The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition Review
Warning: this review is spoiler intensive. If you haven't seen the film, I advise you to skip down to the technical portion of the review for fear of spoiling its excellent twist.
This is going to be a long review - the longest I've ever written, in fact. I apologise in advance for my longwindedness, but I felt that it was only proper to do justice to the first film from the director whose work has changed my entire outlook on cinema.
"I can hear him saying it now: go to Italy. It's a peaceful country. Nothing ever happens there." - Sam Dalmas in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
Spaghetti Pulp Fiction
If you have even a passing interest in the Italian genre scene of the 1970s then you've probably heard the name of Dario Argento before. In the circles of aficionados of the "giallo" genre in which he made his name, he has become something of a legend in his own right. Few people, however, appreciate just what an impact he made on the industry. With his directorial debut, 1970's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L'Uccello Dalle Piume di Cristallo), he established an entirely new visual shorthand for the giallo, a genre whose infiltration of the cinematic medium had until that point been fairly limited. Suddenly, gialli became the biggest money-makers in Italian cinema, and Argento's trademark style was being aped in virtually every subsequent foray into the genre. In turn, many of the traits of the post-Argento gialli were copied in the American slasher movies of the 1980s, with subsequent offerings as disparate as Wes Craven's Scream and David Fincher's Se7en having their roots in Argento's early innovations. The climactic sequence of The Silence of the Lambs, in which Jodie Foster is menaced by Ted Levine, even recalls one of Argento's most successful ploys: the alignment of the camera with the villain's point of view.
Argento, of course, was no more responsible for creating the giallo genre than George A. Romero was for creating the zombie horror flick. Gialli had been around for years, first appearing in the late 1920s in the form of a series of yellow-covered paperbacks ("giallo" is Italian for "yellow"), most of which were translations of popular detective fiction by the likes of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. (Exactly what makes a giallo a giallo is a matter of personal opinion, and it should be remembered that in Italy any thriller, regardless of its origin or content, tends to fall under that label. Throughout the rest of the world, however, it has attained a more specific meaning, generally designating an Italian product with a heavy emphasis on lurid murders, convoluted whodunits and strong psychosexual undertones.) The first film that could be classed as a giallo is generally regarded to be Mario Bava's 1963 thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and while this type of film remained relatively thin on the ground throughout the 1960s, a number of directors did release films that could probably be regarded as proto-gialli, including Bava, Umberto Lenzi and Antonio Margheriti.
What Argento did do, however, was to literally transform the format of the genre, inadvertently establishing a model that became accepted as a standard almost overnight. The faceless killer, dressed in a black coat, fedora and gloves (actually a carry-over from Bava's Blood and Black Lace, another proto-giallo), a motive for murder stemming from a deep-rooted past trauma, lengthy stalk sequences shown from the point of view of the killer, outlandish modernist architecture and, last but not least, a convoluted title often referring to an animal with no real connection to the plot, were all cemented in Argento's debut and essentially remained unchanged throughout the genre's lifespan. Indeed, what the majority of non-Italian viewers consider to be a giallo is essentially one in the Argento (or Argento-inspired) format. Again, it is not so much a case of Argento inventing these traits but rather bringing them all together in a successful formula that other filmmakers saw fit to preserve. Indeed, I would argue that apart from Lucio Fulci and perhaps Aldo Lado, none of the plethora of filmmakers who adopted (or attempted to adopt) the Argento style succeeded in bringing anything of their own to genre, with the vast majority of the industry's output being highly derivative, reproducing the gimmicks but failing to capture the essence of what Argento achieved.
The Italian Hitchcock?
An American living in Rome, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), is walking home alone one night. As he passes an art gallery, a shocking spectacle catches his eye: a man in a black coat and hat is in the process of grappling with a beautiful woman in white (Eva Renzi). As Sam looks on, the woman is stabbed and the man rushes away. Attempting to reach the beleaguered woman, Sam finds himself trapped between two pairs of mechanically operated sliding glass doors, and is forced to watch the attacker escape as his victim lies in a pool of blood, crying out for help. A passer-by alerts the authorities, who arrive in time to save the woman, who is revealed to be Monica Ranieri, the wife of the gallery's curator. Believing that Sam, the only witness, must be the key to solving the crime, the police confiscate his passport in order to prevent him leaving the country. Forced to turn amateur sleuth, Sam, who remains convinced that something he saw on the night of the attack doesn't quite add up, soon finds the lives of both himself and his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) being put in jeopardy and the villain sets out on a series of brutal murders...
By far the most remarkable aspect of Argento's directorial debut is its assuredness. Having served for several years as a film critic and then as a screenwriter (his credits include Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West), in addition to being the son of prominent producer Salvatore Argento, he was certainly no stranger to the movie world. Still, for someone who had never actually stepped behind a camera before, the skills he demonstrates here are nothing short of extraordinary. It seems almost a cliché to say this, and perhaps unfair given that Argento has always rejected the moniker "the Italian Hitchcock", but there is definitely something Hitchcockian about the way he uses the camera, editing and sound design to manipulate the audience. (Indeed, Hitchcock is said to have declared that "that Italian fellow is starting to make me nervous" upon seeing the film.) The level of tension achieved is incredibly potent, and it seems strange now to think that his technique of cranking up the fear factor by preceding each murder scene with a nailbiting build-up, leaving the audience in no doubt as to what is about to occur, was initially dismissed by the executive producer, Gofreddo Lombardo, as evidence of an incompetent director and an unreleasable film. Hitchcock famously differentiated between surprise (for instance, a hitherto unseen bomb exploding) and suspense (knowing that the bomb was there the whole time), and it is without doubt the latter that Argento employs most often here, with stunning results. Lengthy scenes of a woman returning to her apartment in the dead of night, for example, are made all the more agonising due to the fact that we have already seen the killer stalking and photographing her.
Nowhere is Argento's mastery of tension better demonstrated than in the scene in which Julia, alone in the apartment she shares with Sam, is menaced by the killer. As the knife-wielding maniac pounds at the door, whispering to her that she will not leave the building alive, the camera follows Julia while she runs from room to room, desperately searching for a way to get out or alert people to her predicament. Ennio Morricone's quirky and jarring score sets us on edge as Argento skilfully cuts between the increasingly distraught Julia and shots of the killer, who first cuts the telephone line, then the electricity, before beginning to chip away slowly - agonisingly slowly - at the door with a knife. This is cinematic terror at its best, and even if the film fits more comfortably within the label of a murder mystery than a horror movie, moments of the film are undeniably frightening, due to Argento's skill at aligning our sympathies with the victim. (It is interesting, therefore, that he so often chooses to use the killer's point of view and yet never seems to be taking the aggressor's side.)
Equally surprising, however, is the quality of the script. For many viewers, the quality of the writing is a major bone of contention in Argento's films, with his ability to write believable characters and dialogue often being brought into question. I have defended Argento's credentials as a scribe on many occasions, arguing that his social and political commentary mark him out as someone whose talents lie away from the beaten track, and that just because his dialogue is often wooden and his characters one-dimensional does not make him an incompetent writer. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage features some of his best characters and strongest dialogue, and even if the usual idiosyncrasies that tend to plague both his films and other gialli are present to some extent (the police force's willingness to let a key suspect wander around town after several attempts have been made on his life, for instance, might raise a few eyebrows), they are never as wildly distracting as in something like Phenomena, which features immortal lines like "Help! I'm a foreigner, and I'm lost!" Indeed, it has always struck me as interesting that, despite Argento being continually blamed for flaws in the scripts for his films, the titles on which he receives sole writing credit (this, Tenebre, The Stendhal Syndrome) feature some of his strongest material. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, by the way, is often considered to be based on Fredric Brown's novel The Screaming Mimi, a connection that is rather tenuous and I suspect little more than an attempt to capitalise on that title's popularity, in much the same way that the German distributors of many gialli attempted to connect them to the writings of Bryan Edgar Wallace. (In any event, The Screaming Mimi had already been filmed in 1958 as a noir-ish affair by Gerd Oswald.)
Another element Argento has in his favour with his debut is the strong if eclectic cast. Although his stormy relationship with Tony Musante, which is usually credited as cementing his long-lasting disdain for actors, has been well publicised, Musante makes an excellent lead. Sam is never a completely likeable individual (as we will see later, the way he treats his girlfriend is quite abhorrent, even if he is far from the macho chauvinist so frequently embodied in gialli) but Musante is energetic and possesses a charisma that deflates some of the character's less agreeable traits. Sam is the traditional giallo outsider: something of a parallel to Hitchcock's ever-reliable "wrong man" scenario, one of the central tenets of this genre is that of the lone protagonist who is somehow established as "other" and is forced to become an amateur sleuth, often to prove his innocence. Often he is a lonely artist, unable to connect with the masses. Other times he is a foreigner in a strange city. Sam is both: an American writer (and therefore someone with "artistic" sensibilities), he has come to Italy to unwind and gather inspiration, and as such he is immediately marked as different from those that surround him.
As his token girlfriend, Suzy Kendall also shines in what is a pretty thankless role. Her responsibility is essentially to look pretty and be put in danger - she is certainly a far cry from Argento's later female protagonists, most of whom are made of decidedly sterner stuff, and in this respect we can definitely see an improvement in his writing with subsequent projects. Intriguingly, Argento never worked with any of the real icons of the genre - George Hilton, Edwige Fenech, and so on - but this first film features a handful of giallo regulars - Kendall, Mario Adorf, Enrico Maria Salerno, Carla Mancini - in a manner unlike any of his other efforts. The exception, of course, is Fulvio Mingozzi, a bit player in a number of gialli who appeared in minor roles in all of Argento's films up to and including Phenomena. Given that his ability to deal with actors is another area in which Argento is often criticised (he is said to view them as mere set dressing, lavishing most of his attention on the camera, which essentially serves as the main star of his films), it is somewhat surprising just how good the performers are in this film, even when hampered by dubbing. The standout, however, would have to be Eva Renzi, whose role is discussed later.
Although frequently marketed and dismissed as cheap schlock (or "Eurotrash", to use a particularly obnoxious and infuriating term adopted by those who sneer at anything that doesn't conform to their own narrow predilections), almost all of Argento's films are more complex than would seem to be the case at face value, demanding repeat viewings to discover hidden quirks. The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is no exception, and in fact stands alongside Profondo Rosso, Tenebre, Opera and The Stendhal Syndrome as one of his most complex works.
The central theme of the film is imprisonment, and this motif is repeated throughout via various characters and settings. Like the crystal-plumed bird of the title (in actual fact a McGuffin of the highest possible order: a sound heard in a phone call made by the killer that eventually leads Sam to her apartment), many of the characters find themselves imprisoned in cages, metaphorical or otherwise. In the crucial scene in which Sam witnesses the supposed attack on Monica, he finds himself imprisoned between twin sets of glass doors - a cage from which, like the bird, he can only watch, impassive (and impotent, if you wish to draw sexual parallels). Later, when his passport is confiscated, his cage becomes Italy. Likewise, Julia too is constantly imprisoned, although paradoxically it is Sam who keeps her caged. She is a kept woman: a trophy bride of the highest order who Sam says he is "taking back to America" with him, much like a souvenir of his time in Italy. He frequently orders her about, ignores what she says to him, and on a number of occasions simply deposits her at a certain location and tells her he will come back for her later, a bit like tying a dog to the lamp post outside a shop. Her imprisonment reaches its apex in the scene in which she is alone in her apartment, being menaced by the killer: left alone in an enclosed space, she is unable to get out and can only watch passively as the killer closes in. In this respect Sam's behaviour comes across as reprehensible: he doesn't seem to view her as a human being at all but rather as a commodity that can be abandoned at will. His scenes of passion with her come across as hollow, and most interestingly occur mainly when in the view of others, furthering the notion that she is simply a trophy piece.
A lot can be made of the killer's identity, and if you have read this far then you will know that the assassin is not only female but also the individual who we initially assumed was the first victim rather than the perpetrator: the gallery curator's wife, Monica Ranieri. A triumph of subliminal manipulation on Argento's part, the entire film is set up to lead us to believe that the villain must be a man - an easy assumption to make, given that while, by the time of the film's release, female killers did exist, they were far from as pervasive as they are in today's thrillers. Little touches like the constant reference to the killer as "he" go by unnoticed but subliminally plant in our minds the seeds that Argento seeks to exploit. Likewise, the overtly sexual nature of many of the murders - most of the victims are female, and in one cringe-inducing scene a woman is stabbed in the vagina - implies a predatory male.
There is something of a parallel with Antonioni's Blow Up here, as the central character, a self-occupied "arty" type, obsesses over the details of a specific image and what it might mean. For David Hemmings' photographer in Blow Up, the focus was on actual pictures; for Tony Musante in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, the images are mental. As what we see in photographs can be misleading, so too can one's memory, and Sam Dalmas fails to realise until it is too late that he has been led astray by his own cultural assumptions. Western culture typically posits white as representing good and black as evil; likewise, men are typically viewed as aggressors while women take on the role of victims. Here Argento achieves a masterstroke: by portraying a man dressed in black struggling with a woman in white we, like Sam, automatically assume that the man is the aggressor. Pauline Kael was apparently able to guess what was going on, but Argento had most other viewers and critics completely flummoxed.
Throughout the film, we are constantly aligned with the killer's point of view, which I am sure could provide ample fodder for those critics who view all films of this type as depraved filth celebrating death. However, we must consider the fact that the killer, too, is a victim. Monica was not born a psychopath but was made one as a result of a twisted ordeal. As such, although the positioning of a woman as the killer might arouse suspicions of misogyny, we must not forget that, in essence, it was a man who made her this way. As Frank Burke points out in his analysis of the film at KinoEye, most of the male characters attempt to blame Monica herself for being the way she is, but they are deluding themselves, missing the bigger picture. Argento is well aware of the sexual politics at play here, which he would go on to revisit in many of his subsequent projects, and as a result the film demands a more in-depth reading than a cursory charge of misogyny would permit.
A Case Solved
Complex, clever and skilfully executed, I am sorely tempted to give The Bird With the Crystal Plumage a 10/10 score. As a thriller, it is top-notch: a tightly-written and superbly directed affair, its influence on the film industry, both Italian and internationally, cannot be understated. The fact remains, though, that Argento would go on to bigger and better things, with his 1975 giallo Profondo Rosso leaving The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and its sea of imitators in the dust. As a result, therefore, to differentiate it from its superior successors, I am giving it a 9, but be in no doubt that I find it hard to imagine how any specific aspect of this film could be faulted. Truly, a thriller Hitchcock himself would have been proud of.
When reviews began appearing for Blue Underground's release, I suspected that the praise being dished out was too good to be true. Although they are to be commended for releasing so many rare and otherwise neglected titles, none of the transfers on Blue Underground's releases have struck me as being particularly good. In particular, they have a tendency to be overly soft with a high degree of edge enhancement. The mediocre image quality of the two gialli released alongside The Bird With the Crystal Plumage - Strip Nude For Your Killer and Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye - looked set to confirm my worst fears. Luckily, Argento's debut has been given somewhat better treatment than its stablemates and, even if it doesn't look as good as it could (or should), it is comfortably the best presentation the film has had so far on DVD. Presented anamorphically in its original 2.35:1 ratio, this transfer was sourced from the original negative and reveals noticeably richer colours - particularly with regard to the reds - than the previous DVD releases. The grain is nicely handled and well maintained (a major improvement over the two other gialli mentioned before), and there are no visible compression artefacts. Sadly, the softness and edge enhancement are ever prevalent, and although close-ups generally look fine, the wider shots often show a horrifying lack of detail. Perhaps I've been spoiled recently by the excellent giallo DVDs coming out of Italy - the recent remaster of What Have You Done to Solange? from 01 Distribution and the two Luciano Ercoli titles from NoShame's Italian office (streets ahead of anything their US branch has released) are a sight for sore eyes - but I personally don't consider Blue Underground's transfers at all deserving of the praise so often heaped on them.
In terms of audio, at least, there seems little to complain about. A whopping seven different mixes have been provided, catering to every possible aural orientation. New mixes have been created for both the English and Italian variants of the film, the former receiving an aggressive DTS-ES 6.1 track, with Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and Dolby Surround 2.0 tracks provided in both English and Italian. Thankfully, Blue Underground have included the original mono recordings of both too, which will please purists like myself. Despite my insistence on the inclusion of original mixes however, I was suitably impressed by the DTS track to actually watch the entire film with it enabled, and found it to be a sterling effort throughout. Still, the original is there if you want it - and who can complain about choice? English subtitles, pertaining to the Italian track, are also included, although annoyingly they cannot be enabled or disabled on the fly. The only real flaw, which affects all of the available tracks, is that the quality of the dialogue recording is not particularly good, although this is of course a fault of the source materials themselves rather than the DVD.
By far the meatiest of Blue Underground's giallo releases in terms of bonus materials, the extras are spread across two discs. The primary extra on Disc 1 is an audio commentary by journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman. This is a laidback, breezy affair, more in line with an informal chat between two friends sitting in front of the television than the more academic affairs often featured on DVDs from the likes of Criterion. Of the two, Jones is clearly the more knowledgeable about all things Argento (a fact admitted by Newman quite early in the commentary), but they supplement each other well, delivering interesting anecdotes and personal interpretations, as well as drawing parallels between this and other films of the same period. This track is far and away better than the two solo commentaries Jones delivered for Anchor Bay's releases of Trauma and The Card Player, although this probably has as much to do with the superior quality of the film as anything.
The first disc also includes the international trailer, Italian trailer (which contains the infamous Hitchcock quote - marking it out as a re-release trailer rather than the original) and two American TV spots.
Disc 2 contains four interviews, the longest of which, at 18 minutes, features Dario Argento as he takes us through the process of making the film, discussing his roots as a movie critic and how this and his inexperience behind the camera shaped the end result. In recent years, Argento has definitely become more open to discussing his work (many earlier interviews were like pulling teeth), and he delivers a number of amusing anecdotes here, including Ennio Morricone's outraged reaction when Argento provided him with samples of how he wanted the music to sound, as well as a stunt involving a camera being thrown from a sixth storey window, suspending on a rope, which led to the equipment smashing on the pavement below ("The film was saved, fortunately" he says).
Ennio Morricone is next, speaking for 8 minutes about the score and going on to discuss his work for Argento on the four other films on which they collaborated. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro follows, speaking for 10 minutes about the ideas he brought to the look of the film, covering the use of close-ups to get inside the characters' minds and discussing how much responsibility and autonomy the cinematographer ultimately has on any project.
The final interview features Eva Renzi, who played Monica in the film. Renzi, who died of lung cancer a few months before the DVD was released, essentially goes on an 11-minute rant about how shoddily she has been treated by the industry. She feels that, due to taking bad advice from a variety of people, her career took a nosedive (she turned down an Orson Welles project at her ex-husband's insistence). She also takes the opportunity to lay into Tony Musante, who it seems she considered to be a vain and shallow individual. In that regard her views seem to be very much in line with those of Argento, about whom she speaks warmly, even if she doesn't appear to think much of the film or her character.
All except the Eva Renzi interview, which is in English, are presented in Italian with English subtitles.
Blue Underground have delivered what I am sure will be, for some time to come, the definitive version of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. While the transfer bears the usual flaws associated with the label's output, the audio presentation and extras are of a high standard and should please fans of the film.
Last updated: 31/05/2018 19:04:44