Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blu-ray Review: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Label: Arrow Video
Region: Region FREE
Rating: 18 Certificate
Duration: 96 mins
Video: 1080p 2:1 16x9
Audio: Italian and English LPCM mono audio
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno
Tagline: A stunning portrait in psycho-terror!

Film: Sam (Tony Musante) is an American writer living in in Rome with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall, Thunderball). He witnesses the stabbing of Monica
(Eva Renz) an art gallery proprietor by a mysterious black gloved stranger in a trench coat. He attempts to enter the gallery to assist the woman but finds himself hopelessly trapped between two mechanical glass doors and can only watch as the assailant escapes. Sam stares on as the wounded woman crawls towards the glass doors but is completely helplessly to do anything. Eventually he gets the attention of a passerby who alerts the police to the situation and woman is saved. While not a suspect in the knifing Sam's passport is confiscated by the police who want to keep their material witness from returning to the United States. Sam is haunted by the notion that he witnessed something important that night at the gallery but it does not present itself to him right away. The something seen but unnoticed is a trope Argento would again revisit with Deep Red (1975) wherein a composer witness a murder and is haunted by what he cannot recall. Several other Argento trademarks emerge as the film plays out in a very Hitchcockian way. Sam (the everyman) is drawn deeper and deeper into the dark labyrinth of murder as he sleuths the crime which endangers both himself and his girlfriend. The threats begins with creepy whispered phone calls and ends with what would become another Argento trademark, the deeply twisted shocker finale, and let me just say that this one hold up wonderfully.  

Dario Argento was already a successful screenwriter (Sergio Leon'e Once Upon a Time in the West) at the time he directed his first feature film and he came outta the gate with the skill of a director steeped in cinema from birth. This psycho-shocker has some eye-popping visuals thanks to Argento's keen eye for stylistic horror. Argento borrowed the killer's signature attire straight outta Mario Bava's twisted classic (and early giallo) Blood and Black Lace (1964) and threw in some Hitchcockian lensing over a seductive murder mystery and  went on to establish the giallo as a world wide phenomena. Adding to the film's appeal is cinematographer Vittoro Storaro's razor sharp camerawork. Storaro would later go onto lens Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), Ladyhawke (1985) and Spielberg's The Last Emperor (1987). Let's not forget Franco Fraticelli's editing which breathes life into this visual feast with eerie moments and pulse pounding tension. With the film's visual pieces in place there's a tasty score from none other than Ennio Morricone laid over top like the buttery caramel drizzle of a Caramel Machiatto. The legendary master of the filmscore has nearly 500 scores to his credit and is widely regarded for his work on Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns but let's not forget some sweet work on John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Pardiso (1988) two of my all time favorite films. While Goblin and Argento are intrinsically linked on't forget that Morricone is the composer for Argento's first three films including Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Cat O' Nine Tails (1971). A fun fact is that parts of Morricone's score for this film we're used in both Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007) and Sam Raimi's shocker Drag Me to Hell (2009). 

Blu-ray: This is a divisive release stemming from the Arrow Video using cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's preferred Univisium aspect ratio of 2:1 which is not the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Univisium is a proposed universal film format created by Storaro (in '98)to unify all future aspect ratios as a happy medium between 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. Personally I am not opposed to this in theory but when Storaro goes back and rewrites cinematic history by reframing original aspect ratio's like we've seen with Apocalypse Now and even Criterion's The Last Emperor I find it quite puzzling. Having seen this film a number of times in it's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio the 2:1 framing leaps right out at you. There is significant loss of image derived from Storaro's cropping of the image, predominantly from the left side of the image (see the below screen shot). Storaro's also supervised a new color timing of the film resulting in an image that appears colder in temperature and is quite a departure from Argento's warmer presentation. It's a fine looking print with nice film grain structure intact regardless of Storaro's interference. I would like to know what Argento has to say about the 2:1 Univisium reframing. Argento gives praise to Storaro in an interview on the disc, and rightfully so, but the 2:1 aspect ratio is not a topic discussed anywhere in the supplemental materials. If any of the Mausoleum's astute readers are aware of any interviews or statements from Argento in this regard please send me in the right direction.

Audio option include both English and Italian language LPMC mono tracks with optional English and Italian subtitles. For the purpose of this review I watched the dubbed English version which sounded great. Switching back and forth a few time I would offer that the dubbed audio track offers better dialogue and score clarity. As foreign dubs go the syncing is pretty great and fares better than a lot of Argento's other films. Praise be to Arrow for including the original mono audio but I would have loved to hear a 5.1 mix just to flesh out the Ennio Morricone score but that's just being nitpicky on my part.

An example of Storaro's reframing in effect. Not only
recolored black and white from it's original color image but
the image loses quite a bit of information from the
left edge including the camera viewfinder marks.
Say what you want about the Storaro's 2:1 aspect ratio you cannot deny Arrow's supremacy in the realm of supplemental materials and packaging. They have been very kind to Mr. Argento this past year with a number of fine releases and more on the way. We begin with a commentary track with Argento know-it-alls Alan Jones and Kim Newman which is ported over from the Blue Underground release. It's a shame that Arrow couldn't secure the rights to the Blue Underground  print of the film, just saying. Next up is 'A Crystal Classic: Luigi Cozzi Remembers Dario’s Bloody Bird' in which Argento friend and filmmaker Cozzi recalls the film's success, Argento's early screenwriting credits and the filmmakers editing style. The most fascinating feature is 'Sergio Martino: The Genesis of the Giallo' where the director of the amazing Torso (1973) school's us with a 30 minute history of Italian giallo cinema with focus on the impact of Argento's directorial debut, the collapse of the Italian cinema and working with Italian masters Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci and his own influences as a filmmaker; Clouzot and Hitchcock. This is the kind of stuff that you sit and watch with pen and paper in hand, a giallo wet dream intercut with tantalizing vintage giallo posters. Finishing of the special features is 'The Italian Hitchcock: Dario Argento Remembers The Bird With the Crystal Plumage',  a 15 minute featurette intercut with film clips featuring Argento discussing the film, meeting Hitchcock and the influence of Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni on his style. As usual Arrow in association with High Rising Productions come through with some essential supplemental materials that only serve to enhance your viewing of this classic film and may be enough to make you turn a blind eye to Storaro's reframing.

Special Features and Packaging Extras:
- Brand new High Definition restoration of the film from the original negative presented in Director of Photography, Vittorio Storaro’s original 2:1 Univisium aspect ratio (1080p)
- Audio Commentary with Argento experts and writers Kim Newman and Alan Jones
- A Crystal Classic: Luigi Cozzi Remembers Dario’s Bloody Bird (1080p) (15:02)
- Sergio Martino: The Genesis of the Giallo (1080p) (29:04)
- The Italian Hitchcock: Dario Argento Remembers The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1080p) (15:15)
- Newly commissioned artwork by Rick Melton http://www.stunninglysavage.com/
- 4 Sleeve art options with original and newly commissioned artwork by Rick Melton
- Two-sided fold-out poster
- Exclusive collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by Alan Jones, author of ‘Profondo Argento’

Verdict: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a uncontested giallo classic and not even Storaro's abhorrent reframing can diminish Argento's stunning directorial debut. The 2:1 aspect ratio is gonna be an issue, there's no doubt about but perhaps the exclusive supplemental materials and packaging may diminish some of the blow. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a must-own film and Arrow Video's Blu-ray is a must-have for those whom crave insightful bonus content and collectible packaging with the caveat that they can overlook Storaro's reframing. For what it's worth I would throw out there that Stanley Kubrick's preferred aspect ratio was 1.33:1 but I am not complaining that my Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Blu-ray's are 16x9 widescreen. 4.5 outta 5