Director: Dario Argento
Arrow Video USA

Dario Argento, the Italian Hitchcock, hits one out of the park with his directorial debut THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE on Limited Edition Blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Video USA.

On the eve of his return to the United States after an extended stay in Italy in search of inspiration – during which he has only just been able to afford the ticket home by penning a technical tome on rare birds – burnt-out novelist Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante, COLLECTOR'S ITEM) is strolling home and notices gallery owner Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi, FUNERAL IN BERLIN) being attacked by a black-coated assailant through the picture glass window of a modern art gallery. Rushing to her aide, he finds himself trapped between the two layers of security glass as Monica lies bleeding on the floor. A passerby summons the police, and Sam finds himself first suspected of the crime and then has his passport withheld by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno, NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS) as the only eye-witness to the attempted fourth in a string of vicious murders of young women. Nagged by the impression that he has seen something else during the attack that he does remember or understand – a common theme in Argento's subsequent gialli – Sam mounts his own investigation to the consternation of his British model girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, TORSO) and the help of his well-connected friend Carlo (Raf Valenti, THE GIRL IN ROOM 2A). Unable to talk to Monica due to the protectiveness (and suspicious behavior) of her husband (Umberto Raho, THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE), Sam starts looking into the victims and crosses paths with pimps and other shifty figures. Sam discovers during a visit to the shop where the first victim that the only item the girl had sold that day was a painting depicting a rape and knife attack by a black-clad assailant on a young woman. Convinced that the painting has something to do with the crimes, he attempts to discover the identity of the painting's artist and the story what inspired the work. Sam may be getting to close as the killer – in between subsequent murders – terrorizes Sam and Julia and makes attempts on their lives. The police are unable to identify the disguised voice making threatening phone calls from the victims, but the source of an unusual sound in the background could lead them to the killer.

The directorial debut of Paese Sera film critic and screenwriter Dario Argento not only cemented his reputation as "the Italian Hitchcock" – thanks in part to Hitchcock allegedly saying "this young Italian fellow is starting to worry me" after a screening of the film (a quote prominently mentioned in the film's Italian trailer) – THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE also revolutionized the approach to the giallo on film. A label applied to pulp mysteries published after the war, first by Mondadori as Italian translations of works as diverse as Agatha Christie's genteel mysteries and Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled thrillers sporting misleadingly trashy covers, and then taken up by young Italian writers like Ernesto Gastaldi (THE WHIP AND THE BODY) for pulp magazines and bookracks, the literary giallo inspired a few cinematic treatments in the early 1960s but it was Mario Bava who created the first notable work with the monochrome thriller THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and then the truly remarkable BLOOD AND BLACK LACE in which he attempted to recreate some of the tableaux from those pulp covers in lush Technicolor. The subsequent gialli of the late 1960s were primarily jet set thrillers – some directed by Umberto Lenzi (ORGASMO) and/or produced by Luciano Martino and his brother Sergio who would direct his own works in the genre following the success of the Argento film with works like THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL.

Although not the first giallo to combine elements like the black-gloved killer, stalking sequences, police procedural, the protagonist who misinterprets something they saw, threatening phone calls, quirky suspects, and a motive routed in past trauma, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE was the international success that lead to a string of imitations with long-winded, animal-related titles including Argento's two subsequent entries – THE CAT O'NINE TAILS and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET alongside the historical drama THE FIVE DAYS OF MILAN and the Argento-hosted telefilm series DOOR INTO DARKNESS – before once again revolutionizing the genre with DEEP RED. Sold in Italy as being written and directed by Argento and in Germany as an adaptation of a Bryan Edgar Wallace novel – along with Riccardo Freda's DOUBLE FACE, Lenzi's THE SEVEN BLOODSTAINED ORCHIDS, Massimo Dalamano's WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?, and Armando Crispino's THE ETRUSCAN KILLS AGAIN – the film is actually a loose adaptation of Frederic Brown's novel "The Screaming Mimi" (previously adapted in 1958 by Gerd Oswald for Columbia Pictures). The plotting is tighter than the director's subsequent works – aside from 1982's TENEBRAE in which he fused BIRD's quirky plotting with DEEP RED's stylistics – and the film emphasizes a quirky sense of humor, as if acknowledging that the most of the suspects are very blatantly the red herrings, from the cat-eating artist played by Mario Adorf (WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?), the stuttering pimp layed by Gildo Di Marco (later FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET's postman), to the fey antiques dealer essayed by THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR. MABUSE's Werner Peters ("It is said that she preferred women. I couldn’t care less. I’m not racist!"), and let's not forget Ursula Andress… Reggie Nalder (SALEM'S LOT) also makes a memorable appearance. A master of the murder setpiece, Argento's subsequent works amped up the graphic violence of the actual deaths in addition to refining the stylistics of the stalking; but here, the emphasis is on the dread with the actual onscreen violence limited to flashes of the knife or razor in the light with a few splashes of blood (still shocking stuff for the time). Although the titular bird figures into the climax, it is so incidental that it barely rates any screentime.

Released theatrically in the United States by Universal Marion Corporation, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE was released to panned-and-scanned VHS by VCI and then by United Home Video in an eye-catching clamshell and standard slipcover. While a letterboxed transfer was released in Japan in the mid-1980s through RCA/Columbia, VCI put out their own widescreen laserdisc in 1989 that claimed to be in Italian with English subtitles but was actually English-dubbed. The Roan Group followed in the late 1990s with a better-framed and more colorful laserdisc that also restored bits of violence that were trimmed from the US theatrical release. When VCI put out their anamorphic DVD in 1998, the initial pressing restored a shot cut from the panty-ripping murder to the US theatrical source in the wrong place. VCI subsequently sublicensed the film to Blue Underground who created a new HD master from the Italian negative for their 2005 two-disc DVD set which they supped-up with 7.1 remixes and a new commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman among others. Towards the end of Blue Underground's licensing period in 2009, they put their master out on Blu-ray, and that soon out-of-print and fetching high prices online. By this point, Storaro had mounted his own restoration, but it was a revisionary one cropped to his Univisium 2.00:1 aspect ratio with sometimes wildly different color timing. This was the master that was made available to Arrow for their original UK region free Blu-ray as well as Wild Side's French Blu-ray (released as part of a series of Argento restorations that included PHENOMENA, INFERNO, and CAT O'NINE TAILS). Fans had a serviceable solution when VCI put out their own Blu-ray using the Blue Underground master which was barebones and utilized MPEG-2 encoding but did restore the original English and Italian mono tracks (both which were left off the BU edition in favor of the remixes).

While Storaro's Cromoscope (the name given to 2-perf Techniscope productions not processed by Technicolor) compositions have always impressed in their correct dimensions, Arrow Video's dual-territory Blu-ray/DVD combo is derived from their own 4K scan of the negative that is free of the scanner noise evident on the earlier 1080p scan, and is like watching the film anew after the opening credits – in English or Italian via seamless branching depending on the language option in the setup menu – which look softer with more orange skintones and noisier reds (although the English and Italian texts of the typewritten note are finally readable here). Although Storaro was not as adventurous with color in his first color work here as he would be in THE CONFORMIST, his lighting schemes are easier to assess, background text from newspaper headlines to posters are easier to read, and the textures of the more rundown sections of Rome are more apparent, although the glass cases of the bird foundation do now catch the camera crew's reflection. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono English and Italian tracks boast clear dialogue and an increased presence for Morricone's jangly score. Optional English subtitles are included for both tracks.

Although the previous Arrow Blu-ray carried over the Blue Underground Jones/Newman commentary track, their new Blu-ray includes a commentary track by film historian Troy Howarth who recently authored a three-volume overview of the giallo genre titled SO DEADLY, SO PERVERSE and has provided commentaries for Arrow's THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE and CALTIKI, THE IMMORTAL MONSTER. There may not be a lot new here for the Argento fans, but he discusses Argento's early screenwriting (as well as a single acting appearance in an Alberto Sordi film) while noting that Argento's contribution to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST has commonly been overstated – and that it was co-scenarist Bernardo Bertolucci who suggested he read the Frederic Brown novel. He discusses Argento's rocky relationship with producer Goffredo Lombardo of Titanus (who wanted either Duccio Tessari or Terence Young to direct) – and how Argento's producer father Salvatore mediated and kept him from being fired on more than one occasion – as well as his working relationship with Musante (who he met on Giuseppe Patroni Griffi's LOVE CIRCLE). He does make some interesting observations about the story, including a more competent and charismatic than usual detective character in Salerno (who would subsequently direct Musante in THE ANONYMOUS VENETIAN) as well as the unusual emphasis on forensics in the police procedural aspect (a quality shared with THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY among a few rare examples). Among the lesser-known factoids is the claim made by Aldo Lado (SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS) in 2004 that he worked on the script as well.

"Black Gloves and Screaming Mimis" (31:54) is an analysis by critic Kat Ellinger of Diabolique Magazine and the Daughters of Darkness podcast who previously appeared on a commentary track for Arrow Academy's Blu-ray/DVD combo of Walerian Borowczyk's THE STORY OF SIN as well as Shameless's Region B Blu-ray of Sergio Martino's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Ellinger looks at the differences between the Brown novel, the earlier Ekberg adaptation, and Argento's film, noting that Argento emphasizes voyeurism and sexual sadism over the novel's sexual motivation of the novel's protagonist. She also challenges the popular charge against Argento of misogyny with the sexual and gender politics of his oeuvre from BIRD through TENEBRAE. "The Power of Perception" (20:57) is a visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas similarly challenges perceptions of the male gaze and female object as defined by Laura Mulvey – citing Carol J. Clover who explored the more complicated gaze of horror films in "Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film" – tracing representations of perception throughout Argento's oeuvre from BIRD through THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (noting that the representations of violence in art in that film harken all the way back to BIRD's painting representing the killer's trauma).

"Crystal Nightmare" (31:24), a new interview with Argento, covers a lot of the same material early on as the commentary about the origins of the project, although Argento does note that Bertolucci had actually failed in adapting the source novel himself before passing it on to him, and that Euro International was initially interested in the script before pulling out (after the film's success, they backed Maurizio Lucidi's Hitchcockian giallo THE DESIGNATED VICTIM). He did not intend to direct the film but became increasingly moved by the story as he scripted and would refuse to step down when Lombardo wanted to replace him with Ferdinando Baldi (GET MEAN). He reveals that he did storyboards and a shot list, a practice that was not common in Italian studio filmmaking at the time, and admits that he knew what he wanted but not always how to execute it. He notes that Storaro helped him but did not try to impose his own vision on him, and that he made the mistake of initially trying to show Morricone what he wanted from the score with other recordings. More generalized topics include his interest in Freud and psychoanalysis, noting that the cinema is like dreams and that memory can be deceptive as events we recall are filtered through culture and our own experiences. Although reticent in the past to delve too deeply into analyzing his works, Argento gives a pretty satisfying talk this time around.

"An Argento Icon" (22:05) is a new interview with actor Di Marco who reveals that he was "discovered" when a photograph of him volunteering in the aftermath of the Belice earthquake in 1968 ended up with a talent agent, leading to his casting in ACE HIGH. BIRD was his third film and he fondly recalls meeting Argento, working on the film, and his admiration of the story. He has vaguer memories of the DOOR TO DARKNESS episode "Il Tram" (ostensibly an expansion of a sequence that was initially part of the BIRD script) and was less satisfied with FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET. Never fully committed to acting, he went back to school and into teaching. "Eva's Talking" (11:19) is a bittersweet archival interview with actress Renzi who did not see the film until twenty years later on German television. She is satisfied with her work but felt that she had killed her career by walking off HOUSE OF CARDS with Orson Welles when her husband threatened to divorce her, as well as declining to be a Bond girl (the role taken by Karin Dor in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) after appearing in producer Harry Salzman's FUNERAL IN BERLIN. The disc closes with three trailers for the film: the Italian theatrical (3:11), the international English trailer (2:47), and a 2017 one for the Texas Frightfest screening of the new master (0:55). Regrettably, we get no UMC trailer or one for THE GALLERY MURDERS reissue. Not supplied for review were the reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp, and the limited edition 40-page booklet illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie, and new writing by Howard Hughes and Jack Seabrook. (Eric Cotenas)