The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (2017 Blu-ray)

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.

The following, updating a previous post, is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog.

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

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Dario Argento, Fredric Brown, Giallo, Rome, Scene of the crime, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (2017 Blu-ray)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Don’t you love it when great films get properly preserved, Sergio? I admit I’ve not seen this one (‘though I vaguely remember hearing about it). But it sounds suspenseful and eerie. I must look it up.

  2. Colin says:

    I’m still basically a novice when it comes to Gialli yet I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen so far. I liked this film quite a bit and its good to hear the new Arrow release (not unexpectedly) has it looking better than ever.

    • I was brought up with them but I am not a fan of all of them. I have friends who watch them all the time and always find something to love. This is a superior title though.

      • Colin says:

        To be honest, I haven’t gone further than the tittles you’ve recommended – essentially Bava and a couple of early Argento films – and did like them fine. I know there’s more explicit and exploitative material out there but I have a hunch it wouldn’t really be my thing.

        • Well, I’m with you. I have mates who have no problem with the more extreme of bizarro examples, but not really for me. The Fulci WOMAN INA LIZARD’S SKIN which was shot in London is surprisingly good (and I like his VERTIGO homage, PERVERSION STORY, too). Or did I recommend those too? Truth is, there is only a handful that I think stand up really well without having to be a genre devotee 🙂

  3. Paula Carr says:

    Argento can be an aquired taste, but I’ve certainly never been bored by any of his movies. Loved “Suspiria.” But it’s one weird movie!

  4. realthog says:

    I’ve only ever seen this once and that was on VHS (and, if memory serves, trimmed to 4:3), and I ‘fess that, though I enjoyed the visuals and the thrills, I couldn’t make much sense out of it. It’s long overdue that I gave such a famous movie another go!

    Hm. And in the right screen format.

    • You really should see this version John, if you can. Have you read the Brown?

      • realthog says:

        I think I did when I was in my teens/twenties, having picked it up on the assumption it was more of his fantasy/sf. I now remember nothing of it except my disappointment! I got hold of a copy a few years back for rereading, but haven’t reached it yet.

        • I think it is a terrific read with a fabulous ending – it is certainly a very distinctive read, with that mixture of the poetic and the seedy that he did so well. Always surprises me how little his crime fictions seems to have been read compared with his SF, which was a much smaller part of his out put.

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    Realthog says,”though I enjoyed the visuals and the thrills, I couldn’t make much sense out of it.”
    I had the same experience ! I couldn’t make head or tail of several points.


    1. Sam’s passport is taken by the police and he is not allowed to leave Italy since he is an important witness. But what about the most important witness Monica? She was face to face with the alleged killer and could have given a much better description of him.. Why was she not questioned ?
    2. Who was the assassin in yellow dress who ran over a cop and then attempted to kill Sam? This is never explained.
    3.Sam receives a threatening call from the killer. The cops are able to identify a weird sound in the background, later found to be that of a rare bird. This helps them to identify from which house the call was made. Couldn’t the police have simply traced the call?
    4. After Alberto falls to his death, Sam finds that Julia is missing. Making enquiries, he is led to an apartment. Whose apartment is this? And how did Monica manage to induce Julia and Carlo to accompany her to this place?
    5. Why was only Carlo killed and not Julia who was gagged and tied up. The reverse should have been the case, since the killer is a killer of women.
    6. Towards the end, Sam is pinned by the killer in the art gallery. The cops come and rescue him,saying that they were informed by Julia. How? She was lying gagged and tied up.
    7. We learn that Monica is the real killer and in the opening scene, she was trying to kill her husband. But then why was he wearing a rain coat and a hat as if to cover himself ? And why was he wearing gloves ?
    8. The explanation for the killer’s motive is nonsense. The explanation for her husband’s actions is greater nonsense.

    • Hi Santosh – my system decided you might be spam, sorry you had to post twice.

      You raise some good points but caveat lector:

      1. She is too distraught to speak to anyone and hospitalised
      2. Hitman hired by the spouse of the killer (as I recall)
      3. I think in the late 1960s tracing calls was not easy and you can’t do it post facto – that is to say, if you are monitoring a call you can do it ‘live’ by asking the exchange to tell you, but otherwise, in the days before itemised billing, you just couldn’t know. Incidentally, in Rome, at the time, there use to be a 1 year waiting list to get your phone installed – not kidding! So pretty disorganised …
      4. I actually can’t remember now – sorry Santosh! I guess it is the killer’s lair and Sam just traced them there?
      5. I guess Carlo knew something? Can’t remember
      6. Julia was able to say who the killer was so they tracked her movements back to the gallery?
      7. Probably just a fashion victim 🙂
      8. That’s just giallos for you mate!

  6. Patti Abbott says:

    I am sure I would like the music. Not sure about the content.

    • There are some tropes of the genre that you either makes your piece with or you don’t, admittedly – but it does mostly work as a narrative, there is not much gore and only one murder scene that involves a sexual element – and it is handled pretty discretely actually (though the idea is so deliberately provocative that it makes it easier not to get too outraged).

  7. This sounds mighty interesting and I suppose I could keep my eyes closed when the blood letting begins in close-up. Thanks for another intriguing review, Sergio.

  8. Meant to add that Reggie Nalder is one of the creepiest actors in the history of movies and every time I see him on screen I shiver. But I’m sure he was a very nice fellow in real life. 🙂

  9. tracybham says:

    I think I would like to give it a try, but right now it would be a pretty expensive purchase here.

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