The Bird with the Crystal Plumage LE Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer living in Rome, inadvertently witnesses a brutal attack on a woman (Eva Renzi) in a modern art gallery. Powerless to help, he grows increasingly obsessed with the incident. Convinced that something he saw that night holds the key to identifying the maniac terrorizing Rome, he launches his own investigation parallel to that of the police, heedless of the danger to both himself and his girlfriend, Giulia (Suzy Kendall)… (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
I end up mentioning Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970) in almost every one of my giallo reviews. This is because it is quite literally the most influential Italian thriller ever made. Of course, it wasn’t the first of its kind – the concept of lurid Italian thrillers, or giallo/gialli, was based on a series of paperback thrillers with yellow covers (hence the name) and the films owed an enormous debt to the works of noir, horror, and suspense films by Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and others, not to mention the German krimi tradition that barely pre-dated them. In an “official” capacity, the filmic tradition of the giallo extends as far back as Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Italian: La ragazza che sapeva troppo; aka: The Evil Eye, 1963) and Blood and Black Lace (Italian: Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964). Argento himself drew further inspiration from Michelangelo Antonioni and Agatha Christie, and borrowed key story elements from Fredric Brown’s novel, The Screaming Mimi (pub. 1949), which had previously been adapted to film (under the same title) by Gerd Oswald in 1958. Specifically, Brown’s story and Argento’s script share similar openings, similar twist endings, and revolve around the concept that a piece of art (a statuette and painting, respectfully) can awaken long-buried, traumatic memories.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was a surprise international hit – a first for the genre – and, as a result, it set in stone a formula that became the basis for dozens and dozens of gialli to come. Superficially, it inspired other filmmakers to use long, needlessly descriptive, and ultimately irrelevant titles; often with some kind of superfluous animal theme. Examples include Salvatore Samperi’s Kill the Fatted Calf and Roast It (Italian: Uccidete il vitello grasso e arrostitelo, 1970), Lucio Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una lucertola con la pelle di donna; aka: Schizoid, 1971), Sergio Martino’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (Italian: Italian: La coda dello scorpione, 1971), Paolo Cavara’s The Black Belly of the Tarantula (Italian: La tarantola dal ventre nero, 1971), and Riccardo Freda’s The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (Italian: L'iguana dalla lingua di fuoco, 1971). Argento, who had initially been paying homage to the similarly wordy titles of the paperback novels and probably earlier gialli with similarly strange names, like Giulio Questi’s Death Laid an Egg (1968), stuck to the convention for a few more films – Cat O’ Nine Tails (Italian: Il gatto a nove code, 1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italian: 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971) – marking what fans now refer to as his Animal Trilogy.
Beginning with Bird with the Crystal Plumage and extending through the rest of the Animal Trilogy, as well as Deep Red (Italian: Profondo rosso; aka: The Hatchet Murders, 1975), Argento plots revolved around a very specific character type – an artistic (in order: a writer, a puzzle-maker, a musician, and then another musician), (usually) non-Italian protagonist living in/visiting Italy, who witnesses a murder/attempted murder, becomes a suspect, mounts his own amateur investigation, and becomes a target (along with his friends/family) of the killer when he gets too close to the truth (these elements became such extensive clichés that Argento himself rejected and subverted these common narrative devices when he revisited them for Tenebrae in 1982). Sam’s motives are aberrant, obsessive, and naive, but ultimately more relatable than those of the giallo heroes that followed in his footsteps. Another optional element of the formula that was introduced here is the mutual respect that develops between the amateur sleuth and his crime solving buddy, usually a love interest and/or investigative journalist. In this early case, a professional law enforcement official named Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) also helps Sam by coyly stoking and directing his curiosity, rather than demanding that the civilian detective remove himself from the investigation. This leads to another one of Argento formula elements – the police force’s outdated pseudo-science. Unlike Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, where major plot-points are dependent on patently false science, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is playful about its Hitchcock-like psychobabble and even pokes fun at the technical investigation when the ridiculously large criminology machines end up drawing a completely incorrect profile of the killer.
The final piece of Argento’s plot puzzle ended up being just as stylistically influential as it was narratively significant. His protagonists tend to recall the murder/attempted murder they’ve witnessed, playing it through their minds in hopes of remembering an important detail that they missed. The impressionistic editing, slow-motion inserts, and enigmatic focus-pulls that Argento and (future Oscar-winning) cinematographer Vittorio Storaro made famous was then mimicked by the workhorse directors (ones that weren’t born into industry royalty, like Argento was) that found a niche in the giallo boom and became a mainstay of the formula. Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was among the best in this regard, joined by the likes of Sergio Bergonzelli’s In the Folds of the Flesh (Italian: Nelle pieghe della carne, 1970), Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (Italian: Tutti i colori del buio, 1972), and Pupi Avati’s The House with the Laughing Windows (Italian: La casa dalle finestre che ridono, 1976) – all films that managed to tie the psychedelia of their dream sequences to their plots and themes.
Though The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s violence is tame compared to its contemporaries (including films that were released only months after it was deemed a hit), as well as Argento’s later gialli and horror movies, it was still relatively shocking for its era. Overt gore and blood is minimal, but the viciousness, sexual connotations, and lurid artistry of Argento’s murder set-pieces definitely stoked flames in grindhouses and drive-ins across the world. Along with grittier, North American horror, like Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), it led to the eventual blossoming of other genre trends, most notably slasher movies and serial killer films. In turn, fans and critics have drawn a believable line from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), to Bava’s films, Argento’s films, all the way to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the Saw franchise (2003-2010), and more than a decade of hit television procedurals (CSI, Criminal Minds, et cetera).
Following his tenure as a screenwriter before directing (including story work on Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Argento likely spent more time developing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage than any of his other scripts. As a result, I’d argue that it is his most neatly structured plot (Deep Red also features a great story, but is ultimately quite cluttered) and some of the most rounded, sympathetic characters in his entire filmography (which is important, given the horrible choices that Sam makes throughout the movie). Interactions between characters are witty, offering levity between suspense and exposition. During his investigation, Sam encounters an array of funny supporting players, from a stereotypically flamboyant, homosexual art shop owner, to an eye-rolling cross-dresser that populates police line-ups named Ursula Andress (“How many times do I have to tell you, Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!” shouts the detective in charge), a stuttering, sweet-natured pimp nicknamed So Long, and an antisocial artist, who has a very special love/hate relationship with neighbourhood stray cats. Argento successfully revisited this kind of character-based comedy when he wrote Deep Red, but largely ignored it for the rest of his career*. This sequential, integral plotting and comparative focus on people over set-pieces marks The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as one of the director’s best and most accessible movies.
* Argento’s one non-thriller/horror film, 1973’s The Five Days (Italian: Le cinque giornate) was a straight satire and bombed miserably at the box office. It’s possible that, even though Deep Red was successful and funny, the failure pushed him away from further comedy.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has lived a long and healthy life on North American home video. This included three relatively common VHS tapes from United Home Video and VCI Home Video and widescreen Laserdiscs from the ROAN Group and Image Entertainment. The first DVD, also from VCI, was the first uncut (previously, two murder scenes were trimmed) and anamorphic availability in the US. Unfortunately, the film was misframed at 2.20:1, the reinstated footage was tape quality, and the original pressing flipped the frames of one sequence. Eventually, Blue Underground released a remastered, uncut, 2.35:1 special edition DVD that became more or less the standard throughout the world. The first Blu-ray releases were 2.00:1-framed discs from Arrow in the UK and Shock in Australia, and superior, 2.35:1 discs from Koch Media in Germany and, once again, Blue Underground in the US.
Arrow’s newer Blu-ray, which is being released simultaneously in the US and UK, features a completely new transfer taken from the original camera negative, which was scanned in 4K at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, graded using Digital Vision’s Nucoda Film Master software, and cleaned up/stabilized under Arrow’s supervision. I’ve included sliders with screencaps from both this release (left) and Blue Underground’s release (right). Both are framed at the appropriate 2.35:1 AR and presented in 1080p HD video. I’d like to begin the comparison by noting that this was one of BU’s best early Italian Blu-ray releases, following some particularly noisy and DNR’d discs. Because of this, it may appear that the two transfers are basically the same, outside of their grading, color-timing, and overall framing (the Arrow image has a little more information on all sides of the frame). However, if you get in really close, you may notice that the 4K rescan has made a notable difference in terms of grain structure. The BU transfer is rife with very fine, but still very present telecine noise effects, while the Arrow transfer has more accurate – though occasionally yellowed – film grain artifacts. The 4K transfer’s fine textures are, in turn, also better represented and its gradations are ever-so-slightly cleaner.
From here, the differences between the discs come down to personal taste and what the viewer assumes is the "intended look." Arrow may have darkened their remaster a bit too much and crushes out some fine detail, but there’s no question that BU’s contrast is set too high, which creates blooming effects in the backgrounds. The 4K scan’s darkness ends up serving the film’s style better, especially during the climax and its starkly black compositions. The new transfer also has the better color-timing, in that it is warmer and richer without losing the cool blues that are so important to future multi-Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s photography during nighttime sequences. Again, there is a slight and ugly yellowing to the print that makes some of the cooled blends appear greenish, so it’s certainly not perfect, but this is definitely the best picture quality currently available on home video.
The BU release came fitted a relatively effective 7.1 remix of the original English dub and a 5.1 remix of the original Italian dub, but had no option to watch either track in its original mono. Arrow has taken those mono tracks from their 35mm sources and is presenting them in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sound. I suppose some fans might miss the remixes, but the availability of the original tracks always takes precedent. As per usual, I would like to remind readers that the majority of Italian films made during this era were shot with no sound and a cast of international actors speaking different languages at each other. All versions of the soundtrack were dubbed, so there is no ‘correct’ way to watch the film. In the case of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, many of the lead actors are dubbing themselves for the English recording, which gives it the advantage. Both tracks are tidy, relatively crisp, and practically identical, aside from the English dub’s slightly louder and rounder dialogue. Along with convoluted plot points and long, animal-themed titles, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was the first of many gialli to be scored by Ennio Morricone, who developed a sort of nightmarish free-jazz style for the film that would define the genre for the better part of a decade. The BU remixes definitely gave the music a boost with their stereo/LFE enhancement, but the score doesn’t sound tinny or over-compressed on either track.
More attentive viewers have noted that Arrow’s disc reinstates a single word missing from the BU disc: the full line at the top of the amusing police line-up sequence is “Right, bring in the perverts,” and BU’s English soundtrack was missing the word ‘right’ at the beginning of the sentence.
Commentary with Troy Howarth – This brand-new, Arrow exclusive commentary track is hosted by the author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films (Midnight Marquee Press, Inc, 2015). Howarth digs right into his bag of factoids with a friendly tone and fills every ounce of his time with behind-the-scenes information, in-jokes, thematic context, and connections to other movies. It’s not necessarily better than the BU disc’s Kim Newman/Alan Jones track, but is still quite good and has surprisingly limited overlap with that earlier commentary, so they make good companion pieces.
Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis (31:54, HD) – Kat Ellinger, the editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast, discusses The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’s connections to the earlier gialli, Argento’s later films (with special emphasis on gender politics), and Fredric Brown’s Screaming Mimi novel (in much more detail than I did in this review). This featurette includes footage from several Argento movies, as well as clips from Gerd Oswald’s movie version of Screaming Mimi (which look fantastic in full HD, making me hopeful that there will be a Blu-ray release at some point).
The Power of Perception (20:57, HD) – A visual essay on the cinema of Dario Argento from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the author of Devil’s Advocates: Suspiria (Auteur, 2015), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), and other genre-specific tomes. Here, Heller-Nicholas explores the themes of perception and memory throughout the director’s films, beginning with his roots in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Crystal Nightmare (31:24, HD) – This new interview with Argento replaces the shorter one that appeared on Arrow’s original UK disc. The director, who has become much less self-aggrandizing in his old age, lays out a nearly complete behind-the-scenes story, from screenwriting, to his cast & crew, fighting for the chance to direct, the shooting process, working with Morricone, release, and the positive reception.
An Argento Icon (22:05) – A 2017 interview with actor Gildo Di Marco, who appears as Garullo So Long, the stuttering pimp, who discusses his life, career as a character actor, and three roles under Argento’s direction.
Eva's Talking (2005, SD) (11:19) – This interview with actress Eva Renzi is the final featurette and only extra that Arrow has borrowed from the BU disc (so it’s definitely still worth hanging onto that if you have it). She talks about her larger career and work on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
Italian trailer, international trailer, and 2017 Texas Frightmare trailer
The images on this page are taken from the Arrow BD and the Blue Underground BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.