As with, I'm told, a great many Argento films, the film is wildly, ludicrously implausible and cliched. The plot is your standard mad-serial killer on the loose film, and, as if to underscore the unimportance of dialogue, the film is awfully, cluelessly dubbed. Nor can many good things can be said about the universally undistinguished cast, a grab-bag of Italian actors doing their best, which isn't much. Incidentally, lead female Suzy Kendall made a great many movies as what can only be described as "killer bait," and lead Tony Musante has been a consistently in-work and yet continually undistinguished actor for nearly 40 years now (including a stint on As The World Turns).
That's why The Bird With The Crystal Plumage rises and falls entirely based on Argento's skill. Painting a strange, ugly and downright misanthropic (and, lest we forget, misanthropic) portrait of Rome, he nonetheless manages to hypnotize. Musante attempts to track down a mysterious killer, and everything can be figured out in advance (save perhaps the killer's identity) - the story strictly adheres to the formula expected of such a film, with all the requisite killings arriving on time, all the females being duly sacrificed, the killer making gloating phone calls at the right moments, etc. Yet, away from the story's clunky mechanics, Argento sucks the viewer in - whether the occasion is a fog-obscured walk which almost decapitates Musante via meat cleaver or a mysterious chase through parking lot with bullets fired, every set piece is absorbing and hypnotic. And the cinematography, even on the crappy low-fidelity video copy I rented, is terrific - perfectly composed, brisk, atmospheric, and filled with interesting textures.
That said, the film worries me in some ways - I'm still not used to the idea that non-elaborate killings should be depicted on-screen from beginning to end for the viewer's pleasure. The way this film earned a PG was to cut out two killings back in 1970 - one by razor, and a bizarre panty slashing. Fortunately, these bits have been restored, and they're of dubious merit. Nor am I too happy that all the female characters are bait except for one unfavorable exception. Nevertheless, Argento's strangely pissed-off portrait of a vile, freakish Rome has considerable punch and greatness beneath its cliches and repugnant qualities (though hard-core gorehounds will be disappointed by the lack of gushing quantities of blood).
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