I really couldn't tell you why I have yet to watch every film in Dario Argento's filmography. A few years ago it was easy to claim ignorance of many of this Italian director's important works because it was often so difficult to find any of them in an uncut form. Fortunately, DVD arrived on the scene and salivating film fans with dollars to spend prodded numerous companies to start churning out any movie they could get their hands on to satiate the masses. It wasn't too long before practically every Argento film arrived on store shelves, with many of these releases being the uncut, unrated editions. Even Troma, the flagship of flaccid filmmaking, released a so-so version of Argento's "The Stendhal Syndrome." People outside of the world of Italian horror cinema have most likely never heard of Dario Argento, unfortunately. These days, more people are familiar with the director's beautiful daughter Asia than with the horror maestro himself. What a shame. Argento's films, at least the ones I have seen, are masterpieces of style injected with truly cringe inducing gore. And to think it all started in earnest with this engaging Hitchcockian thriller, "The Bird With the Crystal Plumage." Argento and his fans never looked back, but this is an apt starting point for those unfamiliar with this director's work.
An American reporter staying in Rome witnesses a truly shattering event one evening when he sees a gruesome assault takes place inside of an art gallery. Barred from interfering with the proceedings due to huge sliding glass doors, Sam Dalmas can only look on with horror as two figures, one clad entirely in black and the other a woman, struggle with each other over a very shiny knife. The person in black flees the scene of the crime, leaving behind the hapless woman with a knife wound to the abdomen. When Dalmas does his duty by calling in the police, his story leads the officers to cast a doubtful eye on the concerned American. The police insist that Sam stay in Rome until the investigation turns up some clues, much to the consternation of Dalmas and his pretty girlfriend Julia. It seems that Sam was planning to leave Rome, but all bets are off as more murders occur that the police suspect are linked to the crime seen by Dalmas. Moreover, Julia and Sam start receiving grim phone calls from an unknown person who almost certainly is the figure behind these crimes. Our hero is in a real fix, with his only supporters being his woman and a friend who works at a museum. At least the cops start to come over to his side as the bodies pile up, especially once they listen to those eerie phone calls. A unique sound in the background of one of these calls provides the break Dalmas needs to identify the killer he saw on that fateful night. The conclusion has more twists and turns than a cyclone.
"The Bird With the Crystal Plumage" helped inaugurate the era of the Italian giallo (Italian for yellow), so named because in Italy cheap paperback crime novels came with yellow covers. These are the films with the anonymous, black-gloved killers toting gruesome looking knives while stalking their mostly female prey. The crimes are often seen from the point of view of the killer, giving the audience the impression that they are part of the heinous murders. Argento plays the giallo for all its worth here, matching this disturbing technique with a great score by the inestimable Ennio Morricone and camera work rarely seen in the horror genre. The cinematography here is simply divine, with the director including a shot from the point of view of a man falling from a tall building and an ultra cool scene where the camera points at a lighted doorway from inside a darkened room. All these elements combine to make this film a taut thriller of enormously entertaining dimensions. Moreover, of the few Argento films I have seen to date, "The Bird With the Crystal Plumage" contains one of his most coherent plotlines.
Gorehounds might find themselves a bit disappointed with the lack of the trademark Argento gore (no sharp corners to bash a head against here!) in this movie, but the stellar camera work, truly creepy scenes of murder and mayhem, and the strong performances from Tony Musante as Sam Dalmas and Suzy Kendall in the Julia role more than make up for the 'PG' rating. Still, that rating made me wonder a bit about what the people at the MPAA were thinking when they viewed this picture. There is upsetting violence here, along with some truly disturbing scenes that hint at where Argento would go in the future. The way the killer caresses those weird looking blades (one of which, I am almost certain, appeared in a later Argento film called "Deep Red") and the participatory effect the audience feels during the killings makes you wonder how this movie got off with such a mundane rating.
The DVD version of "The Bird With the Crystal Plumage" is strictly bare bones: you get the film and a trailer, which is good considering its relative obscurity but could have been better. As others have said, the audio is quite muzzy at times and the picture quality isn't anything to write home to mother about. After viewing this picture and a couple of other Argento films, I must say I really enjoy how these movies mess with your mind. Just when you think you know what's going on, good old Dario throws another curveball. He does this in many of his films, but he does it here for the first time. What a joy it is to watch it today!