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Blu-Ray Review - THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage review
Having witnessed an attempted murder, a writer attempts to discover the would-be killer's identity.







Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Dario Argento

Starring: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno, Eva Renzi, Umberto Raho, Raf Valenti, Mario Adorf
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage arrow video
Dario Argento belongs to that small rarefied group of directors that come straight out of the block fully formed. All the tics and stylistic flourishes are front and present in this, his debut film. If anything, it is more coherent than his later work, marrying the set pieces and sexualised murder scenes to a more coherent and muscular narrative than is the norm for the giallo master.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

Like many of the director's works, this focusses on an American writer living in Rome. Sam (Tony Musante) is suffering from writers’ block, prone to wandering the streets at night - and with a taste for booze that implies he may be an incipient alcoholic, he stumbles upon the attempted murder of Monica (Eva Renzi) in a gallery owned by her husband Alberto (Umberto Raho).

Exploring the theme of male impotence, Sam is literally helpless - stuck between two panes of glass, he can only cry out for assistance from a local vagrant. Monica survives the assault, but something about the staging of the scene plagues Sam’s mind, leading him to investigate a string of unsolved murders with just his put-upon girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) and his trusty stuttering pimp sidekick (Gildo di Marco) to help him.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage feels like a greatest hits package of Argento's later work, only with a more playful touch. Slightly less violent, though still not without sexual overtones, this sometimes plays like a highly-stylised version of Columbo. The key staging of the attempted murder and an attack on Sam's home while Julia is alone are the first flexings of his virtuoso style, but in the main it follows a pretty tight procedural structure, one which never cheats the audience. What it lacks in gonzo visceral storytelling, a la Inferno, it makes up for in narrative coherence.

Musante makes a credible lead, tough enough to withstand the attacks thrown at him but vulnerable and weak enough to make him a conflicted protagonist, a man who has failed in his chance to be the hero. By tracking down the murderer he can get his authorial mojo back and rekindle his interest in Suzy. Argento may throw in another of his 1970s Dick Emery homosexuals into the story, but at least here it serves as a way of questioning the masculinity of Sam. This is crime solving as male narcissism, and when the killer is finally revealed it throws into the light just how confused the need to save his own priapic power has become.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

See it for highly stylised, choreographed violence, '70s polyester style in full flow and a nicely tense Ennio Morricone score. It's less baroque than the director's later chillers yet still offers plenty to disturb, but with a nicely off kilter comic touch. The depth may not be quite there yet; this is a film purely designed as a tense thrill ride, playing with perspective and making you uneasy as an audience member. It’s what cinema was made for.
Extras:

As well as being a distinct improvement in picture quality from Arrow's previous release, it has also been saved from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s bizarre choice to have his films released in a 2:1 ratio, which ruined the compositional excellence that is a hallmark of Argento’s work. The main draw in the extras department is a new interview with Argento discussing his debut work, which runs the gamut of arguing with producers and backers and arguing with his lead actor; there is plenty of insight into the production process in Italy and Argento proves to be an engaging interviewee with a good memory. The commentary by Troy Howarth is detailed on the making of the film but repeats a lot of the anecdotes in the director interview.

Of interest are two essays by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who looks at patterns and motifs across the director's work, and Kat Ellinger, who looks at both gender fluidity within the work and counters accusations of misogyny in the work of Argento. It is a valuable defence but Argento still has a predilection for camp-as-Christmas gay characters and a queasy sexual predilection to his violence, which is both compelling and disturbing. The psychosexual aspects of his work could be debated in a book length format and still prove inconclusive.

Also included are a new interview with actor Gildo Di Marco and an archival one with Eva Renzi, a couple of trailers and a limited-edition booklet. In this special collector’s edition, you also get six lobby cards and a fold-out double-sided poster. Arrow seem to be going through their early Argento catalogue and radically improving things in both presentation and extras, and this is an indispensable presentation of an important first feature.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is available now from Arrow Video on Limited Edition Dual Format Blu-ray & DVD now.

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