So called because of the titles, Dario Argento's first three giallo movies lack the signature music from Goblin and Claudio Simonetti and rarely venture into the crazy visual flourishes he would become known for with Deep Red and Suspiria. They sit firmly withing the murder mystery genre without venturing into the supernatural, stories about extra sensory perception or anything with eye popping set design. Which is kind of a shame, and while glimpses of style and imaginative moments are found sprinkled all over the place things never quite come into their own. However it's still worth considering each on their own merits, so let's take a look.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has a lot of the typical elements - a foreign visitor to Italy, the killer with black gloves and a twisting plot. Following several murders an American tourist witnesses the killer getting away after a failed attack in an art gallery, leading him into both police suspicion and the sights of the murderer. The gallery set piece itself is very striking, although on the whole the city streets an other locations are very typical. Like the other films here there's a lot of weird comedy (particularly a stuttering prisoner who gives our hero some clues) but also some striking moments, particularly the sequence in which he is chased by an assassin wearing a sports jacket through the dark streets of Turin. Ennio Morricone does a reasonable job with the music but the score is forgettable on the whole.
If only the romantic interest in this story wasn't so terribly useless, flailing about on the floor when threatened by a break-in at their apartment instead of actually... doing something? It's frustrating to say the least. The general mystery plot is very day time detective with police procedural scenes taking up a few chunks of the running time, they even include that cliché of finding the one tiny clue hidden in the background noise of a telephone recording when all their attempts to trace the call have failed. It's a fair effort and has enough thrill power to keep things interesting, but overall it lacks any real character, although it's probably the most consistent of these three features.
The Cat O'Nine Tails is the one with the most tenuous title link. There is indeed a bird and four flies in the others. But here at one point, the amateur sleuths decide they have nine leads to help solve the case and randomly say this nautical instrument - that's the whole thing. After some fishy business involving a break in at a genetics lab all of the staff are suspect - it's down to a blind man and his little niece to crack the case. Really. Well not quite really, they do in fact enlist a reporter along the way (check it out, there's the lead from Valley of Gwangi!). It's an odd bunch of heroes, but once the latter joins them it does allow for the best moment with a tense sequence in a photography dark room.
Again the more typical crime plot elements are frequent, particularly the whole process of elimination after following each trail to a dead end and finding the red herrings. The motivation of the killer here isn't psycho therapy based his time around at least, but the reasons feel pretty flat when the big reveal comes around; the information discussed up to this point doesn't really seem serious enough that such deadly measures would be taken. The mixture of humorous moments continues and the visual flourishes during some of the deaths hint at imaginative style decisions getting more attention, but they never become part of the whole. It's engrossing a lot of the time but remains unexceptional.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet continues the trend of bizarre comic characters, this time with a hapless mailman taking abuse on his rounds, and a riverside outcast called "God" being caught up in the mystery. They even have a really strange moment in which our protagonists meet up in an art gallery - which is being used to showcase designer coffins. The whole scene is played for laughs with the caskets set out like a car showroom or a design expo. Interestingly Argento keeps the silliness to a minimum during scenes that involve a private detective, and while is certainly aiming for trite flamboyance the inclusion of a gay hero seems to be a poke at conservative views of the time from what I have heard in interviews. The main character himself is pretty bland, and despite being some kind of rock band front man he comes off as dull and lacking charisma. Though it doesn't stop everyone wanting to get into his pants.
Here there's a murderer with a creepy mask (though it doesn't get used nearly enough) and it's very sinister, but this has the weakest twist ending of the three films, something that just comes out of nowhere. While ther the rest of the movie does include flashbacks trying to hint at thing, they just don't tie together well enough. Initially it seems like there's a blackmail storyline as the protagonist gets seen under criminal circumstances, but it gets more convoluted very quickly. There's also a silly reveal about viewing the last moments of a person's life through the retina of their eyes which just seems like pop science. On top if this they have a weird recurring dream, and while it certainly lends some drama seems to have no real use as a plot device, unless they are hoping the premonition element will make things seem more mysterious. In terms of style there's a strange sequence in which the passage of time speeds up or changes, but unlike the stand out final shock - a very neat effects moment - these other inclusions seem lacklustre. Ultimately these are a nice trio of early outings and worth checking out, but they are building up to the big leagues and of course Profondo Rosso is where things get really good...