The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Review
Warning: This review reveals the identity of the killer, although I have taken care not to do so until the second-last paragraph of my analysis of the film.
In 1969, one thriller made waves in Italy, catapulting its then-unknown director into the spotlight. That thriller was L’Uccello dale Piume di Cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), and it was the directorial debut of Dario Argento, a native of Rome who had previously worked as a film critic and had written or co-written a handful of movies: mostly Westerns, the most famous of which would probably be Once Upon a Time in the West. The genre he tackled for his debut, the giallo, was popular in Italy in both its literary and cinematic forms, but Argento took it in an entirely new direction, developing a penchant for visually stunning murders and shameless flamboyance that arguably had never before been seen.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer currently living in Rome with his model girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). On the night before they are about to return to the US, Sam witnesses an altercation in an art gallery involving a stunning woman (Eva Renzi) and a mysterious black-gloved assailant dressed in a raincoat. Attempting to reach her, Sam is trapped between two mechanically-operated glass doors and can only watch as the villain makes his escape, leaving his victim lying in a bloody heap, begging Sam to help her. The woman, Monica Ranieri, the wife of the gallery’s owner, survives the attack, but the local police confiscate Sam’s passport to stop him leaving the country, because they believe him to be an important witness. Sam is haunted by what he saw that night, feeling sure that some vital clue is evading him, and soon finds that both he and his girlfriend are the killer’s new targets.
A viewer, watching this film with no prior knowledge of where it fits into the Argento timeline would probably be very surprised to learn that this was his directorial debut. The end result is extremely polished and confident, with excellent pacing and photography and what is quite possibly Argento’s tightest script. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage feels a lot less flamboyantly over-the-top than the films he is best known for, but a number of his favourite ideas can be glimpsed, such as a past trauma influencing the killer’s present-day actions, the misplaced foreigner as the protagonist, and of course, a typical theme for a giallo, voyeurism. On more than one occasion, characters find themselves, much like the Bird with the Crystal Plumage of title, trapped in a singular area and able only to watch as events unfold in front of them. Nowhere is this better illustrated than a highly effective scene early on, where Sam is trapped between two glass doors and forced to watch the wounded Monica Ranieri lying on the floor, begging him to help her. This motif crops up again later, when Julia is locked in the apartment she shares with Sam, while the killer attempts to gain entry.
Vittorio Storaro’s photography is refined and efficient, using the widescreen frame well to create tension. Likewise, Ennio Morricone’s mesmerizing score creates an atmosphere that is superficially tranquil but which oozes malice. On more than one occasion a gentle theme is used in a scene with a great deal of tension, and vice versa. Morricone scored more films for Argento than any other composer, and his style of music makes an excellent companion for the visuals.
The gore is somewhat lacking. In fact, the film initially got a PG rating in the US with only a couple of trims to its violence. That said, the lack of on-screen blood is not a huge problem, as Argento lets the narrative talk for itself, and there is plenty of squeamish material for the more imaginative. In particular, the implication of vaginal penetration with a knife (an idea later used, to a greater extent, in Massimo Dallamano’s excellent 1972 giallo What Have You Done to Solange?) is quite cringe-inducing, provided you are able to let your brain, rather than your eyes, do the work.
** Final spoiler warning! **
Argento has an excellent lead in Tony Musante, who injects Sam with a level of believability and sympathy. Suzy Kendall does what she has to in the role of his girlfriend Julia, who is essentially a potential corpse throughout the whole film. She looks wide-eyed, cowers in corners and moans about the fact that the police keep bothering Sam – essentially, she has the stereotypical “girly” role. Sam treats her as an object, and she responds as one. Less clear-cut is Eva Renzi in the role of Monica. She spends most of the film as a strong-willed but seemingly insignificant victim, before being transformed into a horrifically deranged killer in the film’s startling denouement. The fact that she is the villain comes as a genuine surprise, since the whole film has been carefully constructed to condition audiences into never even considering a woman, let alone the woman who initially appeared to be a victim, to be responsible. The end result is not only shocking but also extremely satisfying – a truly rare combination for a thriller. Renzi’s performance here is absolutely masterful, as she manages to switch seamlessly from vulnerable victim to gloating assassin.
Ultimately, while The Bird with the Crystal Plumage lacks the grandiosity and originality that would characterize Argento’s later efforts, it is a competent and well-made film, made doubly surprising by the fact that this was his directorial debut. Many of his more recognizable trademarks are present in rather primitive forms, and this is easily his most coherent and logical story: truly a thriller Hitchcock himself would have been proud of.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is reasonably good, and is comfortably the best the film has looked on DVD to date, but like many of Medusa’s DVDs it suffers from filtering and edge enhancement. It doesn’t look awful but, as with Il Gatto a Nove Code, the heavy edge enhancement wreaks havoc with the grain and makes it look like noise, such as the kind you get on a poor antenna connection. There are thankfully no compression problems, however, and the colour, while a little on the yellow side, seems to be in keeping with the look of the Eastman film stock of this generation.
Three audio mixes are included: the original English and Italian mono mixes, and an Italian 5.1 remix. I listened to both the Italian and English mono tracks right through, and can’t really decide which one I prefer. Both are acceptable, but both have their drawbacks, suffering from their fair share of bizarrely selected voices and bad lip sync.
An interesting note: the English dub differs from the Italian one in the scene where Sam is asked if he would recognize the face of the hit man that was sent after him. In the Italian version, he says yes, he would never forget a face like that, but in the English version he says no, he didn’t get a clear look at his face. This alters both the plot and the mood, not to mention Sam’s character, quite dramatically.
Subtitles are included in both English and Italian, but for some reason, when watching the English dub, you are forced to select one of the two subtitles. Disabling them is not an option unless you have a player that can circumvent these restrictions.
The menu opens with a short (and skippable) transition featuring footage from the film. The menus themselves are clear and easy to use, with no transitions, although their style is not particularly relevant to the movie or true to its time period.
The front cover is based on the original Italian theatrical poster, and very nice it is too, although the rest of the packaging is pretty generic.
A four-page booklet is included inside the amaray case, featuring listings for the chapter stops and bonus material.
The extras are pretty paltry: just a small gallery with 16 black and white images, and cast and crew listings (just the individuals’ names and role, no biographies). It would have been nice if Argento had recorded a commentary, this being his first film, but then there would probably have been no English subtitles, and personally my Italian is limited to “Yes”, “No” and “I can't sleep”.
As directorial debuts go, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is very impressive – outstanding, even. While it doesn’t hit the heights of Argento’s later work, it is a thoroughly enjoyable film and, while the DVD presentation is relatively mediocre, this release is well worth buying. A great place for Argento neophytes to start.