Dario Argento may be renowned for his excess but he was a master of restraint in his debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which often feels as much a work of music as film in its consummate rhythm, flow and melodious mise-en-scene. The narrative serves as a prototype for most of Argento’s later works – a city is stalked by a serial killer, who appears to be targeting young women, and taunting police with their inability to apprehend him. We experience this through the eyes of Sam Dalmas, an American writer vacationing in Rome, played by Tony Mustante, who takes it upon himself to investigate the crimes, with the help of his reluctant girlfriend Julia, played by Suzy Kendall. Argento’s obsession with the sociopathic mind of serial killers emerges in an astonishingly fully-formed manner here, all the more so for the tact and discretion of his direction, which brilliantly evokes the unique psychology of a lucid maniac who “in everyday life…is a normal person, like all the rest of us.”
More specifically, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage announces Argento’s fascination with the serial killer as a figure with a preternatural perception of space. This is partly a command over broader urban space, as evinced in the killer’s tendency to strike at random parts of the city, drawing the fabric of Rome into a pattern that remains legible only to himself. Yet the killer also seems prescient of a more ontological shift in the way humans inhabit space too. In the opening scene of the film, Sam finds himself caught in a glassy vacuum between two quite discrete spaces. On the one hand, we have the street outside, the last vestige of an older kind of urban neorealism. On the other hand, we have the gleaming futurism of an art gallery that is full of strange sculptures, atavistic and futuristic at the same time. Sam is drawn into this lobby when he witnesses a murder taking place in the gallery but the door closes behind him and he is unable to either retreat to the street or move further into the building proper. Instead, he is forced to silently gesticulate at the murderer, the victim, and then passers-by, until somebody finally takes his clownish movements seriously and phones the local police, by which time the blood of the crime has become a part of the arcane artistry of the gallery. At this stage, however, the perpetrator has escaped, and the victim is only barely breathing.
Of course it transpires that Sam has witnessed the serial killer but the nature of his testimony is complicated by the strange spatial aporia in which he found himself. As he puts it to police officers, he knows he saw a vital piece of evidence in the gallery but can’t quite recall what it is, not unlike the moment in the Twin Peaks pilot when Sarah Palmer only belatedly remembers the sight of Bob crouching at the foot of her daughter’s bed: “I know there’s something but can’t pin it down.” Moreover, Sam shares a gaze with the masked killer, right before the police arrive, that convinces him that this sociopath witnessed him witnessing this critical detail, and saw what he saw more keenly than he did himself. The serial killer thus begins with a perceptual advantage, a preternatural sense of sight that puts Sam on the back foot, and that Argento flamboyantly aims to absorb into his own burgeoning visual aesthetic.
To that end, Argento floods the film with enormous informational interfaces, all of which are somewhat screen-like. First and foremost we have the glassy rectangles of the gallery, but these are quickly followed by a criminal line-up on a back-lit stage, a science fictional bank of recording machines, and a massive computer printout of the killer’s possible appearance. The cinema screen also brims with the same informational intensity and opacity, especially whenever the camera pans up vertical surfaces, whether the front of buildings or of suspects. The most dramatic of these buildings is the apartment block where the victim, Monica Ranieri, played by Eva Renzi, lives with her husband, the gallery owner, Alberto Ranieri, played by Umberto Raho. However, the most arcane of these vertical planes is the gigantic bas-relief “cosmic sculpture” that was being installed in the gallery when the botched murder occurred.
These images collectively evoke a world in which images are turning into interfaces, and beginning to exude a nascent interactivity that is neatly encapsulated in a scene in which the camera zooms into a facsimile of a painting and then zooms out of the original painting in a different location. Occasionally, these interfaces eject their repositories of information to produce mise-en-scenes that are cluttered with visual data that serve no immediate or ostensible purpose – an antiques store, an ornithological museum, a dense bus depot. Both spatial schemes come together at the end of the central chase scene, which sees Sam track a possible suspect to the conference room of a fancy hotel. The impassively dense vertical slabs of the film coalesce around the double doors of the room, which in turn give way to the opaque back of the suspect, who is wearing a distinctive yellow bomber jacket. Yet this just as quickly disperses into a pull-back of the room that reveals everyone is wearing this same jacket, as this visual-vertical opacity suddenly proliferates out into reticulated mise-en-scene.
These conjoined rhythms of dispersal and convergence turn The Bird with the Crystal Plumage into a the prototype for a certain kind of networked procedural that would become common over the next couple of decades. This is particularly clear in the third act, which takes Sam from the centre of Rome, to a boxer’s shack on the outskirts of the city, and finally to an artist’s boarded-up house in a rural town. Moving further afield paradoxically brings Sam closer to the heart of the mystery, which Argento indicates in a neat visual twist that blends the topography of urban and rural desuetude. While Sam is interviewing the artist, we cut to the killer approaching through a maze of weeds and ruins which appears to be a part of the same property. Only belatedly do we realise that he is moving towards Sam’s own apartment block, back in the city, through an adjoining building site, and so eluding the police officer that Sam has put in place to guard Julia. At the very moment when Sam reaches the outermost fringes of the investigation, his most personal relationship is threatened by the killer’s agency.
The titular bird with the crystal plumage becomes the most resonant figure for this networked and decentred rhythm. Unlike Argento’s later giallo films, his debut is largely silent, opting to focus on one or two key sounds rather than a vast sonic landscape. Of these sounds, the most important is a creaking noise that appears in the background of the killer’s taunting phone conversations to the police, which Sam eventually tracks to a grey crowned crane. These birds live in remote Siberia and can only survive in total isolation from other animals and yet there is also a single specimen in the zoo at the heart of Rome, where it becomes a hub of connectivity for piecing together the crime. From the bird’s enclosure, Sam can retrace the most dramatic vertical sightline of the film, up the façade of the apartment building belonging to the gallery owner, who now confesses to the murders after he falls to the street below, thus reversing and ostensibly resolving the earlier pan up his building, the longest in the film.
For a brief beat this symmetry between the pan up the building and the owner’s fall to the street seems to have resolved the film’s crisis of connectivity and halted its images before they fully migrate into interfaces. Yet the energy of this pan returns soon after, in the most flamboyant shot of the entire film, which takes us from the street, across a vast panorama of the city, and then into a window on an adjoining block, before Argento cuts to a pair of leather gloves that indicates the serial killer’s command of urban space is still intact. In a final twist, it turns out to be the gallery owner’s wife, the apparent victim of the serial killer, who had been committing the crimes, and this realisation takes Sam back to the most arcane vertical interface of the film – the bas-relief “cosmic sculpture,” which this woman now collapses on top of him, and almost uses as a final murder weapon before the police arrive just in time. In these incredible final moments, Argento both pre-empts the conventional slasher ending and deconstructs it, thereby subverting the future slasher genre in the very process of creating it.