The directorial debut of Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage not only redefined the giallo, a genre which had been around since Mario Bava made The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963. It also marked the arrival of a filmmaker who would leave a large mark on horror films in general.
A killer is stalking the women of Rome. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante, The Last Run, Judgment: the Court Martial of Lieutenant William Calley) doesn’t care though, he’s getting paid for a book he wrote and going back to New York. That is until he sees the killer attacking Monica Ranieri’s (Eva Renzi, Funeral in Berlin, Night of the Assassin) in her husband Alberto’s (Umberto Raho, My Name is Pecos, The Long Hair of Death) art gallery. Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno, Night Train Murders, Candy) is unsure if he’s a witness or the killer. Either way he orders his passport confiscated.
Now stuck in Rome Sam grows sick of the cops’ inability to solve the case and starts doing his own investigation. That puts not only his own life but that of his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, Fräulein Doktor, In the Devil’s Garden) in danger.
Argento had made his name as a writer of westerns and action films and I don’t think anyone was expecting the stylish thriller that he delivered. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage doesn’t have the elaborate camerawork he would become known for, but one can see the roots of them and his exceptional sense of the visual. Scenes like the opening shot of the black-gloved killer perusing his collection of knives, the assault that Sam witnesses, a nighttime chase through a bus depot and the killer trying to hack through a door to get to Julia all stand out.
The attack on a woman wearing only a see-through nightgown and panties foreshadows another, more controversial, of the director’s trademarks. The targets of the killer are nude or near-nude women and the sexualizing of the violence. Here the victim’s nightgown is sliced open and panties cut off before she’s killed. And, as would also be the case in his later films, Argento’s hands stand in for those of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s killer.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage does differ from Argento’s later films in one significant way, however. There is the usual collection of odd characters, a stuttering pimp (Gildo Di Marco, Trinity Is Still My Name), an artist who eats cats (Mario Adorf, Major Dundee, What Have They Done to Your Daughters? ), etc. But the plot itself is fairly straightforward, mostly revolving around something Sam saw, but his mind is repressing for some reason. There are none of the far-fetched elements of his later films such as Opera’s murderous murder of crows, or the straight razor-wielding chimp from Phenomena.
Fifty two years after the release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage its final reveal has become a bit of a cliché but at the time, and even when I first saw it, it was still fairly novel. And it’s well enough done that someone seeing it for the first time probably won’t see it coming if they’ve managed to avoid reading about it.
Having previously released it on Blu-Ray, Arrow Video is now bringing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage to 4K UHD on July 26th with a limited edition loaded with extras that would double the length of this review to list. You can read them all on Arrow’s website. I’m not certain, but I assume it will probably turn up on Arrow’s streaming service at some point as well. One way or the other it’s essential viewing if you haven’t already seen it.