The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Review
It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Dario Argento has been responsible for truly genre-defining films. 1975’s Deep Red, re-released by Arrow in a fantastic edition last year and reviewed here, was so extraordinary that Argento would treat murder scenes as a musical would songs. It was a natural development of Italian Neo-Realism and arguably the beginning of the “set-piece” that is so prevalent in horror and action to this day. But Argento is eccentric and his films are vibrant, ostentatious and curious things, so if you’re wondering where to start, his first as director, 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is perfect. And this new release matches Deep Red with a wealth of extra features and another stunning transfer.
Argento isn’t pulling out all the stops for The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but it is Italian so still has moments of nutty audacity. It is first and foremost a good solid thriller and what really sticks out is Argento’s quality of filmmaking. He cut his teeth writing, although his screenplay credit with Sergio Leone on the revolutionary Once Upon a Time in the West is overplayed. Still, that’s one of the most important films ever made, certainly pre-1970, and there is a sense that Argento effectively picked up where Leone left off, even if it's Thriller rather than Western. And while he would come to use more unusual composers in his future films, such as Goblin, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage features Ennio Morricone, further bridging the gaps with Argento’s peers. It’s one of Morricone’s lesser known scores but is still masterful, atmospheric and disquieting.
A formative Giallo and a terrific debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is tightly paced, scary and full of wit, thinly disguising disturbing and sexualised themes of perversion; that’s an area that Argento would explore more overtly later. The tone is oddly similar to that of Dirty Harry, released the same year, but eschews that films penchant for brutal exploitation. Instead, the story, like many of Argento’s thrillers, is typical Hitchcock, and he would virtually repeat it for Deep Red: An American writer living in Rome (Tony Musante) is witness to an attempted murder. He becomes obsessed with finding the attacker, who is now on a gruesome killing spree, to the frustration of his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) and the police (led with notable charisma by Enrico Maria Salerno). As he delves deeper into a psychological mystery, the danger mounts. It’s just the right side of a bit daft as all such stories are, but even with tongue slightly in cheek, Argento is playing with fundamental themes. Elements and imagery of the film will tease you long after it has finished.
Hitchcock was always fascinated by the idea of normal people dealing with murder on their own doorstep, unable to resist the attraction of the macabre, even when they are in danger. Argento subscribes entirely to the same idea. In this film, Tony Musante could walk away at any time. He just doesn’t want to. Hitchcock’s theory also implicates the viewer in the narrative and Argento pushes that too. The murders are not as gleefully provocative as they would come to be in his future work, but there is still some sexualisation and Peeping Tom-style point-of-view.
It’s a sobering thought that without this we might never have gotten Dario Argento’s Tenebrae or Suspiria, but also Brian De Palma’s best work. He, too, was heavily influenced by Hitchcock, but Dressed to Kill in 1980 is very Argento; or Giallo at least. As with Hitchcock and De Palma, Argento’s focus is on the audience enjoying the experience, despite themselves and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is great fun. To further emphasise his admiration for Hitchcock, Argento’s film closes with a psychologist giving a TV interview, theorising on the motives of the killer, just as Simon Oakland’s doctor did at the end of Psycho.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage might not find Argento at his most audacious, but it is a fine thriller. Made with consummate skill, its Italian heritage gives it further personality. Argento's intentions and ability to re-write the Giallo were clear from the beginning.
This brand new 4k transfer from the camera negative in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is breathtaking. There’s no escaping that it’s a 70s movie, but it is pristine like it was filmed yesterday. Argento’s editing and mise-en-scène are superlative, accentuated by this superb transfer that has a small amount of grain and pulls detail out of texture beautifully. He gives colour meaning in the way a film noir would use shadows and the contrast is perfectly balanced to really make it pop. Note the scene where Musante chases a hitman; a story contrivance means the villain is wearing a bright yellow jacket. It culminates in a tense scene at night amongst parked blue and red lorries. It’s an extraordinary scene anyway, but also demonstrates that Arrow have outdone themselves with this release. See also the murder set-piece in an art gallery, harshly lit by fluorescent light, as if on display to the dark street on which Musante is helplessly stuck.
Audio is always a challenge in Italian cinema from the era and particularly with Argento. Both the Italian and English mono soundtracks are effectively dubbed, so it’s a matter of taste which one you pick. Both have that slightly disconnected, yet almost over-recorded atmosphere. Neither is ideal for a story that centres on an American. Musante is either speaking English, but so are all the Italians and you can see where it doesn’t dub cleanly. Or he’s dubbed into Italian, which only really suits everyone else. With Deep Red, Arrow included a composite track that worked quite well and would have been welcome here. Still, the quality is excellent with voices centred and Morricone’s wonderful score wide open.
On a previous US release, there was a feature on Ennio Morricone which is, sadly, not included here, and its omission seems odd. His music is responsible for much of the film’s personality.
New commentary by Troy Howarth (author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films)
This is a fantastic commentary. Howarth is entertaining and knows Giallo and Dario Argento’s work inside out. So much so he cuts through assumptions and reputations. If anything, the film is more impressive after you learn how much luck the inexperienced Argento had.
Black Gloves and Screaming Mimi’s (new analysis by Kat Ellinger) - 32m
Ellinger explores the themes that Dario Argento used and their source novel, which has been already been filmed in more conventional style.
The Power of Perception, a new visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas - 21m
Dario Argento uses art a lot in his films, often as a shortcut to implying an undercurrent of perversion and sadism. Heler-Nicholas' video essay is an excellent look at the motifs in his work.
Crystal Nightmare: new interview with Dario Argento - 31m
It’s fair to say Argento has had a varied career and his best, most incisive work is long behind him. This new interview though finds him in a contemplative and open mood. He explains quite thoroughly his memories of the film’s conceptions, along with some typically odd anecdotes.
An Argento Icon: new interview with Gildo de Marco - 22m
de Marco is a popular character actor who worked with Argento many times. This is a great interview, giving another perspective on the films of the era.
Eva’s Talking: an interview with Eva Renzi (2005) - 11m
The late, brilliant Eva Renzi had some fantastic memories of her time with Dario Argento. She’s a lively and entertaining subject.