The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

A woman lies on the floor of an art gallery with creepy sculptures looming over her

In one interview in Panico (2024), a documentary about Dario Argento’s life in films, Argento describes himself as being of two halves — the contented person at home, and the person who is compelled to investigate the darkness inside himself through filmmaking. When in that mode, he is completely focussed on making real the visions in his mind, and it’s clear from the interviews that, especially in the first half of his career, he had a controlling and cold edge alongside his energy and passion.

This made me want to go back to the beginning, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a fascinating opening salvo. American writer Sam is on holiday in Rome with his girlfriend, Julia, to overcome his writer’s block. He witnesses an attack in an art gallery and gets pulled in to help investigate the case by Inspector Morosini. Other women have been attacked and killed across Rome, and the serial killer threatens Sam to not get involved, but Morosini has Sam’s passport, and Sam believes he’s getting ever closer to the identity of the killer.

Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall and Enrico Salerno make a charismatic trio. Argento makes the camera his plaything, and the cinematic flourishes are due in no small part to the editing by Franco Fraticelli who became a collaborator for the next two decades. The world of the film is vibrant and odd, with threatening pieces of art, colourful Roman characters, and the fetishistic use of gloves, knives and (of course) voyeurism.

It’s not a perfect film. The dialogue can be distractingly banal, especially at the start when the initially poor dubbing makes everything worse, and the pacing is occasionally poor, but the continual visual style, the ingenuity with the hand-held camera, and the series of imaginative set pieces make you forget the bad as soon as the film ends.

Part of my DARIO ARGENTO season.