Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American novelist living in Rome. On the eve of his departure from the city, Dalmas witnesses an attempted murder – a cloaked figure trying to stab a woman in a brightly-lit art gallery. The local police withhold Dalmas's passport after he tells them that something about the crime scene bothers him – some detail that he cannot put his finger on. As more women are found murdered across the city, Dalmas is drawn further and further into solving the mystery.
Dario Argento's debut was the film that immediately gained him the 'new Hitchcock' tag – his career ultimately followed its own peculiar course, but watching this early work it's not hard to spot the Hitch comparisons. But even more than that, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage follows in the tradition of the Giallo murder mysteries that were popular reading matter in Italy in the 1960s – lurid interest in the crimes themselves, labyrinthine, contrived plotting, two-dimensional characters and a cunning twist in the tale. This is not the tightest, best acted or best directed of Argento's films, but it provides a fascinating, very entertaining template from which the director built his own style of thriller.
As Sam Dalmas continues his investigating, he uncovers a series of clues which may or may not point to the identity of the psychopath menacing the women of Rome. A painting depicting a violent murder was sold by one of the killer's victims on the night she died – could the artist be involved? The villain's voice is recorded, taunting the police over the phone – but what is that strange noise in the background? Who is the disfigured man stalking Dalmas? And what was that elusive detail about the first crime scene that our hero can't quite remember? Not all of these clues lead anywhere, and the film does stall a little in the mid-section as Sam seems to get no further despite a number of promising leads. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is not nearly as tightly wound as many of Hitchcock's films, and much of Sam's investigation seems like padding between the set pieces – the clues that eventually lead to the killer are all established early on.
But although he lets the plot slip from him, even at this early stage Argento was in full control of his film on a visual level. It was photographed by Vittorio Storaro – his first colour film – and the pair make a striking combination. Argento's camera prowls the streets of Rome (even though the night-time fog sometimes makes it look more like London!) and the director constructs some gripping suspense sequences – in particular the opening murder attempt, as Sam finds himself trapped between two sheets of glass, unable to help the victim, and a nail-biting scene where Suzy Kendall, playing Sam's girlfriend, is menaced in her own apartment building. Ennio Morricone's score is an effective mix of hypnotic childlike singing and crashing jazzy dissonance, and unusually for Argento film, there are some scenes played purely for comedy. Despite its more obviously dated aspects, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage still holds up remarkably well and if not quite genre-forming, was certainly genre-defining.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.