Dario Argento is a towering figure in both genre and Italian cinema. But back in 1970 he had yet to direct a feature film solo and his first outing as writer/director would be a giallo. This sub-genre of potboiler thriller is so named because they are in the style of old pulp novels that almost invariably had yellow covers in Italy.
The Bird With The Crystal Plumage would turn out to not only be an exceptional giallo, but would also launch Argento into being arguably the pre-eminent auteur of the genre. He would subsequently branch out into horror and gain international acclaim, but it was in the murky world of serial killers and whodunnits that he made his name.
The plot here does have the familiar elements of a black-gloved killer of beautiful women, but it is a step above most in its style and pacing. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer relocated to the quiet of Italy in order to work better. Now, as his return home is imminent, he sees a knife attack on a woman in an art gallery. The police, believing this part of a run of serial murders, refuse to let him leave the country due to his status as a witness.
Sam finds himself a target of the killer, apparently convinced Sam saw enough to be a threat. The only option Sam has to protect himself and his Italian model girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) is to try and track down the killer, his only clue being his memory of that night.
The script is a bit infantile at times and contains some wild stretches of logic, but it sweep along with a broad sense of humour and is punctuated by the real strength of Argento – the set-pieces.
These are not as stylish as his later work would become, but there are the first signs here. The attack Sam witnesses takes place in a pure white gallery, with Sam trapped between glass walls, unable to intervene, framed against the black night. Elsewhere, an extended foot chase through darkened city streets and a bus yard is superbly staged.
Some more dubious Argento elements also emerge. One of the murders is sexualised – the victim changes for bed into a diaphanous piece of lingerie that would only be considered sleepwear in adult entertainment immediately prior to being stabbed to death. Sam’s girlfriend Judith is a simpering damsel-in-distress throughout and the female roles in general are underwritten to put it mildly.
Nonetheless, this is a superior giallo that never flags in pace. The importance of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in film history may rest primarily with its status as the launchpad for Dario Argento, but it remains an effective thriller in its own right.