I was first introduced to the giallo subgenre – one which grew to become an unlikely favorite – through movies that, according to purists, aren’t technically gialli at all. Flicks like Phenomena and Suspiria were my entry points to the field, and it wasn’t until considerably later that I saw more representative samples such as Blood and Black Lace, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, or Argento’s so-called “Animal Trilogy,” which began with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, his 1970 debut.
Recently, Arrow Video has released the first two of those early Argentos on limited-edition 4K discs with fancy boxes and lengthy booklets, so I got a chance to check them out again in the highest, most unsparing clarity. Starting first with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and finishing with The Cat o’ Nine Tails.
“Go to Italy, it’s a peaceful country. Nothing ever happens there.” – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
If the movies I was introduced to Argento with weren’t representative gialli, no one can argue that his debut is anything but. Not only does it hit all the marks – the detective mystery, the black-gloved killer, the foreigner in over his head – but it also showcases an Argento who was already fully formed. Everything that would come to dominate the majority of his films is already here, both for good and for ill.
In fact, many consider this the best of Argento’s “straight” gialli – if not his best film outright – and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree, it’s hard to fault them too much for thinking so. As with many of his movies, the connective tissues often becomes forgettable compared to the bravura moments, which include the initial crime, witnessed by our protagonist while trapped between automatic sliding glass doors.
Like the slashers that they begat, the giallo is a genre known for its trademarks, and one of those that is less often spoken of than the black gloves and bottles of J&B is the fixation on memory. In a giallo, much of the time, the person playing detective doesn’t actually have to solve the crime – they’ve already solved it, already seen that vital piece, they just have to remember.
It’s a subject that I’ve dabbled with in my own fiction, most recently in my “timeloop giallo” story “Chanson D’Amour,” which, by the time this sees print, should be live at Nightmare magazine. And it’s seldom been utilized more heavily – or better – than in Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
This is also a film obsessed with sound. A specific sound is not only what gives the movie its title, it’s what ultimately gives the game away, or nearly so. And I’m happy to report that it has probably never sounded better than on 4K. I’ve also heard that it has never looked better, though I’m far from a connoisseur of such things and couldn’t tell a huge difference from my previous Blu-ray release (also from Arrow).
I will say this, though. Bird with the Crystal Plumage has a number of scenes where things could easily get murky – a street in impenetrable fog, several sequences in near-total darkness. In every case, the clarity remained as sharp as ever, and the divisions between shadow and light were as clear as could be.
“I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.” – The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)
This, on the other hand, is often considered to be minor Argento – at least from among his early films – and the least of his “Animal Trilogy,” which culminated in Four Flies on Gray Velvet, released the same year but not yet delivered onto 4K by Arrow and so not included in this retrospective.
I can see where the people who call Cat a minor Argento are coming from, but it’s actually my favorite of the “Animal Trilogy.” Besides at least one truly spectacular kill, it’s got a better score than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (once again by Ennio Morricone) and some of Argento’s best protagonists, especially Karl Malden’s Franco Arno/Cookie, the blind former newspaperman turned amateur sleuth.
It also has a lightness to it that isn’t present in either Bird or Four Flies. While the killer is sometimes every bit as brutal as in those films, there’s a joy to the unraveling of the mystery that many gialli lose in their frenzy of violence and peril. “I like solving puzzles,” Malden tells James Franciscus, and that pleasure of putting the pieces together comes through in the finished product, even if the ultimate solution isn’t anything to write home about.
Which is to say that the mystery here may be good, but its resolution leaves something to be desired – and the genetics angle is even more half-baked than the pop psychology so often employed to explain the killers’ motivations in giallo flicks. (Instead, we’re treated to some new-wave phrenology in the form of a lab discovering that the XYY chromosome pattern makes people more likely to be murderers.)
At the same time, the killer having a concrete motive – rather than just a pathology – also helps to separate Cat o’ Nine Tails from many of Argento’s other gialli, and makes it feel, at times, more of a piece with the Krimi films that were the giallo’s precursors… or what I know of them, anyway, as I’ve actually seen precious few films from the movement.
All these things probably contribute to Cat’s reduced reputation among Argento’s early works but, as I said, make me love it all the more, a fact that’s only increased by how much it sometimes feels like an extremely R-rated Hardy Boys novel – witness the scene when they’re both exploring the cemetery to try to find a clue inside a tomb.
Like Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this film looks and sounds great in 4K, especially some nice uses of darkness. But it is also a more brightly-lit movie than its predecessor, overall, with more sequences that take place in the daytime, and it is, once again, hard to say if this release really does much to bump things beyond the high-def Blu-rays that are already on the market.
Which brings us to the ultimate question: Should you buy the fancy new Arrow Video 4K releases of Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Cat o’ Nine Tails? And the answer is that buying an Arrow release is basically never the wrong move, but in this case it will probably come down to how much you love these films. If you’re an Argento completist, your mind is likely already made up. If you’re just a casual fan, and you already have some good-quality Blu-rays (like, say, Arrow’s previous releases), then you may not need the upgrade.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.