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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Arrow Video
Blu-ray Disc Released: 6/20/2017

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 6/19/2017

There's a distinction between inventing something and bringing it to prominence and the two are often confused, especially in entertainment. A specific type of work can have been around for years in various forms, but it can take a very special example to make the masses notice it. This can be true of music, writing styles, and movie genres. Murder-mystery films have been around since the invention of cinema. This genre exists in nearly every culture, with the Italians giving their mysteries a certain flair. They were making these movies for years before Dario Argento made The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, but his mixture of violence and sexuality, with a story in which the mystery was handled in a different way, gained international attention and introduced a new audience to the giallo.

American author Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) has been living in Rome and now that he's received the check for his latest book, he's ready to return to the U.S. with his girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall). On the way home from meeting with his publisher, Sam passes by an art gallery, where he sees two people fighting. He rushes over to help, only to get trapped in the entryway while he watches Monica (Eva Renzi) get stabbed, while the black-clad assailant escapes. Having been the only witness to the crime, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) insists that Sam remain in Rome. Now trapped in the city, Sam decides to play detective himself, as he's convinced that he saw something that he can't remember. As more women are attacked, Sam realizes that he too is in danger and must piece together the clues in order to save himself.

Again, Argento didn't invent murder mystery movies and he didn't invent Italian murder mystery movies, but he did create an example of the sub-genre which was slick and palatable enough to become a world-wide hit. Some veteran directors like Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti, and Umberto Lenzi had dabbled in giallo (the name given to Italian murder mysteries) in the 1960s, but it was The Bird with the Crystal Plumage which took the genre to the next level. So, it's surprising to note that this was Argento directorial debut. The movie certainly doesn't look like a first-time effort. Argento confidently uses moving camera (which would influence a generation of filmmakers) to create a sense of space, and it's clear that he's beginning to explore his use of color here, something which would come to fruition in 1977's Suspiria. We also see that he's ready to tackle sex and violence in an unabashed way.

Watching The Bird with the Crystal Plumage today, we see how the film contains many of the familiar elements of a giallo, for better or for worse. The film opens with an elaborately staged murder (or actually attempted murder in this case), for which there is only one witness. That witness decides to play amateur detective and attempt to solve the crime, even if it puts them in danger. But, then we run into one of the weird hallmarks of giallo -- unlike a traditional murder mystery, we aren't presented with proper suspects. The audience is moving through the story with the main character and, aside from seeing the black-gloved killer at work (with Argento stepping in to be the killer), we have no information which will help us solve the crime. When the killer is revealed, it's someone that we've seen before, but the revelation has very little impact. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage offers a great example of a post-reveal explanation which is fraught with pop-psychology.

Given the positive attributes on display here, Argento can be forgiven for some of the story issues presented in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Those familiar with the director know that he would continue trying his hand at giallo, truly hitting his stride with Deep Red and then perfecting his craft with Tenebrae. Those who have an interest in the history of giallo will certainly want to check this out and this new release will be indispensable to Argento fans.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage gets all stabby on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Arrow Video. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 30 Mbps. The Disc sports a newly created transfer taken from the original camera negative. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only some mild grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good and the image is never overly dark or bright, but I would have hoped for some deeper tones. For an older film, the depth is surprisingly good. Not only do we not get the flat look which can haunt some films from this period, but the actors clearly stand out from the backgrounds. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 1.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The score by Ennio Morricone sounds fine and it never overpowers the actors. There is no hissing or popping on the track.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage Blu-ray Disc contains a selection of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films. "Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis" (32 minutes) has critic Kat Ellinger discussing the history of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and how it ties into the giallo cycle. She talks about the novel which inspired Argento, and how the film's story was derived from the book. In "The Power of Perception" (21 minutes), author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas presents "visual essay" in which we see clips from various Argento films while the narrator explains how Argento uses miscues and red herrings to trick the audience. "Crystal Nightmare" (31 minutes) is a new interview with Argento who discusses the influences of the film, the production, and the film's legacy. "An Argento Icon" (22 minutes) is a modern-day interview with actor Gildo Di Marco, who only appeared in one other Argento film, so icon may be a strong word. "Eva's Talking" (11 minutes) is an archive interview from 2005 with actress Eva Renzi, who talks about her experiences on the film. The final extras are three TRAILERS for the film.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long