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Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition, The

Tony Musante stars as Sam Dalmas an American writer living in Rome, suffering from an apathetic case of writer’s block. While wandering the streets one night he passes an art gallery and is witness to an attempted murder. Trapped between to panes of security glass he helplessly watches a stabbed woman struggle for life. The police arrive in time to save the victim, but Sam’s ordeal has just begun. He begins to obsessively launch his own investigation into the discovery of the attempted killer’s identity.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition, The
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (known from here on out as Bird, because I’m a lazy typist) was the world’s official introduction to Italian wunderkind Dario Argento. It was also the film that made the Giallo genre a hot commodity. There had been ultra-stylized murder mysteries before it, but none had made money during a down time for Italian cinema. Bird led directly to the release of dozens upon dozens of violent and colourful thrillers with increasingly elongated names, a trend that burned itself out, in my opinion, with the epically titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.

This trend, arguably, led to other genre trends like slasher and serial killer films. A fan—like myself, I’m not going to lie here—could, in turn, draw a pretty believable line from Bird all the way to Oscar winners like Silence of the Lambs, and TV’s current number one series, CSI. The fact that everyone, from John Carpenter to Quentin Tarantino has sited Argento as one of their influences, lends certain credence to such fan-boy assertions.

This is not to say Bird is the end-all influence on current crime and killer flicks. Mario Bava brought the Giallo genre to films, and his Blood and Black Lace did have a raincoat and hat wearing murderer years before Argento. For the sake of brevity I’ll not even begin to discuss the previous influences of Fritz Lang, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Alfred Hitchcock. And no one ever accused Argento of being the most original bloke on the block; the basic plot of Argento’s debut was taken directly from a previously published novel called 'The Screaming Mimi'.

Unfortunately, history has mostly remembered Bird strictly as Argento’s first film and the monetary influence on a forgotten genre. Even fans tend to dismiss the film in favour of favourites like Suspiria, Deep Red, and Phenomena. I’m here to official nominate Bird as Argento’s most underrated film. That’s right folks; this is a DVD review, not a film history rant, so let’s get on with the reviewing already.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition, The
In keeping with most of the director’s later work, Bird is a visually sumptuous film. The widescreen frame is filled with bright colours, stark contrasts, and all other manners of filmic pleasure. Unlike most of the director’s work, the plot is sequential and important, making this easily one of Argento’s most accessible works. Most of the major themes—an out of country, professional artist is witness to a horrible crime and takes it upon himself to solve it— became mainstays in Argento’s later works. Here the motives seem more realistic, if not a bit naive, and with so much contemporary knowledge of criminal profiling, a little old fashion. It has aged decently, but Bird is would probably not play as well today.

Like George Lucas, Argento is an auteur whose sense of humour verges on the dismal, yet Bird is a surprisingly amusing film. Along his journey Dalmas meets up with a flamboyant art shop owner with a crush, a stuttering pimp, and a creepy artist who has a very special love/hate relationship with area stray cats. Also like Lucas, Argento has usually viewed his actors as tools and decorations, and both directors have micro-managed some pretty wooden performances in their careers. The performances in Bird are overall pretty good, especially considering the performance lost in the multi language dubbing, a fact most likely attributed to Argento’s lack of notoriety at the time of filming.

The storyline is more coherent than Argento’s later work, which also may be attributed to his inexperience at the time, as I’m sure most distributors wouldn’t be too willing to supply a new director with the proper funds to make a feature film based on a series of unrelated set pieces. In fact, Argento relies on bravado set piece murder sequences only twice, and allows the plot to flow organically, if not necessarily believably. The audience is rarely given more or less information than Dalmas at any given point, insuring that only the most astute of viewers figure out the killer’s identity before it’s revealed to the main character. Argento plays fair, but the final twist is still a doozy.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition, The
As an Argento fanatic, I, of course, already owned this film on both an iffy VCI VHS release and an ‘uncut’ VCI DVD. The old DVD wasn’t too much different from the old VHS. It was anamorphically enhanced and watchable, though the darkness of Argento and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s mes-en-scenes wreaked havoc with the image. The ten or twenty seconds of previously censored footage looked especially pixelated and mangled.

Blue Underground’s new special edition release is a solid step up from VCI’s release, but there’s still some room for improvement. The film grain is not so much an issue, as Bird is thirty-five years old, which also excuses the occasional flicker of the odd artefact. The dilemma here mostly concerns the film’s vibrant colours, which have an upsetting tendency to bloom, especially warm colours. The dark light interplay, on the other hand, appear accurate, and the expected edge enhancement is low, which is important enough that it tends to diminish my qualms with the rest of the transfer.

The old VCI disc was presented in Dolby Pro-Logic, but the surround channels only worked during musical interludes, and then the sound inelegantly flopped back into the centre channel for dialogue. Blue Underground does something similar, but much more elegantly, and in DTS ES and Dolby Digital EX. Basically, this remains a mono track in its essence, which kicks into gear only when Ennio Morricone’s haunting and daunting score takes centre stage. The ES and EX are both basically a waste of space. This is a minimalist effort, but at least everything is crystal clear, and actually sounds as if it were mastered for digital output.

Also included is the Italian track, which is really only for completest as most of the main actors spoke English in the first place, and is still something like 70% dubbed. Like most aged and forgotten Italian tracks, it sounds like it was mastered in a rusty shed.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition, The
The Special Edition label and the extra disc of features are both misleading. If it wasn’t for the multitude of soundtracks, this might have very likely been a single disc edition. Given the steep price (in comparison to other Blue Underground releases), I had assumed this would be the last edition of Bird with the Crystal Plumage I’d ever have to by. I was wrong.

On disc one there is a commentary track from indispensable horror film writer Kim Newman, and not so indispensable Argento fanatic writer Alan Jones (no offence to Jones, who’s book just happens to be the second best Argento biography). This is a film buff’s commentary, as Newman and Jones cite not only Argento’s inspirations and methods, but also the inspirations and methods of every filmmaker to dip a toe in the thriller genre. There wasn’t much here I already hadn’t read before, but there are some fun little factoids even for the (unsettlingly) hardened fan like myself. This is the best reason to buy this disc. Disc one is consummated with a few trailers and TV spots.

The semi-moot second disc features four interview segments. The first features the man himself, who waxes philosophical about his early career, his family, and luck making friends in the film industry - all stuff bitter-enders like myself have heard a million times on a million other DVD interviews. The problem here is the people willing to spend the money on the set are the ones who don’t need to hear it.

Interview number two is with the man, the myth, the Godfather of Italian film scores, Ennio Morricone. Morricone reveals that his work on Bird was experimental even to him, a form of music he refers to as ‘traumatic’. He honed this sound and reused it dozens of times on dozens of Italian Giallo cash-ins, just as he did for Sergio Leone after writing the score for Fistful of Dollars. Morricone is lucid, quite lucid for a man of his age. It’s too bad his interview is the shortest.

The tertiary chat is with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who parrots some of Argento’s previous musings and recalls the film, like Morricone, as a time for experimentation. He expresses a disdain for modern television’s habit of aping theatrical film styles, apparently believing the two media should remain separate. Again, he is ridiculously well spoken.

The final dialogue is with actress Eva Renzi, who I can’t really talk about too much because she plays such an important role in the plot that I’d be giving away too much. I will say that she is not a fan of the film, and comes across as a bit self-obsessed.

Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition, The
Though probably not the best place to start for the Argento illiterate, or his best work, Bird is an indispensable piece of the director’s cannon. The plot is well structured, the acting unexpectedly sharp, and Argento’s idiosyncratic style still shines through. It’s also a great example of late ‘60s mod-chic, European style—something most of us need more of in our lives.

You can find this and many other Giallo titles at