Top critical review
Broad appeal for Argento's debut feature
on January 3, 2002
Even those who don't care for writer-director Dario Argento's later baroque extravaganzas may warm to his debut feature "The Bird With the Crystal Plumage" (L'Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo, 1969), a well-received thriller in which an American writer living in Rome (Tony Musante) witnesses an assault on a woman in an art gallery and is subsequently targeted by the would-be assassin, a crazed psychopath who's been terrorizing the city with a series of brutal murders. Typical of an Argento thriller, the hapless hero's investigation unleashes a cycle of violence which culminates in a climactic unmasking that will take some viewers completely by surprise. Loosely inspired by Fredric Brown's novel 'The Screaming Mimi' (filmed under that title in 1958), Argento's first film is a fairly straightforward thriller with horror asides, anchored by a strong narrative, an increasingly bizarre series of supporting characters, and a strong Everyman hero who slots the puzzle together piece by piece before realizing that the most important clue to the killer's identity was there in front of him all the time. Musante is given excellent support by English actress Suzy Kendall as his girlfriend (the scene in which she's besieged alone in her apartment as the killer hacks through the door with a knife is truly the stuff of nightmares) and Enrico Maria Salerno as the cop charged with finding the killer before he/she strikes again.
Despite Argento's prior screenwriting credits, including significant contributions to the script of Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" (C'era una Volta il West, 1969), producers were unconvinced of his directorial abilities and wanted to pull him off the picture during the first few weeks of shooting, but Argento persevered under an iron-clad contract and ultimately proved his critics wrong with the finished product, a genuinely engrossing mystery punctuated by scenes of explicit horror. The film puts a late-1960s Italian spin on the kind of movie that Hitchcock had already popularized in America, and is leavened with the same kind of uproarious humor: Salerno gets the best line of dialogue during a police line-up when he despairs: "How many times do I have to tell you? Ursula Andress belongs with the transvestites, not the perverts!" And later, an outrageously camp antiques dealer offers a jaw-dropping description of one of the killer's former victims: "It was said she preferred women. I couldn't care less - I'm no racist, for heaven's sake!" Briskly edited by Franco Fraticelli, and featuring a brief appearance from distinctive character actor Reggie Nalder ("Mark of the Devil", "Salem's Lot") as an assassin-for-hire, "Bird" is arguably Argento's warmest, most humane thriller until "Tenebrae" (Tenebre) in 1982.
VCI's region-free DVD runs 95m 47s (not including the UMC logo at the beginning, which wasn't part of the original film) and restores all of the violence that was cut from the initial US theatrical release. The restored material is derived from a separate source - possibly VHS - and is of lesser quality than the bulk of the film, which offers a bright, colorful rendition of the Cromoscope image, slightly reframed to 2.20:1 (from the original 2.35:1), anamorphically enhanced. VCI were forced to issue a 'corrected' version of the disc when it was discovered that one of the restored sequences - the bedroom murder - had been edited incorrectly. However, both versions offer an unnecessary two-channel stereo 'enhancement' of the mono original which sounds more than a little forced and unnatural, made worse because the dialogue is badly out of sync for the duration of the movie, and while the film relies primarily on Vittorio Storaro's widescreen visuals, the audio blemish provides a hideous distraction during prolonged conversation sequences. Ennio Morricone's lilting, melancholy music score is cut off at the end, just as the last credits disappear from the screen, whereas it continued for almost another minute in the theatrical version. There's a letterboxed trailer and an audio-only soundtrack option, but no captions or subtitles of any kind.