Updated: Sep 22, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
After witnessing an assault at an art gallery during which co-owner Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi) is injured, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer living in Rome, begins his own investigation and is soon the target of a killer who has brutally murdered several young women.
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“THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE”
4K Ultra HD, 1970, unrated, violence, brief nudity Best extra: “Crystal Nightmare,” an engaging 2017 interview with director/writer Dario Argento
RAISE YOUR hand if you’re unfamiliar with the Italian giallo films. I was, too. Here’s a primer: Though it’s come to mean thriller, giallo literally translates as “yellow,” the color of the covers of the racy pulp novels that were popular in Italy in the 1950s and ‘60s. When filmmakers started taking note, the name stuck. They’re characterized by maniacal killers who are partial to black-leather gloves and knives, free-flowing candy-red gore and, most distinctively, radical points of view.
And you can hardly find a better example than Dario Argento’s game-changing, self-assured debut, “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.”
Argento (“Suspiria,” “Deep Red”) was only 30 when he redefined the giallo. His technique and style not only drew from his greatest influences, Alfred Hitchcock and countryman Mario Bava (“Black Sunday”), whose “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (1963) is regarded as the first gialli, he challenged the implicit biases of audiences by subverting preconceived notions of gender, symbolism, reality and artifice, Rachael Nisbet writes in her accompanying essay, “Murder Has Two Faces: The Duality of Dario Argento’s ‘The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.’”
Another writer put it this way: “Bird” is to gialli what John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” is to slasher films.
(1-4) Dalmas is walking home when he sees the assault but can only watch helplessly when he’s trapped between the gallery’s glass doors. (5) Police Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno, left) arrives on the scene. (6) Ranieri’s husband Alberto (Umberto Raho) rushes to her side.
It also pivots on a tried-and-true twist – an outsider witnesses a crime (usually in the streets), decides to play amateur detective and before long becomes the focus of the killer. Here, the outsider is Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante, “The Incident”), an American writer living in Rome. He’s gone to Italy because he was assured that it’s quiet and nothing happens there, but one night when he’s walking to his apartment, he witnesses an assault in an art gallery and tries to intervene. Trapped between the gallery’s sliding glass doors, he can only watch helplessly.
The would-be victim survives, but Dalmas can’t put the incident behind him. He tells Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno, “It Happened in ‘43”) that something -- something he can’t recall -- struck him as odd and begins his own investigation. Soon the killer, who has already butchered several young women, turns to Dalmas and his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, “To Sir, With Love”).
Just so you know, Argento has been intrigued by the nuances of perception – what we perceive but don’t readily understand -- throughout his career, author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas notes in her visual essay “The Power of Perception.”
(1) Dalmas is forced to cancel his flight back to the U.S. after his passport is confiscated. (2) Back at their apartment, he’s comforted by his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall), who later finds herself in the killer’s sights. (3&4) Dalmas is brought to police headquarters to view a lineup of the usual “pervert” suspects.
Having scored recently with “Tremors” and Sergio Corbucci’s paradigm-shifting Western “Django,” Arrow Video is fast making a name among the 4K Ultra HD crowd. “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” (2.35:1 aspect ratio) ups the ante.
The original 35 mm, two-perforation Techniscope negative was scanned and restored in 4K then graded in 4K HDR/Dolby Vision, delivering an up-tic that’s apparent from the opening frames. Detail is better in the close-ups than the wide shots and the shadows sometimes get mushy, but the grain is consistent, there isn’t a speck of dirt anywhere, and the lurid colors – sorry, can’t resist – just kill. Let’s hear it for saturation.
The original lossless mono tracks (English and Italian) have been goosed, too, and now feature the always dependable DTS-HD Master audio. Clarity is not an issue.
Most of them, and there’s a bunch, have been picked up from Arrow’s 1080 Blu-ray release. They include a commentary by author Troy Howarth, who delves into the backgrounds of the cast and crew; “Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis,” an analysis by film critic Kat Ellinger; interviews with actors Eva Renzi (from 2005) and Argento regular Gildo Di Marco; trailers; and new image galleries.
In addition to Nesbit’s essay, the 59-page accompanying booklet includes a piece by authors Howard Hughes on the history of giallo films and another by Jack Seabrook, who compares “Bird” to “The Screaming Mimi,” the 1949 novel by American Frederic Brown on which the movie is loosely based.
Footnote: Argento optioned the novel after director Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Last Emperor”) showed him a copy.
Spoiler alert: Save the booklet until after you watch the movie.
Like it did with “Django,” Arrow also sweetens the pot with a half-dozen lobby cards and a two-sided mini-poster.
So, where to start?
(1) His investigation leads to an antique shop where Dalmas asks the owner (Werner Peters) about a painting that may lead to the killer’s identity. (2) A young woman (Rosita Torosh) becomes the black-gloved killer’s fourth victim. (3) Dalmas and the police listen to an audiotape recording in which he was warned to leave Rome or Julia would be killed.
“The Power of Perception” is good because it provides context. Even better is “Crystal Nightmare,” a candid 2017 interview with Argento.
He first envisioned the film when he was sleeping on a beach in Tunisia, but wasn’t sure about directing it until he sat down to write the screenplay. Working alone in a small house, he created the storyboards and a shot list from the first to final frames, something that wasn’t done in Italy at the time. When he finally convinced a producer to bankroll the film, he was crystal-clear about the movie he wanted to make – one that wasn’t typical of thrillers of the day with a unique style that was shaped by his career as a critic.
While Argento knew what he wanted, he didn’t know how to go about realizing it. Enter cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who won Oscars for “The Last Emperor,” “Reds” and “Apocalypse Now.” Rather than force his ideas on the young filmmaker, Storaro gave him the freedom to pursue his vision, Argento says.
Their partnership is still revelatory: Every shot is perfectly framed and the POVs are ingenious, particularly when a man falls to his death and when the killer stalks a young woman into her bedroom and later attacks Julia by hacking through a door with a knife. Five with get you 10 that Stanley Kubrick had the latter sequence in mind when he made “The Shining.”
Footnote 2: “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” was Storaro’s first color film, “so we were both working on a debut in a way,” Argento says.
Argento also recalls how the film got its title, why he ended up shooting in Rome, what it was like working with Musante (he was difficult, to put it mildly) and how psychoanalysis figures heavily in all of his films. The best anecdote, though, is his first meeting with legendary composer Ennio Morricone (“The Hateful Eight,” “The Untouchables,” “The Thing,” “1900,” Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy … ), who took on the project as a favor to Argento’s father.
Argento says he was a “devout follower” of Morricone, but soon learned that showing up at his mansion with a bag of records to glean ideas was not a good move. Morricone was quick to inform him that he didn’t emulate other musicians.
Instead, Argento recalls, Morricone, whose instrument was the trumpet, and his colleagues improvised the entire score.
- Craig Shapiro
(1) The killer comes after Julia. (2&3) Morosini and Dalmas try to save a man from falling to his death but he slips from their grasp. The point of view is one of the film’s most innovative sequences. (4) Dalmas confronts the killer in the shocking finale.