“Giallo” is the term used to describe a specific type of film from Italy. Specifically, violent murder mysteries with a lead character (professional investigator or otherwise) doing their best to identify the party responsible. The term comes from a popular style of pulp paperbacks written in this style and known for their bright yellow covers. In fact, that very color is the literal English translation of the Italian word.
While there were a few flicks before Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage made its cinematic debut, this particular effort made a huge impact during its release. In fact, it brought the genre great popularity worldwide, as well as inspiring plenty of copycats. I’ve seen the feature a few times over the years, but frankly it has never looked as good as in Arrow Video’s new limited edition 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD.
Sam (Tony Musante) is an American writer about to leave Rome after two fruitless years searching for creative inspiration. While wandering home one evening, he passes an art gallery and sees the violent attack of Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi). Unfortunately, there’s a wall of glass preventing him from doing anything about it. Stuck in the country as a witness to the crime, there’s little for Sam to do except process everything he saw on the night in question. He soon learns that this is part of a series of assaults and begins to investigate the matter himself, putting his own life in danger.
This is Argento’s first feature and while it’s certainly more conventionally plotted than his later work, it shows the beginnings of many trademarks for the filmmaker. The director has always had a fascination with the characters trying to understand something they’ve seen, often misunderstanding the events presented before them. He also likes to poke fun and emasculate his leading men, which frequently occurs in this tale.
Of course, the movie features some elaborate suspense sequences. There aren’t as many murders and they aren’t as explicit as in the director’s later work (although there is one bit that pushes some boundaries). Still, the opening attack is gorgeously shot in widescreen and completely unique (for its day) as the movie’s protagonist stands like a helpless spectator while a violent crime unfolds before him. A later death that features a character falling off a balcony is captured by actually hurling the camera down several stories to the ground. There’s style to burn here and while these shots may seem more routine today, these angles were unheard of at the time.
There are also some fun and suspenseful moments, including a lengthy bit when Sam and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) are hunted by an assassin (Reggie Nalder, best known to horror film fans for playing vampire Kurt Barlow in the 1977 version of Salem’s Lot). The chase takes the lead through a variety of environments, before our hero begins to turn the tables and eventually attempt to chase down the pursuer.
As mentioned previously, I’ve never seen the movie looking this good in the past. This movie has received a 4K restoration and the results are remarkable. Most old prints of the movie have a washed out brown look to them, but now the colors are more vibrant and the blacks are notably inky. The impressive cinematography is from Vittorio Storaro (who would go on to shoot Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart, Tucker: The Man and his Dream and the recent Cafe Society). Amazingly, this was the first feature that he shot using color film. The score by Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables, The Hateful Eight) also adds scope and production value to the low-budget thriller.
And if that isn’t enough, there are loads of fun and informative brand new extras on the release… more than two hours worth, in fact. There’s a critical analysis of the film, another lengthy spot that details Argento’s interest in perception and its effects on the individual, as well as an interview with two of the cast members. Additionally, there is a half-hour chat with the director himself, as he goes into detail on the process of making the film and the hardships faced along the way. Argento did not get on well with the star, making the filming troubling. And after completion, the studio were unhappy with the finished product and the director’s unusual take on the material. Luckily, the movie caught on during its slow rollout in Italy, becoming a smash and jumpstarting his career.
There’s also a detailed and informative commentary with a film critic and authority on “giallo” films. And that’s not all. The package offers a little book detailing more facts about the production and even a fold out poster of the Blu-ray cover art. It’s a phenomenal set.
In the end, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a solid suspense picture. It isn’t among Dario Argento’s best movies (those would be Deep Red and Suspiria), but it is a good one that certainly marked the arrival of a new filmmaker with an incredible eye. Frankly, I can’t believe it is now 47 years old. Fans of the feature will be absolutely thrilled with what they see in this release; it comes highly recommended.