UK Release Date: 8th May 2017
Runtime: 98 minutes
Director: Dario Argento
Writer: Dario Argento
Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi
Synopsis: A down on his luck writer witnesses an attempted murder and decides he can investigate it better than the police.
No one is synonymous with giallo horror like Dario Argento. The director of such genre classics as Deep Red and Tenebrae made his debut back in 1970 with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which contains all of the genre conventions that would grow to become Argento’s trademark. This is a film in which a man, determined to be the hero, investigates a gloved, mysterious killer who is murdering a string of women. It’s a solid thriller that provides a real glimpse into the mind of one of European cinema’s most twisted filmmakers.
Writer Sam (Tony Musante) is down on his luck and living in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) when he witnesses a brutal attack perpetrated against Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) in her art gallery. Powerless to intervene physically, he instead raises the alarm, saving Monica’s life. He subsequently joins police inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) in investigating the crime, which he believes is part of a killing spree that has claimed the lives of several other women. When Sam begins to receive menacing calls from the murderer, he realises he’s in far too deep.
For fans of Argento’s later, splatter-heavy giallo features, it’s possible that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage will look a little tame in comparison. Released in a rather less liberal age of censorship, it’s less lurid in its violence than some of the director’s later work and, as a result, lacks some of the edge that would make Argento a genre legend. It is, however, a movie that shows the early stages of Argento’s unique visual style, with artfully unusual shots of angular sets and a fascination with dripping tonnes of bright red claret on to white surfaces.
While giallo cinema is not known for producing intense, high-quality acting, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is particularly lacking from a performance standpoint. Tony Musante is not an exciting leading man and he lacks chemistry with Suzy Kendall, who doesn’t spend nearly enough time on the screen to make an impact. In fact, the only truly compelling performance is from the character ultimately revealed to be behind it all and even they are only allowed to embrace the full sadomasochistic darkness of their persona in the final handful of scenes.
Thankfully, though, Argento has a great partner in making this film work and that’s composer Ennio Morricone. Years after he made his name as the regular composer attached to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Morricone formed a fruitful union with Argento and his score for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a perfect jumping-off point for that. The score is full of strange, discordant sequences and looms large over proceedings. Even as Argento holds much of the gore, violence and horror outside of the camera’s field of vision, Morricone’s script fills the gaps with an evocative cacophony of noise.
The core of Argento’s giallo films is always the utterly ludicrous mystery plot at the centre of it all and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage just about hangs together. It has a twist finale that isn’t obvious to see coming and punctuates its central character’s investigations with some great stalk and slash sequences, helped along by Morricone’s score. This isn’t as essential as some of the director’s later work, but it is a solid 90 minutes of mystery cinema with a violent twist of the knife.
There’s quite a selection here, including a number of featurettes looking at the themes of the film and its connection to Argento’s other work. We get a commentary and a new chat with Argento as well, taking a look back at his debut film.
Pop or Poop?
As an early indicator of Dario Argento’s remarkable filmmaking ability, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is as interesting from a historical perspective as it is as a film in its own right. Argento crafts an intriguing mystery, but holds back a little on the violence that would later become such an essential part of his oeuvre.
The film certainly seems like a lesser work, but it’s also a nicely crafted thriller with a killer twist.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now, courtesy of Arrow Films.