With his dazzlingly shot and sadistically violent directorial debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Dario Argento built on the giallo blueprint laid down by Mario Bava in the groundbreaking The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood And Black Lace; effectively kick starting the popularity of the giallo movie in early Seventies Italian cinema. A slew of films combining art-house aesthetics and exploitative sex and violence followed suit.

Argento explores traits, themes and concepts now commonly associated with his blood-soaked body of film work: fetishised depictions of violence and death, identity, gender, Freudian psychoanalysis, paranoia, voyeurism and spectatorship; all played out in the ‘stranger abroad’ story of an American writer who witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery in Rome. When he begins his own investigation he unwittingly draws the killer’s attention and must recall a vital clue distorted by memory before his own life is taken. The plot and characters arguably come second to the style and atmosphere, but the script, loosely adapted from Fredric Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi, seductively uncoils as an engrossing murder mystery.

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Lensed by Apocalypse Now cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage has an irresistibly stylish look that really enhances Argento’s astute ability for depicting scenes of violence and suspense. Unconventional editing techniques result in some rather unnerving and disorientating moments, which add to the perverse proceedings.

Cutting from extreme close-ups to wide angle shots, Argento perfectly conveys the heady panic experienced by the characters and the gradual piecing together of the fragmented puzzle. The film is laced with flashbacks to the scene in the gallery as Sam becomes obsessed with solving the case. To further drive home the protagonist’s attempts to remember what he saw, Argento highlights the deceptive nature of ‘vision’ and things not appearing to be what they seem in a number of scenes.

In one instance, the killer’s stealthy advance on a scantily clad victim is masked by the smoke from her cigarette as it obscures her view in an already darkened bedroom. Argento’s ‘sexualisation’ of violence comes into play in this scene too, as the black leather-gloved killer suggestively strokes the victim with a blade before slashing her to death: her face contorted in an almost orgasmic expression of terror.

Stand out scenes include the moment when Sam (Tony Musante) is trapped between the glass doors of the gallery, forced to watch the attempted murder, and when his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) is trapped alone in her apartment, helplessly looking on as the killer hacks through the door, very slowly and very determinedly. All the while Ennio Morricone’s highly atmospheric score adorns proceedings as it shifts between chic lounge numbers, haunting guitar strummed lullabies and unsettlingly abstract jazz.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is not only regarded as a genre-defining classic, but it also unfolds as one of Argento’s most accessible, compelling films – a great introduction to his work, and a must have for any fan of giallo all'italiana.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2011
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After a man witnesses an attempted murder, he soon finds himself the next killer's next target
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Director: Dario Argento

Writer: Dario Argento, Fredric Brown

Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Renato Romano, Giuseppe Castellano, Mario Adorf, Pino Patti, Gildo Di Marco, Rosita Torosh, Omar Bonaro, Fulvio Mingozzi, Werner Peters, Karen Valenti

Year: 1970

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Italy, West Germany


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