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DVD Review: ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’

★★★★★

“That Italian fellow is starting to make me nervous”, purportedly the words of Alfred Hitchcock upon stumbling out of this taught thriller, released nearly ten years to the day after Psycho (1960) birthed the slasher genre. The ‘Italian fellow’ in question was master-to-be Dario Argento, and the film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – the picture that, while often wrongly credited as having started the movement, brought universal attention to Giallo cinema.

Beginning with the immaculately-coiffured Tony Musante witnessing a Poe-inspired art gallery stabbing, Argento’s debut details the character’s shallow obsession with the case and the subsequent peril his posturing throws him and girlfriend Suzy Kendall into. The film, digitally re-mastered here, has aged wonderfully in comparison to many later works and features a tick list of frequently revisited tropes: the black gloved killer, the often uncomfortable melding of eroticism and violence, the ridiculously convenient police technology that helps speed up proceedings, falling just shy of the retina-hologram in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971).

Musante’s Sam Dalmas is introduced to us as a hack writer pining to unleash his artistic potential but, whether due to the film’s deliberate presentation of the character, or simply Musante’s slappable performance, we are never led to believe that he is anything other than an air-headed opportunist. And all the better for it – the Fellini-styled emptiness of the central relationship catches the zeitgeist in a way that the characters, so desperate to be riding the crest of popular culture, will always find out of reach.

Not content with simply reasserting and reconfiguring the possibilities of the genre in his first film, Argento probes the very relationship between cinema and spectatorship, trapping his protagonist between panes of shifting glass, a forced audience for the killer’s show. While it isn’t hard to place the kinship Hitch must have felt with the young director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a much harsher beast, transposing the brutality of the spaghetti western (Argento having written Once Upon a Time in the West two years previous) into the upper-class playground of the popular ‘white telephone’ movie.

The violence, though sparing and suggestive, leaves a dark taste in one’s mouth, the overt sexuality of the killings bearing none of the irony or wit of Hitchcock, and only shades of what Argento would later coin ‘violence as art’. That the central murder set-piece takes place in an art gallery is telling as to Argento’s placing of violence in popular entertainment and as base human fascination.

A difficult film to review without spoiling many of its most impressive and assured qualities, Argento’s masterpiece is also noteworthy for featuring the collaborative talents of composer Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.

Morricone’s offbeat score is one of his most undervalued and unique, combining screeching jazz with dark and erotic soundscapes populated by swathes of seemingly orgasming women. Likewise, Vittorio Storaro, working just prior to his breakthrough on Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), ensures that the film’s aesthetic qualities match, and sometimes make allowances for, Argento’s speeding imagination.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hasn’t aged in any detrimental sense, appearing at once to be very rooted in the fallout of the sixties as well as simultaneously fresh, modern and dangerous. Much of this can be attributed to the clear enthusiasm and playfulness with which the first-time director approaches the medium, the still striking use of infinitesimal freeze-frames to emphasize pivotal moments prefiguring Soderbergh’s terminally-hip Out of Sight (1998) by nearly 30 years.

Considered a slight or marginal work by many, this re-mastered classic is as essential to anyone’s collection as Deep Red (1975) or Suspiria (1977). Yes, it’s that good.

Robert Savage