Monday, October 10, 2005

Building a Better Bird

Rules are made to be broken, and I'm going to give you a full-length review after all. Not the same review you'll later be enjoying in Video Watchdog, but a meaty one all the same. What's the point in doing a blog, if I can't occasionally surprise you... or myself?

In my VW 108:68 review of Medusa Home Entertainment’s Italian import disc of Dario Argento’s directorial debut, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970), I wrote, after encapsulating the movie’s long history of mishandling on home video, that “Medusa’s new Italian DVD release is as near to perfection is as likely to occur, wedding the perfect visual presentation – wider 2.34:1 image with more picture information, warmer color and richer detailing – to fine English and Italian mono tracks… and also a brand new Dolby 5.1 mix [only on the Italian soundtrack] that adds a scary new spaciousness to Ennio Morricone’s stalk-and-sigh score.”

On October 25, Blue Underground will make me eat those words by releasing a spectacular two-disc “Special Edition” of the film that eclipses the Medusa disc in every single way. The disc's executive producer William Lustig credits THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE with being the movie that initially inspired him to become a filmmaker. “I can remember going to see it when it first played at the Embassy 46th Street Theater in New York,” he enthuses. “I can remember sitting in the balcony and feel my hands break out in a sweat during the scene of the girl crossing the park. I had never experienced that kind of visceral suspense from a movie before.”

Lustig has repaid his debt to Argento in full by giving BIRD “the full Criterion-style treatment.” Blue Underground’s DVD marks the first time any company has utilized the film’s original two-perf Cromoscope camera negative in the creation of its master, and in this case, it’s also the first-ever high definition master of this title. [FYI, “two-perf” refers to a camera system devised by Techniscope which enabled special cameras to film scope in 35mm without the use of anamorphic lenses. This was achieved by cutting the height of the four-perforation frame literally in half, which effectively doubled the width of the image.] The disc has an impressively high bit rate (it almost never dips below 9.2!) and looks remarkably vivid, yielding an extraordinarily enhanced perception of depth and detail, which Lustig credits in part to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's use of spherical lenses.

"The classic widescreen images we tend to associate with the Italian cinema come from the early films of Sergio Leone and Dario Argento, and they were all shot two-perf with spherical lenses, which resulted in this amazing sense of scope and depth," Lustig notes.

“I don’t know how much you know about two-perf scope,” Lustig told me, “but, because there is a certain amount of image degradation involved in the process, filmmakers would often compensate by going a bit brighter and bolder in their lighting on set, so when you go back to the original negative as we did, it’s like stripping away a dingy layer you’ve been used to seeing all these years.”

Compared to the Medusa disc, the transfer is slightly darker, resulting in warmer, more naturalistic skin tones and colors that pop more brightly. Compare the frame below (from the Blue Underground disc) to the same frame as it appears on the Medusa disc, which appears on page 69 of Video Watchdog # 108:

(Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Of course, grain is more apparent in BU's razor-sharp BIRD transfer than it was in earlier releases, which were all taken from diminished positive print sources. The presence of grain indicates that a scene was either filmed on location with insufficient natural light, or it can tip-off the presence of an optical effect like a dissolve or an optical zoom. But grain is even more noticeable in films of two-perf origin, because each frame is printed on the film strip at half the normal size and is later blown-up to full size in projection.

By going back to the original negative, BU also ensured that their BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE would be as complete as it can be. This has not been too much of a problem with earlier European releases, but the film was trimmed for America, notably in the "panties ripping" scene (which has been restored for some time) and the elevator murder scene (which here makes its US debut wholly intact, with the addition or extension of a couple of shots). Disc producer David Gregory tells me that some recent domestic issues of the film on disc have also eliminated the line “Bring in the perverts!” from the police lineup scene, but it has once again been restored to its rightful place.

BU’s deluxe disc also improves on Medusa’s Italian disc sonically. Whereas Medusa offered only a mono English track, BU offers four English tracks (five if you count a fun, spirited audio commentary by Profondo Argento author Alan Jones and VW’s own Kim Newman) and another three in Italian.

Here’s the run-down:
English: DTS 6.1 EX, DD 5.1 EX, DD 2.0 Surround and DD 2.0 mono.
Italian: DD 5.1 EX, DD 2.0 Surround and DD 2.0 mono.

If you’re set up to enjoy DD 5.1 or DTS 6.1 EX sound, I think you’ll agree the audio enhancement is unbelievable, not least of all because it has one of Ennio Morricone's most intoxicating thriller scores to work with. As Alan and Kim note during their commentary, BIRD is one of the few Argento films that has sustained a contemporary look and feel over the decades, but the new sound mix (which Lustig approved at an additional cost of over $30,000) brings it even more up-to-date. Watching the scene of Tony Musante ambling home in the fog, prior to his being nearly decapitated by a machete, the 6.1 track lowers a shimmering curtain of ambient sound around your head from your rear speakers, with the descending electric bass notes of the Ennio Morricone score seeming to actually step toward you, as other instrumentation and sound effects phase spookily from left to right.

Now I’m a purist when it comes to these things, too, but if sonic re-landscaping can enhance what’s already there without upstaging it, and somehow underline a picture’s suspense or its ability to frighten – as also happened with Warner Home Video’s extraordinary stereo remix of Kubrick’s THE SHINING – then I’m all for it. The degree to which BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE has been revitalized is truly amazing, and remember – BU is providing its audience with an experience of this film (indeed, several experiences of this film) they can have only on DVD. The mono track is always there if you want it, as is the original Italian soundtrack with an English subtitle option. The English subtitles appear to offer a genuine translation of the Italian dialogue rather than a dubbing transcription, and it’s yet another interesting way to watch the movie by listening to the English dub with the subtitles activated.

The second disc is pure gravy, providing four interviews with cast and crew members, averaging 11 to 18 minutes apiece. Assembled here are writer-director Dario Argento, composer Ennio Morricone (who reminded me of Bela Lugosi's great phrase from THE RAVEN, “a god... with the taint of human emotions”), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who obscures his reflections on Argento and the film with a cerebral monologue, then dismisses us), and German actress Eva Renzi. Interviewed last January by BU correspondent Uwe Huber, Frau Renzi died of lung cancer last August, but she’s feisty as hell here.

The running time of Disc 2 is sure to excite comment from online reviewers about whether this material should/could have been crammed onto Disc 1, in an effort to keep the overall cost of the set down. Yes, such a move would have cheapened the set... in more ways than one. If you're watching this disc on your home computer or a portable TV you bought at Sears, then yes, you're not likely to appreciate the brilliance of what's been delivered here. But for those of us with widescreen sets and HD capability, the high bit rate is much appreciated and not to be degraded. The two-disc presentation was absolutely the right choice.

Additional kudos to Blue Underground for the classiest packaging an Argento picture has ever had on video. This disc might actually be bought by some people who don’t go to bed in “Fulci Lives” T-shirts, and it deserves to be. My rating: A+

PS: The Jones/Newman commentary doesn't indulge too much in the way of pointing out character actors like Fulvio Mingozzi (the taxi driver in SUSPIRIA, seen here as a secondary detective) or the great Umberto "Humi" Raho, veteran of such Italian horror classics as THE GHOST and BARON BLOOD. I always notice Signore Raho when he pops up in a movie, and I've seen BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE numerous times, but not until this viewing did I notice how much he resembles Anthony Perkins in later life... during his WINTER KILLS phase, for example. What do you think?

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