The Bird with the Crystal Plumage impresses, despite a few missteps.
Director Dario Argento's debut feature stars Tony Musante as Sam, an American writer living in Rome. Walking the streets one night, Sam passes an art gallery. Glancing inside, he spies a mysterious black-clad assailant attacking a woman with a knife. Unable to gain entry, Sam stands helpless as the attacker escapes and the woman lies bleeding on the floor pleading for help.
Haunted by his memories, Sam joins the investigation, causing the killer to target him and his live-in girlfriend, played by Suzy Kendall.
Argento's visual style grabs you from the get-go. Consider the art gallery scene. The establishing shot sees a bright light shining out of the building's glass facade, drawing our eyes along with Sam's. Inside, the woman's white dress blends with the white walls and floor, forcing our gaze to the black-clad assailant and the woman's crimson blood.
It's a terrific use of contrast; a technique that Argento perfects in my favorite shot, which I shall endeavor to describe. It occurs later in the film, Sam has tracked the killer into a darkened room. As Sam enters, Argento cuts to a wide shot. The only light comes from the doorway. Sam's silhouette moves to the center of the otherwise pitch-black screen. Then the lights come on and the colors reverse to startling effect. That Argento would even try such a tricky shot shows his confidence. That he pulls it off heralds a major talent.
But Argento's visual focus can also be a detriment, particularly when he treats his characters as props rather than people. The most grievous example comes when Suzy Kendall's character finds herself under siege by the killer. She flees into her apartment and locks and barricades the heavy door. She looks for another way out. Finding none, she crumbles to the bathroom floor and sobs hysterically while the killer stabs at the apartment door.
Sure, Argento gets some memorable shots of a wide-eyed Kendall clinging to the bathroom sink, but the scene lost me. By having her scour the apartment for an exit, Argento reveals the lack of another entry. After locking and barricading the door, she need only grab a weapon and wait. Granted, it might be a long wait—boring through inches of hardwood with a kitchen knife takes time—but should the killer poke a limb through, she could stab or bludgeon it. Instead, Argento has her wail around on the floor as though the killer were literally breathing down her neck. What begins tense and stylish, drags and devolves into overwrought indulgence.
This illustrates a fundamental misconception on Argento's part: that showing us a terrified character is enough to make us terrified. It's not, and such moments mar an otherwise inventive thriller.