As other have noted, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage was Argento's first stab (no pun) at the horror genre, and it's surprising to see how quickly his trademark style and key cinematic concerns fell into place. The film begins with ominous shots of a shadowy figure slipping on black leather gloves, running his fingers seductively over a collection of huge, shimmering knives, inter-cut with some menacing shots of a young woman walking through town, as if being photographed by an unseen foe. This is Argento establishing a sense of foreboding and mysterious dread before plunging into the plot, so to speak, as we're introduced to our central character (a jaded American writer taking a relaxing Italian break with his girlfriend) and the world in which he inhabits.
Much of the film hinges around a Hitchcockian set piece, in which our hero, walking past a jewellery-store late at night, witnesses an attack on a young woman by an assailant dressed completely in black. Our hero tries to help, but finds himself trapped between the two glass security doors, forced to watch impotently as the attacker escapes and the girl starts to bleed. This is really an exceptionally well-directed scene by the young Argento, as he establishes a set of themes, characters and locations that will be revisited from different perspectives throughout the course of the film, as our hero and his allies in the police-force try to piece together the mystery surrounding the attack, and it's links to a series of related murders over the past few months.
The mystery element of the film really works and kept my attention throughout, with Argento really understanding the genre and playing with the audiences preconceptions of Hitchcock and Agatha Christie... and so on. The music here, by Ennio Moriconne, adds another layer to the story, often undercutting (as opposed to under-scoring) the dramatic tension of the scene, creating a sense of unease and disarming confusion for the characters, that isn't entirely dissimilar to the themes and ideas used by Goblin for Argento's more famous films. Another interesting element here is the cinematography, with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage benefiting greatly from the skills of now-legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who uses colour, composition and mise-en-scene exceptionally well, with a number of scenes and set pieces prefiguring his exquisite work on films like The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now.
A number of scenes here standout as absolutely brilliant (the first attack included), with Argento creating a sense of real danger... often by having the lights cutout during key-scenes or utilising slight camera moves to play with the audience's sense of perspective and character point of view. The chase through the early morning streets of Rome - replete with a hit-and-run; a shoot-out in a disused bus-depot; the hunter turns hunted; and a great pay-off as the assailant finally disappears into the crowd - is an exceptional creation handled superbly well by the young filmmaker, whilst another scene, which has a young woman wander blindly into a darkened elevator, only to be sliced to pieces by the same dark-figure clutching a straight-razor (incidentally, this scene was pillaged shot-for-shot by director Brian DePalma for his film, Dressed to Kill) is great moment of tension and terror, and a great burst of gore in an otherwise restrained early endeavour.
The final act of the film offers up a satisfying double-pay-off, in which Argento allows the film to play into the audience's suspicions, only to then pull the rug-out from under us, with a twist ending that I for one certainly didn't see coming. Here, Argento elaborates on the ideas behind the title and the multitude of bird-symbolism scattered throughout the film (most notably, the first attack scene, in which the victim, Monica, lies bleeding and helpless in front of a statue of a bird's out-stretched claw, or the high-angle "over-the-city" shot, as our hero searches the streets for his girlfriend) whilst simultaneously building on that previously vague scene involving the bizarre, reclusive artist.
The acting throughout the film is strong, and the dubbing (so prevalent in all Italian films of this era) is less distracting than I was expecting. The narrative is strong and completely compelling, with Argento drawing us into his scintillating cinematic web, and leading us, much like his central character, down a number of blind alleyways and narrative cul-de-sacs. Though it's certainly less violent than some of his subsequent work there's still a real sense of terror and suspense created by the offsetting music and the overall use of camera, composition, and staccato editing. In a way, it seems like a "how to..." guide for the rest of his career, but that's perhaps a little unfair. For me, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a riveting, revolving enigma of a film that shows a young filmmaker establishing his style and ideology in a way that is absolutely impeccable.