Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The (US - BD)
Gabe Powers takes a new look at Dario Argento's debut feature in high definition
Reviewer’s Note: I didn’t see much cause to totally re-evaluate my original written thoughts on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage so the feature section has only been cleaned up, not re-written.
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.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (aka: L’ Uccello dalle piume di cristallo) was much of the world’s official introduction to Italian wunderkind Dario Argento. It was also the film that made the Giallo genre a hot commodity throughout Europe. There had been ultra-stylized murder mysteries before it, many of which were popularly directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava, and their contemporaries, but few had made big money during a down time for Italian cinema. Bird’s monetary success led directly to the release of dozens upon dozens of violent and colourful thrillers with increasingly elongated names, a trend that burned itself out, with the epically titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.
This trend, and following violent themes made popular in the American grindhouse by films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left, led to other genre trends, most notably slasher and serial killer films. Fans and historians, in turn, have often drawn a believable line from Bird all the way to Halloween, Oscar winners like The Silence of the Lambs, and TV’s CSI (with a few stop offs, of course). 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 set up many of the rules in 1964 with Blood and Black Lace. For the sake of brevity I’ll refrain from delving too far into a discussion of Argento’s other major influences, like Fritz Lang, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Agatha Christie. I’ll simply note them, and note that large sections of Bird were apparently taken directly from the popular crime novel 'The Screaming Mimi'.
Unfortunately, history has mostly remembered Bird strictly as Argento’s first film and the monetary influence on a forgotten genre (as I just did). Even fans tend to dismiss the film in favour of flashier favourites like Suspiria, Deep Red, and Phenomena. As a fan of Argento, and a fan of film, I happen to think that one two punch of Deep Red and Suspiria are the director’s most important and impressive entries in the greater filmic canon. That said, Bird should be remembered as a great film, not just a great director’s first film.
In keeping with most of the Argento’s later work, Bird is a visually sumptuous film, but it’s much more subdued compared to his later features. The widescreen frame is filled with stark contrasts, spiked by bright and full colours, and all other manners of filmic pleasure. And unlike most of the director’s work, the plot is sequential and integral, marking this as one of his most accessible films. The set up plot points would become mainstays in Argento’s later work—professional creative type (in this case writer) witnesses a horrible crime while temporarily living in Italy, and takes it upon himself to solve it. Here the motives seem more realistic, if not a bit naive, and with so much contemporary knowledge of criminal profiling, a little old fashion. The amateur sleuth angle is also slightly more realistically exploited. In this case the professional detective is actually using the protagonist’s curiosity to his advantage, rather than consistently trying to divert it.
Like George Lucas, Argento is an auteur whose sense of humour verges on the dismal, yet Bird is a surprisingly amusing and witty script. 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 neighbourhood stray cats. Also like Lucas, Argento has often 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 everything that was likely 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.
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. Then came Blue Underground’s special edition release, which I was somewhat unfairly critical of a few years back.
This Blu-ray release is pretty darn close to BU’s DVD release, but there are a few key differences. I’m working from a 42” set here, and assume that the difference would be greater on a larger television. Bird with the Crystal Plumage is more than thirty-five years old, and wasn’t mastered using the most expensive processes at the time. Part of my problem with the previous DVD was a lack of super-bright colours, but I’ve since realized that 30-plus year old, non-Technicolor film can’t possibly look as colourful as digitally graded modern films without major digital overhauls. This isn’t to say that this 1080p, 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is weak in colour quality, it just isn’t going to burn your eyes outta your skull like Suspiria. The occasional blooming effects have followed the print over from the DVD, unfortunately, but the non-compressed nature of this new release points towards minor original print damage rather than compression artefacts, which have been nearly eradicated this time around. The edge enhancement is also almost entirely gone. Details aren’t much sharper than the DVD, but the texture and gradation is more natural. Grain is expectedly omnipresent, but the texture is fine enough to not create any eye relocation problems. The print is quite clean overall, displaying only occasional and small scale print damage.
I can’t find any exact information on the original recorded tracks of this particular film, but I strongly suspect that mono, not stereo, was utilized. 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. The first Blue Underground release had a similar problem, but it was a much less obvious problem, and the encoding was an improved DTS ES. The singular nature of the non-musical sound feeds my mono suspicion.
This Blu-ray release is very similar to the DTS track on the DVD. As per their norm, the studio offers more choices than we really need (DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, Dolby TrueHD 7.1, and Dolby Digital EX). I flipped between the tracks while watching the film, but noticed little to no difference between them. There is still a small issue with awkward spatial changes during particularly busy sequences on all tracks, possibly due to a soundtrack culled from various sources. Basically speaking, this particular film doesn’t lend itself to much beyond a stereo surround encoding, and Blue Underground has (thankfully) avoided sticking artificial, additional sound effects into the mix, so the scope isn’t particularly impressive beyond Ennio Morricone’s haunting and daunting score (which eagle-eared viewers may remember from the extended version of Tarantino’s Death Proof). This is a minimalist production effects-wise, though the clarity and depth of the score is a wonderful addition to the surround channels. I have itty bitty problems with the condition of the dialogue tracks, which are a tiny bit fuzzy, but assuming the viewer understands the age and scale of these tracks, no one should have any huge problems.
Also included is the Italian track, which is really only for completist 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.
The extras on this disc match the studio’s original DVD release exactly. Things begin with 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 (read: obsessive) fan like myself. This is a very strong expert commentary.
The additional features (save some trailers and TV spots) are divided among 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.
Though probably not the best place to start for the Argento illiterate, or even the director’s best work, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an indispensable piece of the Giallo cannon. The plot is well structured, the acting unexpectedly sharp, and Argento’s idiosyncratic style shines brightly. Following The Stendhal Syndrome (and a collection release of the director’s first Masters of Horror short), this is an exciting hi-def release for Argento fans, who also have next month’s Blue Underground release of Two Evil Eyes to look forward too. Hopefully the Argento re-releases won’t stop there, though the possibility of The Weinstein Company releasing a Blu-ray edition of Suspiria isn’t looking good.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 24th February 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master 7.1 English, Dolby TruHD 7.1 English, Dolby Digital EX 5.1 English, Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Italian
Extras: Alan Jones and Kim Newman Commentary, 'Out of the Shadows', 'Painting with Darkness', 'The Music of Terror', 'Eva's Talking', Trailers, TV Spot
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Tony Mustane, Suzy Kendall, Eva Renzi
Length: 96 minutes
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