Dario Argento’s influence on horror is unquestionable. From the formation of the Italian Giallo genre through the style of the slashers of the 70’s and 80’s, the serial killer obsessed police drama’s on TV in the 2000, right up to the Oscar winning Black Swan which many have agreed owes more than a little to Argento in its style and tone, his influence is still as evident and important as ever.
However all of what we now know to be classically Argento had to come from somewhere and what better place to see the seeds of his stylistic flair, the evolution of his artistic eye and the origins of his thematic obsessions than in his directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Released in 1970 Argento was already a successful film critic and screenwriter at the time and he borrowed money from his wealthy father to produce the film. Penned by Argento himself The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was in fact an unaccredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi, which had already been filmed by Hollywood. What Argento added to the tale was a heavy dose of lurid sexuality and violence filmed with succulent cinematography and a cinematic style unseen thus far by audiences making it a massive box office hit in Italy.
The story revolves around Sam (Tony Musante recently seen in We Own the Night) an American writer living in Rome who while walking home late one night witnesses the attempted murder of a beautiful woman in an art gallery. The police are convinced that this is the work of a serial killer and that Sam, their only witness, knows more than he can remember taking his passport away so he must stay in the country.
With little else to do Sam becomes obsessed with his own investigation into the murders slowly uncovering pieces of the puzzle, which will lead to the killers identity. However when he himself and his model girlfriend are targeted the stakes are raised and Sam must solve the mystery before he is either killed or charged as the prime suspect.
Much like Hitchcock, who was a major influence, Argento elevates this simple crime thriller combining an excellent story with some amazingly filmed set pieces transforming it into a piece of cinematic art. Full of jumps and shocks Argento also plays with the audience again as Hitchcock did showing us things that the characters don’t see upping the suspense.
The attempted murder scene, which starts the whole film off, is especially breath taking with the stark contrast of the white art gallery filled with dark grotesque modern statues and the woman in white as well bleeding and begging for Sam’s assistance as he helplessly watches trapped between two pains of glass as she slowly sinks closer to death.
The killings when they come are brutal and violent often shot close up from the murders point of view making them all the more visceral and real. Although following the criminal investigation into the slayings with scientific specifics and technological advancements from the time, as is de rigueur in a Giallo, we also see into the psychological side which is often the most unsettling embodied in the simplistic yet nasty painting which the killer purchases before butchering the girl who sold it to him, a copy of which Sam hangs on his wall to get inside the murderers mind.
Creating an ambience of paranoia and tension throughout the film we feel like Sam constantly on edge and as he delves deeper into the identity of the depraved killer that creping apprehension increases for us and the character helped along by the excellent Ennio Morricone score which amps up the atmosphere.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a thriller with a killer plotline which will keep you guessing till the end directed by a master of the genre who had an eye for cinema evident even in this his first full film. Stylish, scary, oozing with atmosphere and released on Blu-Ray by Arrow packed with the excellent extras you would expect from them this is a must have for Argento fans and horror buffs alike.