Director: Dario Argento
Blue Underground

After the less-than-satisfactory VCI disc of Dario Argento’s first giallo masterpiece, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, was released, followers of the Italian maestro’s debut feature have been craving a definitive release of this film. Blue Underground delivers such a package with their 2-disc special edition of a timeless classic that belongs on every single Eurocult fan’s shelf. This is quite possibly the Eurocult release of the year, one-upping every previous video edition of this title in all aspects, and it doubtlessly will be bettered. If anyone hasn’t already pre-booked or bought this already, please do so now.

American writer Sam Dalmas, on assignment for an Italian newspaper in Rome, has just received his paycheck and is readying to leave the city when he witnesses an attempted murder of a beautiful redheaded woman in an art gallery. As the only witness of the stabbing, Police Inspector Morosini orders him to stay in Rome for questioning. But Sam finds himself the target of the killer, the lives of him and his girlfriend Julia put into jeopardy at every turn, so he takes it upon himself to uncover the identity of the killer, who continues to brutally murder beautiful women across the city.

Argento would make better (and much worse) films as his career progressed, but BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is a landmark for him and the Italian horror genre in general. Mario Bava had laid the groundwork with THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, and the popular series of German krimi films based on the novels of Edgar Wallace had helped pave the way for the giallo genre (so named because of Wallace’s novels being printed with yellow covers in Italy). Argento ran with this stylish approach to thrillers, adapted the Fredric Brown novel The Screaming Mimi, and created the blueprint for 70s gialli: mystery killer with black gloves and complex psychological motives; a series of brutal murders, the victims usually beautiful women; an innocent bystander thrown into the mystery and eventually solving the crimes; and a “Scooby-Doo”-like unmasking of the culprit. Argento’s motif of a foreign artistic personality forced to partake in the investigation to save his own life would continue to appear in almost all of his films, including the supernatural classics SUSPIRIA and INFERNO. He also injects a welcome sense of humor, with a police line-up of “perverts” including a drag queen and a dwarf, a stereotypically gay art dealer, a convention filled with yellow jackets, and various off-the-wall supporting characters providing some laughs.

Technical specs are all around top-notch, with the scope photography by Vittorio Storaro making grand use of the entire 2.35:1 frame. Ennio Morricone contributes his first of many scores for Argento, with lilting female vocals present and accounted for. Strangely enough, the most well regarded cue from the soundtrack became famous not for appearing in this film, but for its use in the American trailer for MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY. Blue Underground uses this brief cue on its DVD menus with great effect. In Argento’s films, performances are usually glossed over in favor of the abundant visual flourishes, and BIRD is no exception. Tony Musante is a serviceable hero, who seems appropriately lost in a whirlwind of a mystery, and Suzy Kendall, in one of her most famous roles, excels in the standard screaming heroine part. It’s too bad this underrated actress isn’t given more to do here, but she has justifiably earned a cult following over the years. The late Enrico Maria Salerno makes a good impression as the no-nonsense inspector, and the late Eva Renzi is very good in her brief role as the art gallery victim. In a nice tie-in to Alfred Hitchcock (his British counterpart), the late scar-faced Reggie Nalder (THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) plays a yellow-jacketed assassin. Elderly character actress Maria Tedeschi (CASE OF THE BLOODY IRIS) briefly appears as an old woman warning Sam of the killer trying to whack him.

BIRD was an international success, leading to multiple films cashing in on the craze for Italian thrillers, with similar titles and concepts: CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT, IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE, CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL, BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN, the list goes on. Directors like Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, Aldo Lado, Lucio Fulci, etc. contributed to the giallo craze, but Argento has been and will always be seen as the leader of the pack. Labeled the “Italian Hitchcock” by an excited film press, his follow-up, CAT O’ NINE TAILS, was a major misfire which seemed more influenced by American cop shows than anything else, and the obscure final entry in his “Animal Trilogy”, FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, is generally regarded as the best of the trio. It was 1975’s DEEP RED that showed just how much Argento had matured and learned in the art of the thriller, so compared to this masterpiece, BIRD seems quaint. But it’s an important film for the genre and still stands up today, with several scenes really standing out: the infamous art gallery knifing which opens the film; Suzy Kendall trapped in her apartment being terrorized by the killer; the shocking revelation of the killer’s identity (which would be altered and reused in FOUR FLIES and DEEP RED). Surprisingly, it’s not the setpiece killings of BIRD that stay with the viewer, but the compelling investigation and the hero and heroine’s close calls with the murderer. This would prove to be the exact opposite with most of the giallo follow-ups, with the gory killings being far more stylishly presented and memorable than the tedious and badly written police procedurals.

Just in time for the film’s 35th anniversary this year, Blue Underground pulled out all the stops and created this incredible 2-disc set. The film itself has been remastered from the original camera negative, and according to the box copy, restores long-unseen violence to the running time. Only the elevator murder looked any more graphic to these eyes, but this is definitely the finest the film has looked. A faint sheet of grain appears throughout the film, but it’s not distracting and is completely understandable given the age of the materials. The colors are solid and the image bright and clean, with dark blacks and vivid reds coming across beautifully. Night scenes are clear, and the entire transfer is a vast improvement over the VCI disc. Multiple audio options, including 4 English tracks and 3 Italian tracks. The DTS track is only available in English, but there are dual language options in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, Dolby Surround 2.0 and the original Mono. The DTS track is definitely the best of the English options, whereas the other options are a little quieter during dialogue. Because the film was shot in English, with a few exceptions among the actors, the film is preferably viewed with the English dubs, but it’s nice to have the Italian options available for completists.

The majority of the extras are on the second disc, but the first platter contains two trailers (International and Italian), two American TV spots, and the most important, an audio commentary by British journalists Alan Jones and Kim Newman. This is, simply put, one of the most enjoyable academic commentaries ever recorded. While at first glance it seems strange to have two writers, who had nothing to do with the film, record a feature-length commentary, but as Jones published “Profondo Argento” and Newman has been writing for years for Video Watchdog and others, they definitely know their stuff and reveal tons of information about the film and its participants, and the genesis of the production from conception to theatrical release. More interesting is their discussion of what elements of the film have and haven’t aged well, observations of the cinematography and other technical aspects, and analyzing character motivations and the various motifs and themes Argento uses in this film and throughout his career, as well as Argento’s influences (Bava, Freda) and those influenced by him (DePalma). The idea of listening to two fan friends discussing the film for 96 minutes may not sound fun to some viewers (it didn’t to this writer), but Jones and Newman keep the commentary lively and insightful and this might be the best Eurocult commentary of its type since Tim Lucas’ Bava commentaries. Reuniting them for another commentary would be a good idea. A highly recommended listen!

The only major players missing from the extras are stars Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall, both alive and well. Musante’s absence can be easily explained by the strained relationship he had with Argento during shooting, and the long-retired Kendall isn’t the easiest person to find these days. They aren’t too terribly missed, however, as the interviews with the other major players behind the film offer some nice anecdotes. First up is Dario Argento, a major missing figure on VCI’s disc. For fans wondering why he didn’t do a commentary, please check out Anchor Bay’s TENEBRE and PHENOMENA discs; Argento isn’t a director geared for commentaries, and he is able to express himself better in featurette form. In 18 minutes, Argento divulges information about his film background, approaching his first feature film as a director, the origins of the project and his filmmaking influences, problems with Tony Musante during shooting, working with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and composer Ennio Morricone, his unique choice in writing the killer’s identity, almost being kicked off the film, and his breakthrough success upon the film’s release. One of his more fascinating anecdotes is learning how to photograph women due to his mother’s background as a photographer.

Composer Ennio Morricone is next, and discusses how he met Argento (they were neighbors), approaching the project and his method of scoring a giallo, and his influences and philosophy behind becoming a composer. It’s brief at six minutes, but it’s tough to think of too much more Morricone could say about working on this film. The 11-minute interview with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is much more interesting, as he shares his memories of working with Argento on BIRD. He spends more time talking about Argento’s personality and his fascination with psychology, violence and identification with the murderer than he does how he approached certain shots and set-ups on the film, but does discuss the use of close-ups in so much of 70s cinema.

Judging from her interview here, Eva Renzi is one classy, ballsy broad! She shares her memories of shooting her few scenes, playing a madwoman, working with Dario Argento and Tony Musante, and amusingly admits that BIRD seems to have immediately ruined her career. She provides far more interesting stories about her rise to stardom in FUNERAL IN BERLIN, her husband forcing her to walk off HOUSE OF CARDS which led to her BIRD role, and refusing to work in silly projects like a Bond film (yet somehow she was in BITE ME DARLING?!). The credits roll over her memories of Klaus Kinski! It would be fascinating to see the entire unedited interview in its raw form. Renzi passed away soon after this interview was recorded, making this featurette all the more poignant. RIP Eva Renzi. (Casey Scott)