The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
October 19, 2018
Enrico Maria Salerno
1 Hr., 36 Mins.
he best scene in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento’s breakthrough giallo thriller from 1970, is also among its simplest. In it, our shaggy-haired hero’s (Tony Musante) model girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall), is alone in their rented Rome apartment until she isn't anymore.
Previously in the movie, our protagonist, an American writer named Sam, witnessed what looked like a violent attack in-the-making in an art gallery,
while walking home alone one night. Putatively, a woman (Eva Renzi) was
in the midst of being killed by a black-trenchcoated, black-hatted, black-gloved slasher; Sam, serendipitously, was able to interrupt the incident and thus save the woman’s life. Since, though, murders — seemingly perpetuated by this would-be assailant — have been occurring on a near-nightly basis. And Sam, despite saying, early on, that he and Julia are planning on heading back to America in the next few days, has, out of curiosity, taken on the role of the self-made detective, leading to several attempts by the killer to off him.
In this scene, the murderer has deduced that the most effective way to get Sam off their back is to rid him of Julia. So on the other side of midnight, before Sam comes home following a long day of amateur sleuthing, the slasher takes it upon themselves to break into the apartment and kill Julia. After catching a glimpse of their silhouette in the stairwell, though, Julia is able to lock the door and heave a dresser in front of it.
The scene, which is, fundamentally, little more than a few minutes of door-jiggling and screaming on the part of our heroine, is urgent. The way Argento stages it — supplemented by the cutting of phone and power lines, developments that screech in their anxiety— recalls the dark-exploiting terrors of 1967’s Wait Until Dark. And Kendall’s performance, leavened with a flailing body and frenetic google eyes, is a touch more cerebral than a number of woman-in-trouble archetypes.
Argento, who would go on to make some of the most influential of horror movies over the next decade, knew the power of a great scene. All his films — even his best, such as the whodunit-like Deep Red, from 1975, or the Technicolored supernatural fright fest Suspiria (1977) — were narratively unsteady, and featured dialogue and performances ranging in their efficiency. But the filmmaker, oft-considered one of the genre’s bonafide auteurs, could insert so much bravura into a given scene that, even if a movie was relatively inept, a particularly inspired tableau or sequence was capable of elevating the material significantly.
Made when he was 29, after a four-year period of primarily acting as a Sergio Leone-adjacent screenwriter, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage helped establish Argento as a talent to watch. It also, in part due to its runaway critical and commercial success, turned him into a key figure of the buddingly popular giallo subgenre, a crime fiction-cum-slasher class popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. His directorial debut, the film, an uncredited adaptation of Frederic Brown’s mystery thriller The Screaming Mimi (1949), is among his sturdiest and most streamlined — a persuasive, knife-happy, pulpy roller coaster featuring headily mounted murder sequences, breathtakingly keyed-up photography, and a wonderfully ghastly Ennio Morricone score.
It is, by and large, a conventional giallo thriller. But Argento, in comparison to early genre-defining peers like Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi, directs with veritable Hitchcockian assurance. The film is so stylish, and so detailed in its stalk-and-slash stagings, that it at once enlivens and transcends slasher-movie tropes. Its finale, either ludicrous or exquisitely insane depending on your outlook, epitomizes Argento’s willingness to dress up the tritest of genre tropes. This is unmissable Argento, to be certain. A-