Dario Argento – whose directorial career has
now spanned almost 50 years, positioning him as a genuine icon of terror cinema
– is probably best associated with his clutch of intoxicatingly imaginative chillers,
each of them ornamented with brutal (and increasingly graphic) murder scenarios,
stylishly lurid lighting schemes and wildly inventive camerawork.
Throughout the second half of the 1960s
Argento had found a degree of success in writing stories and screenplays for movies;
he most famously worked alongside Sergio Leone for 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West. But it was taught 1970 thriller The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (o.t. L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo) that
marked his debut in the director’s chair and set him on the path to becoming
the Godfather of the giallo.
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American
writer currently residing in Rome, walks past a brightly lit art gallery late
one night and sees inside a shadowy figure, clad in black, stabbing a woman.
Attempting to intervene, Dalmas manages to get himself trapped in the entrance
between two sets of locked sliding doors, unable to prevent the assailant from
fleeing and helpless to assist the woman left bleeding to death on the floor.
Fortunately, aid arrives and the woman – Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), wife of
the gallery's owner – survives. It transpires that Monica was the almost-victim
in a series of attacks that have left several beautiful women dead. Dalmas becomes
obsessed with the case, replaying what he saw over and over in his head,
convinced that he's missing a vital clue to solving the mystery. But in getting
involved he inadvertently sets himself up as a target for the killer.
Argento not only directed but also wrote The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (basing
it thematically on a 1949 pulp novel, “The Screaming Mimi”, by Frederic Brown).
He would go on to make better movies but for a debut feature this really is an
exemplary piece of film-making, bearing many of the embryonic flourishes – clearly
influenced by the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Bava – that would later
become his trademark; specifically the faceless, black-gloved killer whose
nefarious activities are often shot POV and, on a more cerebral level, the misperception
of a witnessed moment, with characters struggling to retrieve a clue buried in
their subconscious, the significance of which failed to register upon them when
initially glimpsed. These recurrent themes would play out to varying degrees of
success in many of Argento's later films, most significantly Four Flies on Grey Velvet (o.t. 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971), Cat o'Nine Tails (o.t. Il gatto a nove code, 1971), Deep Red (o.t. Profondo rosso, 1975, considered by many to be the greatest of all
the Italian gialli), Tenebrae (o.t. Tenebre, 1982), Phenomena (1985), Opera (1987),
Trauma (1993), The Stendhal Syndrome (o.t. La
sindrome di Stendhal, 1996), Sleepless
(o.t. Non ho sonno, 2001), The Card Player (o.t. Il cartaio, 2004), Do You Like Hitchcock? (o.t. Ti
piace Hitchcock, 2005) and Giallo
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage itself is a masterpiece of sustained
suspense. The escalating tension during a scene in which the hero's girlfriend
(Suzy Kendall) is menaced by the killer – who uses a large kitchen knife to
methodically chip away at the lock on her apartment door – is as perfect an
example as one could wish for as to why Argento is often referenced as the
Italian Hitchcock. The violence – notably an out-of-shot vaginal stabbing – was
transgressive for its day, and in spite of the fact that far more shocking
atrocities have been unflinchingly splashed across the screen in the decades
since, several moments in Argento's fledgling offering still pack quite a visceral
Tony Musante makes for an adequate if not particularly memorable leading man, but there's enjoyable work from Mario Adorf (as a nutty painter who has a penchant for eating cats) and Enrico Maria Salerno, playing a vexed police inspector who daubs the proceedings with an occasional smattering of humour, such as in a moment of exasperation when one of his colleagues inadvertently includes a crossdresser in a witness identification line-up: "How many times do I have to tell you?" he splutters, "Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!"
Although The Bird with the Crystal Plumage isn’t as polished as some of the films that would follow, with Argento's confident hand on the tiller, crisp and colourful widescreen photography by Vittorio Storaro (the vivid red of a woman's coat as she strolls past lush green foliage during the opening credits practically sears the eyeballs), snappy editing by Franco Fraticelli and an efficiently moody score from Ennio Morricone nevertheless gel to create a gripping and intelligent little thriller that keeps viewers on their toes right up until its fantastic (and, I'd posit, pretty much unguessable) final twist reveal.
Arrow Video have issued The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as a combo Blu-Ray and DVD release boasting a new 4K restoration in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio from the original camera negative. The resulting transfer on the Blu-Ray is simply gorgeous to behold. Extras comprise an exclusive new interview with Dario Argento and actor Gildo di Marco (who plays a pimp in the film), a 2005 interview with Eva Renzi, a feature commentary from author Troy Howarth, analyses by film critic Kat Ellinger and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and a couple of trailers. The limited edition release comes accompanied by a 60-page illustrated booklet, a double-sided poster, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork and 6 reproduction lobby cards (all these materials unseen at the time of writing).