Some filmmakers wear their influences like a clandestine coat of arms. While they’ll never really admit it, they are clearly borrowing from the wealth of directorial prowess that came before them. True originals are hard to come by. Instead, we usually wind up with post-modern moviemakers channeling their heroes and paying homage to elements both obvious and obscure. When he first hit the scene in late ‘60s, Dario Argento was seen as a part Hitchcock, part Italian cultural heritage. After all, his father Salvatore was a famed producer, and he himself had helped script several successful spaghetti westerns, including the classic Sergio Leone classic Once Upon a Time in the West.
But with his first film as a director, the brilliant Bird with the Crystal Plumage (new to Blu-ray DVD from Blue Underground), he was out to prove that he was more than just a Mediterranean copy of the Master of Suspense. Using innovative camera work and a novel twist on the standard thriller type, he invented the language of the “giallo” - the Italian crime film based on the famous ‘yellow’ novels that provide the genre’s moniker. Bird itself was actually an un-credited adaptation of Fredric Browne’s The Screaming Mimi, but as he would throughout the rest of his illustrious career, Argento takes the basics of the artform and transforms them into something original and wholly unique.
After a prosperous stay in Italy, American author Sam Dalmas is about to return to the US with his glamour gal model girlfriend in tow. On the way from picking up his final check, he sees a woman brutally attacked by a sinister dark figure. Helping the police, he learns that there have been several such incidents in the last few months - and he was lucky. All the other victims have ended up dead. While not a suspect, his passport is confiscated. Unable to leave, he decides to investigate the case. Turns out, there are several suspects, including the woman’s wary husband. As he gets deeper into things, Sam finds himself threatened both verbally and physically. Seems he is getting close to solving the crimes, and the killer will stop at nothing to make sure that doesn’t happen.
As a first feature, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a startling achievement. It’s technically proficient, visually arresting, and quite suspenseful. It features remarkable work from Tony Musante (a truly underappreciated American actor) and Suzy Kendall and a script that does a decent job of keeping the last minute surprises in check. As he does with many of his films, Argento employs an unusual combination of found locations and studio set-ups to create his uncomfortable worlds. When Sam sees the assault, it takes place in an art gallery overloaded with baroque and downright surreal pieces. Toward the end, our hero visits a hermit who lives in what looks like a broken down barn. Always a stickler for detail, you can practically smell the rot surrounding the cat-eating recluse.
As with many giallo, Bird is basically a police procedural, except this time, an American writer with some time on his hands does most of the grunt work. This gives Argento the opportunity to indulge in some dopey scenes of serio-comic clue gathering. They include a stop over at an antique shop where Musante’s rugged good looks give a fey clerk the veiled vapors. Later, a conversation with the victim’s husband reveals more red herrings than a Swedish banquet. Argento always plays his reveals close to the vest, so it’s almost impossible to guess who the killer really is. Even when we revisit Musante’s “memory” of the attack, the obvious misdirection offered by the editing keeps identities in check. Of course, the sadism of the murders and the manner in which they are choreographed suggest their own suspects as well.
Indeed, anyone coming to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage hoping for a fascinating foreign whodunit clearly don’t understand Argento. Some call him a technician, someone more interested than cinematic style over narrative or emotional substance. True, we don’t really care about Sam or his girlfriend. When threatened, we don’t respond with compassion or caring. But as he showed in such other masterworks as Suspiria, Inferno, and Profundo Rosso, we don’t have to identify with the people onscreen to get caught up in Argento’s approach. Instead, the combination of skills - the brilliant camerawork matched with a stunning soundtrack (this one offered by none other than acclaimed countryman Ennio Morricone) and an unusual take on the material or type can literally lull us into an entertainment trance.
Because of the way Argento’s films look, fans have longed for the day when his movies would make the transition from standard home video formats to the latest high definition developments. Blue Underground’s treatment of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has always been stellar - but this new Blu-ray release is something else all together. It’s like stepping back in time and revisiting the film for the first time during its theatrical run. There is plenty of grain and a few flaws in the 2.35:1 anamorphic image, but that’s par for the course circa 1970s Italy. The Blu-ray really enhances both the evocativeness of Argento’s compositions and the hard boiled qualities of the technical limitations he had to work within. Similarly, the differing audio mixes (DTS, TrueHD) and variations (English Dub, Italian translation) reflect the film’s international success. Be wary of the subtitles, however. They do not match the Western version of the film very well.
Blue Underground also treats us to the wonderful bonus features they offered when the title first hit Special Edition DVD in 2005. They include interviews with Argento, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, actress Eva Renzi, and composer Ennio Morricone. All are insightful and quite fun. Then there is a commentary track from journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman. Informal and rather superficial, the two discuss the influence of Argento and his provocative style as scenes demanding conversation gracefully flow by. This is not a bad alternate discussion, just one that seems to miss the point of most DVD tracks.
For those reviewing The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with a full knowledge of everything Dario Argento can and cannot do, the lack of outlandishness and the conventional nature of the film overall will probably be rather surprising. After all, there’s none of the beautiful violence of later films, or the cold and calculated anti-social sentiment of giallos like Tenebre, Opera, or The Stendhal Syndrome. As with any audition, Argento almost failed (a producer wanted to fire him after his secretary saw some dailies and was truly terrified), but in the end, he used its overriding success to become one of the true Masters of the macabre. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be his most daring or controversial effort, but it certainly certifies the Hitchcock tag. Just like the British moviemaking maverick, there has been no one like Dario Argento - not before or since.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.