Blu Reviewed: Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage – Arrow Video Limited Edition

During the 1970s and '80s Dario Argento built an impressive, iconic legacy for himself as the master of Italian horror. From his pioneering giallo thrillers like Deep Red to his highly stylized and surreal nightmares like Suspiria, he forever changed the face of his country's genre cinema. Perhaps even more importantly, he demonstrated that horror films truly can be works of art, with his best works (Suspiria in particular) transcending their genre and becoming modern classics. This began with his very first film, 1970's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: a hybrid of horror and detective thriller which earned comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock. Now Arrow Video is honoring The Bird with the Crystal Plumage with a special edition box set featuring a spectacular new 4k restoration. Let's take a look at the film itself, and Arrow's latest treatment of it.

The Film:

The most immediately striking thing about The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is how hard it is to believe that it was a debut film. This is a very confidently made, very well-crafted movie: gorgeously shot, filled with wonderfully tense suspense, and boasting a score by the one and only Ennio Morricone. Never would you guess that it was the work of a 29-year-old first-time director. Argento had written screenplays before (including having been one of several co-writers behind Once Upon a Time in the West) and his father was a film producer, so it makes sense that he would have already been familiar with the principles of what makes a great film, but even so, it is remarkable what a strong and confident debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is. The visual style for which he would soon become famous is already fully intact here: beautifully eerie use of tracking and crane shots, excellent 2.35:1 shot compositions which do something interesting with every inch of the frame, and eye-grabbing use of color and darkness. He had clearly studied film very closely, and knew exactly what sort of an aesthetic he wanted to employ.

Then of course there's the matter of the film's central mystery and use of tension, which is likewise very polished indeed. While Argento usually is referred to as a horror director, and rightly so, it is clear that this film's biggest influences are from the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock; a similarity that critics noticed when they began to refer to him as “the Italian Hitchcock” after the success of this debut feature. In a way, before he became a full-fledged horror director in the later 1970s, Argento had a lot in common with early Brian De Palma: both were young directors who sought to follow in the footsteps of Hitchcock for a new generation, while both having uniquely stylized aesthetics of their own. I would argue that Argento was at least as successful as De Palma in this, with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage being every bit as modern-Hitchcockian, and every bit as good, as Dressed to Kill or Blow-Out. It is understandable that Bird with the Crystal Plumage is widely seen as defining the trajectory of the giallo genre throughout the 1970s, shaping it into something rather like post-Hitchcock thrillers with a splash (or several) of grand-guignol horror. For those unfamiliar with the term, “giallo” refers to this very particular strain of Italian horror/thrillers, generally featuring a murder-mystery structure, bloody elements of what would eventually become the slasher film, and very particular visual motifs, like killers wearing black gloves. The genre existed before Argento, with films like Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace, but Argento is widely seen as solidifying the pop-cultural idea of what “giallo” meant with this film.

The plot of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage introduces several themes that would occur repeatedly across Argento's body of work: the unreliability of perception, and the idea of a character who is haunted by having witnessed something that they know is important, but they don't know why. The story follows a down-on-his-luck young author (Tony Musante) who witnesses an attempted murder, and becomes obsessed with the idea that the confused images he saw surely must hold the secret to solving the case – if only he could pinpoint exactly what it was he really did see. He becomes obsessed with solving the mystery and trying to make sense of the events he witnessed, but this obsession puts him squarely in the path of the serial killer whose work he interrupted that night. The concept of perception and its flaws is front and center, as the entire mystery revolves around the author, Sam, knowing that his memories of the attack are unreliable, and knowing that he must sort them out if he is to identify the killer. The straightforward mystery of his investigation is mixed with the unsettling undertone that his obsession with the case is very unhealthy, and perhaps more likely to get him killed than to get the murder solved. This ties in to another sub-theme at work in several early Argento films: the existential crisis and feelings of powerlessness and self-doubt felt by not only our main character, but by plenty of young Italians at the time, and particularly young Italian men like Argento himself, who didn't feel at home in old modes of cultural identity (particularly where outdated but still prevalent norms of masculinity were concerned), and were having trouble forging a new identity of their own. Sam is going through what we today would call a quarterlife crisis: his career is floundering, he is stalled out artistically, and as a result he seems to have rather lost touch with who he is. Solving the murder becomes a very unhealthy statement of purpose; a feeling that if he could crack this code, the other problems he is having trouble solving would seem less elusive. But trying to solve your quarterlife crisis by throwing yourself into the path of a serial killer is not exactly the best way to go about it, and as this willful pursuit of danger leads to revelations in the mystery, the film kicks into somewhat more modern stalker film territory.

Argento's grasp of suspense in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is outstanding: even in his debut film, the tension is first-rate, and a few of the stalker set-pieces are truly nail-biting. The cinematography mentioned earlier adds to this wonderfully, as the gliding camera prowls like the killer himself, with palpable menace. While the killings in the film absolutely fall in the ballpark of slasher-esque horror, most of the set-pieces are firmly in the post-Hitchcock suspense/thriller camp. This may lead to some fans of his later, more purely horror work to find this film not extreme enough for their liking, but I actually prefer it: the focus on the build-up of tension rather than shocks and gore makes it a more effective film, and elevates it far above the level of borderline-exploitation which something like Tenebrae dips into too often for my liking. While they were very different filmmakers, Argento often gets named in the same breath as Lucio Fulci, as they were arguably the two most prominent Italian horror directors of their day; this film, on the other hand, is far more conducive to the De Palma comparison made earlier.

Unfortunately, Argento also shares a couple other common traits with De Palma: being somewhat style-over-substance, and struggling to deliver a climax that is as strong as everything that came before. While The Bird with the Crystal Plumage works very effectively as a thriller, much of that is due to the expert handing of suspense and the outstanding sense of style. The logic of the plot may not be as strong, and the character development doesn't go much beyond what is required to make Sam's journey work pretty well. I'm also not sure that the end works as well as the build-up that lead to it, thanks to a couple abrupt moments and leaps of logic. But as with classic De Palma, the thrills are so good and the style so strong that you honestly don't notice while you are watching; you get swept along and are way too busy being thrilled and scared to notice the narrative flaws.

Still, these flaws merely mean that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a very, very good thriller with a couple issues, rather than a truly great one. It remains expertly made and consistently suspenseful and creepy, and is easily worth a strong recommendation. For a first feature, this is very good – it certainly is not every directorial debut that shows such a confident artistic vision and already-developed sense of style. This film is very deserving of a lavish special edition like this one, not only for its place in the Dario Argento filmography and the giallo genre in general, but for the merits of its own quality.


The Video:

Arrow Video produced a brand-new 4k remaster for this blu-ray release, and it is a truly stunning transfer. The image is crystal-clear and absolutely gorgeous, with strong colors, deep black levels that nonetheless do not hide the details of the image, and a healthy presence of film grain. In this restoration, it is shocking to think that this film was shot all the way back in 1969: the quality of the image makes it look significantly newer than that (if I did not know when the film was from, I would have guessed later-70s), with the only major tell not being any wear to the image, but the fashions worn on-screen. This transfer is a major step up from all previous releases, including both the Blue Underground blu-ray and the older Arrow edition from 2011. If you're a fan of the film, I would certainly say it is worth a double-dip, especially considering how visually strong the film is.


The Audio:

The audio on the disc sounds very good, and is a very clear remaster, but is not tremendously impressive. The film was originally mixed and released only in mono, and that is what we get here: the original mono English and mono Italian. They cleaned up the audio impressively well, and the track sounds very strong. The dialogue is clear, and the Ennio Morricone score sounds great. I think it is fair to say that this is the best the film has ever sounded, in terms of the thoroughness of the remaster. However, the Blue Underground disc did have 7.1 and 5.1 surround – albeit fake surround mixed up from the same original mono – so some will surely be disappointed that that is not an option here. As such, the audio options on the disc are not going to blow anyone away, but they are a solid treatment of the original material.

It is also worth noting that, as with many Italian films of this era, this was shot with some of the actors speaking English (like lead actor Musante) and some speaking Italian, with each of those sets of actors being dubbed over for the other language's release. This means that neither the English nor Italian track is the one “true” track, as someone is going to be dubbed no matter how you watch it. Personally, I watched it in English, if only because that is the language that the star of the film is speaking, both in the story and in terms of Musante's performance (Sam is an American staying in Italy). It all comes down to personal preference though.


The Extras:

As always, Arrow put together an impressive array of extras for this release. They continue to live up to their reputation for being cult cinema's answer to The Criterion Collection. Interestingly, most of the original extras are dedicated to exploring the film's place in cinema history, putting it in cultural context in terms of giallo cinema, Argento's filmography, Italian film history, and the recurring themes that seem to interest the director most. The new extras exploring this include a commentary and two almost-half-hour featurettes by three different film scholars, all offering analysis and background on Argento's movie. From its pivotal place in the evolution of the giallo to the themes of perception and memory to the ways in which the gender politics of Argento's films are more complicated than they initially appear, these are some fascinating, rigorous extras which add up to something of a film-theory class on his work. All three are highly recommended to any fans with even a casual academic interest in film, and will surely increase one's appreciation for the movie. The disc also features a new interview with one of the film's co-stars, as well as an archival interview with the actress who plays the victim in the attack Sam witnesses.

But the new extra that will be of the most interest to most fans is an in-depth, half-hour-long 2017 interview with Argento himself about the making of the film. He has an excellent memory, and conveys some fascinating stories about how the film came to be, and the trials and tribulations he faced along the way. Perhaps most surprising to me was that Argento made the whole film under constant threat of being fired, as his (at the time) highly unusual and revolutionary vision for the film was totally lost on its producers. Argento also gives some fascinating insights into how Ennio Morricone's improv-heavy score was recorded, with Morricone himself playing improvisational trumpet parts throughout. That's just a small sample of the information in store in this interview, which fans will find invaluable.

It must be said that the one disappointment is that almost none of the extras from the previous Blue Underground blu-ray are ported over. This is such a strong package that it stands very well on its own, but it isn't a truly definitive edition with those extras missing. Completists will want to keep both, although this release is easily worth a double-dip for those who have the Blue Underground.


The Packaging:

This limited edition comes in a truly spectacular package, every bit up to the standards for which Arrow has become known. The blu-ray case comes in a heavy outer box, boasting gorgeous new artwork by Candice Tripp, who previously painted the cover to Arrow's stellar Donnie Darko limited edition. With a beautifully eerie style that is completely unique among poster art today, Tripp has become by far my favorite artist at work not just for Arrow, but all the similar cinephile blu-ray labels. Inside the heavy outer box is a reversible poster, featuring Tripp's artwork on one side and the original 1970 one-sheet on the other, a collection of replica 1970 lobby cards for the film, as well as a 60-page book. The book contains an assortment of new and re-published writings about the film, which further add to the special features' scholarly exploration. I can't think of any way in which Arrow's special edition package could possibly be cooler. As per usual, I'm sure they'll eventually release a basic non-limited version consisting of just the blu-ray in the regular plastic case, but snagging the limited edition while you still can is obviously the way to go.


If you're a fan of Dario Argento or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in particular, absolutely buy this release immediately if you haven't. While the extras aren't quite definitive, since they couldn't port over all of the ones from the Blue Underground release, it is an excellent package otherwise. The original extras all great, and quite substantial, and the 4k remaster is spectacular; the film is never going to look any better than this. On top of all that the limited edition package that Arrow has assembled is gorgeous, and will surely make this a sought-after collectible in the years to come. This is absolutely the release that this film deserves – Arrow knocks it out of the park again.

Overall score for the Arrow limited edition:

- Christopher S. Jordan

Sam may not have remembered something important, but he definitely wouldn't forget to share this review. Neither should you.