Driving Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a sequence that offers a succinct metaphor for the giallo at large. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is a struggling American writer, in Italy to rejuvenate his creativity, who stumbles upon an apparent murder scene that’s transpiring in a posh art gallery. A faceless figure in gloves and a raincoat, a requisite outfit for a giallo killer, is accosting Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), on the top floor of the building near a stairway. An exterior shot of the art gallery is so transfixing—so rife with prismatic visual variables—that we’re as stunned as Sam, trying to drink everything in at the rapid speed with which Argento provides the stimuli. Monica and the assailant struggle over a knife and the latter escapes down the stairs while she tumbles to the ground floor at the entranceway of the gallery, bleeding from a stab wound. The assailant pushes a button to open one but not both of the gallery’s automatic doors, trapping Sam in a corridor of glass as he witnesses Monica’s suffering.
This image of Sam’s entrapment beautifully condenses the relationship that exists between theme and function in the classic giallo. It’s an image of emasculation, as Sam’s powerlessness is emphasized for all to see, and of voyeurism, as our protagonist is held captive, watching a lurid narrative unfold. Argento’s early gialli are preoccupied with women as the true, albeit warped, bearers of social power. The killers in these films are often female, dressing in masculine sadomasochistic garb for murder and toying with male heroes who chase their own tails, engaging in ultraviolent wild goose chases that serve as perverse role reversals. The men are often emasculated before the narrative commences, as broke and creatively blocked artists are traditional Argento protagonists, and so the killings echo their fears of uselessness and adrift-ness, while empowered and attractive women take over the men’s lives, only to be undone by their own gender-specific inferiority complexes. To rework a famous line of Woody Allen’s, Argento often reveals both genders to have penis envy.
Argento’s obsessions and neuroses are rooted in evolving gender roles of the era, and partially in the films of Mario Bava and Alfred Hitchcock, whose analyses of sexual tensions were well ahead of their respective times. In turn, Argento showed American directors of the 1970s, particularly Brian De Palma, how Hitchcock’s templates could be updated for an overtly chilly and sexual contemporary age. There’s also a strong relationship between the giallo and Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, which inspired a less horror-minded and more existential strain of the castrated American male narrative, as embodied by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and De Palma’s Blow Out.
The art gallery itself also serves as an apt symbol of Argento’s aesthetic. Trapped behind a wall of glass, which resembles a movie screen, Sam looks in on a scene of gorgeous and decadently rapturous terror. The art on display includes sharp and dangerous metal sculptures that might have been pilfered from the House of Usher’s private collection. This gallery, like Argento himself, specializes in a kind of rarefied highbrow violence, which has been aestheticized by technique. The suspense and murder set pieces of Argento’s great films are disturbing, but they’re also sumptuously staged and sensually delicious to behold, in a manner that isn’t particularly moral. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was Argento’s first film, which is astonishing considering its authority and polish, and how firmly it set the stage for the first wave of the director’s filmography, which would include The Cat o’ Nine Tails and two brilliant works: Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red.
A key to Argento’s aesthetic is his unique fashion of conjuring simultaneous notions of fullness and emptiness in his frames. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is deliberately curated to be visually tickling (taking us back to the self-conscious metaphor of the art gallery). Besides the gallery, which is rife with various planes and art and multiple levels rich in stimuli, there’s always vivid bric-a-brac in any given setting, whether it’s the J&B scotch in Sam’s apartment or the creepy triangular roof above a woman who’s killed, or the Victorian fog in a scene when Sam’s nearly beheaded, or the almost comically sexual mesh nightie worn by another female victim. Even a simple setting, such as a police office, is furnished with a map of Rome in the background to prompt the viewer to perform work of detection and discernment.
Yet, there’s also massive expanses of negative space within most of the images that deliberately isolate characters and emphasize their vulnerability, inspiring discomfort on the part of the audience. Argento mines even exposition scenes for this sort of tension, such as when Sam’s speaking with Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno). The filmmaker places each man on a different side of the room, filming them from the vantage point of the ceiling and gradually panning to accommodate the men as they move around the setting. Such a dynamic composition is usually reserved in conventional films for pivotal scenes, and so we’re subconsciously primed to expect more than peaceful trading of plot information.
Argento links us empathetically to his heroes, as we become nearly as eager for resolution as they are. And The Bird with the Crystal Plumage‘s wicked punchline complements the conceits of emasculation and passivity with another irony that would become a significant element of the Argento Touch: the solution to the mystery is right in front of us all along, obscured by a spit-second elision that represents Sam’s crushing failure of perception.
This restoration represents another big victory for Arrow Video. The image offers a mind-boggling variety of contrasts, particularly between the sensually seamy and the reassuringly earthy. Colors run either neon hot, like the yellows, reds, and blues, or cool and soft, such as the browns that dominate the hero's apartment, which is, until the third act, a safe spot away from the killer's machinations. There's an element of grain in the image, though it's appealing to the eye and truthful to the nature of the film, which, like many gialli, derives its beauty in part from the opposition between lighting that appears to be found and that which is clearly and expressionistically contrived. There's also a newfound clarity to the image, which encourages one to play the guessing game that's inherent to the narrative, parsing elaborate geometric frames for clues, which are themselves intensified by this image's bracing tactility. (Check out the gleam emanating from the killer's leather gloves.) Overall, this image provides an intensely sexual marriage of observational intellectualism and fevered neuroses. The Italian and English soundtracks are similarly detailed, informing Ennio Morricone's eerie score with a notably new lushness, though it's a little irritating that the English track has been set as the default mix. English-speaking cinephiles will switch to the Italian track with the English subtitles for assistance, so as to experience the film as truly intended. But this is a pet peeve, as this transfer is extraordinary.
This supplements collection recalls that of Arrow Video's superb edition of Blood and Black Lace from last year. As in that package, these featurettes collectively elaborate on the giallo at large and on the film in question's specific place in the genre. There's plenty of overlapping information, though even this tendency reveals how certain events can be colored by the perspective of a given individual. The new audio commentary by Troy Howarth, author of So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films, offers an efficient one-stop shop, as Howarth walks through the story of how Sergio Leone, who collaborated with Dario Argento on the script for Once Upon a Time in the West, recommended Frederic Brown's pulp novel The Screaming Mimi to Argento for a film adaptation. Argento thought of himself as a screenwriter at the time, but eventually came to direct what would be called The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, fusing the Brown novel with his own interests and proclivities. Along the way, Argento clashed with producers but was saved by his father, the established producer Salvatore Argento.
Howarth also riffs on motifs and symbolism, which is covered succinctly by "The Power of Perception," a new visual essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas that discusses the recurring symbols and motifs throughout Argento's entire career, such as an obsession with paintings as repositories of truth. A new interview with critic Kat Ellinger persuasively highlights the gender complexities and ambiguities of Argento's films, refuting the knee-jerk claims of misogyny that have dogged them over the decades. Most excitingly, we get to hear straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak, as Argento discusses The Bird with the Crystal Plumage at length in an interview recorded this year specifically for this package, telling familiar stories, such as his tension with lead actor Tony Musante, with a weary wit that provides a glimpse at the emotional dimensions of a great filmmaker. There's a new interview with actor Gildo Di Marco, as well as an archive interview with actor Eva Renzi, who seems to believe this film, like all films apparently, was below her talents. A number of odds and ends round out this wonderful package: a beautiful fold-out poster, recreations of lobby cards, reversible art, theatrical trailers, and a booklet with essays that go deeper into Argento's themes and techniques.
With its lush and well-contextualized restoration of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Arrow Video continues an important cultural project, proving that horror films are as complex, resonant and worthy of respect and contemplation as classics of any other genre.