Blue Underground // 1970 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // December 2nd, 2005
Do you like Hitchcock?
A strongly-drawn giallo (Italian thriller) that revitalized the Euro-suspense genre, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an exceptional debut for Italian master of the macabre Dario Argento; an exciting film that cleverly introduces many of the devices the esteemed director would further explore in his later films, including gender, memory, childhood repression, and the inevitable black-gloved mystery killer. Long available only in an inferior release from VCI, Argento's debut shocker finally gets the definitive edition treatment from cult champions Blue Underground.
American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante, The Yards) becomes embroiled with solving the identity of a serial killer terrorizing Rome when he witnesses a murder attempt on an art gallery owner's wife, Mrs. Renieri (Eva Renzi, Funeral in Berlin). Along with his girlfriend Lisa (Suzy Kendall, To Sir, With Love), Sam quickly becomes a target of the killer as he follows a trail of clues and fascinatingly weird characters that lead him towards his culprit. After Sam dodges an almost successful assassination attempt by a hired gun (Reggie Nalder, Mark of the Devil), he finds himself pitted directly against the mysterious black-gloved killer for a final showdown.
While many gialli are flawed by nonsensical, throwaway plots that only serve to highlight the intended stylish visuals, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an engaging Hitchcockian "innocent man" thriller, another superior giallo from the dark mind Argento that makes a bold impression while happily retaining some logical sense.
The plot of the film, actually a rewrite of little known pulp scribe Fredric Brown's The Screaming Mimi, is dressed up in the marked style of Hitchcock's mid-century murder mysteries, with a wrongly accused protagonist (at least initially) trying to put the pieces together in anticipation of a final reel surprise that is guaranteed to throw audiences for a loop. Indeed, many of the The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's plot twists may seem contrived by even the most forgiving standards, but it remains one of the most tightly scripted gialli ever made, a sturdy framework of story that helps ground Argento's exploration of perception and his always-screen-searing imagery.
While Argento maintains that "memory" was the intended theme of the film, as Sam replays the murder over and over in his head in order to remember a case-breaking detail, it's the undeniable emphasis on voyeurism that really draws viewers into The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's tangled plot. From the killer's incognito photographing of an intended victim to the attempted murder scene, which depicts Sam actually trapped between two planes of glass as a bloodied Mrs. Renieri grasps for help, it's a film that links the acts of watching and killing from the get-go, making the audience acutely aware of their own viewing of the violent, on-screen slayings. By the time the killer cuts an eyehole in the door to Lisa's apartment in an attempt to break in, it's obvious that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage garners much of its suspense from an ability to make the moviegoer complicit in the sinister stabbings simply through the act of watching the film.
Vittorio Storaro, who later picked up Oscars for his work on Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor is Argento's willing accomplice in crafting the film's disturbingly memorable images, including a candlestick wedged in a skylight, Sam trapped under a massive, prickly sculpture at the all-white art gallery, and drops of blood spraying across floors and bed sheets. The film also seems directly inspired by pitiless crime scene photographs, with an emphasis on coldly captured lifeless bodies of murdered girls playing a prominent role in the narrative. It is Argento, though, who closely weaves these striking images together into deftly suspenseful murder set pieces, and makes the film more than just a collection of exquisitely photographed moments. Also contributing to the silver screen mayhem, Italian genre cinema soundtrack mainstay Ennio Morricone supplies the film with a stripped-down, entirely creepy score that uses human voices and atonal passages to considerably amp up the tension, giving almost a supernatural edge to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage's lauded slashing scenes.
What an incredible array of audio options there are on this disc! The film is presented in English in 6.1 DTS-ES, 5.1 EX, 2.0 surround, and the original mono, or alternatively, it can be enjoyed in Italian in either 5.1 EX, 2.0 surround or mono with subtitles. The DTS English remix is the clear champion here, considerably expanding Morricone's score even if the dialogue doesn't really get that much of a boost. The transfer, taken from the original camera negative, is equally impressive, a notable improvement over VCI's earlier disc. Colors are bright and exceptionally bold, and detail has never looked better. It's just a beautiful-looking transfer.
Blue Underground has also outfitted The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with a nice variety of extras. On the first disc, we get four trailers and a scholarly commentary by Profondo Argento author Alan Jones and cult film scribe Kim Newman, who provide an excellent rundown on all aspects of this noteworthy production, from technical details of the film to a thorough contextualization of the giallo. It makes for an excellent, fascinating listen. Disc two contains four featurettes, kicking off with a 20-minute interview with Argento himself, who waxes fondly about his first gig, talks about his background and some of the challenges he had on set, mostly with lead actor Tony Musante. Ennio Morricone appears in his own six-minute interview to talk about the score of the film and his career in general, and Vittorio Storaro gets ten minutes to delve into the use of close-ups in the film and his experiences working with Argento. Finally, we have an odd interview with the late Eva Renzi, who blames the film for ruining her career while she strikes out at other show biz talents including Musante, Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog -- she doesn't exactly conduct herself in a very flattering manner.
An intriguing beginning for the highly influential European genre director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a no-brainer purchase for fans of Argento and the giallo in general, and it's also an excellent entry point for those interested in getting into Italian thrillers. Putting the cinematic cherry on top, Blue Underground's restoration work on the film is once again beyond reproach, making this undoubtedly one of the most anticipated Euro-cult releases of the year, and an essential addition to any horror DVD library.
Review content copyright © 2005 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 6.1 ES (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary with Journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman
* International Trailer
* Italian Trailer
* TV Spots
* Out of the Shadows -- Interview with Co-Writer/Director Dario Argento
* Painting With Darkness -- Interview with Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro
* The Music of Murder -- Interview with Composer Ennio Morricone
* Eva's Talking -- Interview with Actress Eva Renzi