The Bird with the
Crystal Plumage
VCI Edition
Italy - Germany / 1970
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring
Tony Musante
Suzy Kendall
Eva Renzi
Color / 96 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
VCI Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
8
    6   10 = Highest Rating  
On the surface, Dario Argento's directorial debut, 1970's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, bears striking similarities to his tour-de-force "giallo" thriller Deep Red (1975). Both films center on a foreigner in Italy who, by random chance, becomes embroiled in the hunt for a vicious serial killer. In each story the main character witnesses a crime, then later struggles to recall a tiny detail that holds the key to the mystery. Bizarre paintings figure prominently in the plots of both films, as do the repression of traumatic childhood memories. In each case the hero becomes obsessed with learning the truth and, dissatisfied with the progress of the police, launches his own private investigation. Eventually he succeeds in unmasking the murderer — but not before placing his own life in extreme jeopardy.
    Deep Red's protagonist was an English jazz composer living in Rome. In Bird, Tony Musante plays Sam Dalmas, a frustrated American novelist who originally moved to Italy to cure a bout of writer's block. To pay the bills he's taken a job as a technical writer, penning a nature manual on exotic birds. Check in hand, Sam is set to return home to the States when, during a stroll back to his apartment, he notices something happening at an upscale art gallery. Through the gallery's glass faηade he sees a woman struggling desperately with a black-garbed figure who appears to be attacking her. Drawn closer, Sam watches as the figure in black darts through a door into the back of the building. The woman, who's been stabbed, staggers toward Sam, beseeching him for help. Sam rushes through the glass vestibule only to be trapped between two sets of transparent sliding doors. In the film's stunning signature sequence, Sam watches helplessly as the injured, bleeding woman collapses and crawls toward him. (Like the audience itself, Sam is the ultimate voyeur to violence and its aftermath — incapable of doing anything but watch.) Finally Sam is able to alert a passing pedestrian, who summons the police. Fortunately the woman's stab wound is not fatal. According to the cops, the victim — Monica Renieri (Eva Renzi), beautiful wife of the gallery's owner — is the first survivor of an attack by a serial killer who's already claimed a number of female victims in the city. The cop heading the investigation, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Salerno, dubbed by a voice actor with a pronounced Scots burr), posits that only Sam's chance appearance prevented Mrs. Renieri from being killed. Once he tells Morosini that there's something he witnessed, something he just can't put his finger on, the policeman seizes his passport to keep him from leaving the country. In hopes of jogging his memory Sam embarks on some amateur sleuthing of his own, aided by his sexy fashion model girlfriend, Lisa (Suzy Kendall, Torso). Even though the initial clues he uncovers fail to pin down the killer's identity, he's obviously getting close... A hired assassin (creepy Reggie Nalder of Mark of the Devil) tries to gun Sam down in the street. Meanwhile the killer strikes again, brutally slaying two more women. Will Sam unmask the murderer before both he and Lisa are added to the list of victims?
    With his first stint behind the camera, Dario Argento crafts a taut, suspenseful mystery thriller that lays the foundation for much of his work to follow. Visually compelling, with meticulous attention paid to each composition, the viewer — like Sam — will see things that don't quite register in the brain the moment they're glimpsed. The editing is terrific; for a film over 30 years old its visual style is surprisingly undated — another hallmark of the Argento ouevre. Unlike most of his films, however, Bird's storyline is very tightly focused, perhaps the best structured of Argento's screenplays to date. (There's no wandering off on unnecessary tangents merely for an exercise in aesthetics.) The film's humorous bits, provided by an assortment of oddball characters whom Sam encounters in the course of his amateur detective work (a stuttering pimp, a cagey stool pidgeon, an eccentric artist with a most unusual diet), don't seem forced or strained as is often the case in other Argento flicks. As for gore, aside from a few spatterings of blood it's practically non-existent here — a marked difference from the sanguinary excesses of Tenebre (1982) and a more recent giallo, Sleepless (2001). Not that I have an aversion to movie gore, mind you, but Bird proves that it wasn't always a necessary ingredient in the director's cinematic recipes.
    I can also report that composer Ennio Morricone's jazzy, often dissonant score is quite good. Fans of Argento's later films, especially those featuring rock-flavored soundtracks by Goblin, may be disappointed, but I found that Morricone's music works perfectly.

This is VCI's second DVD pressing of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The first, released in '99, had a few frames of one of the murder scenes presented out of sequence. (In all honesty it wasn't a particularly horrendous gaffe; I only noticed it on the second viewing.) Also, the title of Argento's most famous work, Suspiria, was misspelled on the back of the packaging. The continuity problem was rectified in 2000 and the disc was issued with different text on the back of the keepcase sleeve in 2001. (The Suspiria reference was dropped altogether.) The corrected edition uses the same video transfer, which is letterboxed and anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 TVs. While certainly not pristine the flick never looked this good on VHS. Print damage is evident, however. Colors occasionally seem muted but are generally well balanced throughout. The main thing is getting to see the film in its proper aspect ratio. Audio quality is a different matter — sound effects and music are significantly louder than the dialog, which might have you reaching for your stereo remote a time or two. Fortunately this is only occasionally distracting. Also, when played on my equipment, anytime one of the disc's chapters began with spoken dialog the first few words were much louder than any subsequent spoken lines. It's a strange anomaly that I've never seen with any other DVD before.
    Extras include brief talent bios of Argento, Musante and Kendall and the rather psychedelic U.S. theatrical trailer. Also provided is an "isolated" soundtrack that allows one to listen to Morricone's score minus the dialog and sound effects. A separate menu screen permits the selection of individual tracks rather than having to listen to the entire thing. This is a really neat feature, one I've seen on only a handful of discs. 2/26/02
UPDATE Blue Underground released a 2-disc remastered special edition of the film in October 2005. You can read the EC review of it HERE.
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