In Dario Argento's first giallo (and his feature length directorial debut), 1970's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Sam (Tony Musante) is an American writer who is currently living in Rome. After he's on his way home after socializing with a friend one night, he heads out into the streets and along the way, completely be chance, he witnesses an attempted murder on the beautiful wife of an art gallery owner.
Sam is unable to get inside to save her though, as he gets stuck in between a set of glass doors. All he is able to do is watch the woman suffer and hope that someone can call the police to the scene in time to save her. When he finds out that the woman has survived but the police tell him that she is actually just one of a few recent victims of a serial killer that has been operating in the area. Unfortunately though, none of the other victims survived. The killer, a man dressed in a black raincoat and of course, a pair of black leather gloves, makes it out before the cops can be called in and much to Sam's dismay, remains on the loose
The Rome police force, lead by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno of The Execution Squad), mean well, but have so far been unable to come up with any solid leads on the case. This inspires Sam, who has had his passport confiscated by the police until they're one hundred percent positive that he has nothing to do with the killings, to do a little detective work on his own. He hope to be able to clear his name and bring the killer to justice, killing two birds with one stone.
Sam soon gets to work and tracks down a few consequential clues on his own and slowly begins piecing the puzzle together one bit at a time. His investigation takes him from an antique dealer's shop to the art gallery where the murder attempt occurred and then to a remote villa outside of the city to talk to a reclusive artist who was responsible for creating an odd painting that seems to be somehow connected to the killer. Unfortunately for Sam, with the killer still at large, he's got his work cut out for him and the longer it takes him to solve the case, the more victims fall dead on the streets of Rome…
Like most of Dario Argento's films, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a stylish and beautifully photographed film with plenty of fluid camera movements and unusual colorful lighting. The recurring theme of an artist involved in a murder mystery that we see here is also another familiar aspect of his work that would turn up in many of his others films, most notably in both Deep Red and Suspiria. While some of his films verge on the bizarre and even toy around with surrealism at times (Inferno comes to mind), this one is a more accessible and straightforward murder mystery that makes for a good starting point for those who are unfamiliar with his work. It proves to be entertaining while at the same time, laying a lot of the groundwork for some of his more impressive but unusual films that would follow this early entry in his catalogue.
The influence of Alfred Hitchcock is all over this film, from the set up to the emphasis on murder to the red herrings and twist ending. Argento has never denied how the master of suspense influenced his work and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage wears that influence proudly on its sleeve. Although the film isn't as flamboyant as some of his other work the cinematography from Vittorio Storaro (who recently handled Dominion – A Prequel To The Exorcist but is probably best known for his work on Apocalypse Now) has got plenty of style – in fact, the movie looks absolutely gorgeous - and more than enough flair to ensure that the film looks a million times better than your average low budget thriller. A fantastic and evocative score by the legendary Ennio Morricone doesn't hurt things either and the movie has got atmosphere to spare even if it isn't breaking a lot of new ground in terms of storytelling or narrative technique. Performance wise, Salerno makes for a great cop, playing the role with that kind of gruff, tough quality that makes him such a likeable supporting player in many Italian genre films of the era. Musante and Kendall are fine in the lead roles, playing their parts with style. No one in the movie turns in would most would consider to be star making material, but what they deliver is definitely enough to keep the movie going.
This amazing presentation from Blue Underground presents the film completely uncut along with, for the first time, some newly discovered footage that, when reinstated into the film, adds a few seconds of bonus sleaze to the murder by straight razor scene that takes place in the stairway near the elevator (chapter fifteen on this disc, if you must know)..
Blue Underground went back to the original vault negative for this brand new 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen high definition transfer and, in short, they knocked it out of the park. Yes, there is some grain present pretty much throughout but aside from the odd speck here and there, you're not going to notice any print damage and the color reproduction is gorgeous. Black levels stay strong and deep from start to finish and there are no problems at all with edge enhancement or mpeg compression artifacts creeping into the image, aside from one or two mild instances of line shimmering. If you're able to watch this one on a larger set, all the better as there's plenty of fine detail in the image and the very natural feel of this transfer goes over really nicely – releases of this quality and of this caliber are the kind that make me occasionally get down on my knees and thank the good lord above for DVD. The bit rate is consistently high and the overall quality of this transfer is outstanding, topping both the VCI region one release from way back in 1999 and the more recent Medusa PAL release that came out in Italy back in 2003.
You've got the choice of watching the film in either English or Italian on this release, with subtitles available English only. Here's a breakdown of the options on the disc by language:
English: Options include a DTS-ES 6.1 Surround Sound mix, a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround Sound Mix, a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Mix, and the original Dolby Digital Mono. The DTS mix gets the slight edge over the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as the score sounds just a tad stronger, but both tracks are great more or less putting all of the dialogue up front and using the rears for effects and Morricone's creepy score. Bass is strong but not overpowering, dialogue is clean and clear and free of any shrillness or hiss of any kind. The mono track also sounds nice and clean, and it's to Blue Underground's credit that they've provided excellent options for technophiles and purists alike on this release.
Italian: Options include a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround Sound mix, a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix and the original Dolby Digital Mono track. The English track plays better but should you decide to watch the film in Italian, you'll find that the quality of the audio is just as good here as it is on the English tracks provided. Clean, clear dialogue, nice robust music and sound effects directed at you from the proper areas of the speaker setup, and nice, strong and very even bass.
I do, however, have one small gripe about the audio on this release – not in terms of quality but in terms of setup – you can't change tracks on the fly by using your remote, you have to go back to the menu to do it. A small annoyance that hardly affects anything, but that is worth mentioning for the sake of being an anal retentive type – other than that, the audio –like the video - is damn near perfect.
The extras for this release are spread across two discs. Here's what you get, where you get it, and what it is:
Complimenting the feature attraction is a highly detailed commentary with Alan Jones (author of the Fab Press tome Profondo Argento) and Kim Newman (author of the excellent Nightmare Movies). They discuss the importance of the film and its effect on the genre, the influence of Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Bava on Argento's early giallos, and provide plenty of interesting trivia and background information not only on Argento but also on Musante, Kendall and the rest of the cast. They make some interesting comparisons to how Suzy Kendall's character compares to some of the stronger heroines that Argento would write about in later efforts, and point out odd little details like the strange presence of a metronome in the bedroom. The two Englishmen share a mutual admiration for Argento's work and their enthusiasm for the material ends up being a lot of fun on this track. They banter back and forth and seem to be having a really good time discussing the movie and the end result is that this commentary doesn't slow down for more than a second or two at all. They pack it full of information but the delivery tends to feel very casual and as such you don't ever feel bogged down in academia. There's some fun humor contained in here, and rather than finding a dry monotonous commentary, we are instead treated to a very enjoyable one.
Aside from the commentary, this first disc also includes the wonderfully psychedelic international theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen (2:46), the slightly longer Italian trailer also in anamorphic widescreen with English subtitles that plays up the Hitchcock comparisons (3:10), and two fullframe TV spots (0:20 and 0:30 respectively), both in English.
The second disc contains four featurettes, each one detailing a different aspect of the film and the people who were behind it.
Out Of The Shadows is an eighteen minute on camera video interview with Dario Argento in which the director/co-writer of the film looks back on it now, over thirty years since he made it. There's a spoiler warning at the beginning of this one, so make sure you've seen the feature before you check it out. Conducted in Italian with optional English subtitles, this interview allows Argento to explain how he never really initially considered becoming a director but ended up in the position after working as a film critic. He talks about his work with Leone, then moves on to Bird With The Crystal Plumage where he covers some of the themes that he was going for with the film in addition to the power that performers can bring to a film. This makes for a pretty insightful and interesting interview as Argento really opens up about his work here. HE goes into a fair bit of detail about his working relationship with Musante, and even ends up talking about his mother and how she inspired him.
Up next is The Music Of Murder, which is a seven and a half minute discussion with the legendary Ennio Morricone relating to his experiences composing the score for the film and how it plays such an important part in the mood that the movie manages to create. He discusses his composing process, how he has to have either had the story explained to him or read the script before he starts coming up with the music for a film so that he can have an idea in his head of how it needs to sound. Again in Italian with optional English subtitles, the maestro explains how good music should be beyond verbal description and film scores need to accentuate certain aspects of a film more than others. He talks about his work with Dario Argento not just on this film but also on their other collaborations, like Four Flies On Grey Velvet and The Stendhal Syndrome and this piece, brief as it is, is a fine examination of their work together through Morricone's own words and from his point of view.
Painting With Darkness gives cinematographer Vittorio Storaro roughly ten minutes of screen time – this one also comes with a spoiler warning. Storaro talks about how Argento really wanted to express himself through certain portions of the film, and how Bird really became a sort of blueprint for all of the films that Argento has followed it with. He talks about how it's important to capture little things like facial twitches and eye movement to build atmosphere and suspense and in order to capture a lot of this detail you have to really get in close with the camera. He discusses how the final product always has to be a group effort, the importance of good editing, and film can capture the 'energy records of behavior.'
Finally, Eva's Talking is an eleven minute interview with the late Eva Renzi who played Monica in the film. Recorded shortly before she passed away this very year, this is another spoiler filled featurette that gives us a look at the movie from a performer's point of view and it's also the only one conducted in English. She talks about how pressure from her husband affected some of the career choices that she made after working with Orson Welles. She covers some interesting psychological aspects of the movie, how you could interpret some of the murders as exploitative of women, how her character is basically a victim of male abuse in the film but at the same time, she acknowledges that she's grateful to have worked with Dario, how in real life he was pleasant to work with and very civil to her at all times even going so far as to describe him as very sensitive. Her comments about Tony aren't quite as kind, and she describes him as quite self involved despite the fact that she found him very attractive and charming.
All four featurettes are presented in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen and all four feature plenty of clips from the film, promotional and behind the scenes photographs, and poster art from the release. Likewise, all four featurettes, when combined, make for a very well rounded examination of four very different sides of the making of the movie. Fans of the film and of Argento's work in general really ought to eat this right up.
Also worth pointing out is that the menu design on this set is excellent – it's a nice pulpy combination of artwork and text that effectively sets the mood for the movie without giving too much away.
One of the most influential of the Italian giallos, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a very well paced and effective chiller that holds up very well to repeat viewings. Blue Underground's completely uncut high definition transfer is a true thing of beauty and the superlative audio quality and wealth of interesting and informative extra features make this release an Italian genre fan's wet dream come true. Blue Underground has raised the bar in terms of how giallos have been represented on DVD thus far in the format's history and it makes me giddy as a schoolgirl to award this one the DVD Collector's Talk medal of honor!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.