Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The (1970)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-06-20 06:12

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: June 20th, 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:
Once Mario Bava established the giallo template with The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace, he had what can be described as a fidgety relationship with his own creation. While he certainly riffed around several variations on the theme over the years, he never quite crafted another giallo, at least not one in the mold usually associated with the genre. Instead, he left others to pick up the mantle and refine the giallo into the form that would captivate, repulse, and thrill audiences for over a decade.

Most notable among these torch-bearers was Dario Argento, perhaps best described as the genre’s foremost innovator. If Bava could be considered the father of the giallo, then Argento is the screwy uncle that took it out and showed it the wild side of life. Without Argento, it’s quite possible this particular strain of stylish, sleazy stalk-and-slash wouldn’t have existed as we know it; as such, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is a crucial moment, one that practically solidified the giallo and opened the door for various imitators.

Few—including some of Argento’s own follow-ups—would reach these heights, though. Based off of Frederic Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi, it weaves a wild, wending tale based off of a mysterious, baffling twist of fate. When American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) walks home to his Roman apartment one night, he just happens to glimpse a scuffle unfolding within an art gallery. Upon closer inspection, he sees a woman being attacked by a figure dressed in a raincoat and black gloves, and his intervention saves the woman’s life. Her attacker, however, flees the scene, leaving both Sam and the local police force at a loss. Believing the incident has some connection to a rash of recent slayings, the police confiscate Sam’s passport, effectively leaving him stranded in Rome with little to do but help solve the case and clear his name.

It proves to be both a frustrating and dangerous endeavor, as he chases several false leads before finding himself in the killer’s crosshairs himself. Known primarily as a writer at this point, Argento crafts one of his most propulsive and intriguing tales. Where his later tales would grow more confounding and strange, this one initially feels quite grounded in its willingness to dart down some natural paths to highlight the frustrating nature of chasing down an elusive killer. Like so many films in this genre, it thrives on the protagonist’s almost deranged obsession with uncovering the truth, even if it costs him his sanity or his life. At one point, Sam is so desperate for answers that he visits an artist whose work may or may not be connected with the case, only to be met with confounding nonsense.

In many ways, this scene is a keystone for Argento’s career, if not a harbinger of what was to come. Taken as a whole, the scene could be completely excised from the script without losing anything—the gist of the narrative would remain intact, as the entire encounter is a true diversion that yields nothing of use to the investigation. And yet, I can’t imagine the film without it since this thoroughly bizarre aside captures so much of Argento’s essence, particularly his penchant for favoring an evocative mood and striking imagery over narrative functionality.

From the moment Sam arrives at this rural villa and is forced to enter through a ladder the artist casually tosses out of his window, it’s clear that reality is beginning to go a bit askew. What starts as a strange but believable murder mystery takes a hard turn right into an unhinged artist’s babbling. Perhaps a reflection of Argento himself—who is also painting a striking picture involving murder—this painter rants and raves, eager to communicate something of worth to a fellow artist. Much like the audience, Sam can only retreat in bewilderment, having trod down a path that has yielded nothing of investigative substance (in that it brings him no closer to uncovering the killer’s identity) but has somehow revealed so much about the delirium of the intersection between trauma, memory, and madness.

It’s no coincidence that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is promptly unmoored here, as its narrative becomes subject to sort of indulgent whims Argento would hone during the course of his career. A typical conflagration of voyeurism, psychosexual trauma, coincidence, twists, turns, and fake-outs usher in a rousing climax that lay bare the full potential of the giallo. Argento’s playfulness in particular is on display, as he toys with viewer expectations, stringing them along to a clever reveal that tilts the story on its head. No gialli is complete without such a twist, and this one doesn’t disappoint: not only is it a genuine surprise, but it also subverts familiar conventions and allows Argento to take a self-reflexive gaze at the role art plays in violence.

Once it’s revealed that the aforementioned painting has captured a critical flashpoint that sets the killer off, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage begins to feel like a self-examination. Argento would of course craft his definitive treatise on this subject in Tenebrae, but that preoccupation clearly takes root here, as that ghoulish painting is loaded with implications. What does it say that this work of art could trigger such madness? Are we to believe the artist himself was driven mad by his own work? What if art isn’t cathartic so much as it’s simply an all-too potent reflection of the twisted world around it?

Argento isn’t interested in providing clear answers to this. What is certain is that he plunges himself headlong into the craft of finding the dazzling artistry in violence, the implications of that be damned. In one of the film’s more striking suggestions, Argento contrasts Sam’s monochrome reproduction of the central panting to both the killer’s full-color original; where the former proves to be a dull, insubstantial copy, the latter is more vivid, alluring, and horrifying. The contrast feels like a thesis for much of Argento’s career, as he’s spent decades crafting gorgeous, haunting images out of bursts of violence.

His later work would succeed in pushing the limits of what on-screen gore could accomplish, but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is an obvious launching point, as he and cinematographer Vincent Storaro render lurid material with a delicate artistry. Deep, painterly red blood splatters with the purpose and grace of an artist’s brushstrokes, a far cry from the usual messiness of the emergent gore craze, and Storaro’s lush, widescreen compositions consistently dazzle, his lens capturing the sort of alluring architecture and stylish fashions that would come to define the giallo aesthetic.

The mad love child of Hitchcock and Bava’s giallo flirtations, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a major, essential work. In his directorial debut, Argento did nothing less than confirm the viability of an entire genre. He may not have been the first to this particular party, but he’s the one that allowed it to flourish for decades. Definitive efforts like Deep Red and Tenebrae would not exist without Argento’s incredible first outing, one that would reveal the preoccupations of an artist that spent that time searching to understand and reckon with the delicate dance between madness and artistry that has guided so much of his work. Ultimately, he may be less concerned with the killer’s identity and more anxious about his own personality crisis reflected in his characters. Is he the author engaged in an almost hopeless pursuit, or is he the babbling artist that’s already gone mad from his own work? Worse yet, is his work somehow complicit in the violence? Look no further than the fact that an art gallery plays a pivotal role as evidence that Argento clearly felt like this tale hits quite close to home.

The disc:

Given its monumental stature, it’s no surprise that The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has been a home video staple for years now. However, that hasn’t deterred Arrow Video from putting together another, more comprehensive release than those in the past. Presentation-wise, it features a new 4K transfer sourced directly from the original negative that looks incredible. Like Arrow’s disc of Blood and Black Lace, this release really makes the film pop right of the screen, allowing Argento’s dazzling imagery to sparkle even more.

A slew of supplements await, too, starting with a new audio commentary from genre scholar Troy Howarth, a video essay from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, an analysis by Kat Ellinger, interviews with Argento and actor Gildo de Marco, and a limited-edition 60-page booklet featuring 3 separate retrospectives. It’s all housed in a spectacular package adorned with a reversible sleeve boasting both new and classic artwork. A double-sided fold-out poster of the new artwork is housed inside alongside reproductions of six different lobby cards, making this a must-have for enthusiasts based off of these knickknacks alone. Credit is due once again to Arrow: even when they’re revisiting films that already have multiple releases, they manage to make the upgrade completely worthwhile and totally justifiable to your significant other who wonders why you’re buying a movie for the fourth time.
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