The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
Dario Argento is synonymous with the Giallo (Heavily stylised Italian Murder/Slasher) whereby one of his latter-day and inferior films carries the very same moniker, similarly, his directorial debut the Bird with the Crystal Plumage counts among the most acclaimed and beloved movies in the cycle. The man credited with its creation is Mario Bava and his 1963 film The Girl who knew too much and the far gorier film from 1971 that’s more immediately relatable to the “Giallo style” with A Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve). That places Argento’s debut in an interesting position as when looking at his career from afar, the Italian fan-favorite is renowned for his gore and singled out for his questionable treatment of female characters. That curiosity comes from the fact that the whirlwind and genre popularising success of the Bird with the Crystal Plumage is neither.
Out now in a luxurious limited edition release from Arrow Video, Bird with the Crystal Plumage sees American author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) caught up in the web of a black-gloved murderers games as he sees an attempted murder while walking past a lavish Roman art gallery. After being caught between the doors in the gallery, Dalmas starts to help a hapless police force out before he heads back home to America, a plot development that will have the uninitiated asking all sorts of questions – like, why would the police force put a civilian in harm’s way to catch a serial killer? And if there was going to be one, consistent genre-wide criticism of the Giallo it would be that quite often these films don’t really subscribe to conventional logic, or, to go even further, many of these films don’t make a lick of sense.
The biggest question that can be asked of this early Argento picture is the police’s trust of this one writer, but to call the film out for that when both American and Britain had scores of do-gooders fighting crime throughout the 1970s would be disingenuous. Elderly ladies, doctor’s and more solving crimes is one thing but it is hardly the same as the suspended disbelief necessary to enjoy the films of Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, Aldo Lado previous Arrow Video subject Emilio Miraglia and Argento himself. Historically, anyway, and while looking at the wider Giallo canvas. Crystal Plumage predates a lot of the more entrenched tropes, this is a fairly simple murder mystery plot with all the prerequisite twists and turns and many of the murders take place before events of the film, leaving the story free to invest itself in the mystery half of its genre aspirations. That being said, on this first watch, I can comfortably say that the script is confident and never once succumbs to predictability. Usually, with titles of this distinction, it is the gaudier excesses, gore, score and bravura cinematography to elevate these films with the plot being a predictable game of “murder guess who”. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has them all.
Ennio Morricone has gone down as one of the greatest composers in modern history, from his work to Sergio Leone, to his collaborations with Elio Petri (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) and here with Argento, the broadness of styles he consumes into his soundscapes is beyond compare. Here he uses subtle but broody instrumentation to set up the unease of the skulking killer and he offsets that with arrhythmic jazz drumming, a ploy that many other composers have done before and since. The difference between those other examples and this, however, is that Bird with a Crystal Plumage has Ennio Morricone in the chair and he understands how the flow of music and the flow of a scene intersect one another better than just about anyone working either now or then.
That alone would be enough for most films, but not for Argento in his debut as he also had the eye of Vittorio Storaro on set, a man the International Cinematographers Guild judged to be one of history’s ten most influential cinematographers. Ever. The erratic otherworldly sculptures of the art gallery is full of angles and lighting opportunities to marvel over, the Gothic abyss of Almas’s abandoned block of flats, the chase scene, a seamless P.O.V shot as a victim falls out of a window to their death and finally Almas opening a door into darkness (and one of the most beautiful examples of this shot too). I could go on evermore. This has to be one of the finest looking violent films ever and it doesn’t have the crutch of being saturated in phantasmagorical colour or obsessed with the unreal.
Giallo existed before and after Argento, but he piloted (or at least co-piloted) it through its peaks of popularity, some of his work played with broader inspirations (like science fiction in Tenebrae) or stuck to the generic convention (cat ‘o nine tails) but he was always there. It’s amazing to think then he started that journey as the finished article. He hit the ground running. If you have a hankering for the weird, flamboyance and sleaze of the Giallo – your best starting place is the Bird with the Crystal Plumage, it can be made no simpler than that.
Jumping over to purveyors of this fine film in Arrow Video. With the label migrating their award-winning releases to the opposite side of the Atlantic, the quality of their releases have improved yet again and in this limited edition release they have almost taken the home video release to an art form. That is the aptest of analogies thanks to the box art from Candice Tripp, he has turned the titular crystal plumage into a piece of art that would turn the head of anyone with even a passing interest. While the extras couldn’t possibly match that apex, it does contains scores of new interviews, a commentary with Giallo historian Troy Howarth, an essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and a general adulation of a loved film that you just don’t find in your average studio release.