Scream for your killer... there's murder aplenty in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970)
It's important to remember, going into The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, that this was Argento's first film as director. Two years earlier he'd developed the story for Sergio Leone's seminal Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) with Bernardo Bertolucci, whose own films were about to explode onto the Western arthouse market - indeed, Il Conformista (1970) was released the same year as Argento's debut and was met with the same choral praise as the works of former masters Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. It's clear even at this early stage that Argento's dream was to embrace both the avant-garde and exploitation cinemas (Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava had been prominent for over a decade) to create a vital new language; it may not have been fully realized until impressionistic giallo thrillers like Profondo rosso (1975; still his masterpiece) and Suspiria (1977), but 'Bird' is still a notable if highly flawed piece of work by an emerging auteur, showcasing many of the traits which would go on to boldly define his oeuvre and confirm his talent as lasting.
Interestingly, while also being his most stripped-down and visually unadventurous film, 'Bird' is Argento's most story driven work, relying much more on dialogue and performance than camerawork, sound design or lighting - the complete opposite of what he's famous for. Even Argento's fans criticize him as a storyteller (I've done so many times on this blog) but 'Bird' proved to me just how important his technical innovations were; not just for the sake of artistry, but for the fact that he understood his weaknesses (writing) and sought to accommodate them in interesting and exciting ways. It's in watching this film that I fully appreciate even the gaping continuity errors in his later, more abstract works, because the narrative progression here is straightforward and bland, and the set-pieces unimpressive. It's not the best constructed film either, and tonally it's more than a little broad. Argento's characterization is awful - our cardboard hero is dull as ditchwater, most of the time looking like he's out bird watching rather than tracking a psychotic killer, and he meets some screamingly mad cartoons along the way - including a camp art dealer, a stuttering pimp and a bushy haired artist who likes to eat cats. For a moment I wondered if I'd stumbled into a psychedelic satire, à la Peter Greenaway, but no such luck transpired. I'm in no way trying to label 'Bird' as a bad film, because it has some really terrific moments, but the work of a debut filmmaker it certainly is.
The opening set-piece is the best. American writer Sam (Tony Musante) is strolling past a gallery when he notices a violent struggle inside. The fight is between a woman and a cloaked man. Sam rushes closer to the scene as the cloaked assailant makes his escape, but becomes trapped between two glass doors. He frantically searches for an exit as the wounded woman crawls nearer to him, bleeding and screaming for help. The thick glass muffles her cries and his reassurances. Eventually the police arrive, setting Sam free and saving the young woman. There are several murders in the film, and one quite exciting chase sequence, but none of them have the visual flair, vivid colour or jagged editing of, for example, this scene from Suspiria. I concede that the set-pieces here might have been impressive back in 1970, and it's important, as I did in my opening paragraph, to acknowledge context and the time in which the filmmaker realized his vision, but the fact of the matter is that I'm reviewing the film in 2011, and it doesn't hold up. 'Bird' is terrifically paced, and the murders aren't entirely without ideas - a P.O.V. shot which turns away from a bedside table only to be confronted by the cloaked killer is effective, as is the scene where said killer tries to break into Sam's apartment using a knife to chip away at the door. Yet somehow it all felt a little timid, and I wasn't left with that rush of excitement that one so often gets from Argento's cinema. For fans this is perhaps an essential purchase. For everybody else, save your money and re-watch Profondo rosso - it's infinitely more inventive and exciting, and one of the true classics of giallo cinema.
The Blu-Ray transfer is beautiful although, as mentioned, this is not Argento's most aesthetically pleasing work - there's noticeably less experimentation with colours. Still, the image is sharp and clear. Much has been made of the changed aspect ratio, from 2:35.1 to 2.1, which I found initially distracting but on the whole was not problematic - once you get involved in the story you forget about the aspect ratio, which has apparently been changed at the request of DP Vittorio Storaro. Extras are, as per usual, pretty expansive, and include reversible sleeve art, a poster, documentaries and interviews. Not Arrow's best release, but then it's hard for such a stellar company to match their restoration/packaging of works such as The Beyond (Fulci, 1981), their finest release to date.
The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is released on Blu-Ray on June 13th.