Blue Underground // 1970 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // February 24th, 2009
What is that sound in the background?
After years toiling away on scripts for other directors, Dario Argento (The Stendhal Syndrome) was given the opportunity to direct a feature film of his own. Unestablished and with a low budget, his chances for success were pretty slim. The resulting film, however, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hit huge. Violent, sexual, and off-putting, this film would in essence popularize a new genre of the thriller: the Giallo, named for the yellow-covered pulp novels upon which the films were often based. Cult film champions, Blue Underground, has been kind to Argento in the past and now debut his first, and one of his best, films for the first time in high definition.
While walking down a random Rome street, American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante, The Yards) witnesses a man in an art gallery attempting to kill a woman. Trying to save her, he gets himself trapped behind glass doors, unable to help, while the criminal escapes and the woman lays dying. When the police arrive, he's relieved to learn that she was not seriously wounded but horrified that the authorities think this attack may be connected to a rash of murders of beautiful young women around the city. While he's not a suspect, the police confiscate his passport so, in order to leave, he sets out on a independent investigation what puts himself, as well as his model girlfriend (Suzy Kendall, Torso), in grave danger.
If The Bird with the Crystal Plumage isn't a perfect thriller, it is a shockingly good debut feature that lays out much of the template Argento would employ throughout much of his career. The film's protagonist is a foreign artist. Like the writer in Tenebre whose books are re-enacted by the killer or the ballet dancer in Suspiria at the center of that spectacular nightmare, Dalmas investigates with little help from an inept police force, another common thread in the director's work. Art itself plays a significant part in the plot and Argento's painterly vision permeates the look of the film. The villain is a faceless pair of black-gloved hands, almost always performed by Argento himself until the reveal. Animals, both wild and domesticated, come into play in various ways, whether it is the titular bird or the cats that make a tasty treat for the painter who Dalmas visits.
All of these elements play together around the tightly-wound and violent plotline. Musante does an excellent job in the lead role, displaying both the fear and determination in his hunt for the killer. Kendall is very good as his lover and advisor, fear for his and, eventually, her own life, but in full understanding that Dalmas holds the key to this mystery. She doesn't have a lot to do, overall, but her time on film is well-spent. In a highly amusing, albeit very small role, Mario Adorf (Fedora), plays the cat-munching painter. Along with Werner Peters (The Kaiser's Lackey) as the antique dealer who shows Dalmas the all-important painting, Adorf and Peters's performances are some of the only comic relief in the otherwise very tense film.
Argento shows very clearly that, early in his career, his skills at building and relieving tension are highly developed. From the opening scene where we watch the attack in the woman from Dalmas's perspective, experiencing his helplessness first-hand, to the final images of the writer pinned under a jagged art installation while the killer, now verealed, toys with him, stabbing at the floor around his face, the suspense is ratcheted as far as it can go.
Once again, Blue Underground has done great work to restore this violent gem. Their standard definition release in 2005 was a massive improvement over the original and deeply sub-par VCI edition of the film, totally cleaning up the picture and remastering the sound. The Blu-ray presentation of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be a dramatic upgrade from their DVD release, but there are noticeable improvements in both image and sound. The 1080p transfer is beautifully crisp and clear. Nearly all the grain and old print damage has been removed, leaving an image that looks almost current. The notoriously faded Eastman film looks brilliant, with surprisingly deep black levels and the color, extremely important to a film full of blood spattered on white linens, are fully saturated. The myriad of sound options give viewers many possibilities for their listening pleasure. Unfortunately, I am unequipped for DTS tracks, so I cannot comment on the 7.1 DTS English track, but the rest of the tracks are all very good. The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD English track features the most dynamic sound separation, though my preference is the 5.1 English track, which I find generally more full in all channels; the sacrifice in definition is completely made up for in clarity. There is also a 5.1 Italian track, but this is pointless since the film is just as dubbed into Italian as it is into English. The extras are identical to the previous Blue Underground release. It is too bad that there were no additions, but they were pretty comprehensive to begin with, so how much extra material do I really need? The commentary is very informative and the interviews universally interesting, including the bizarrely hate-filled piece featuring Eva Renzi. Argento completists will probably add this to their collection no matter what I say, but this release is so close to Blue Underground's original SD release that it makes it hard to fully recommend an upgrade.
It is amazing how clear a vision Dario Argento had as he started his directorial career. His best work had yet to come, but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage holds up better after nearly forty years than most whodunits. The film is highly recommended, even if the Blu-ray presentation isn't the most dramatic upgrade in town.
Absolutely not guilty, though the court recommends that the person in the black gloves undergo anger management training.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 7.1 Surround (English)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Trailers/TV Spots