Finally available (it was released yesterday) in a restored and high def format that preserves the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this visually audacious whodunit lands on Blu-ray in a gorgeous looking edition from Arrow Films. Starring Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall, beautifully shot by Vittorio Storaro and scored by the great Ennio Morricone, Dario Argento made a very assured debut as writer-director in this genuinely chilling and thrilling mystery.
Argento’s flashy, baroque movies are not for the faint of heart. This as true for ostensible whodunits like Bird with the Crystal Plumage and even more so in the case of such utterly terrifying horror movies like Suspiria (1978), a tale of witchcraft that is as visually stunning as it is narratively incoherent. Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red aka The Hatchet Murders) was released in 1975 and is perhaps the greatest and most flamboyant of his ‘Gialli’, Italian thrillers (in the broadest sense) that owe as much to Victorian melodrama conventions as they do to Agatha Christie, as I discussed in one of my first posts here. But it all began with Crystal Plumage (and Fredric Brown, who I previously profiled here, as this is an uncredited adaption of his 1949 masterpiece, The Screaming Mimi) as we see Argento assemble many of the tropes and motifs than continue to run through his cinema.
A young and highly appealing Tony Musante stars as ‘Sam Dalmas’, a name derived from Hammett’s ‘Sam Spade’ and Chandler’s ‘John Dalmas’. He is an American writer living in Rome with his gorgeous girlfriend Julia (played convincingly by the gorgeous Suzy Kendall), a British model. One evening, while walking home, his eye is caught by a movement he sees though the large window to a modern art gallery – as he gets closer he sees that a woman (the late Eva Renzi) is fighting with a man sporting a trench coat and hat. She has been stabbed and as he comes to the window, the stranger escapes but then Dalmas himself becomes trapped between the two sets of sliding glass doors in front of the gallery activated by the unseen assailant. Dalmas is right there, next to the bleeding victim, but is unable to actually reach her.
Ultimately Dalmas manages to attract the attention of a passerby and saves the woman’s life, much to the relief of her agitated husband, who owns the art gallery where the attack took place. Dalmas gets grilled by the local cops, headed by Enrico Maria Salerno, the well-known Italian director and actor (who had just directed Musante in the popular tear-jerker, Anonimo Veneziano) who, for some obscure reason, in this film sports an unusually small and faintly risible mustache. None the less, in the course of the interview it becomes clear that Dalmas saw something important but which he can’t quite remember, a detail that just might help find the assailant. It turns out that this was the fourth in a series of attacks on young women in the city, and the only one not to have ended in the victim’s death. Rome is thus a city in crisis and although Dalmas and his girlfriend are due to fly out to the States, the Inspector is not about to let his only witness get away that easily, confiscating his passport. Dalmas will have to carry out his own investigation and solve the series of crimes.
There are also many references to Hitchcock, not least the casting of Reggie Nalder, who essentially reprises his hitman role from The Man Who knew Too Much (1956) in a chase through a bus repository at night, one of many extended suspense sequences that in the style of the ‘Master of Suspense’ are usually wordless and privilege a slow build-up of tension over narrative surprise. This is combined with Argento’s interest in creating fear as much as suspense in various scenes in which the murderer, who starts phoning the police and Dalmas, puts various people through the wringer. Thus we see the killer target female victims, stalk then and ultimately kill them, a tactic which we associate much more with the horror genre than the traditional whodunit.
Also unusual is the score by Ennio Morricone, which is a veritable feast for lovers of modern atonal music and which really does jangle the nerves. Just as impressive is the visual flamboyance of the film, with many of the director’s trademarks such as: highly original frame compositions; long and elaborate tracking shots more associated with Antonioni and the avant-garde than the thriller; the use of special cameras (here to probe the mouth of a screaming murder victim); and the heavy use of the subjective camera in the ‘stalk and slash’ sequences. This is well served by the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, the Oscar-winning cameraman here making one of his first films in colour. But this is also a proper mystery in which we finally discover just what it is that Dalmas ‘really’ saw that night, what the meaning of the peculiar title is, and how this will help solve the mystery after the apparent murderer plunges from a sixth floor window and confesses – only for this to prove to be a false solution in the best Ellery Queen tradition. The resolution is a proper surprise while the final explanations of motivation etc. are kept to a minimum – in fact largely take place as voice-over during the end credits. In a nice sardonic touch, we see the Inspector even fall asleep at this point!
DVD Availability: The previous high def versions (barring a now OOP release from Blue Underground in the US) had been supervised by Storaro but unfortunately he decided to tinker with the image considerably, cropping the aspect ratio to his preferred home video format of 2:1 (dubbed ‘Univisium‘) rather than the original 2.35:1 and also altering the grading to make the colours much more muted. This new edition rectifies this completely – it also includes a plethora of brand new extras including a funny audio commentary by Troy Howarth that is very jolly and avoid academic analysis without skimping on filmography minutiae, as well as assorted documentaries and interviews with Argento, all of them commissioned for this edition, as is the impressive new artwork which is offered as a poster too (as displayed above).
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Director: Dario Argento
Producer: Salvatore Argento
Screenplay: Dario Argento (adapted uncredited from The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown)
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Art Direction & Costumes: Dario Micheli
Music: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Mario Adorf, Reggie Nalder