It is often stated that Dario Argento is the master of the Italian thriller, or giallo. He, as is common in the history of thriller auteurs has been compared to and labelled the Italian Alfred Hitchcock. By the late 1960s and early 1970s the giallo was a common genre film in Italian cinema; he took over the mantle from Mario Bava who’s films were by now waning. He made many classic giallo and horror films in the 1970s and ’80s, his most revered being Suspiria (1976), but in his early career he made strictly giallo thrillers. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) was not only his first giallo, but also his first film as director and although it is not the first giallo it is commonly referred to as the film that kick started the popularity of the genre in the 1970s. Prior to this he had been a screenwriter for several years on Italian films, writing scripts for war movies and spaghetti westerns alike. But it was the horror thriller that came to define Argento and launched his career. The plot of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is simple, but like with Hitchcock’s films his films they have been well studied with a strong emphasis on the sexual politics.
The films credits open with Ennio Morricone’s haunting lullaby soundtrack and a camera POV following a woman on the street. From this opening scene we see how Argento’s whole oeuvre would develop, how he would use the camera both as voyeur and from the perspective of the villain and the victim. We are then introduced to Sam (Tony Musante), an American writer living in Rome where his career is not going as he had hoped and he is in some senses bored. He lives in a garrett apartment with his girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall). One night he witnesses a woman (Eva Renzi) being attacked by a black coated, hatted and gloved killer in a modern art gallery. Sam is trapped between two glass doors and is seemingly impotent to help. The killer flees but the woman survives. The killer it would seem is the same serial killer who has been stalking and killing people in Rome for some months. Sam becomes fascinated by the murders and decides to investigate the crimes himself, but in doing so not only puts himself in peril, but Julia too. Sam begins to suspect that the painting of a blooded woman being attacked in the snow (in what looks like a bizarre variation on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’) has something to do with the killings. However, as both a witness and the person investigating the crimes he is drawing attention to himself from the killer who begins to stalk both Sam and Julia.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was based off a pulp novel from the 1950s called ‘The Screaming Mimi’ by Fredric Brown. Of course there are some huge differences between this film and the novel, but the psychological undertone remains. The novel was filmed as The Screaming Mimi in Hollywood in 1958 and starred Anita Ekberg. Argento’s film is less explicit and less extreme than his later films, although he never went to the extremes of say fellow celebrated Italian director, Lucio Fulci. In many ways this film became the template for the Italian giallo thriller with its erotic tension, a bogeyman like killer and violence against women. The central scene is the one in the art gallery, near the beginning of the film. This scene is well constructed and the sterile interior of the modern art gallery and the modern catsuit Renzi is wearing gives this scene a great deal of modernist style. Musante’s Sam is clearly haunted by what he saw as he has nightmares of this scene shown as freeze frame images from the gallery scene while Morricone’s haunting score leitmotif is played.
This is a thorough (and delayed) release of Argento’s first directorial effort from Arrow Video and is a very complete package that includes a commentary by giallo expert Troy Howarth, some great visual essays on the film and Argento respectively by Kat Ellinger and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. There is also a lengthy interview with Argento as well as an archived one on Renzi. Renzi talks candidly about the film, suggesting that appearing in the film was beneath her and was controlled at the time by her ex-husband. She also says how much she founded her co-star, Tony Musante very conceited and self absorbed. She leaves her biggest criticism for Klaus Kinski who wasnt even in the film. Interestingly the 4K transfer he is an English language print and it is sometimes unclear whether we are supposed to view Argento’s films in the English language or Italian prints. There are also a set of postcards of the Italian lobby cards included in the package.