Dario Argento’s first and most conventional film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, is loosely based on American pulp writer Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi. Featuring a bubbly pop score by Ennio Moriccone, the film is arguably Argento’s most Hitchcockian venture. American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) walks past an art gallery one night and witnesses two figures struggling: a woman and a man in a black raincoat. Sam rushes to the woman’s defense only to be locked inside a double set of glass doors that separate the gallery from the street. From his make-shift prison, Sam watches as the male figure flees the scene, leaving the bloodied woman, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), writhing helplessly on the gallery floor. In this, the film’s most startling set piece, signature Argento obsessions are on fierce display. Soon Sam’s memory of the crime is called into question and his gaze, once again, rigorously forced.
Bird With the Crystal Plumage is perhaps best enjoyed by those new to Argento. The film lacks the color glory of Suspiria and the self-reflexive auteur treatise of 1982’s Tenebre and could pass for one of Agatha Christie’s mannered puzzles. All the ingredients of Argento’s greater films are present here in muted form. The film’s fashionable killer dons black gloves. This fashionable archetype may not have originated here though it has certainly become de rigueur (primarily in the films of Brian De Palma) because of Argento. Sam plays an American writer though his occupation seems tangential to the film’s plot; not until 1975’s Deep Red would occupational angst become a potent element of an Argento narrative. Like Marc from Deep Red, Sam defies the town’s ineffectual police officers by launching an amateur investigation of his own.
Sam’s journey first takes him to an antique store, where the killer’s first victim worked as a salesgirl. The establishment’s owner is Argento’s first gay construct, a foppish man who makes sexual advances at a seemingly nervous Sam. While slowly pursuing the writer through his store, the man brings up the salesgirl’s suspected lesbianism: “They said she preferred women. I couldn’t care less. I’m not racist.” While Argento has never been particularly deft at handling the sexuality of his characters, this comic scenario immediately conjures the moral discourse at work in Tenebre. While the antique owner’s actions are silly, the use of the word “racist” (here, a substitute for “homophobic”) is of special interest to Argento. If the salesgirl was indeed a lesbian, is it possible that the killer is a ready-made moral cleanser? Sam hopes to spot the killer during a police line-up, though the procedure is interrupted by the arrival of a transvestite. The head investigator says, “Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites and not the perverts.” The scene may be mildly offensive but Argento clearly understands the line between crime and subjective morality.
Though Bird With the Crystal Plumage may not invoke active spectatorship, the two-killer theory popularized by Argento in films like Tenebre and 1996’s Stendhal Syndrome makes its first appearance here. During the film’s infamous set piece, a bloody Monica crawls toward a caged Sam only to pass out on the gallery’s floor. Above her rests a large sculpture of a bird’s talons, a visual conceit that fascinatingly blurs the bird/prey relationship that develops between Sam and Monica throughout the film. Through a gap between two of the sculpture’s claws, Monica is able to stare at the trapped Sam—a stunning composition that evokes Argento’s obsession with sightnessness while prefiguring the rigorous architectural terror of Tenebre. Thematic comparisons to Psycho are perhaps unavoidable though Argento’s visual stylings are most certainly his own. And while Argento’s fondness for all things psychological may not out-Freud Hitchcock, the film’s ending brings to mind Psycho‘s own. If Hitchcock’s ending needlessly showcases the Hitchcock’s fascination with psychoanalysis, Bird With the Crystal Plumage‘s ending is at least tidier and more poetic. A TV show announces Monica’s capture and a newscaster bemoans her husband Alberto’s sacrifice: “Her husband, who loved her wisely but not too well, lost his life in an attempt to turn suspicion away from his wife.”