by Phil Freeman
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, released in 1970, was Dario Argento‘s directorial debut, and an immediate commercial and critical success. Unlike the occult horror films (Suspiria, Inferno, Phenomena) for which he is best known, Bird is a Hitchcockian thriller involving the hunt for a serial killer. Arrow Video has just released it in a deluxe DVD/Blu-Ray package that includes a new restoration of the film, multiple interviews (including one with Argento) and commentaries, a 60-page booklet full of essays and lush images, and a reproduction of its poster. (Get it from Amazon.)
Argento’s movies frequently rely more on stunning visuals than narrative coherence or compelling characterizations, but Bird has all three. The story revolves around Sam Dalmas, an American writer living in Rome with his girlfriend; one night, he’s heading home when he sees a woman being attacked inside an art gallery (given the ultra-aestheticized violence in Argento’s movies, this is pretty blatant meta-commentary on its own). Dalmas is unable to rescue her because he’s trapped between two sliding glass doors that won’t open; he watches her, panicked, bleeding on the floor. Eventually the police arrive, and we learn (or think we do) that the woman is merely the latest victim of a serial killer who’s been terrorizing Rome.
Bird is a mystery, and a very well-crafted one, so discussion of its plot will basically end here, except to note that of course, Dalmas and his girlfriend become the killer’s next targets, even as he undertakes his own obsessive investigation of the crimes, while remaining under police suspicion. There are more murders, an encounter with a creepy and possibly insane artist, and one fantastic scene in which Dalmas is being chased by a man in a distinctive leather jacket. When he manages to turn the tables and pursue his pursuer, he finds himself in a room filled with men wearing identical jackets.
Argento was born into the Italian movie industry; his father was producer Salvatore Argento, and after starting out as a critic/scholar, he moved into screenwriting. He’s credited, along with Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone, with the story for the classic 1969 western Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s kind of amazing that Bird is his first film as a director, because its visual style is assured, already demonstrating the techniques he would use throughout his career, including swooping cameras, shocking cuts, and an extremely vivid color palette. Some of the performances are a little stilted, of course, in the manner of Italian cinema—Tony Musante is good at the action-hero parts of his role, but he’s never convincing as an American, or a writer. On the other hand, Eva Renzi (the woman Dalmas sees in the art gallery) is terrific.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an amazing debut; indeed, it’s one of Argento’s best movies, and this deluxe edition provides in-depth analysis and extensive background information. Here’s a short video about the movie and the special features: