The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
As directorial debuts go, Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is quite impressive. Although Argento would perfect his craft in later films, Bird maintains a consistent veil of suspense, mixing in a touch of ultraviolence and a twist of Hitchcock. As such, it is a solid example of the quintessentially Italian giallo film.
Argento's storyline, loosely adapted without credit from Fredric Brown's novel Screaming Mimi, centers on Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer looking for (and failing to find) inspiration in Italy. He's ready to pack it in and fly back to the States when he witnesses an attempted murder at an art gallery, which he is helpless to prevent. We later discover that this attack is connected to a string of homicides perpetrated by a madman. The police question him, but there's some major clue that he can't quite recall. At Inspector Morosini's (Enrico Maria Salerno)'s encouragement, Sam launches his own private investigation into the serial murders, putting himself and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) in the path of danger.
As a giallo, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an exemplary combination of all the things associated with this particular breed of Italian mystery-thriller. It features violence that is heavy on the crimson, stylized camera work, and sex and sexuality as major parts of the plot. One could argue that Bird is the film that defined these as characteristic of the subgenre, but in reality, it merely accentuates and clarifies an existing format. The blueprint for giallo was laid out by Mario Bava in The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace, two earlier films that heavily influence Bird. Argento's lasting addition to the genre is that his killers murder not for personal reasons of wealth, power, or self-preservation, but because they are utterly insane.
The work of Alfred Hitchcock heavily influences the traditions the giallo. Accordingly, Argento pays homage to the Master several times in Bird. As in Hitchcock's films, Argento's police are largely ineffectual; they even encourage Sam's investigations, possibly out of the hope that the killer will reveal herself if he gets close enough. When Sam witnesses the assault at the art gallery, he is trapped behind glass, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. One of the many red herrings bears an uncanny resemblance to Anthony Perkins from Psycho and his death is a direct call to the climax of Saboteur. Sam himself is briefly suspected of the murders and initially begins his investigation in order to clear his name, which is a plot point common to a number of Hitchcock's thrillers. The most obvious reference to Hitch, however, is when a psychiatrist gives a long, rambling and ultimately unsatisfying explanation of the killer's motivations, just as Simon Oakland did at the end of Psycho. Argento's clever variation, though, is that he crosscuts this tedious explanation with shots of another character in the film who has (arguably) just suffered the same trauma that caused the killer's psychosis, leaving the lingering suggestion that perhaps the story is not entirely finished.
Sam's civilian investigation, aside from being very Hitchcockian, is also a commentary by Argento on the art of murder. He seems to be saying that in order to peer into the mind of a madman, you must judge your target aesthetically, not clinically. The police in Bird have all sorts of wonderful tools at their disposal -- machines that can match almost any sound, computers that can determine suspect attributes based on what brand of cigar they smoke, and investigators who can analyze forensic evidence of all shapes and size. They even have a a predetermined set of "perverts" who they trot out for line-ups in cases of a sexual nature. Argento makes a big show of all these marvelous resources, but he makes an even bigger show of how impotent they are at locating a mind of cunning insanity.The police unable to locate a viable suspect; the killer even calls them on the telephone just to taunt them for their ineffectualness. Sam, a writer, is more attuned to the artistic, to concepts, ideas, and inspirations. He takes the same pieces of evidence that the police have and is able to get much closer; so close that two separate attempts are made on his life and another on his girlfriend. When Sam locates information about a painting that the killer purchased just before the first killing, he correctly assesses that the painting is key to understanding the murderer. He tracks down the artist of the portrait who explains it's origins. Sam believes that it is the inspiration of the murder and not the motivation that will lead him to the end of the trail.
Much of the enjoyability of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hinges on solving the murder mystery before the characters do. Then again, Argento doesn't play fair -- or does he? While some flashback footage doesn't seem to quite match with the eventual revelation of the killer's identity, this may all be perfectly rational. Our main clue is Sam's recollection of the event. What we, the audience, actually witness early in the film is from far away, but the flashbacks later on provide tantalizing close-ups that Argento frames in such a way that the damning evidence is just off-screen. Sam's own preconceptions fill in the missing details and we happily agree with his conclusions. If the flashbacks don't exactly match the facts, it's only because Sam's memory is faulty and, by extension, so is ours. We don't consider that one of Sam's major conclusions may be completely wrong. We even get a little annoyed with his constant assertions that something is missing; everything appears to be fairly cut-and-dried.
Argento does more than let our brains take a shortcut to an "obvious" conclusion. He wraps a leash around our necks, tightens it, and pulls us through that shortcut, while we trot alongside, blissfully unaware of being led. So effective is he at this that there are few critics on record who were able to spot the twist (according to Alan Jones, author of Profondo Argento, Pauline Kael claimed to have guessed early in the film, but this seems appropriate for the famously anti-bulls**t critic). At this point in the review, it becomes incredibly difficult to discuss the identity of the killer without actually giving away the Big Secret, so please note that spoiler information follows.
The killer is a woman. However, it is difficult to come to that conclusion on one's own, as Argento puts a lot of effort into disabusing us of the notion of a woman as the killer. The woman in question wears a masculine black raincoat and a black hat, as well as the black leather gloves that would become synonymous with the psychopathic murderers of Argento's films. All of the victims, with one exception, are female. When we hear the murderer over the phone, the disguised voice is very similar to the harsh, whisper that Peter Lorre affects for the scene in Mad Love in which his character, Dr. Gogol, attempts to drive Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) mad. For those who are aware of the reference, this further drives the circumstantial evidence for a male killer, since Gogol is practically the patron saint of perverted masculine desire. Further, we know that the killer has a fixation on a painting that depicts a man murdering a woman.
Beyond these strikingly masculine character peculiarities, Argento presents the most volatile of his misdirects cinematically. Bird opens with point-of-view shots from the perspective of the killer, first as she take salacious, voyeuristic photographs of her next intended victim and then as she prepares for the murder by carefully selecting a knife from a tray of similarly phallic tools. Surprisingly, we are not party to the unnamed woman's death; we instead hear about this murder in the news the next day.
From this point on, our visual dealings with the murderer vary. When we see the killer before a murder, we are put in her shoes and watch as she select a victim, who is always a young, beautiful woman. We engage in the stereotypical "male gaze" as the camera objectifies some poor, unaware girl. During the murder sequences, our perspective changes and we are asked to take the part of the victim as they are terrorized, cornered, and brutalized. The first explicit murder sequence uses a point-of-view shot to equate the viewer's identity with the victim-to-be. This is not a new trick, but Argento uses it only to establish a relationship. He does not maintain the perspective after he has introduced the killer into the sequence. Instead, we drift out a bit, looking at the girl as her assailant shoves her down on the bed and slices off her night gown. Our lingering identification heightens the sensation of this action and also our outrage at the assumed masculinity of the killer. From here, Argento brings his camera in tighter as we are forced to trail down the girl's body with the killer's hand, with the killer's knife. With a vicious yank, the killer removes the undergarments of the prone woman before stabbing her; the suggestion is that the fatal knife thrust penetrates sexually. It is a tantalizing scene to watch, but a difficult one to finish, because while we are still identifying with the victim, Argento subtly nudges us into almost unspeakable identification with the murderer (and by extension, the knife). After the precise moment that murderer and murdered impact, we are compelled to reject the killer as opposite and antithetical to the victim. As the victim is a female, we accept that the killer must be male, and Argento has certainly given us enough evidence to support this.
Many of the themes in The Bird with Crystal Plumage, such as the fallibility of memory, the plight of the helpless witness, and the role of art in psychosis recur in Dario Argento's later films, such as Deep Red, Suspiria, and Tenebre. His skill at transferring the brutalization of his characters to his audience only increases, while his showy homages to Hitchcock lessen as he gains more confidence in his own abilities. The whodunits twist toward labyrinthine and nonsensical, but the journey to the final revelation becomes more exhilarating. However, none of these comparisons to future works lessen the fact that Argento is a creative force to be reckoned with. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage proves that he has always been so.