The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970.
Directed by Dario Argento.
Starring Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Gildo Di Marco, Umberto Raho, Giuseppe Castellano, and Reggie Nalder.
A man witnesses an attempted murder and becomes the would-be killer’s next victim.
Having recently delved into Dario Argento’s back catalogue with the excellent Phenomena Blu-ray package recently, Arrow Video are at it again by re-releasing the Italian maestro’s debut directorial feature The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and, let’s be honest, there’s no real need to try and sell this to you as dyed-in-the-wool Argento fans would have pre-ordered it once it was announced as who wouldn’t want to own a dual-format 4K restoration of one of the milestone giallo movies from a legendary director, all presented in a fantastic box set with a poster, lobby cards and a 60-page booklet with exclusive writings on the film? But look at it this way – why should somebody not already on board with the filmmaker part with their hard-earned cash for a new print of an Italian movie that is nearly 50 years old?
Because it is a damn solid thriller, that’s why. Although Argento would go on to shock and scare in more graphic ways with horror masterpieces like Suspiria and more finely tuned gialli like Deep Red and Tenebrae, it is The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that lays the groundwork for where he would go but in a less fussy and more direct way. The violence and gore is pretty minimal here but that doesn’t matter as it is tension, atmosphere and anticipation of violence that makes a good thriller and Dario Argento pitches everything perfectly as he tells the simple story of an American man named Sam (Tony Musante) living in Italy with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). Walking home past an art gallery one night Sam witnesses a woman inside getting attacked by a mysterious figure in black brandishing a knife and, after getting trapped in the gallery’s glass doors, gets a passer-by to call the police. As a prime witness to the crime Sam’s planned return to the US is put on hold as dogged police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) thinks Sam may have seen more than he remembers and so confiscates his passport. With time to kill, Sam turns detective and begins to investigate the crime himself but the more he pieces together from what he saw that night the more attention he draws to himself and soon Sam and Julia become the target for the shadowy gloved killer.
What makes The Bird with the Crystal Plumage work so well is the minimalism that Argento employs in his setup. Whereas his later gialli tended to cram in more and more bizarre plot devices to make the narratives as incredible as his imagination, Argento was still finding his feet with this movie and it benefits from not being as excessive, not just in the gore and nudity departments but also in the characters. Tony is pretty much an everyman character going about his daily business when he happens to see what he sees, which leads to one of Argento’s more memorable set pieces as Tony is trapped between the two glass doors of the art gallery, unable to help the victim inside who is bleeding on the floor and unable to escape outside to fetch help, and his and Julia’s situation and relationship is played out in a very natural way, the scenes in their apartment with just the two of them interacting being as integral to the plot as the more violent scenes. And the scenes where they are stalked as a couple by an armed assassin (played by Salem’s Lot’s Reggie ‘Mr. Barlow’ Nalder) are all the more tense and dramatic because of how well they have been established.
With thematic and narrative nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho (like that movie there is some messy exposition at the end, just in case you didn’t quite get what was going on) and Argento pushing Mario Bava’s giallo template up a level, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage certainly holds up nearly half-a-century after it was made and what we would now call genre tradition or cliché still seems quite fresh and uncomplicated. It is a little rough around the edges and there is an argument to be made that the relative lack of directorial flair makes the film feel too conventional but those points are only really relevant when comparing it to Argento’s later works, and after all, this was his first movie and there are plenty of filmmakers out there at the twilight of their careers who would love to make a thriller as tight and effective as this with everything available at their disposal, let alone the small budget and restrictions that Dario Argento had to work with.
Naturally, those looking to buy this set as an upgrade from a previous format will want to know if the purchase is worth it and – surprise – it is as the 4K restoration looks stunning. There are one or two small marks on the film near the beginning that couldn’t be removed but once some colour is introduced and characters are moving around then the difference in picture quality is obvious and very pleasing to the eye, just as the Ennio Morricone score is to the ears. The extras include new interviews with Dario Argento and actor Gildo Di Marco, an audio commentary by author Troy Howarth plus appraisals on the film from various learned commentators and lobby cards, poster and booklet as mentioned previously so as far as content goes this is a must for collectors and about as definitive an edition of this landmark film as you are likely to get. Happily, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage also stands as a superb murder mystery thriller that will excite new and old fans alike, even if you already know who the killer turns out to be.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★