As you will learn by viewing many analytical featurettes included with this release, as well as the commentary track for the film, in Italian “giallo” means “yellow”, referring to the yellow covers of the books many of the films are based on, and encasing thriller stories in general, the same way “pulp fiction” refers to the cheap paper used to print paperback crime novels as well as the novels themselves. However, giallo as a film genre today is understood to refer to vivid, graphic horror films with a heavy focus on sexuality and abnormal psychology. Suspiria, likely Argento’s best known work, is the definitive example. Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), his first film, corresponds more closely to the original definition of a giallo as a thriller film. Crystal Plumage is somewhat of a Hitchcockian thriller, although stylistic elements that would grow in Argento’s later works are present in rototypical form, here, and color the otherwise by-the- book murder mystery with touch of creepiness and surrealism.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), a writer living in Rome with his girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall), is contemplating a return to the States after his international retreat fails to spark inspiration. On a brooding night-time walk, he witnesses an attempted murder in an art gallery, the victim being the wife of the gallery owner. The assailant escapes before being identified, and Sam is left with the nagging feeling that he saw something that could solve the entire case—if only he could remember just what it was. This becomes the driving force of Sam’s journey, as he focuses his efforts on uncovering as a replacement for his writing endeavors; the lurid nature of it allfascinates him somewhat morbidly, but also haunts him.
In many ways, Sam resembles Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie from Vertigo, only his trauma seems to come from an internalized sense of inadequacy and failure that is subtle and harmless, rather than loaded and teetering on lecherous, as in Stewart’s case. In terms of the story, all the intrigue comes from the film’s focus on Sam’s character and his relationship with others, while the mystery itself has an unfortunate blandness, mostly flat-lining instead of building despite ending on a surprising and original note.
Nevertheless, Argento’s style, while still in its infancy, makes the film strangely watchable. It includes common images from his work and that of other giallo directors, including a stalker clad in a black trench coat and gloves, knife blades glistening in the moonlight, and psychedelic red blood paint, but the sequences meant to invoke horror are awfully tame. The other allusions to Vertigo, especially the involvement of paintings in the overall mystery, create some interest even in the weaker parts of the film. While horror movies of this era and culture are sometimes criticized for their exploitative use of sexuality and women in peril, in this case those elements seem somewhat earned, as the overall menace to the characters being based in a sick and twisted appreciation for both violence and sex.
For fans of Argento (and there are many), Bird with the Crystal Plumage is certainly worth a watch, especially as it kicks of his “animal trilogy”, continuing with The Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. This release is chock full of great extras, not the least of which being a booklet of essays and photographs, a series of postcard-sized lobby posters, and a full size, reversible poster which soon will have a place on my wall. The video essays, interviews, and other featurettes are equally good, making this one of the better Arrow releases, simply by way of presentation. | Nic Champion