Sam Dalmas is an American writer living in Rome with his English girlfriend Julia. A scant few days before his return to the States with Julia, Sam witnesses a strange man wearing a trenchcoat and leather gloves attempt to brutally murder the wife of an art-gallery owner. After the police clear him as the prime suspect, Sam postpones his trip home (much to Julia’s chagrin) to investigate the attack on his own–he can’t shake the feeling that there’s some vital fact eluding him. It turns out that the attack is connected to a serial murderer who has been stalking the city…and the mysterious killer’s next target appears to be Sam…
The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is Dario Argento’s début as a director, and while he was visionary and stylish enough to make this first effort look somewhat distinctive, but in context with the rest of his “classic” work, there’s a sense that he’s still finding his voice a bit. The violence, while certainly shocking (particularly an implied-rape scene), isn’t as graphic or gory as it would be by the middle of the ’70s. (This is actually to the film’s benefit, as doesn’t feature effects sequences that looked great but meant very little in the context of the actual story, a tendency which often mars his later, more highly regarded work.)
There are also a number of elements to the production that would eventually be worked out of the Argento formula, such as some exaggerated eccentric characterization (notable secondary characters in Crystal Plumage include a fat, Hitchcockesque art dealer with exaggerated fey mannerisms, an imprisoned pimp who ends every sentence with “go on” in order to overcome a stutter, and a literally shut-in artist who eats cat meat)–that’s not to say that the characterization here is great, just more distinctive than it is in (say) Inferno, where many of the characters don’t even seem to have personalities.
It also doesn’t feel as fiercely original as the strongest of Argento’s work. As incoherent as Suspiria and Inferno often get, the distinct quality that makes an Argento film an Argento film carry them through. Crystal Plumage often feels like a slightly above-average but still run-of-the-mill giallo. I’m not criticizing it for not feeling original (although it kinda doesn’t). Working within a subgenre is more about remixing familiar tropes and elements in a way that feels fresh and exciting (or at least not constantly eliciting thoughts of “He ripped that off from…” in the audience) than it is about being “original” and forging new paths. Criticizing a giallo too much for relying on exotic locations, bold production design, and shots of beautiful, fashionably-dressed young women being menaced by black-gloved psychos holding shiny phallic bladed weapons is kind of like criticizing Blues Traveler’s “Hook,” Green Day’s “Basket Case” and the folk song “One Tin Soldier” for their reliance on chord changes borrowed, consciously or unconsciously, from Pachlebel’s Canon in D major. Yet it does have to be said that Argento borrows a little bit too much here from Hitchcock and Mario Bava.
Despite these criticisms and some not-entirely-inspiring performances from Tony Musante as Sam and Suzy Kendall as Julia (not terrible, but not memorable, either) The Bird With The Crystal Plumage remains an enjoyable and suspenseful watch. Argento shows a strong command of atmosphere, suspense and style right out of the box, and even today its ability to keep the audience at the edge of its seat is remarkable. It’s probably not as strong as some of his later work, but as opening salvos go, it’s a good one.
My rating: 7 of 10.
98 minutes; in Italian, with dialog dubbed in English. Directed by Dario Argento. Starring Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Eva Renzi, Enrico Maria Salerno.
Seen at Terror In The Aisles 13.