Bird with the Crystal Plumage – Blu-ray Review

Though its antecedents stretch back to the early ’60s output of Mario Bava, Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is almost universally acknowledged as ground zero for both the Italian “Giallo” thriller (so named for the yellow coloring used on the wonderfully lurid covers of the Italian crime novels that inspired them) and the stylistically indifferent ‘body count’ horror films that soon followed. Argento’s debut film caused a bit of a sensation when first released in 1970, perfectly capturing a Roman dolce vita for a new, younger generation, infusing it with traditional Hitchcockian thriller trappings, and spiking the mix with moments of strong violence.
Writer Sam (Tony Musante, most recently wasted standing behind and to the right of Robert Duvall for most of We Own the Night’s running time) is an American living in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, who also worked for Umberto Lenzi in Spasmo and Sergio Martino in Torso before retiring from the screen in the late ’70s). While walking past an art gallery one night, Sam witnesses a black-clad figure attacking the wife of the gallery owner inside (Eve Renzi). Sam tries to help, but winds up caught between the outer and inner doors of the gallery and can only watch the attack through the glass. The woman survives the attack, but the assailant escapes and after being interviewed by the police, Sam is convinced that he saw something else in the gallery that night – a detail that he can’t quite pin down – and unwisely begins an investigation of his own, putting himself and Julia in the killer’s sights.
It’s hard to remember a time when a POV shot of a knife-wielding, black-gloved killer stalking through a European cityscape wasn’t considered cliché, but Blue Underground’s gorgeous Blu-Ray edition of Argento’s classic goes a long way towards transporting the viewer back four decades to experience what made this movie such a sensation. It’s important that Bird played the arthouse as well as the grindhouse; with its high fashion-inspired photography and memorable Ennio Morricone score, the film broke through to audiences that likely wouldn’t be as open to Jess Franco’s work (and rightly so). Argento’s visuals are clean, sleek, and decidedly modern – an amazing achievement for a first time director – raising the film above the more “puerile” confines of horror cinema and creating a genre all its own: the explicit, adult thriller.
It’s a shame that a film which relies so heavily on its visual punch has had to suffer so many years of lackluster presentations. Previous editions have been beset with both image and sound issues, and it wasn’t until Blue Underground’s DVD presentation in 2005 that we finally had an edition that could be called definitive. Their stunning new Blu-Ray transfer, however, trumps all contenders with a stunning 1080p image that squeezes out an amazing amount of detail and clarity without the (apparent) application of excessive digital noise reduction. Also present are a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 7.1 Dolby TrueHD English tracks, either of which works fine even without 17 speakers. The Italian language track is available as well, but since the lip movements for most actors are clearly in English (and Musante and Kendall dubbed their own voices on the English track), there’s no need to get sniffy about watching the show in its “original” language. All extras from the previous edition are ported over as well, including a terrific commentary track featuring journalists-authors Alan Jones and Kim Newman, and featurettes on Argento (“Out of the Shadows”), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Painting with Darkness,”) and thank God that neither Argento nor Blue Underground have let him get his hands on the transfer and pimp-smack it into his beloved universal aspect ratio of 2:1), composer Morricone (“The Music of Murder”), and the late Eva Renzi (“Eva’s Talking”).

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