When Dario Argento unleashed The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in 1970, Italian filmmakers had been flooding the global market with two kinds of movies: schlocky low-budget versions of Hollywood genre pictures, and highbrow art from the likes of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Picking up on the ambitions of his one-time collaborator Sergio Leone, Argento sought to split the difference between art and exploitation with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and the result was one of the era's signature films. It won over the arthouse crowd with its crisp, arid look, and it won over the mainstream crowd because it was as chic as Blow-Up, but easier to understand.
Tony Musante stars as an American writer who witnesses an attempted murder in a Roman art gallery and falls under suspicion after he reports the crime to the local police. So Musante decides to conduct his own investigation, in part to clear his name, and in part because there's no better way to get to know Rome than to go looking for a serial killer. The elements of the "giallo" genre that Mario Bava introduced a few years earlier with Blood And Black Lace—the gloved murderer, upper-class decadence, political conspiracies, kinky sex, vivid color, lush score, and twist ending—were perfected by Argento, who added elements of voyeurism and ennui, typified by the starkly shot glass cage where the initial crime takes place. In a lively commentary track, critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman rip on the "rich and worthless" hero Musante—"No one with a haircut like that or a jacket like that is a serious artist"—but rave over Argento's cinematic inventiveness. Jones and Newman call it a near-perfect example of a debut film, as Argento tries out everything he's ever wanted to see in a movie, from back-alley chases to unreliable flashbacks.
After Bird's success, Argento moved further into the realms of abstract terror while his peers rode the giallo horse around the track until it was nearly exhausted. Two of the rowdier and more notorious giallo titles—Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key and Strip Nude For Your Killer—have just come to DVD in special editions that include interviews with the filmmakers and cast. Sergio Martino's Vice borrows an Edgar Allen Poe plot about a man who fears he may unconsciously be a killer, while Andrea Bianchi's Strip concerns a series of revenge murders committed by a person furious over the cover-up of a botched abortion. Both take place among the idle European aristocracy, with vapid models, rugged motocross drivers, bigoted executives, and debauched artists wandering through a world of soft fabrics and bloody, gashed skin.
Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Strip Nude aren't too different from their giallo peers, aside from the usual minor cultural details, like the naked hippie in Vice who dances on tables and insists, "Naked, we are all equal." Beyond that, what stands out in each film are their prickliest moments: the sack full of eyes in Vice, and Strip's startling opening sequence, in which a seductively prostrate naked woman is revealed to be on an abortionist's table. And in both these films, as well as The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, the restless gaze of both heroes and villains reflects the viewpoint of the audience, leering at the beautiful people and waiting to see them get cut.