“Bring out the perverts!”
‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’, directed by Dario Argento in 1970, is the director’s first movie. It’s a whodunit along the lines of ‘Psycho’ in which an American writer, Sam Dalmas, witnesses an attempted murder and then helps the police chase a serial killer at the risk of his and his girlfriend’s lives. It’s a compact movie, stylishly shot but pared down in terms of narrative. Argento leaps from one visceral set-piece to the next, proving himself to be an expert at building tension and using darkness and fast paced editing to develop a feeling of dread without being too explicit. It lacks the outrageous visual style of ‘Profondo Rosso’ and ‘Suspiria’ but instead Argento goes for a noirish colour palette and a way of framing similar to Fritz Lang. Highlights of the film are the opening attempted murder: Dalmas is trapped, like the bird of the title and, perhaps the viewer of the film, between the external and internal sliding glass doors of an antiques showroom, forced helplessly to watch as the killer strikes and a woman lies bleeding. This is really the summation of why these films are so effective, like Dalmas, we are forced to be voyeurs, watching the murders take place and powerless to intervene. In this film, as in ‘Psycho’, the audience isn’t put in the place of the victim but instead in the place of the killer, and this is both arousing and disconcerting. The overall impression I got from this film was that, slightly contradictorily, it was Argento at his purest before the excesses of his later films, but also Argento without some of the key elements that makes him such a distinctive director.
Would I recommend it? Yes – with ‘Psycho’ clearly, but obviously watching with the narratively similar ‘Profondo Rosso’ to get a sense of Dario Argento’s development as a director.