Debut feature films from directors of note are often incredibly interesting and Dario Argento’s debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, is no exception. What is perhaps most surprising on re-watching and re-considering Argento’s debut is just how incredibly accomplished a first film it is and that even in the wake of a very large number of films influenced by it, how fresh and original it still feels.
Opening with an incredibly memorable scene in which the lead Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) witnesses a struggle for a knife between Monica (Eva Renzi) and a mysterious black gloved man. Sam sees the struggle begin through a window but when he tries to intervene he becomes trapped between two glass doors, forced to witness the stabbing of Monica but unable to stop it. The deliciously wicked construction of this scene helps to suck you in straight away and the subsequent investigation, with Sam in the role of amateur sleuth, moves along at a reasonably brisk pace with red herrings and clues thrown in to keep you interested.
Whilst it may not have the visual leaps of something like Deep Red, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is still also a striking film to look at, with interesting and appropriate compositional choices and lighting. The score by Morricone also adds greatly, one of my personal favourites, and the music in the scene in which Sam evades a yellow-jacketed killer is particularly special (the track, Corsa sui tetti, is embedded below).
An assured and impressive debut film from Argento that is more than deserving of high class treatment on Blu-ray. So, to the disc…
Arrow Video have been satisfyingly delivering with recent Argento releases on Blu-ray, see here and here, and this new release has been sitting tantalisingly on their release schedule for some time. There is a significant problem with this release though and that is the transfer.
The first problem is the choice to present the film in an aspect ratio chosen by the film’s Director of Photography, Vittorio Storaro. Consulting the film’s DoP would generally seem like a wise and thoughtful decision but Storaro’s choice of 2:1 Univisium (an aspect ratio that he and his son created) is noticeably inferior to anyone who has seen the film projected in 2.35:1. The compositions work more effectively in 2.35:1 and the film looks to be conceived with this ratio in mind not 2:1, despite Storaro’s comments about composing his films in 2:1 (or 1:2 as he generally refers to it). There has also been significantly more cropped from the left hand side rather than both sides leading to some pretty ridiculous moments in which the cropping is glaringly obvious.
Storaro is a masterful cinematographer and his work on this film and many others, such as Apocalypse Now, The Conformist and One From the Heart, is beautiful and very often simply breathtaking but I’ve yet to see one of his films that benefits from the 2:1 framing. Arrow are actually releasing Bertolucci’s The Conformist later this year under their Arrow Academy off-shoot, its debut on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, and it is probably a foregone conclusion that it will be saddled with Storarovision too (Optimum’s Apocalypse Now Blu-ray is apparently safe though). One can hope though that perhaps the common unpopularity of the 2:1 choice may lead distributors to include both the 2.35:1 and 2:1 on future releases, especially on Blu-ray releases, which have a greater capacity for this.
Framing aside this transfer is still severely lacking. The most glaring issue is the impact of noise reduction on the definition of the image with edges incredibly softened and colours merging, like the effect of water on a paint palette. The blacks also seem less than satisfyingly black and the image in general appears overly murky and dark in places. Colours are also a touch on the cold side, particularly evident in the skin tones. Grain is significantly lost at times but occasionally returns with relatively striking intensity. Consistency of grain or lack of would be preferable as these fluctuations, something apparent in other Arrow releases it should perhaps be noted, are unnecessarily distracting. Judging from screen-shots and the word of trusted sources (as it is now sadly OOP) The Blue Underground Blu-ray released a couple of years ago appears to have been a far more defined and consistent (and 2.35:1 framed) transfer.
DTS versions of both the Italian and English audio tracks are supplied and they are of a reasonable quality with very few noticeable imperfections. The disc also comes with a port of the excellent Alan Jones and Kim Newman commentary. Jones and Newman are names most likely very familiar with horror fans in the UK and listening to the pair share thoughts on the film and also anecdotes about Argento is an absolute pleasure.
New to the disc are a collection of talking heads which are in the same vein as previous Arrow releases of Argento’s films, entertaining and informative but low in visual quality. Most interesting is probably the Luigi Cozzi interview but hearing Argento himself talk about the film certainly holds some interest too. At almost thirty minutes the interview with Sergio Martino is the lengthiest of the extras and will almost certainly be of interest to fans of Giallo cinema but considering the minimal time spent on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage it seems a little odd that this appears here rather than on the disc of one of Martino’s own films. It is still an interesting addition though.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is available to buy or rent now and the official list of the what is included in the release can be found below.
– 4 Sleeve art options with original and newly commissioned artwork
– Two-sided fold-out poster
– Exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by Alan Jones, author of ‘Profondo Argento’
– Brand new High Definition restoration of the film from the original negative presented in Director of Photography, Vittorio Storaro’s 2:1 Univisium aspect ratio (1080p)
– Audio Commentary with Argento experts, journalists and writers Kim Newman and Alan Jones
– A Crystal Classic: Luigi Cozzi Remembers Dario’s Bloody Bird (1080p)
– Sergio Martino: The Genesis of the Giallo (1080p)
– The Italian Hitchcock: Dario Argento Remembers The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1080p)