A former newspaper film critic who took to writing screenplays in the Italian cinema of the 1960s, Dario Argento made his directorial debut at the age of twenty-nine with his incalculably influential giallo "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”. The film slowly built a following and was eventually a major success both at home and abroad, at which point the Italian-bred craze for a certain distinctive style of psycho-thriller emerged and was duly satisfied by the commercial film industry. These usually prominently featured a perverted black gloved killer who one could expect to see modelling some rather kinky fetish leather gear while waving a dangerously sharp phallic weapon, as he chased an assortment of glamorous and beautifully dressed (or undressed) Euro starlets around exotic-looking Italian locales. “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is undoubtedly the best out of Argento's early crop of films; many of its plot elements and stylistic flourishes would be revisited and expanded upon in the director’s 1975 giallo rebirth "Profondo Rosso", but his first film still retains something of its original frisson of the Shock of the New which surrounded it on its initial release. Although we can easily now chase down its individual influences from Hitchcock to Bava to Antonioni, Argento had brought a whole new vibe to what was becoming a fairly staid and predictable genre by that point; he made a film that was stylish and beautiful to look at, while exemplifying the very best techniques of the suspense thriller. The galvanising effect this was soon to have on Italian genre cinema can never be overestimated.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer on holiday in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) where he’s hoping that the change of scenery will cure his chronic writer's block. One night, while walking home, he notices an altercation in a trendy art gallery between a man in leather-clad black with a fedora hat and a beautiful young woman. Sam attempts to come to the woman's aid, but gets trapped between a double set of glass doors and is unable to do anything but watch as the woman (who turns out to be the beautiful wife of the gallery owner) is attacked and stabbed. Eventually, a passer-by calls the police but the man in black has already left the woman injured and bleeding on the floor while making his getaway through a back door of the gallery. The police interrogate Sam and then confiscate his passport while they continue their investigations. It seems that the attack may be connected to a series of murders that have recently brought terror to the city of Rome, and the police are convinced they are the work of a homicidal maniac.
But Sam cannot shake the feeling that there’s something odd about the scene he witnessed in the gallery that he can't put his finger on. He decides to look into the mystery himself with the unofficial blessing of Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) -- the policeman in charge of the murder investigation. Sam connects the murderer to a painting sold in the shop where the first victim had once worked, and learns from the eccentric, reclusive artist that it was based on a real-life incident. But as the body count continues to rise, it isn't long before Sam and Julia themselves becoming targets for the evil killer.
With this ground-breaking film, Dario Argento had taken up the baton from Mario Bava in the quest to highlight the perverse power of cinema to transform an audience’s perceptions through the stylish depiction of extreme violence guided by a unique cinematic vision — something that has always caused problems for him with the various bodies responsible for film censorship around the world ever since. His exquisitely framed and theatrically violent set-pieces hint at more than just the usual attempt to provoke shocks — although they are more than adequate in that department also — and indeed, this film's opening scene, where the shadowy assailant, clad in the de rigueur shiny black mac of the archetypal giallo killer, types out the details relating to their next victim (while wearing gloves!) then lovingly surveys and polishes up their collection of seductively glinting knives with a scarlet cloth, makes a telling symbol for the director's own career-long obsession with the artistic representation of murder, and the scripted preparation and filmed choreography of violent death images.
Here we see for the first time the fetishization of the accoutrements, the practice and the imagined aftermath of murder, something which has become a perennial motif in the films of Dario Argento. Its presence here takes largely embryonic form, though. "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" is a stylish debut, but Argento's visual language is not yet fully developed; still perhaps beholden to his influences, the film as a whole is far more controlled than the director’s later work; the camera does not roam quite so freely and often shies away from dwelling on the worst of the killer's excesses (Ironically, Mario Bava would up the ante the following year when his "Bay of Blood" unflinchingly depicted all of the grim atrocities perpetrated by its cast of rapacious killers), and certainly not with the kinetic abandon we see in his later films.
Like Argento's next couple of movies, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is dependent on a conventionally structured narrative progression; it is a fairly straightforward murder mystery, and, though streets ahead of many of its imitators, it never reaches the vertiginous heights of "Tenebrea", "Opera" or "Profondo Rosso". These films function on a higher level than their often perfunctory plots would tend to suggest, whereas "Bird..." never quite transcends its origins in pulp fiction. Although it has far more staying power than it's follow-up "The Cat-O-Nine Tails - viewing it now, it often seems to come across as a beautifully rendered demo for "Profondo Rosso" but lacking the extra "spark' of its more accomplished cousin.
On the other hand, one of the most important themes from Argento's later work — that of the power of cognitive habits to influence human perception — gets its first major outing in this debut, and the idea derives ultimately from the Fredric Brown novel ‘The Screaming Mimi” which is the main source of most of what transpires in the film, even if it isn’t credited as an adaptation. A vital piece of visual information revealed at the end of the film leads to a gestalt shift in the interpretation of the earlier occurrence at the art gallery. There is, it has to be said, a certain amount of 'cheating' in how Argento goes about this though, since we the audience are never privy to that vital piece of information -- the scene is edited so that we cannot see events too clearly; unlike the protagonist, who misinterprets what he sees because it does not fit his preconceptions. Argento would develop a similar idea more fully in his masterful "Profondo Rosso" where the killer's face is actually shown on screen for a split second, but both we and the protagonist are tricked into missing it through Argento's use of cinematic misdirection. Actually there is a scene in “Bird …”, when the killer uses a public call box, where we can see a reflection in the phone’s plastic casing. If you freeze frame the image you can see Argento himself, in dark glasses!
Still, without a doubt, the killer when revealed in “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is most definitely one of Argento's most successful and disturbing creations - a character who first establishes the connections that the director would go on to exploit in later work between psychotic, murderous impulses and dark, twisted sexuality. Look away now for the rest of the paragraph by the way if you don’t want any spoilers … As is usually the case in the giallo, the murderer is revealed to be a fairly minor character whose everyday 'normal' persona is rather bland and uninteresting. Perversely though, once their alternate identity as a murderous sexual-psychotic is exposed, they are transformed from dour, meek, nervous 'victim' to exotic, radiant and vivacious predator. The character's appearance is much more sexually alluring in their 'psycho' incarnation than in their 'normal' one, and this is especially confusing for the viewer, who has been led to associate it throughout the movie with predatory, masculine menace and horror. The bizarre connections between wild, untamed sexuality and disruptive acts of malevolence contrast starkly with the ineffectual and seemingly impotent nature of the film's protagonist who starts the movie a burned-out artist trapped between transparent sliding doors and ends it pinned to the floor by a lethal piece of art sculpture.
Indeed, Argento often has a rather ambiguous attitude towards the "heroes" in his movies. They are often left in a far worse state psychologically at the end of the movie for having apparently "solved" the mystery, than they were at the start. At least, this applies to the male protagonists — females are often both more sympathetic and more resilient. In "Bird...", Sam Dalmas starts the story suffering from acute writer’s block; later he is unable to help the woman victim in the art gallery and has to signal to a deaf man for help through soundproof glass doors . The deaf man's disability is nullified by the predicament, but Dalmas seems all the more ineffectual. Later on, when making love with his girlfriend Julia, his passions are continually interrupted by flashbacks to his ‘impotence’ at the art gallery, while a metronome ticks away behind them -- as if the two lovers were engaged in some clinical, clockwork act. As Dalmas' investigation proceeds and the mystery seems to be drawing toward a resolution, his writer’s block begins to lift -- only for everything to be turned on its head when the nagging doubt about what exactly he witnessed at the art gallery finally comes into focus and all previous preconceptions are completely overturned.
The lead Tony Musante (an actor whom Argento apparently despised on set) is adequate in the lead role as the amateur detective, but his character is not hugely charismatic; Suzy Kendall, meanwhile, simply doesn't get enough to do as his girlfriend Julia, and represents a wasted opportunity since she has a captivating screen presence which could have been utilised much more effectively. Her best moment comes in the standout set-piece of the film when she’s menaced by the killer in Dalmas’ simple but trendy apartment. Once again, one cannot help but contrast the couple with the much fuller relationship Argento was able to create between the lead male and female characters in "Profondo Rosso".
Music has always played a major role in the films of Dario Argento; his relationship with the Italian group Goblin is legendary, and the combination of the amazing music they created when they worked on "Suspiria", and the assured visual style of a director operating at the peak of his form, led to one of the most perfect marriages of image and sound ever put to celluloid. For my money though, Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" comes a close second in that regard. Unlike Goblin, it is not music I would personally choose to listen to when it is divorced from its visual context, but as part of the film, in the context of Argento’s fantastic framing and Franco Fraticelli’s superb experimental editing techniques, it works admirably to set up an edgy mood with its faultless musical montage of whispering, raspy voices (a forward nod to Goblin's "Suspiria" soundtrack) underpinned by the faltering, 'heartbeat' thump of the percussion track. The killer's macabre, twisted psychology is represented by a frail nursery rhyme of childlike melodies breathily sung by the legendary Edda Dell’Orso, embedded in a web of discordant wind chimes, tinkling bells and unnerving la-la-las, while the fragile acoustic pop ballad beauty of "Julia's theme" and the robust jazz rhythms of the title track offer a poignant counterpoint to the more abstract pieces.
Having sung the praises of this masterful debut by one of the modern Italian cinema’s most unique visionaries, it pains me to have to now come plummeting right back down to earth with a discussion of this strange UK Blu-ray release. Arrow have come in for a bit of criticism lately with regard to their alleged overuse of digital noise reduction on some of their Argento HD transfers, but they must be priming themselves to really get it in the neck for this one! The horrifying fact of the matter is that the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the film -- the one it surely definitely should always be seen in -- has been cropped for this release! The reasons why this has happened are rather hard to fathom, but basically seem to boil down to the bewildering intransigence of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who oversaw this brand new High Definition ‘restoration’ and who apparently has something of a history of this sort of thing. Storaro seems to possess an almost mystical preference for his own widescreen 2.0:1 Univisium aspect ratio variant (although absolutely no one else on the entire planet favours or appears to use it!), which is a sort of compromise between the full 2.35:1 aspect ratio of cinemascope films and the more usual 1.85:1 ratio. As far as I can tell, Storaro claims his 2.0:1 ratio is the best way to present 2.35:1 films in the home viewing medium because it preserves more of the original film’s visual fidelity; he claims that 2.35:1 shot films lose too much clarity in the process of mastering them for DVD viewing. This may or may not be true, but it seems irrelevant when it comes to consideration of the Blu-ray format, for which this HD transfer was created in the first place!
It seems particularly perverse to treat “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” of all films, in this way. The unavoidable fact of the matter is that the film was originally painstakingly composed for the 2.35:1 ratio by Argento, and presumably by Storaro at the time, too. It’s been tragically compromised by the aging cinematographer’s frankly weird decision to tramp all over his own work here. Inspired by masters of cinematic composition such as Fritz Lang and Michelangelo Antonioni, the young Argento displayed an acute awareness of the formal relationship between and the workings of blocks of space within the frame, using architecture, landscape and the figures he arranges to inhabit it to create a sense of unease and displacement, much as Antonioni had previously developed a visual grammar to emphasis his characters’ ennui and isolation. Storaro has clearly tried to retain as much information as possible in transposing the film to his preferred ratio, but the fact is he cannot but help subtly alter the visual dynamics of the film no matter how hard he tries, and there are numerous egregious moments when even someone who’s never seen the film before will spot the tell-tale tightness at the edge of the frame that’s become necessary in order to squeeze all the figures inside. The telephoto lens effect during the freeze frames in the scene at the racecourse doesn’t even fit properly onto the screen now, so Storaro has rendered these scenes in black-and-white instead! On top of this (already a deal breaker for many), the DNR haters will find no cause to celebrate here, either. I never got a chance to see the Blue Underground HD transfer (yes – I am kicking myself. Copies of that Blu-ray release are like gold dust now!), but Storaro’s restoration barely hold water against the BU DVD let alone their Blu-ray. It can be pretty soft and doesn’t cope very well with those difficult foggy scenes, to put it mildly. Colours are also a great deal more muted than they were on the original BU DVD as well. Bending over backwards to be fair here, it is hard to know how the film should look in terms of its colour palette at this late stage its history, and Storaro is the original cinematographer so presumably he should know. But judging by the mess he’s made of the film’s visual composition, how much credence should we place in his opinion?
One has to feel for Arrow Video. After a couple of authoring mistakes on a few other discs recently, this is going to leave a lot of people feeling well pissed off. I can imagine the team at Arrow aren’t exactly cock-a-hoop over the situation either! There doesn’t seem to be much they could have done about it though. The Blue Underground HD transfer was unavailable (BU no longer own the rights to the film) and Storaro’s version was the only one they could get any access to. In fact, it looks horribly likely that this version will soon be the only one available from now on, at least for the time being. The recent French Blu-ray also uses Storaro’s annoying 2.0:1 cropped transfer! Another problem some might take issue with is the absence of any stereo or DTS surround sound audio tracks with this release. Only LPCM mono in Italian and English are available. Personally, this isn’t such a big issue for me, since these are the original tracks, after all; but, still, this is Blu-ray – you can understand why folks might expect every bell and whistle the medium is capable of delivering included. Strangely enough though, this is the one area where the disc wins out over the Blue Underground disc which, while it included just about every variant of surround sound re-mix known to man, didn’t actually include the original mono audio tracks!
All of which leaves us only the prospect of the disc’s extras to save the day …
The first and the best of these is the audio commentary by novelist and film critic Kim Newman and Argento scholar, and author of the book Profondo Argento, Alan Jones. This, of course, isn’t new – if you have either the Blue Underground DVD or the Blu-ray you will be familiar with the duo’s engaging, chatty mix of enthusiasm, in-depth analysis and film info. Newman comes up with the commentary’s most unusual personal anecdote, relating how he himself was once embroiled in a very “Bird”-like police investigation when called upon by the British police to work out for them what film was playing in the background of an answerphone message so that they could determine whether an alibi stood up (it was “Hollywood Madam” starring Shannon Whirry, apparently!). Jones, meanwhile, has all the background on the film one could ever wish for, exploding a few myths along the way and revealing that the film never really took off in Italy until after its success in the U.S., after which it became massive, playing in one Milanese theatre for three years solid. Jones also has a few amusing anecdotes about Argento, including tales of his frustration with Tony Musante, who would turn up at his apartment at three in the morning wanting to discuss his character’s motivations. He also highlights the key moments in the film that have been responsible for making him a lifelong Argento fan ever since. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the discussion relates to Newman’s assessment of the film’s influences and its antecedents. Besides the Mario Bava influence, Hitchcock and Antonioni might be the most apparent to us, and in one scene the two come together on screen when the Sam Dalmas character is shown being chased through Rome by Reggie Nalder of Hitchcock’s “The Man who Knew Too Much” and at one point passes a cinema showing a Monica Vitti film – the glamorous starlet who lights up many an Antonioni film. But more than that Newman explains how “Bird …” relates to the earlier West German tradition of Krimi films: mysteries, usually adaptations of Edgar Wallace thrillers, with similar twisty plots to the ones that came to characterise the giallo.
Newman sees the giallo growing out of the Krimi thriller in the same way as the Spaghetti Western grew out of the German Karl May series of Westerns. Indeed, “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is a German-Italian co-production, as were “What Have You Done to Solange?” and “Seven Blood-Stained Orchids”. All three films were marketed as Krimi thrillers in Germany (and are still included there in a series of German Krimi box sets) while promoted as Gialli in Italy. Werner Peters, who plays the gay antiques dealer in “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” also used to appear in many Krimi and ‘60s Dr Mabuse films made in West Germany. Newman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of seemingly every film and novel ever produced enables him to find all sorts of unexpected parallels, highlighting where Riccardo Freda may have had an influence on the way Argento chooses to shoot a particular scene for instance, or spotting ideas that have since been appropriated by other film-makers. We all know about Brian De Palma’s debt with regard to “Dressed to Kill” but Kenneth Branagh anyone? It’s also interesting to find out that the source novel, Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mini”, had already been adapted before in 1958 by Gerd Oswald, in a film starring Anita Ekberg.
Arrow have included three brand new featurettes on the disc, all of them unavailable anywhere else, which may well make completests feel they need this disc in their collection after all. The first, “A Crystal Classic: Luigi Cozzi Remembers Dario’s Bloody Bird”, sees Argento’s former associate and the manager of the Profondo Rosso store talking about what makes the film such a special one in Argento’s catalogue. Cozzi is fairly eloquent here in explaining how the young director (apparently known as a ‘white fly’ because his youthfulness made him stand out in the Italian film industry, at a time when most film directors were in their forties or fifties) modernised the genre, bringing new influences to the thriller, new experimental editing techniques thanks to the influence of Franco Fraticelli and an unheard of new style in music which subsequently came to be copied in just about every seventies giallo. Cozzi is also a big fan of Fredric Brown’s original novel and makes an interesting point that Argento followed a similar formula for this thriller to the narrative structure outlined by himself and Bernardo Bertolucci in their screenplay for “Once Upon A Time in the West”. The featurette runs for 15 minutes, but strip away the absurdly long animated titles and the end credits and it’s more like ten minutes.
“Sergio Martino: The Genesis of the Giallo” is a half-hour-long interview with this versatile Italian director who could be found behind the camera on a handful of striking (if often crude verging on exploitative) gialli during the explosion of such films that took place in Italy in the ‘70s, as well as any number of police thrillers, action movies and Spaghetti westerns. Included among his memorable work in the Giallo format, though, is the brutal “Torso” (which also starred Suzy Kendall as the female lead) and the fantastic paranoid-type thriller “All the Colours of the Dark”. Obviously, none of these films would have existed without the huge breakout success of “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” and this is partly Martino’s assessment of the film’s importance in relation to his own career. High Rise Productions start the feature with one of their most inventive animated title sequences yet: a bank of TV screens, each screening a different act of violent mayhem from Arrow’s roster of gialli releases (although there’s a sequence from “The House by the Cemetery” in there too), with the screens tinted blood red as Ennio Morricone’s unsettling score seeps out of the speakers.
Martino gives us an interesting insight into the genre’s historical roots and reminds us that he was implicated in its beginnings in a much deeper sense than we often tend to remember, since, as a young man, he worked as an assistant director for Mario Bava’s “The Whip and the Body”. Martino takes us through the early beginnings of the giallo -- not just in Mario Bava’s “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”, but the often-overlooked 1968 thriller “The Sweet Body of Deborah”, directed by Romolo Guerrieri. Then he explains how “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” made it okay to set a thriller in Italy when previously they were always set abroad. Even Martino’s “The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh” had a foreign setting, but with “Torso” the director really made the most of Italy’s distinctive countryside, thanks to the precedent already set by Argento’s debut. Martino also knew Lucio Fulci quite well and is adamant that the godfather of gore was a far more accomplished artistic and technical talent than he’s often given credit for. Martino is particularly a fan of Fulci’s now rarely seen comedies. After discussing such topics as the continuing influence of Giallo films on the current crop of North American directors, the influence of French director Henri-George Clouzot’s “Les diaboliques” on his own personal conception of the giallo -- particularly with regard to his film “The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh” -- and the lengths he’d go to in order to come up with preposterous but sexually suggestive titles (“The Bodies Display Traces of Carnal Violence”, the English translation of the Italian title of the film known as “Torso” in English-speaking territories, is a particular favourite), Martino moves on to consideration of the reasons for the decline of the Italian film industry from the late nineties onwards, putting it largely down to its failure to keep pace with the technological innovations of the digital age, leaving the country’s genre films looking old fashioned and primitive in comparison with their effects-laden US rivals.
“The Italian Hitchcock: Dario Argento Remembers the Bird with the Crystal Plumage” features a subdued and thoughtful Dario Argento in a lovely little featurette that is mostly devoted to the director humbly paying tribute to the filmmakers who most influenced him, especially during that early period in his career when “Bird …” was shot. Oddly enough, given the title of the featurette, Argento takes pains to disavow the moniker that has followed him ever since, claiming that Hitchcock was a genius but that their films are very different in flavour, something Argento puts down to their differing Anglo-Saxon and Latin temperaments. (Argento also mentions once meeting and talking with the great British director, but doesn’t go into any specific detail on the matter). He does admit to a similar obsession with sin and guilt in both their films though, which he puts down to them both being influenced by the Catholicism of their upbringing.
Argento then moves on to talk about the filmmakers who really did have an influence on his thinking at the start of his career. Not surprisingly, Michelangelo Antonioni is chief among them, with the director paying homage to this important director’s unique cinematic vision of the city, which brought an architect’s eye to the composition and framing of shots. Argento explains how he was subsequently inspired to introduce pictorial beauty to the thriller format, and how Fellini (Argento was also on the set of “Juliet and the Spirits”), Bergman, the French Nouvelle Vague and German Expressionism were all important influences on his first film. He talks about the novelty of using storyboards, an idea he’d picked up from U.S. cinema but which was considered rather wacky by his Italian peers at the time, and, rather ironically given the debate over the HD master used for this Blu-ray, he pays tribute to the importance of his director of photography, who was also just starting out on his career and whom Argento allowed to get on with his work without too much interference or supervision on the understanding that he knew best what to do. If only that were still the case!
If you’ve never seen the film before and you can’t get hold of any other version, then it’s a no-brainer you should buy this (heck, the very first Argento film I ever saw was a version of “Deep Red” via a 4:3 pan & scan VHS cassette with bleached out colours, and I could still tell it was something special and was hooked from that moment on) – the extras are pretty good if not exactly essential (apart from the commentary which is terrific) and you get all Arrow’s usual packaging excellence in the form of a new booklet of writing by Alan Jones, a two-sided fold-out poster and a choice of four reversible artworks for the cover. But there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a pretty unsatisfactory state of affairs. The Blu-ray medium certainly wasn’t designed to foist hacked about new versions of films on us without the director’s knowledge or consent, especially when they had previously been available in perfectly good condition in their intended form. Now it appears we’re stuck with a re-formatted aspect ratio for a film that was never designed with it in mind in the first place. A disappointing and frustrating release.