Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The
Okay, so it ain’t Suspiria, but more Argento on Blu-ray is always a good thing. Blue Underground unveils yet another of their recession friendly Blu-ray ports with Argento’s first crack at the black leather gloves, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Recession friendly in that they don’t actually have to waste R&D on a new property, instead utilizing the HD mastering they’ve already done years before in hopes they can weather the collapsing home video market storm. Thus far their Blu-ray upgrades have been inconsistent, going from near reference quality with The Final Countdown to the noise-heavy The Stendhal Syndrome. If ever there was a release of theirs I was hoping they’d do right, it’s Suspiria. But again, if that’s not coming, then Plumage would be next on the list. Let’s feather through this newest reissue and see if it’s worth cawing about.
The film starts with a bang as it follows American journalist Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) as he walks the quiet streets of Rome at night. All is serene until he witnesses what appears to be an attempted murder. A man clad in black with leather gloves is seen struggling at knifepoint with a screaming Monica (Eva Renzi) at the art gallery down the street. He runs closer, but gets trapped in between the gallery windows. Unable to escape, he is forced to watch the attempted murder unfold before him. Julia squirms, and the man in back gets a stab in, but quickly runs away upon noticing Sam. A murder diverted, and everything is fine, but just who was that man in black…and will he strike again?
After questioning, Sam returns home to his lady, the lovely Julia (Suzy Kendall). The two prepare to fly back to America, but are disgruntled to learn their flight plans have been cancelled. When Sam is almost murdered on his way back to the hotel, it becomes clear that the attempted murder of the start is nowhere near solved. Somebody is following him, and Sam continues to run the sequence of events from the gallery scene in his mind, trying to find further clues. He discovers that two other women were attacked in the same fashion in other parts of Rome, and thus he begins a detective trek around the ancient city.
His questionings lead him to a sacred painting, one where a woman is being attacked amidst a beautiful snowy backdrop. Apparently the killer purchased this before his previous murder, so it is up to Sam to track it down and solve the crime. As he continues to look further into the case and into his mind, the facts begin to sort themselves out and become clearer. The closer he gets to the truth though, the more endangered his life becomes, until an intense finale all brought upon by the mysterious bird of the title.
Although The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is always cited as a direct descendent of Bava’s Blood & Black Lace, the truth of it is that Plumage is much more indebted to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up. Where Bava’s films tended to look at crimes spurred on by monetary motives or romantic neglect, Antonioni’s fixation was on the creation of meaning. Blow-up follows around a trendy British photographer as he slips detached through the swingin sixties. His life and sanity are tested when he thinks he has photographed a murder. He zooms in on his photos to the point of abstraction, constantly replaying the picture taking in his mind. Tony Musante’s character in Plumage is similarly a photojournalist with the same stoic and detached demeanor, too cool to ever register any feelings. In Antonioni’s film, the cool was used to highlight the ennui of modern urbanized culture, but in Argento it is just another tool on his stylistic arsenal.
The real similarities between Blow-up and Plumage come from questioning the subjectivity of truth. Like the photos to the photographer in Blow-up, Musante must continually replay his memories from the opening art gallery to try and decipher the mystery. Viewing the abstract blow-ups in the Antonioni film did nothing but make the murder case less clear, and similarly Argento uses the recurrently replayed gallery footage to further mislead the audience. One can watch a scene a million times, but if vital information is withheld or missing, the true mystery can never be solved. At that point, the eyes become devices of trickery, implanting in the mind subjective inferences that were never meant to be. Where Antonioni used seeing and photographic abstraction as a way to highlight mankind’s vague detachment from society, Argento uses seeing as a way to engage the viewer in understanding their own role in the experience of art.
Seeing, and particularly the vulnerability of the eye, is something that would pop up in Argento’s later works, particularly the eye pecking scenes in Opera or Daria Nicolodi’s peephole passing in said film. In Plumage he sets the course though, in not only highlighting how Sam’s perspective during the gallery scene makes him unable to see all the sides of the truth, but also in the way that the killer carves a hole in the door to spy through in his attack on Julia at the end of the film. There is the notion that Julia is being watched by the killer, just like we, the audience, are voyeuristically partaking in the same viewing experience…watching her as she suffers. She tries to stab his eye, and we feel violated. All we are doing is watching, but in having Julia lash back at her stalker’s eye, Argento indoctrinates us for enjoying and participating in the viewing of death and suffering. We can call him a misogynist all we want, but Argento is making us equally as guilty, because we too are participating in the viewing of this viewing of violence.
What the eyes also interestingly do in the film is force us to consider what we deem as art. A painting was meant to be seen, just like a film was meant to be watched, and Argento makes sure to factor art pieces prominently into Plumage. Whether it be the killer’s snowy art painting, or the spiked museum set piece of the finale, art factors into his film in several different ways. The painting of the murder amidst the tranquil snow sheath is beautiful despite its subject matter. Argento uses the painting to inform the audience that although the death and violence in his films may be undesirable, that doesn’t mean they cannot be considered art within the larger framework of his imagery. The way the blood-spurting discombobulating in Tenebre unfolds only reinforces Argento’s fixation with the beauty inherent in death. As one of the victim’s blood spurts all over a white wall, it creates a dabbing of red that mimics the finest contributions to abstract expressionism. Argento’s films may be about fearful subject matter, but that doesn’t mean they can’t resonate with the same beauty of a painting.
Yet, if we appreciate the beauty of Argento’s macabre work, then we are little different than the killer who enjoys the snowy death drawing. We engage in the art form with the same sinister desire as the killer, and in that way it makes art dangerous. The potential harm of art is another major theme of Argento’s work, particularly demonstrated in Tenebre when the killer works in copycat by using his favorite artist’s sadistic books as a template. In Plumage, art itself literally becomes a victimizer when a huge spiked sculpture falls atop Sam and threatens to dig itself into his penetrable skin. Art can be beautiful in the seeing, but used in the wrong manner it can be deadly. Although we always watch film at a distance, it can still penetrate us much in the same way as the spiked sculpture in the film. You see copycat killings on the news linked to horror films, and it is with this in mind that Argento reminds audiences that even though they are just watching art, it can become deadly when misconstrued or misused.
In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento injects a surprisingly complex and mature verbage of film language, constantly making film a medium that works to involve the audience. Even without all the dense symbolism, the film works on a visceral level as an amazingly stylish and kinetic experience. Argento’s camera is always roaming, and he constantly plays with the first person to further involve the audience into the story by literally seating them in the position of the characters. Everything unfolds with a wild visual polish, and even though this is his first film, it suggests many of his famous shots and visual devices he would employ in later works. It is clear with Plumage that Argento was a director who always had a distinct voice. Many directors take several years and tries to truly find their own, but Argento has been cultivating the same sort of themes and styles ever since his inception as a director.
In its clever piecemeal of parts Blow-up and Blood & Black Lace, Argento was no doubt responsible for creating the giallo much in the same way Carpenter’s fusing of Black Christmas and Suspiria lead to Halloween and the inception of the slasher genre. Yet, to simply dub The Bird with the Crystal Plumage as a giallo is to do it a disservice. Argento has made much more than a giallo with this picture, it is an intensely personal and provoking work, and one that is as equally audacious and exciting now as it was when it was first released. Although Argento would become more remembered for his bigger, more visually verbose films like Suspiria and Tenebre, it’s tough not to admire the concise precision Plumage. No shot seems superfluous, everything pitch perfect with what Argento wanted to achieve. It is a tight dissertation on all things Argento, and without a doubt one of the finest film debuts in all of cinema.
In my original review of the 2.35:1 anamorphic DVD I noted how seeing the film remastered here was like seeing it for the first time. Such is true with many Argento films when they made the leap to DVD, and I was hoping for the same feeling anew here on Blu-ray. It seems, though, that the DVD looked great at the lower resolution afforded by NTSC, but expanded here to 1080p, the flaws of the negative become more evident. The grain definitely dances around, although it isn’t nearly as bad as it is in The Stendhal Syndrome. Still, the flutter of film grain no doubt hinders that true three dimensional quality characteristic of the HD format. Another disappointment was in the relative softness of the picture – again, something that SD can mask, but in HD it shows its true colors. Speaking of color, though, this new Blu-ray disc is definitely stuffed full with lush colors. While the film isn’t the hued feverdream that later Argento films would be, Vittorio Storaro’s calculated use of color in every frame, from wallpaper to orange vapor street lights, really pops with this new BD. The plumage ain’t entirely crystal, but it’s all a good enough of an upgrade to make this new Blu worthwhile.
Like the other Blue Underground HD upgrades, the sound space here is again expanded out into a full 7.1 array. The 7.1 tracks, DTS-HD and Dolby True HD, are both English only, but that was the case with the previous DVD and its 6.1 DTS-ES track. Like the previous release, too, the English and Italian 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX tracks are also included. Unlike the previous disc, which had both Dolby Surround 2.0 and a mono track, this one is without the original theatrical tracks. Considering there are no less than four digital surround tracks included here, one could have easily been axed to include a purist track. Enough about the formats, though, how does it sound?
Whatever track you pick, in whatever language, they all sound fantastic. Again, like the DVD, the choice cut is the 7.1 DTS track, which still registers amazing fidelity and a truly engulfing surround experience. Equally as active a remix as Anchor Bay’s The Beyond disc, with several discrete sounds registering in the rears, like doors pounding and ambulance ringing, it also features a more organic sound than Fulci’s celebrated remix. Never sounding gimmicky, the added soundstage from the film fits with the theatrics perfectly, and the condition of the audio elements is particularly fine after all these years. It has been a long time since a great remixed audio track – the novelty of these seems to have worn off to most studios, but yet Blue Underground proves once again that remixed audio can be a beautiful thing when done right. Is it necessarily better than the already stellar DVD – I don’t really know, there is probably some high frequencies that I can’t hear that now come through pitch perfect. The bottom line is, though, that the DVD sounded next to perfect, and so too does this.
The previous DVD release was spread over two discs, but like Blue Underground’s other two disc titles hitting Blu-ray, all the extras have been easily ported onto a single dual layer BD. The menu design is pretty nice, having to navigate within the bird of the cover as blood is being strewn on screen. Other than that, though, the extras are identical to the previous release – and that’s all a good thing.
First up, the audio commentary with English journalists and Argento fanatics Alan Jones and Kim Newman deserves company as one of the finer tracks recorded in some time. Jones has been following Argento’s work for some time, and has the benefit of both perceptive critical insight, but also insider viewpoints from his many meetings and conversations with the Italian Hitchcock. The two journalists know their horror, and link Plumage with everything from Antonioni to Kenneth Branagh. They speak fondly and articulately about the film’s production, its release, its legacy and its influences and influencees. It is a heartfelt commentary by two men who consider this one of their favorite films, and their critical insight makes it nearly impossible to stop. Considering Argento’s language barrier, there is nobody else more fit in commenting on the film than these two. Rounding out the small extras are a couple overlapping trailers and some brief television spots.
The main extras are a collection of interviews from some of the most respected and influential filmmakers in the business. First is an 18-minute interview with Dario Argento entitled “Out of the Shadows”. In it, he explains the history of the film, and how it was his most planned and immaculately staged picture. He also details the extensive battle it was to get the film made, not only in dealing with the producers, but getting top talent like Vittorio Storaro and Ennio Morricone to side with him during filming. He speaks fondly of the film, and offers further insight into some of the more complicated shots and sequences in the film.
Next up is “Painting With Darkness”, a 10-minute interview with acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Storaro starts speaking briefly about the picture and his and Dario’s intent, outlining how they frequently had conflicting viewpoints. Despite the quality of Plumage’s visual style, you get a sense that the reason the two never worked together again was that they had different ideas of what cinematography should be. Storaro spends the remainder of his time explaining the differing roles that a director and a cinematographer must take in conceiving of the visual style for a film. It would have been nice if he toned down the lecturing and focused more on Plumage, but its still wise words from one of the masters.
Musical master Ennio Morricone sounds in on the score with the 8-minute “The Music of Murder”. His forte is music, not words, and he even explains how a great score can move beyond identifiable description. This is a good thing, since Morricone isn’t all that good at articulating his own feelings. He confirms Argento’s story on how they met, and makes references to the collaborations with Argento that would follow Plumage. The best part of this interview comes not from Morricone, but from the editors in inserting a beautiful montage of one sheets from the hundreds of films Morricone has worked for over the years. It is a great tribute to a great career. He’ll get his honorary Oscar anytime now.
Last up is an 11-minute interview with actress Eva Renzi, and although you wouldn’t suspect much, she is easily the most interesting interview of the lot. She is candid and honest with her recollections and opinions in “Eva’s Talking”, and isn’t afraid to say that she felt the film ruined all possibilities for her being accepted as a serious actress. Not to say that she doesn’t enjoy the film, which she does, just the part she played made it tough to find future work. She explains the film industry with spite and with a hard regret, and isn’t afraid to sling mud at everyone from star Tony Musante to Klaus Kinski of all people. She’s a great speaker, and it’s a shame this is her last recorded interview. She died in the August prior to the DVD's release date.
There is some great material here, a fine finish to an already great film and presentation.
It’s tough to hit it out of the park your first time up to bat, but Dario Argento did just that with his amazingly kinetic page-turner, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. With incredibly detailed compositions from Vittorio Storaro and a lullaby gone awry soundtrack from Ennio Morricone, the entire movie is one wild audiovisual assault on the senses. The Blu-ray, like the DVD before it, definitely does the film justice with bustling colors and a now 7.1 speaker sound space. The added resolution reveals a bit more grain and some focus issues inherent in the original negative, but it’s still overall a worthy upgrade. The extras are identical, but with one of the best historical commentaries out there, and four candid interviews, it’s all crystal. This is one of the quintessential horror films, and the Blu-ray is the best version possible, so shake your tail feather out to your nearest movie shop and give Blue Underground the business they so desperately need!
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
BU really keeps dropping the ball in the BR format. This really totally irks me allot!
I wouldn't go as far to say BU is 'dropping the ball'. Think about what they have to work with.
I wouldnt rate the PQ compared to other Blu-Rays either, it should be rated on the source available.
I have to say I am a bit ashamed to have never seen this although I have seen several of Argento's films and love Suspiria. I have this blu-ray next in line in my netflix queue now<:
I really dig the strange and eerie music in this movie.
I just got done watching this and was pleasantly surprised- although a bit dated obviously being a foreign flick from 1970 this was quite good- in fact I liked it more than Deep Red - but not as much as Suspiria. I still have to give Deep Red a 2nd viewing- it was the 2nd Argento film I watched (Suspiria being the first) and for some reason I wasnt that wild about it but I wonder if I watched it again now if Id like it a bit more
BU is really doing the right thing with their BDs. The only downside and this is a big one is that they are dropping the original mono or stereo mixes. But so far every title they've released has excellent picture quality. No DNR
What are the English subtitles on the Blu-ray like? Do they follow the English audio? The 2 disc DVD translates the Italian audio. For example, the "so long" character is "bye" instead and there are lots of other differences for those expecting the English subtitles to match the English audio.
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