Not the first giallo (arguably Mario Bava's THE EVIL EYE (1963) has that honour), but certainly the one that caught the attention of the wider world outside of Italy, and the one that kick-started the tidal wave of black glove killer thrillers that flooded European cinema during the next few years.
Sam (Tony Musante) is a down-on-his-luck American writer, who is planning to leave Italy after collecting one last pay check for contributing to a book on wild birds. On his way home from his business meeting he passes an art gallery on a deserted street. He happens to spy a murderous struggle at the top of the gallery stairs, with a woman in white struggling with a knife-wielding, black clad figure. Sam tries to help, but is separated from what is going on by a massive glass window. At least he interrupts the fight, and the seemingly would-be assassin flees the scene, but not before closing the outer door behind him, so he's trapped and unable to help the obviously injured woman inside. Finally the police arrive after Sam manages to get the attention of a passer-by, and the rescue the stricken woman.
The police are keen to speak to Sam, especially as three women have already been butchered in Rome in the last month alone. Naturally, they believe that the attack on the woman in the art gallery (who turns out to be Monica (Eva Renzi), the wife of the gallery owner) may be linked to these earlier killings. Sam tells the police that he can't quite shake the feeling that something was not quite right with what he's just witnessed: “There was something wrong with that scene, something odd ...”. Not wishing to rule him out of their investigation – and not wanting to loose their only witness – the police take his passport off him.
Subsequently, Sam almost looses his head, when he is attacked by someone wielding a meat cleaver on a fog shrouded street. Stuck in Rome with his English girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall), Sam decides to investigate in tandem with the police and try and unravel the film's mystery before the killer finishes him off once and for all ...
BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is purportedly based on Fredric Brown's novel Screaming Mimi (which had already been adapted as a so-so noir thriller with Anita Ekberg in 1958, which is mainly of interest for an opening sequence that could have been lifted from any of the FRIDAY 13TH sequels). Despite being essentially the first of a cycle nothing is ever truly new. Often called the Italian Hitchcock, Argento obviously took elements from not only Bava but also old Hitch – with his debut chock full of expert suspense scenes. As a co-production, BIRD is also takes its cues from the myriad of German Krimi films (the forerunner of the giallo based on the work of mystery writer Edgar Wallace that were popular in the 1950s and 60s). Also, surprisingly, Argento is self-referential with the giallo itself – with one early scene showing a news-stand crammed with garishly yellow covered pulp thrillers the genre came from.
Argento movies are not known for their humour, but there is usually an undercurrent to his films. In BIRD, this comes in the form of the broad caricatures that Sam meets in his quest to get to the bottom of the riddle – from the eccentric cat-eating artist, the stuttering pimp and the camp antiques dealer who, bizarrely, after saying that he believed one of the murdered girls was a lesbian says, “I don't mind, I'm not a racist!”. There's also a great – and oft-repeated in future gialli – scene when Sam is wheeled in to identify a suspect in a line-up, with a detective shouting, “Bring in the perverts!”. The colourful characters aren't just for comic relief, the spectacularly ugly Reggie Nalder (who many remember best as the creepy vampire in the 70s adaptation of Stephen King's SALEM'S LOT) appears here as a particularly sinister and deadly thug.
In 1970, Argento was the new kid on the block. Whilst partly taking his cue from Bava, his early films eschewed the gothic and gloriously garish psychedelic excesses of the earlier maestro (although Argento turned to this style of film making with a vengeance and made them his own with SUSPIRIA (1976)). BIRD is all about the new. From the almost sterile white minimalism of the art gallery (perversely dotted with gothic artwork monstrosities) to the fascination with then modern police procedure (which he stretched to beyond the point of credulity in his next few movies). Sam and Julia are also the epitome of the 1970 swinging couple.
BIRD also makes use of many plot devices that Argento would return to time and time again. Sam's amateur sleuth was refined with David Hemming's character in DEEP RED (1975). Also, as with that film a painting holds part of the key, as does a series of events glimpsed and misunderstood. Of course, even at this time the black gloved killer (complete with face obscuring fedora) was not a fresh concept – but Argento did something new by taking this standard and stylising it and turning it into a delicious fetish. No more so than during the moment when the killer's black gloves hover hesitantly over an sharply tipped arsenal lying on red velvet, hesitating over which instrument of murder to choose.
It's also easy to see why John Carpenter sometimes credits Argento as an influence. Even with his first film Argento was most at home – and most over the top – with set pieces. Foreshadowing many of the slasher movies to come, BIRD is at its most iconic when the black clad killer is stalking victims. Two scenes, where seemingly random beautiful women are attacked and killed (one with a knife and the other with a cut-throat razor) are tense and surprisingly brutal. The film is also jam-packed with the type of killer's POV that many still think originated with Carpenter's 1978 slasher movie masterpiece. The showdown with the killer and Julie, where her would-be murderer literally tries to whittle through the front door with a knife to get her, has rightly gone down as one of the key scenes of the giallo (and was more-or-less repeated with similar effect when Suzy Kendal came up against more unwanted and murderous attention in Sergio Martino's TORSO (1973)).
BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE may not reach the dizzying excesses of the blossom of gialli that followed, but it is a bone-fide classic of the genre and should not be missed.
female:3 / male:4
1) Female killed (method unseen)
2) Female slashed to death with carving knife
3) Male run down by car
4) Female killed slashed to death with cut throat razor
5) Male found dead
6) Male falls to his death
7) Male found with dagger in his back