Painting the Town Red


SPOILER ALERT:  I’m going to give away the climax.  Wait, no – not from this brilliantly-conceived 1970 giallo masterpiece, aka THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (now in a superb 4K Ultra Special Edition from the sinister folks at Arrow Video/MVDvisual), but from my annual end-of-the-year best platter list.  This title will definitely be there and here’s why.

Back in 1970, I was vacationing in the mountains of Budd Lake, NJ.  Every morning, I would scan through the New York newspapers for upcoming movie events.  One dawn, I saw the ads for an Italian import, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE.  I read the smash reviews (quotes of which would be used in subsequent wide-release posters and lobbies); they favorably compared the pic to Hitchcock, specifically Psycho.  Damn, I had to see it!  As soon as summer ended, I did my best to track PLUMAGE down, and instantly became a Dario Argento fan.  From hereon in, I would diligently seek out all his later works, (at least up until 1998’s The Phantom of the Opera), not always an easy task; PLUMAGE would be the exception to the U.S./Argento rule – the best reviewed and, often, the easiest to see.

Yes, LSS, this was the first movie officially directed by Dario Argento (some spaghetti western foreign releases credit/cocredit him on Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die and 5-Man Army, 1968 and 1969, respectively).  Prior to PLUMAGE, I vaguely knew the name due to his having cowritten the story to Sergio Leone’s 1969 triumph Once Upon a Time in the West (along with Bernardo Bertolucci, no less).

Argento was raised in a show business family, and, like a true movie buff, was addicted to Hollywood fare – specifically, the horror and thriller genres.  Looking for a first directorial entry, the novice picture-maker was delighted when Bertolucci lent him a copy of Fredric Brown’s creepy 1949 novel The Screaming Mimi (already ably filmed in 1958 by Gerd Oswald).  Dario adapted the book to his tastes – tempering it with many flourishes and homages to his mentor, Mario Bava (no credit would be given to Brown, a typical Italian dodge earlier used by Leone when he freely adapted A Fistful of Dollars from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo – a move the Japanese director didn’t let him get away with).

Any movie is difficult for a first-time director, and PLUMAGE banged this cliché home over the 29-year-old’s head – with a sledgehammer.  Although supported by his family (Argento’s father Salvatore served as a producer), the production company head of Titanus wasn’t sure of what to make of young Dario’s “strange” style.  He wanted him replaced, and even went as far as contacting Terence Young to grab the reins.  It was only after Salvatore went to plead his case that the matter was settled.  On the day in question, the senior Argento entered the production office to see the female executive secretary traumatized.  Asking what was wrong, the frazzled woman replied that she had just seen a rough cut edit of a scene from CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and couldn’t shake her fear and terror.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The movie went on to become a mammoth hit, financially and critically (playing at one theater in Milan for three years!).  Calling it influential is an understatement – it begat the entire giallo genre (although elements had been present in Italian cinema since Bava’s 1963’s Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1964’s Blood and Black Lace).  PLUMAGE’s animal moniker sparked a series of murder thrillers with non-humans in the title (The Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire, etc); even Dario continued the trend with The Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (the latter, like Brown’s Mimi, paying celluloid “homage” to Tourneur’s Leopard Man).

The deliciously warped plot of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE revolves around American ex-patriot Sam Dalmas, a once-promising author, now experiencing a severe case of writer’s block.  Reduced to penning puff pieces for a local paper, Dalmas plans to return to the States with his British girlfriend Julia.  One night, while passing an art gallery, he spies a man fighting with a woman from inside the glass-encased front.  There’s the flash of a knife, and Dalmas’ intrusion stops the assault.  It turns out this is but the latest of a series of violent murders that has rocked Rome.  Dalmas and the woman, socialite Monica Rainieri, are now the only living witnesses, and, with gentle police pressure, the writer is convinced to remain in Italy a bit longer.  Using his own investigative skills as a reporter (and with his block now lifted from the rush of adrenaline), Dalmas delves into the mind of the killer, and soon places himself, Julia, and his friends in mortal danger.

There’s some truly eerie, unnerving stuff here, primarily the origin of the case, an old Pieter Bruegel the Elder-influenced painting (The Hunters in the Snow) revised to depict the rape of a woman in a pastoral winter scene.  A meeting with the artist (the great Mario Adorf, in a wicked cameo) proves to be enlightening and disgusting; Adorf’s, (aka Berto Calsalvi) loft/apartment is a haven for caged cats.  (“Never [ate] any [cats], huh?,” he asks Dalmas, after having the writer join him for a meal; that really grossed me out in 1970!).

Earlier, I alluded to the problems debut director Argento had with PLUMAGE.  That extended to the cast.  Tony Musante, an excellent actor who had appeared in the spaghetti western The Mercenary (1968) and the Argento-coscripted drama Love Circle (1969), was a fine choice for the lead.  But his method approach proved to be a pain in the ass.  Reportedly, Musante would bang on Argento’s door at three in the morning, demanding to discuss the next day’s shoot and his character’s motivation.  Argento termed him as the most difficult actor he had ever worked with.  Eva Renzi, the beautiful West German actress (of Danish-French parentage) was even worse.  While terrific in the pic, she not only refused to help promote the movie, but would forever refer to CRYSTAL PLUMAGE as “career suicide.”  Shortly before her passing in 2005, she gave several video interviews (one included here), basically trashing everything on her resume, particularly PLUMAGE.  Not surprisingly, Renzi was married to the equally not nice actor Paul Christian/Hubschmid (James Garner and George Kennedy worked with Renzi on a 1968 light-hearted thriller, The Pink Jungle; Garner’s critique:  “We used to call her Eva Nazi.”) Despite the thesp’s bizarre protestations, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE remains her best/signature role.

The remainder of the cast is aces, and comprises Enrico Maria Salerno, Umberto Raho, Renato Romano, Giuseppe Castellano, Rosita Torosh, Werner Peters, Karen Valenti, Reggie Nalder, Carla Mancini, and the wonderful Suzy Kendall as Julia; the shots of the leather-gloved killer’s hands are Argento’s.

The behind-the-scene credits are equally extraordinary.  The outstanding d.p. Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor) shot PLUMAGE (his first movie in color) in the spacious widescreen process, Cromoscope (actually the Italian version of TechniScope).  Ennio Morricone provides the score (nothing more needs to be said).

In 1970, PLUMAGE was released in the U.S. through a small company called UMC.  The prints were okay, but, even then veered toward a warm shade of magenta.  Not until the advent of DVD were the import copies properly restored to a semblance of what the cinematographer and the director intended.  This was aided immensely by Arrow’s later 2017 Blu-Ray restoration.  All of that pales (literally) to the new 4K Ultra evocation.  CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, in 2160p, is now…well, crystral-clear, and popping with rich, deep colors that aesthetically relate to the grisly origin of the painting which unleashes the maniac, all framed in velvety black (now really black, not dark red or bluish grey).  The 1.0 mono soundtrack is offered up in either the English language or Italian version (the latter with English subtitles).

And then there are the extras: audio commentaries and interviews with film scholars discussing the movie, its connection to Fredric Brown, the giallo genre, and more.  Further supplemental gold comprises additional interviews with Argento, supporting player Gildo di Marco, and, as indicated, an archival visit with costar Renzi.  Fans will plotz at a 60-page illustrated booklet, plus a foldout double-sided poster, featuring the original and newly-commissioned one-sheet artwork, six postcard-size renditions of the Italian lobbycards (also double-sided) – all housed in a beautiful sturdy slipcover!

Exceptional in every sense of the word, the 4K BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE is mandatory for every thriller, giallo, Argento collection!  The good news is that Arrow is preparing similar editions of Cat O’Nine Tails and Deep Red (and, hopefully, ALL their Argento titles).  Can’t wait!

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 2160p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA [English language or Italian w.English subtitles].  Arrow Video/MVDvisual. CAT # FCD2157. SRP: $59.95.

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