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  • Writer's pictureThe Moviehouse

The Italian Hitchcock: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and the Influence of Psycho (1960)

From one director's fiftieth film to another's first, this week we'll turn from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) to Dario Argento's stunningly assured debut, 1970s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

With this first film and throughout his career, Argento's work evinced a clear influence from that of Hitchcock, so much so that he became known to critics and audiences as the "Master of Horror" (mirroring Hitchcock's own "Master of Suspense" moniker) and even "The Italian Hitchcock". Though he is perhaps better known for his later, more graphically violent and sexual films like Deep Red (1975) and the highly-influential Suspiria (1977, remade in 2018 by Call Me By Your Name [2017] director Luca Guadagnino), Argento's work on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage stands as a more subtle, nuanced variation on the themes and aesthetics he would explore throughout his career.

Viewers familiar with Hitchcock's Psycho will recognize its influence in all 96 minutes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with the former film's meta-referential preoccupation with the voyeuristic aspects of cinema also in evidence right from the start of the latter. After two short introductory sequences, the film's story proper begins as a black-leather-clad figure stabs a woman in an art gallery after a struggle; Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), a writer from the U.S. living in Rome, witnesses the attack but, in his rush to offer assistance, gets trapped between the gallery's two sliding glass doors and can only watch as the wounded woman writhes in agony; with the help of another passerby, he summons the police and they are able to save her life. Here Argento turns Hitchcock's treatment of voyeurism on its head, pointedly changing the voyeur from villain, Norman Bates leering at Marion Crane through a hole in the wall as she undresses, to hero as Dalmas is horrified by the crime and (as evidenced by his actions the rest of the film) inspired to try and prevent the attacker from hurting anyone else. Argento makes the audience share the pain and fear of both victim and witness as his unflinching camera records every bit of their reactions; where Hitchcock's celebrated shower scene in Psycho had succeeded in creating a pure thrill with its quick cutting and emphatic score, Argento here presents a more complex portrayal of (attempted) murder focused less on aesthetics and more on feeling.

That is not to say that content always takes precedence over form in an Argento film - even throughout the rest of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the violence is aestheticized to a considerable degree. Just as Hitchcock had done in Psycho, Argento's film utilizes stylistic devices brought to cinema by the German Expressionist directors of the 1920s and 30s such as chiaroscuro lighting (emphasizing differences between light and shadow) and Dutch angles (where the camera is tilted off its regular horizontal orientation) to express on-screen both the inner torment of deranged killers and the overwhelming fear of their victims. Though Argento claimed in an interview that his stylistic experimentation in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage caused confusion among the executives at Titanus, the company producing the film, and nearly got him fired from his own project (as he was also co-producer and writer), the film was a hit with audiences and critics, with box office receipts doubling its production budget and garnering praise throughout Europe and the U.S. Argento has since produced an influential, unique filmography of nearly 20 films in the last 50 years that, though they vary widely in quality, audience reception, and box office success, all grow from seeds planted in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

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