Stands as one of the most impressive feature debuts in cinema history, as well as a rare instance of all of an artist’s thematic and aesthetic tics being fully blossomed from the start.
With its kaleidoscopic colors, precise camera compositions and innate mastery of paranoia, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage stands as one of the most impressive feature debuts in cinema history, as well as a rare instance of all of an artist’s thematic and aesthetic tics being fully blossomed from the start. It begins the moment that American journalist Sam (Tony Musante), stumbles across an attack on a woman in an art gallery, the camera framing his coincidental act of witnessing in angular, jagged shots that slowly reveal an attack with each abrupt cut. The entire opening feels like one giant act of surveillance, not least for the shots in which Sam is filmed with visible viewfinder markers. Argento’s eye for composition, particularly in the way he manages to find ways to obscure details and parcel out information in moments of seeming transparency, is striking for its idiosyncratic but firm grasp on tension.
Managing to intervene and scare off the mysterious attacker, whose raincoat obscures their features, Sam saves the life of Monica (Eva Renzi), who is left traumatized by the attempted murder. Interrogated by local police, Sam has his passport confiscated until they can rule him out as a suspect, but the man immediately gives the impression that he would not leave Italy even if he could. Transfixed by the mystery, Sam decides to aid the police as well as investigate the case on his own. Argento stages some of Sam’s initial snooping in beautifully abstract ways, especially a scene where Sam trails a figure who resembles the attacker in a park covered in thick fog. Sam is alternately hunter and hunted, pursing a cloaked suspect and being attacked when he loses track of the person. Films like Black Christmas and Halloween would later get credit for inventing the slasher, but here, in 1970, Argento not only introduces many tropes of an almost supernatural, knife-wielding evil but ties it to the imagery of the original popular slasher, Jack the Ripper.
This moment of dreamy terror is largely an outlier, though, from the glinting precision that defines much of Argento and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s imagery. All of Argento’s tics involving glass and the reflective gleam of polished metal are introduced here, as are the obsessive close-ups of body parts like eyes and hands. There is a shot here that pushes in on a woman’s hands to follow her reaching for soap by her bathroom sink, only to pull back out as she looks back up to see the killer in her mirror reflection; such a moment is now cliché in horror cinema, but there’s something vibrant about seeing a shot like this in its infancy as it is introduced into cinematic vernacular. Argento films interiors in wide master shots that can make cluttered apartments feel as vast and labyrinthine as huge art galleries, using the ample space to convey how many nooks and crannies can hide the killer.
Those interiors, with their bric-a-brac of objects like fine art and ornate furniture situated in modernist buildings of glass and steel, likewise point to a core aspect of Argento’s work, of his films feeling unstuck in time. His settings and décor are simultaneously of the cutting-edge present and an arcane, even Gothic past, creating a displacement that aids in the surreal and nightmarish dissociation of his best work. There is even a bit of futurism to be found here in the form of a primitive computer program that the Italian police have that can generate a suspect profile based on inputs. It’s an amusing bit of science fiction in a film otherwise bereft of it, an early form of A.I. aiding in investigations. Yet this aside also gives the movie an unexpected bit of social prescience, showing the ways in which the supposed perfection of computer calculation is reliant upon the human inputs that create it, leading to a portrait of a killer as plausible as it is ultimately false.
The manner in which those expectations of the killer’s identity are subverted illustrate Argento’s underappreciated talents for storytelling. His aesthetic mastery is generally accepted as a given, but the careful parceling of procedural information and the Hitchcockian pseudo-psychological babble that effectively undergirds it shows an ability to navigate the fundamental logic of his jagged dreamscape. In a precursor to the coming decade of American conspiracy thrillers, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage suggests that the normal ways of deducing information hold few answers, and that only surrendering to the unknown and its warped logic can make sense of the senseless.