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Bird with the Crystal Plumage  Print E-mail
DVD Mystery-Suspense
Written by Bill Warren   
Tuesday, 16 November 1999



title:
Bird With the Crystal Plumage


studio:
VCI Home Video
MPAA rating: Unrated Version
starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Raf Valenti, Mario Adorf, Reggie Nalder
release year: 1970
film rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

This was the first movie from Dario Argento as a director, and remains probably his most successful movie on an international scale. Intensely suspenseful, beautifully photographed (by the great Vittorio Storaro), with strong violence and a surprising twist, 'Bird with the Crystal Plumage' established Argento with one stroke, and, outside of Italy at least, introduced the giallo subgenre of suspense.

Giallo, which simply means "yellow," came from the covers of a series of thriller novels on which that color predominated. The term carried over to this string of vivid, stylish suspense/horror movies. Argento himself did several more, such as 'Four Flies on Gray Velvet' and the outstanding 'Deep Red' (numbers turn up in the titles of many of these, as do colors), before heading off in his own distinctive direction.

'Crystal Plumage' is the exemplar of these movies, few of which have deviated very far from the formula it non-deliberately established. (There were 'gialli' before, but this was the biggest hit to that point.) The central character becomes involved in a series of gruesome murders, mostly of beautiful young women. There are lots of suspects, lots of striking wide-screen, color photography. The killer often turns out to be motivated by some traumatic childhood incident, usually associated with sex, sometimes with sex and violence. Most of these films are far gorier than 'Crystal Plumage.' Only very rarely is the killer simply greedy.

Here, Tony Musante plays Sam Dalmas, an American writer just wrapping up an assignment in Italy. He's already bought his return ticket when he witnesses a stabbing in the glass-fronted lobby of a modern building. A black-clad figure flees, leaving behind a beautiful woman, Monica (Eva Renzi), who almost bleeds to death. Something about the incident troubles Sam, but he can't quite remember what it is. Police detective Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) at first briefly suspects Sam, but they become friendly, even when Sam, despite the misgivings of his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall), decides to investigate further himself.

The crime was clearly the work of the same killer who's already claimed three victims, and nails more before the end of the movie. We often see the killer's black-gloved hands choosing just the right knife from an impressive collection.

Although Argento claims that he's been most influenced by the work of Ingmar Bergman (!), it's obvious that he also studied Hitchcock movies before making 'Bird with the Crystal Plumage.' (The title is just a title; we do see a bird, but it merely connects to an important clue. The bird is played by a briefly-seen African Crowned Crane.) Argento adopts Hitchcock's prowling shots, some of the means of developing suspense, and the idea of the hero being wrongly suspected of the murder. He even uses Reggie Nalder as a pistol-carrying assassin, the same kind of character he played in Hitchcock's second 'The Man Who Knew Too Much.'

The story, however, is quite unlike anything Hitchcock did -- except for 'Frenzy,' made after 'Bird with the Crystal Plumage,' so perhaps for once the influences went the other way.

Furthermore, the composition elegant, wide-screen photography -- beautifully preserved on this DVD -- is distinctly unlike Hitchcock's. Visually, Argento has always had a brilliant, distinctive style; even when his films don't hold up dramatically, they're always a pleasure to watch, and were from the opening frames of 'Crystal Plumage.'

Son of a screenwriter, Argento began in that capacity himself, mostly on relatively minor movies, few of which had American release, although he did work on Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West.' He's continued to write his own movies, often with collaborators, while very occasionally writing a film he doesn't direct. He's weakest as a writer, unfortunately, relying on coincidences, shock effects and often-clumsy plotting. But at his best, he's one of the most interesting and stylish directors of horror/mystery movies to emerge in the last half of the 20th century.

Visually, this disc could hardly be bettered; the print is clean and sharp, the colors the muted tones Argento and Storaro wanted. Unfortunately, however, VCI wasn't able to find the original track; the movie is dubbed throughout, where subtitling would probably have been preferable. On the other hand, the two leads, Musante and Kendall, both seem to have spoken English on the set, so perhaps this dubbed version is the wisest compromise.

Musante has a very strong screen presence, but he never really capitalized on it. For a few years in the late 60s and early 70s, he teetered on the brink of stardom, and was actually the lead in 'Toma,' a popular TV series. But he walked away from the show, which was quickly converted into 'Baretta,' and which has rarely been revived. He apparently was far more content playing character roles than leads, and still turns up in that capacity today, giving fine, understated performances.

Many Argento aficionados tend to underrate 'Bird with the Crystal Plumage,' almost as if its financial success indicated too much acceptance on the part of those who merely go to movies, and don't venerate directors. But even if the ending is, after decades of imitators, reasonably predictable by today's viewers, even if the plot moves in fits and starts, 'Bird with the Crystal Plumage' is a beautiful, suspenseful thriller, and marks the beginning of Argento's overall impressive career.


more details
sound format:
Dolby surround
aspect ratio(s):
anamorphic widescreen (16X9 enhanced)
special features: Only extra is the trailer, though the score is available as an isolated track
comments: email us here...
   
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR








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