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Italy 1969
Directed by
Dario Argento
96 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
David Michael Brown
4 stars

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage

Synopsis: American Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is staying with his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) in Rome. Out for a late night stroll through the window of a local art gallery he witnesses an attempted murder that may be the work of a serial killer. He decides partake in a spot of do-it-yourself sleuthing but little does he know that his inquisitive nature will bring his and his girlfriend’s lives into danger.

After getting his break as one of the writers of Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece Once Upon A Time In The West, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage marked Dario Argento’s debut as director. The film was also the first part of Argento’s animal trilogy, which was completed with Cat ‘O’ Nine Tails and the still unavailable Four Flies On Grey Velvet.

Looking at his more recent films it’s pretty obvious that Argento has lost his way somewhat. Movies like Phenomena revelled in the director’s askew worldview but when the director tried to be populist it never worked. His first film shot in America, Trauma, failed on almost every level, his remake of The Phantom Of The Opera was misguided and The Third Mother, the final part of his supernatural trilogy already including Suspiria and Inferno, has been receiving lukewarm reviews at best.

One of the appealing things about The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is the simplicity of the plot. The streamlined whodunit allows Argento to weave his camera around his art deco settings and play with the audience's and his characters’ perceptions of what they are actually seeing. The opening set-up, as Dalmas witnesses the attempted murder of Renzi is a beautifully-executed piece of cinematic deception that puts the audience on the backfoot before it’s even begun to try and fathom the mystery. Being one of the forerunners of the giallo thriller, the film features many of the motifs that make the genre what it is: killers in black leather, fetishistic cinematography catching every glint of light reflected from the murderer’s weapon, the lingering glimpses of violent deeds and so on. All are combined with Argento’s customary baroque set pieces and Ennio Morricone’s brilliant tension-filled score. Once again, by casting foreigners in the lead roles, he manages to portray the chaos and confusion of the unknown as his characters have to deal with life threatening experiences in a foreign land. Vintage British comedy enthusiasts will be delighted to see Suzy Kendall in the film. It’s bizarre to see her ensconced in this after a successful career in Britain including the movie versions of UK sitcoms, On The Buses and Please, Sir.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a wonderful reminder of why Argento is hailed as such an important director in the thriller and horror genres. It may lack the spine-tingling chills of Suspiria or the guttural punch of Tenebre but as a linear thriller that aims straight for the jugular it marked Argento as a visionary in his chosen field.




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