I was pretty confident I’d have to watch a Dario Argento movie at some point during my Halloween Binge; it was just a matter of which one. The two of his films I’ve seen are delightful. One, Suspiria, is largely considered his masterpiece and is, indeed, wonderful. The other, Phenomena, which I watched for my binge last year, is less respected. However I thought it was incredibly entertaining, despite its flaws. It’s a film too awesome in too many ways to be held back by a slightly messy plot. I was basically down to picking between Opera and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. I ended up going with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.
Partially my choice was driven by the history of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. The film is generally considered to be one of the first ever gialli films. I have gone on record about my fondness for giallo in this very binge already (I really am watching a lot of Italian films this time around), so I’ll try not to repeat myself. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is historically important for another reason – it was the directorial debut of Dario Argento. So it seemed like a reasonable choice.
I will say, as good as the film was, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. I was hoping for the ultra-giallo set design and mystical elements of Dario Argento’s later movies, as those are what stick in my head about the director. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage really is prototypical giallo. There’s not a whole lot to set it apart from films like Blood and Black Lace, or The Strange Vices of Mrs. Wardh. It doesn’t even offer the faint twists on the style that Torso, or A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin have. It certainly doesn’t have the eight strange wrinkles that Phenomena had. Now hopefully, you, my canny reader, will have realized what an impossibly stupid complaint I have just levied at the film. I couldn’t seriously expect a movie that helped invent a formula to subvert it all that much, could I? Nor could I really expect Dario Argento’s first movie to display the stylistic techniques he would develop at his peak. So suffice it to say these aren’t really complaints, in the strictest sense, just comments on what the film looked like and how I felt about that.
The best choice Dario Argento makes with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is probably still the production design. The story is a typical mystery and, as can be the case with gialli films, is a little rote and predictable. The kills aren’t particularly notable; the killer wields a few different knives and slashes at people. It’s nothing to write home about, even when observing the influence the film has had. Granted the style of these moments is still felt, with the gloved killer slashing maniacally at the camera. It’s well shot, as one would expect, but it’s definitely lacking actual horror value. It’s the set design, and the variety of clever visuals, that really make this movie striking. There’s a spacious white wall and glass art gallery that shows up a few times. There’s a dingy home built into an old farmhouse. There’s the lavish flat the protagonist lives in, and an ornate apartment the killer uses as a base of operations. These lead to some of the film’s more striking moments, like when the protagonist almost gets crushed under a display at the gallery, or when his girlfriend’s failed attempts to break a window leave a silver candelabra hanging upside down from the thick, cracked glass.
There’s the beginnings of the baroque style that would reappear throughout Dario Argento’s filmography, and be imitated countless times in other gialli. What’s more impressive is that there are also sequences, like the one in the park or the one in a parking lot, that betray the slighter, starker, more brutal style that would appear in some gialli, like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin or Torso. Both ends of the spectrum are slightly apparent in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, which speaks to the beginnings of Dario Argento’s remarkable visual style and storytelling ability.
One of the other absolute high points of the film is the score by Mr. Ennio Morricone. His score is filled with flitting high pitched wind instruments, pianos, many glittering chimes, and eerie vocal elements. It’s not an unusual score for Morricone, with its haunting “la la las” and typically nice sounds heightened to the point of discomfort and, like most of his scores, it’s frequently a show stealer it’s so good. One particular moment that saw a woman climbing a set of stairs to the increasingly frenzied sound of chimes and a gasping vocal element was absolutely breath taking.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is a movie slightly transformed by the films that came after it. It’s a little like when dumb people watch Die Hard and christen it clichéd. The only thing is The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is really hyper typical in some ways. That script especially. It’s just very predictable. None of that even remotely sinks the movie, which is still a wonderful example of the giallo genre. In fact it would be a great first giallo film, because of its impact and adherence to what would become the typical formula. It’s lacking the craziness of some of its follow ups, but it also doesn’t really ever misstep. It just means it’s not the most fun giallo film to watch. In some ways I found it to be more of an important curiosity than I did an exciting viewing experience. Which is a little bit of an insulting comment, given how impressive it is in so many ways. I mean, this is Argento’s first film, and it betrays a confidence and skill that’s kind of ridiculous. However I can’t stop myself from not being floored by this movie on an emotional level. That doesn’t stop me from admiring an influential and incredibly tightly made film however.