Film critic and screenwriter Dario Argento became a hot Italian director - sometimes praised as the Italian Hitchcock - with this extremely popular murder thriller. At its center is a slickly photographed catalog of killings orchestrated for maximum visual impact. Gothic tradition and thematic depth were abandoned for sleek lines and an efficient body count, a formula that changed the face of Euro horror.
Blue Underground scores a bulls-eye with this 2-disc special edition of a shocker that has been released many times in a variety of cuts and less-than-optimal framing and quality. This time they may have gotten it right.
Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage spawned a 70s wave of slasher gialli films that effectively put an end to the classic era of Italo gothica, which had only lasted from 1957's I Vampiri until 1966 or so when Barbara Steele finished her last Rome-based chiller. Argento is often considered the heir to the cinematic crown of Mario Bava, the superlative cameraman-director who probably made the first giallo thriller with his 1964 Blood and Black Lace. That picture sketched the basic structure of the slasher film: Characters, storyline and literary concerns were minimized, if not abandoned, and the film's sole function was to serve as a visual murder machine, carrying us from one visceral situation to the next. Operating only in the first-person and encouraging direct subjective participation, Blood and Black Lace treated the murder mystery as a thrill ride.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage follows that formula and as the first of a new wave of gialli is actually somewhat restrained - it has only three or four murder episodes. But the generic elements are there, starting with a mystery killer dressed in shiny black leather and gloves, skulking about like a madman from a 1920s spook show, such as The Cat and the Canary.
Argento and his consummate cameraman Vittorio Storaro bring a new visual sheen to cinema guignol. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is carefully composed to use the wider frame of a 'scope format. Hero Tony Musante innocently stumbles onto a murder scene that takes shape as a view through the broad rectangular window of a ritzy Roman art gallery, a horizontal box echoing the film's wide aspect ratio. Musante tries to respond to a stabbing but finds himself locked in the store's glass-enclosed entranceway, able to observe but unable to intervene as a beautiful wounded woman (Eva Renzi) crawls on the floor. This initial Argento set-piece is indicative of his style. The contrived situation is essentially "Hitchcock in a box," making us identify with Musante who, like the audience, must watch but cannot intercede. He's trapped in a sleek and fashionable glass box as the gallery becomes a piece of performing art in motion. We know next to nothing about what is going on but are riveted by the situation.
The rest of the movie alternates police-procedural sequences with more violent scenes that defy mystery analysis. Probable suspects seem to have good alibis and the film drags in a number of red-herring suspects (thriller icons Reggie Nalder and Werner Peters) in unusual sequences, like a sequestered artist (Mario Adorf) who only lets Musante into his sealed-off studio because he might be able to sell a painting. Threatening messages and phone calls warn Musante away as he tries to remember a detail in the initial attack scene that could solve the crime. The dogged policeman (Enrico Maria Salerno) analyzes a strange noise heard in a taped voice message (shades of Kurosawa's High and Low) that might provide another clue.
But the all-important surface of the story concentrates on more mysterious attacks. Police protecting Musante are murdered on dark nighttime streets. Another beautiful woman in a negligée, is stabbed to death in a sadistic, highly voyeuristic sequence. Musante's girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) goes through a harrowing ordeal as an assailant tries to break into her barricaded apartment. The final revelation involves superficial plot reversals and more violence.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage stays interesting by virtue of its beautiful cinematography, which designs every shot as though its final destination were the pages of a slick Italian fashion magazine. Colors and shapes flow harmoniously and the camera lens emphasizes depth and clean visual lines, especially when filming modern architecture. The imaginative set pieces often have a mechanical structure - the opening scene described above has its glass-gated trap, and a final fight in the same gallery makes murderous use of a large and unusual sculpture. The cruelty and killing take place in a highly stylized space, as if there were a relationship between cultural sophistication and savagery. Artwork becomes a major clue when a B&W photograph of a painting of a murder, suddenly dissolves to the color original hanging on a wall. Some of these cinematic tricks succeed in compensating for the film's lack of psychological depth.
Dario Argento went on to a full series of similarly styled pictures, more murder thrillers and others much more overtly pitched toward horror. The bloodletting and gruesome situations became even more acute, concentrating with sadistic abandon on razor-wielding maniacs and terrible tortures while simple story logic frequently suffered. They were wildly popular everywhere, even when censored in dubbed export versions.
Blue Underground's 2-disc Special Edition of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage presents this undeniably important milestone in Italo horror in a flawless enhanced transfer that is said to be taken from uncut original Italian elements. A choice is offered between several Italian and English language soundtracks in a wide range of formats and mixes. Ennio Morricone's typically eccentric score sounds like a nervous, murderous lullaby.
Disc one has the film, two trailers and some TV spots and a thoughtful and intelligent commentary track from the prolific Alan Jones and Kim Newman. It's for genre devotees and studies the film both through its director and its place in the continuum of Euro-horror traditions.
Disc two is devoted to four interview documentaries with key creative contributors, three of them produced by David Gregory. Dario Argento starts off in Out Of The Shadows telling how he came from a film family and was able to slip into the profession only with difficulty - established professionals tried to tell him what to do, including the producer who suggested he replace himself as director! The Music Of Murder graces us with an interview with Ennio Morricone, who composed the scores for hundreds of movies. Morricone talks about the way he'd create the unsettling music by directing the soloists and vocalists from his feelings and not a timed score .. a maddening process when one wants to do take Two, "just a little differently." It was so problematic, he "only used the method 18 or twenty times." In Painting With Darkness cinematographer Vittorio Storaro charmingly talks about working with Argento before segueing into generalized opinions about changes in the cameraman's function. He finishes with a characteristically poetic speech about cameras recording much more than the light before them. Finally, Eva's Talking lets actress Eva Renzi voice her opinions, which mainly focus on how she threw her career away playing a sadistic killer in this film. She met her husband Paul Hubschmid while working on Funeral in Berlin and made some bad (?) choices, turning down the opportunity to be a Bond girl. Hubschmid talked her out of the prestigious House of Cards, an assignment she replaced with Argento's film. She's not particularly fond of Tony Musante but thought Argento a cooperative and helpful director. Renzi's segment was produced and directed by Uwe Huber.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage rates: