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Back in 1997 and 1998, one surprising trend with the new DVD format was the proliferation of European horror pictures. Most of these films had never been shown in the United States in uncut versions, as even VHS editions were almost always pan-scanned transfers of dubbed American versions. The new DVDs, from a variety of vendors, were beautifully remastered with original audio tracks and extras. Quite suddenly there was a new awareness of slasher, zombie and gore movies from names like Argento, Bava, Fulci, Deodato. Why? The consensus is that a great many early adopters were young males prone to favor film fare featuring violence, nudity and suspense. This unfamiliar genre had a surplus of all three of these elements. Bathed in hallucinatory colors, the suspense-horror movies of Dario Argento looked like Italian fashion magazines come to life -- they flattered the early adopters' new widescreen TV monitors. Not only that, young males who favored lounge music fell immediately in love with the lush continental soundtracks by composers like Bruno Nicolai, Riz Ortolani, Stelvio Cipriani, and the master, Ennio Morricone.
The first word fans of these films had to learn was Giallo (yellow), which originally referred to Italian crime fiction. In film its definition refers more specifically to a class of suspense thriller that emphasizes stylized, often eroticized killings. Victims fall like tenpins as razor-wielding fiends in designer fashions carry out bloody vendettas. Although experts like Tim Lucas have nominated worthy predecessors to the Giallo trend, especially in the films of Mario Bava, the main body of the style began with a visually stunning horror-inflected who-dunnit from 1970, Dario Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo). It was the first direction credit for the former critic and screenwriter, and it's no amateur effort. Argento's key collaborator Vittorio Storaro would soon become one of the more celebrated cinematographers in the world. As icing on the cake, Ennio Morricone provides the eccentric music score that gives the film its modernist feel.
Argento's script won't impress Agatha Christie fans, but the way he tells his story made The Bird With The Crystal Plumage into a worldwide hit, wherever local censorship tolerated his borderline transgressive imagery. In Rome, American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnesses a bizarre murder attempt at the art gallery of Alberto Ranieri (Umberto Raho). Trapped between glass doors, Sam is unable to assist the helpless victim Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi). Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) confiscates Sam's passport but decides he's not a suspect and doesn't mind that Sam and his girlfriend, model Julia (Suzy Kendall) investigate a related string of murders on their own. Surviving an assassination attempt by the sinister Needles (Reggie Nalder), Sam talks to an imprisoned pimp, a hoodlum who might know the assassin, a gay art dealer (Werner Peters) and artist Berto Consalvi (Mario Adorf) whose disturbing painting of a murder scene was purchased by the mad killer. Sam's friend bird expert professor Carlo Dover (Raf Valenti) borrows a recording of the killer's voice, which may hold an important clue.
The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a marvelous intersection of the skills of director Argento and cinematographer Storaro. The attractive Cromoscope visuals make use of strong compositions emphasizing sinister shadows and menacing silhouettes, but the style is less German expressionism than it is Italian fetishism. We're given tight close-ups of leather gloves and jackets, and a set of polished knives mounted in red felt. Argento's mad killer is collection of sensual textures, and the movie makes an artistic glamour statement out of killings with butcher knives and razors. That and a fairly competent flair for suspense is what distinguishes Crystal Plumage from other thrillers circa 1970. Viewers respond to the admittedly gorgeous images, while relaxed censorship codes allow more latitude in disturbing imagery of sexual violence. Almost anonymous in the cast list are five beautiful actresses, given names but really known by their slots in the kill order: Victim #4, Victim #5.
Although Argento's first Giallo is relatively tame, he pushes an almost prophetic number commercial buttons. The camera caresses the near-nude bodies of more than one of the victims, providing a prurient voyeuristic thrill through Storaro's luscious images. Argento's rather episodic script includes a number of filler scenes with eccentric characters, like an American detective TV show. The most amusing of these is Mario Adorf's hermit of an artist, who manages to paint without an income by raising his own food supply.
I'm sure that others have found more scenes inflected with Alfred Hitchcock touches. I caught a number of angles through peepholes, a killer in a distinctive yellow jacket that escapes by disappearing into a room full of men with identical jackets. There's also an amusing twist on one of Hitchcock's frequent culinary jokes. For his biggest revelation, Argento swipes an audio clue from Akira Kurosawa's film work. On the other hand, Argento's quotes don't take over as in a DePalma picture, and he manages to make a plus out of a number of interesting, and fairly original visual ideas. Although 1970 was the height of the craze for shallow focus montages, Crystal Plumage uses its long lenses with discretion and saves the zooms for disturbing overstatement, like a pull-out from the tongue of a screaming victim. Sinister reconnaissance views of the victims pop to B&W as "stills" are photographed. This creates an impressive frisson when a B&W photo of the mystery painting is suddenly replace by the color original -- hanging on the murderer's wall.
Argento also allows his cast to be reasonably natural in their (admittedly unchallenging) roles. Enrico Maria Salerno is a thoughtful top cop instead of the expected bully. Various eccentrics (Pino Patti, Gildo De Marco) are amusing, while leads Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall are comfortably bland. The interesting Eva Renzi and Umberto Raho are the married owners of an art gallery seemingly custom-designed for various bizarre murder scenarios. The film's best scene is right near the beginning, when Musante's Sam is trapped between two glass walls in the gallery's portico, unable to aid the bleeding Monica Ranieri or run for help. The setup confects a frightening, voyeuristic distillation of the horror film experience -- the dreadful spectacle is happening in full view, but audience surrogate Sam can do nothing about it. Later on, Sam returns to the same fateful location by a different route, an idea perhaps borrowed from the underrated comedy noir Lady on a Train -- a Deanna Durbin movie! We have earlier seen the installation of a massive and dangerous-looking sculpted "artwork" that looks like Attila the Hun's pancake griddle. As soon as we see the spikes poking out of that thing, we know it's going to return. It's an old movie rule -- if you see a ten-foot sculpture to crush and impale somebody in the first reel, it has to be put to use in the last reel.
Crystal Plumage has its plot holes and unfair red herrings, but nothing we can't live with. Argento also requires a couple of extra scenes to wrap up his story, but otherwise his murderous movie machine is a winner.
Arrow Films' (UK) Blu-ray of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is the latest in a long line of DVD presentations of this audience favorite. Arrow's pub announcement stresses the involvement of the film's cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, which brings up a somewhat problematical issue. Storaro owns a proprietary film camera system called Univisium. His attempt to standardize film projection decided upon the Aspect Ratio of 2:1 for all widescreen pictures, with the idea that digital televisions and theaters should simply settle on his approved frame shape, and retrofit to it all previously filmed flat-widescreen and anamorphic 'scope features. The television consortiums instead went for a slightly less wide 1:78, the "16:9" we all know.
Unfortunately, to promote his preferred AR and promote Univisium, Storaro has re-formatted his older movies whenever he could. Until just last year, all video versions of Apocalypse Now cropped the original 2:35 Technovision image down to 2:1. This Blu-ray of Crystal Plumage pulls the same trick, cropping important image area from the extremes of the frame, especially the left side. Argento balances most of his compositions using the entire Cromoscope frame width, and the hack-down to 2:1 is obtrusively tight. Two-shots leave what now seems a compositional hole in the middle of the frame. One scene where Sam pins a B&W photo of the scary painting on his wall, crops the painting half off-screen.
Storaro also likes to re-think his color schemes -- he has very personal ideas about the psychological effects of color on screen. This transfer of Crystal Plumage tamps down the colors quite a bit and shifts the hue knob toward the cold side of the spectrum. The resulting transfer is 'selectively' colorful. Viewers who like Storaro's experiments with Apocalypse may prefer this. Various websites have posted comparisons of the transfers, but this disc's featurette extras include many film clips at the wider original Aspect Ratio, with the warmer color scheme. (Note: the images posted here do not reflect Arrow's framing or color values.)
Arrow has commissioned several interview-based featurettes that make extensive use of graphics and feature lengthy, rather self-important title sequences. A Crystal Classic gives us director Luigi Cozzi's quick illustrated overview of the film and the career of Dario Argento, who was just 29 when he started directing. Director Sergio Martino's Genesis of Giallo is profusely illustrated with colorful poster art and film clips of varying quality. Martino's personal take on the genre is somewhat biased but he knows the territory. He says that there was little squabbling over film projects among the directors at this time, as Italy was turning out 350 films per year, and there was room for everybody. The Italian Hitchcock is a short interview with Argento, who tries to be humble while associating himself with every great director of his era, not just Hitchcock. It's the least substantial of the featurettes.
The best extra is a full feature commentary with Argento author and expert Alan Jones and writer, critic, novelist and ace raconteur Kim Newman. They pump the commentary with a surfeit of fascinating facts and cogent observations. The source novel, for instance, is indeed the same a for Gerd Oswald's Screaming Mimi. The movie's German co-producership can account for some of the film's "Krimi"- inflected Edgar Wallace mystery touches, and perhaps also for the presence of Reggie Nalder, of the German barf bag hit Mark of the Devil. Newman points out some of the script's screwier choices, such as a major "pointless" red herring, and the fact that the mad maniac killers apparently hire a hit man when their workload gets to be too taxing!
Arrow's encoding and their menu systems can't be faulted. They're apparently in the midst of releasing an entire run of Euro-horror Giallo pictures, and the disc proper starts off with a violent and disturbing montage of extreme gore makeup effect scenes. I suppose the gorehound buying public can't get enough of scenes of blades penetrating human heads, but coming out of the blue, the montage seems a little rough. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, which isn't anywhere near as brutal. It sort of reminds me of that same sleaze montage that began (begins) dozens of presentations of Something Weird DVDs. Then again, Arrow's sensational cover art is up front about what's lurking inside, isn't it?
The UK produced disc appears to indeed be region zero -- my screener copy played perfectly in my domestic Yankee BD player.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.