L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo
DVD - Image A Sound A Extras B
BD - Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Eva Renzi, Enrico Maria Salerno
written and directed by Dario Argento
by Walter Chaw Dario Argento's uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown's The Screaming Mimi (brought to the screen once before in 1958 by Gerd Oswald), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage marks the "Italian Hitchcock"'s directorial debut as well as the moment at which the Italian giallo genre gained international currency. Though the genre's invention (named after the yellow/giallo covers of Italian penny dreadfuls) is credited to compatriot Mario Bava (see, especially, his astonishing Blood and Black Lace), Argento's scary polish and cunning for film language bridged the cultural, mainstream/arthouse gap with agility and audacity. He's not just borrowing from Hitchcock, he's filtering the Master's work through his own sensibilities. Argento did for the slasher genre with his "supernatural" pictures like Suspiria and Inferno what Sergio Leone did for the Western, making them dirtier, sexier, rhythmic, and more acceptable to the literati; and he does here for the police procedural/neo-noir a similar kind of post-modern hipster reinvention. But it's not merely an intellectual exercise (in fact, the obscurity of the clues (its title at once revealing the identity of the killer and referring obliquely to the red herring of The Maltese Falcon) makes deciphering the procedural improbable at best)--rather, it's the visceral nature of the exercise that delights. It's Argento's revelry in one part in the unrelieved nihilism and delicious confusion that would characterize the best of the '70s' paranoia cinema--and in the other part, in the joy of great genre filmmaking.
Two films as touch points: Hitchcock's Notorious and Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up. Start with archetypally-named hero Sam (Tony Musante), an American tourist embroiled in a serial killer case in Rome after witnessing the attempted murder of a woman in an art gallery. He's seen something he can't quite remember (like many of Argento's heroes, but particularly Deep Red's) but thinks holds the key to solving the crime. The conventions of the genre are honoured: he becomes a murder suspect; his girlfriend is eventually imperilled; he has a criminal giving him information on the inside; and his best friend acts in ways that cast doubt on his innocence in our eyes. But what poleaxes is the way in which Argento uses the subjective camera not so much as the stand-in for the killer but as a means through which we're made, via our active antipathy with the killer, the objects of malevolent sight. Sam witnesses the murder, for instance, while trapped between two sliding glass partitions. He's stuck there, helpless to assist the girl and, we begin to realize, vulnerable to attack himself. Later, the killer spies on Sam at a horse track (a scene reminiscent of one from Notorious) before finally pinning him beneath an Iron Maiden-esque implement of ironic torture and toying with him at excruciating length. The use of photographs, of newspaper clippings, and of paintings and the obsessive poring over of images for clues to confirm or deny "objective" reality recalls Blow-Up, of course, yet it's more the feeling of mod skeeziness than Lacanian perspectives that unites the two. The genius of Argento once upon a time was the understanding that every mystery is, at its essence, existential and subjective.
Most likely filmed without sound and then dubbed into various tongues as distribution demanded (thank Argento scholar Mike Bracken for that information), Musante's tired, tortured performance is all the more impressive. Playing another of Argento's artist protagonists (he's a writer), Musante projects a kind of hardened weariness that works well with the connections Argento draws between blocked creative channels and frustrated deductive avenues--between the violent love-making of Sam and girlfriend Lisa (Suzy Kendall) and the loaded centerpiece murder/rape-by-steel of one of Argento's undressed lovelies. The equation of orgasm and welcome penetration with agony and a stabbing death is stark in this example, with the camera (and Ennio Morricone's spooky score) stalking the victim before a black-raincoated figure pins her to the bed (as soon as she extinguishes a cigarette), undresses her with a knife, rips off her panties, and then sprays a jet of blood (of deflowering? of menses?) across her sheets. When the identity of the killer is revealed, our knowledge that Argento has played the faceless murderer up until the unmasking is complicated in an indescribably delicious way. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is the forefather of not only Argento's own Deep Red and Tenebre (in the double reveals of the murderer and a corpse), but of the straight-razor/elevator/Psycho murder stolen by archrival Brian DePalma for his Dressed to Kill and the essential discomforts of Alexandre Aja's High Tension, too.
Perhaps boasting Argento's tightest and funniest script, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is fleet and modern. It's all about flair and confidence, its set-pieces assured and its subtexts orderly and consistent. Argento's stuff arguably favours style over too much substance, and if that's so, it's never made as much sense as it does here. Far from gory, it's a way to access Argento's portfolio without a lot of hands over the eyes--a way to appreciate how this director, for a short period of time, was redefining the thriller and the slasher by assimilating then reconstituting familiar images and clichés (from genre and legendary genre artists alike) into something alive and new. Beneath its cosmopolitan cool, it has the teeth to do something like have Sam stumble around in a dark room while his girlfriend, bound and bleeding, tries to reach out to him from under some furniture. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is seminal, textbook, and, for serious students and fans of the genre (and of the study of film as a whole), indispensable.
After a couple of DVD releases on Italy's "Medusa" label, one of which presented a few scenes out of sequence, Blue Underground steps up to produce a 2-disc Special Edition of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage that, without hyperbole, contains the best-looking incarnation of the film to date. (The longest, too: BU has restored a handful of shots lost to various distribution channels over the years.) Start with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image, downconverted from HiDef, that reproduces the blacks as pitch and for the most part downplays the softness and mutedness that mars Eastman productions of the era whilst stabilizing the harsh grain common to two-perf Techniscope prints. I did observe some processing stutter (mainly in Sam's apartment as Lisa is folding laundry in the background), but I'm inclined to turn a blind eye to it. The colours demonstrate fulsome saturation--note, in particular, a yellow door in a crazed artist's loft.
Seven audio mixes adorn the film, including a DTS-ES 6.1 track in English that sounds crystal-clear and startling. I surveyed both the English and Italian DD 5.1 EX and Dolby Surround options (the latter is noticeably out of sync) and found them unremarkable; if you're not DTS-enabled, I'd recommend sticking with either of the very fine DD 2.0 mono alternatives. Finally, Argento buddy Alan Jones and Italian film scholar Kim Newman collaborate on a feature-length yakker. Jones, I think, is a little hamstrung by his friendship with Argento, but with Newman proving an affable foil, he provides a good deal of anecdotal and mildly critical commentary. Although Musante and Argento's mutual hatred is glossed over, for the neophyte, the commentary is more than adequate in setting the scene for the film's place in not only Argento's work, but also the genre. Two trailers round out the first disc.
Disc Two houses a quartet of David Gregory-produced interview featurettes. In the first, "Out of the Shadows" (18 mins.), Argento offers pithy insights into his methods and touches on his friction with Musante, which stemmed from disagreements about how the film should play out. The legend shares with Hitchcock the obsessive storyboard and the idea that actors are essentially a part of the scenery--or at least he says so when remembering his run-ins with the temperamental actor. He additionally tells an amusing story of how he smashed a camera to hell by dropping it out of a window for a POV shot of a fatal fall off an apartment building, and of how his collaboration with Morricone started off on entirely the wrong foot. Fascinatingly, Argento addresses the charges of misogyny that have hounded him throughout his career, doing so by prefacing his comments with the revelation that his mother was a photographer and it was at her knee that he learned how to shoot women's faces. Pretty deep in that rabbit hole now, boys.
Next comes "The Music of Murder" (8 mins.). Morricone describes his process in detail as well as his continuing collaboration with Argento over the course of four movies together. Really interesting stuff--not hurt, I'm guessing, by the fact that I'm a slavering Morricone fanboy. In "Painting with Darkness" (10 mins.), DP Vittorio Storaro explains how he and Argento used black and negative space in the picture to remarkable effect. Watching it again, you'll realize that the use of light (like when Lisa shoves a knife through a hole that's been dug into her door) is stunning. Though Argento wouldn't work with Storaro again despite their obvious affection for each other, their one and only film together shows the seeds of Argento's celebrated visual style. Lastly, the recently-deceased Eva Renzi laments her poor career choices (such as turning down an Orson Welles project) in "Eva's Talking" (11 mins.). She doesn't seem to like the film very much, blaming it for her subsequent career flatline. Bitterness café, open 24 hours. To be fair, it's hard to know exactly what she thinks of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage because she never really stops talking about herself. Originally published: December 5, 2005.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers I'm sorely tempted to award Blue Underground's Blu-ray reissue of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage an "A+" video grade. If the DVD earned praise for its colour and depth of detail, those virtues are only amplified here, and a light, manifestly beautiful coat of grain validates every effort made to procure the negative for this transfer, which on BD looks unnervingly like an answer print and nothing like the coarse mess any type of dupe was bound to yield, due to the picture's two-perf Techniscope origins. Unfortunately, there's a tendency for black to drop off into crush territory. Especially compared to something like Sudden Impact, it's a minor irritation at best, but because it brings a particularly organic image back down to digital earth (unlike the occasional, completely forgivable scratch in the source), it's an irritation all the same. Still, even those already familiar with Blue Underground's restoration of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage will find this 2.35:1, 1080p presentation revelatory; as far as their next-gen output is concerned, the company raises its own bar with this release.
Not quite sure how to approach the various soundtrack incarnations: The English 7.1 DTS-HD audio remains the loudest and most evocative choice after volume matching (with the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track coming a close second), and though it causes Ennio Morricone's score to peak into the reds, I'm of the mind that Morricone music should be cranked up to/past obnoxious levels. The English and Italian DD 5.1 EX alternatives also feel comparatively hemispheric, or at least the rear discretes are more assertive in 7.1 whenever the picture winds up to a suspense moment. I suppose it will finally come down to your language preference; for what it's worth, there seems to have been more of an attempt with the English dub to tailor voices to their surroundings--the Italian dialogue all sounds like it was recorded in the same booth. (Note that the accompanying English subtitles interpret the Italian dialogue rather than transcribe the ready-made English translation.) Gone, sadly, is the option to listen to the film in its original mono state. Video-based extras of the 2-Disc SE are held over in standard-def and enhanced for 16x9 displays, while the Jones/Newman commentary resurfaces as well. Originally published: February 23, 2009.