit that The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a magnificent example of both the Giallo genre as a whole and Argento’s work, if my honesty is a brutal as Dario’s killers are, I have to admit that the movie only suffers due to the fact that the auteur managed to get so much better. The plot is appropriately maze like and the killer’s ludicrously complex motives is as exquisitely bonkers as you’d expect, but while the movie is shot with a lush eye, the deranged excesses of his later works like Deep Red, Suspiria, Tenebrae and Oprea make Plumage seem a little tame in comparison to what came after.
However, while the movie never reaches the heights of poetic grand guignol as, say, the gorgeously depraved murder scenes of Deep Red, Argento still proves he has quite the eye for set pieces. Witness the opening scene where Tony Musante’s lead finds himself trapped between two glass doors as if he was an artistic installation himself is haunting and a low shot of him in front of a patterned ceiling makes him literally look like he’s caught in a web. While the murders don’t exactly manage to stun they way that Argento became renowned for, a sequence where the killer assaults a young woman at her home by slicing off her night clothes may be quite subtle in comparison, but its incredibly creepy as we repeatedly get closes ups of her twitching mouth as the screams get caught in her throat.
The movie also plays up a few other details that became inherent to the genre with Sam’s visit to a scruffy artist who lives out in the country and who keeps cats caged in order to eat them (?) reveals that he’s the one who painted the picture that triggered the killer in the first place and thus keeps in place the city’s distrust of the more rural areas – a plot point that surfaced again in Deep Red. Also, our heroes are sort of a happy-go-lucky, bohemian sort who don’t seem to recognize how much deep shit they’re in until the killer starts literally stabbing holes through their front door, something that also mirrors David Hemmings clueless musician in argubly Argento’s greatest film and it continues that thread of Giallo antagonists who are utterly unequipped to deal with the salacious intentions of psycho-sexual serial killers in black, leather gloves despite them initially thinking the whole thing is kind of a gas.
Still, the most audacious move in Argento’s arsenal is the final reveal that is loaded with more red herrings than a blood soaked fish market and makes the denouement of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (a huge influence) seem positively normal in comparison. Skip the spoilers if you so wish, but those who know already are familiar with the awesomely complicated twist that details the killer’s sordid history as that pesky painting triggered memories of a past attack that sent them careening off the deep end. The legitimately tense finale sees Sam once again trapped in the art gallery, this time under a large sculpture (dude, maybe in future steer clear of galleries altogether, yeah?) as the killer taunts them with a knife, slashing at him and stabbing at the ground around his head and it’s the final flourish that tops of the end to the beginning of Argento’s historic run of movies that remained impressively strong until the nineties.
While still a near perfect example of everything the Giallo genre has to offer (clueless heroes, drawn out murder scenes, tangled plots and gorgeous cinematography), Argento still managed to do it better, but armed with a jazz infused, Ennio Morricone score and more style than most of his imitators would know what to do with, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage plays as sinisterly beautiful as the title suggests.