Dario Argento reached the artistic stratosphere with his fifth film, the stunning and breathtaking Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). His first three big-screen features, which I’ve already discussed on this blog, all have their merits and pleasures (I still haven’t seen his atypical fourth film, the comedy The Five Days of Milan, but by most accounts it’s not great). Yet, for all that’s fine and formidable about his pre-1975 work, The Golden Age of Argento truly began with Deep Red.
What a film.
Truly, one of the most dazzling, relentlessly bravura, entertaining and sleek thrillers ever made. The quantum leap from 1971’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet to this is astounding – no more fumbling, no more steady steps – now we’re in the hands of a master, one who appears to be in total control of what he wants to do and who loves fucking around with our expectations. Deep Red on one level is a suspense thriller, a giallo and a crowd pleaser and yet on the other hand it constantly keeps one on edge with its subversion of genre tropes and off-kilter direction. With this, Argento became one of the major players – he would remain so until 1987’s Opera – a director who became the subject of intense cult adoration and admiration. His very next film, the remarkable Suspiria, may for me be his greatest achievement (and my all-time favourite horror movie), but Deep Red runs it awfully close. They were first two Argento films I ever saw and as such towered over everything else he’d made that I’d eventually watch.
The plot, in some ways quite similar to that of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, involves a witnessing of a brutal crime (an attempted murder in the earlier film, an actual murder this time round) and the subsequent amateur investigation undertaken by the witness. The onlooker and eventual sleuth is out-of-towner jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings), who finds himself the unwelcome target of the killer when headstrong journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) rather insensitively plasters his face all over the next day’s paper. Marc’s obsessed with his belief that a painting that he saw just before he discovered the victim’s body has since disappeared, and that this fact must represent something important (or ‘importante’ in Italian – this word is used about a million times in the film and I love the pronunciation). His best friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) – a fellow pianist who is suffering from depression and alcoholism – warns him to back off but Marc’s too fascinated by the morbid mystery, which leads him to an abandoned ‘murder house’ that may reveal the answer to what he’s looking for.
Despite the later controversy surrounding Argento’s supposed misogyny (not helped by that infamous comment of his regarding his preference to seeing a beautiful woman murdered on screen as opposed to an ‘ugly’ one or a man), there are some interesting toying with characters’ and possibly the viewer’s own expectations regarding gender. Viewers of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage will already have a head start in this respect, but Deep Red goes one further by making the otherwise likeable Marc an old-school chauvinist (though we pity rather than hate him for this), and then having fun taking down his conservative assumptions down a notch or two, be it his frenzy over losing at an arm wrestling match between him and Gianna, or him looking like a fool sitting on a broken seat in her car. However, both apart and together, they get closer and closer to revealing the killer’s identity, culminating in a shocking, gruesome conclusion.
Ah yes, grue. Argento upped the violence considerably for his return to the giallo thriller – the first victim, clairvoyant Helga Ullman (Macha Meril) who unwittingly reads the thoughts of someone who has already killed in the past, is dispatched with a hatchet before being pushed through a window, where she dies having been perforated on the broken glass. We get a vicious, frankly outrageous act of violence towards a set of teeth that’s merely the build-up to a stabbing. Then there’s the death by scalding hot water, something Halloween II borrowed a few years on, and may very well be the most unpleasant moment in any of Argento’s films. Saying that, the most sadistic moment may be a wildly protracted death (the film’s penultimate) that, as shocking as it is, is something you can almost imagine Argento rubbing his hands together in malevolent glee whilst directing.
Viewers may spot the weird foreshadowing of these deaths (mirroring Helga’s second sight): Marc is burned by hot water from a coffee machine before the scalding murder, the shot of the water seeping out of Helga’s mouth at the start eerily mirrors a shot I can’t detail (spoiler reasons) right near the end. The supernatural element that is introduced at the start of the film is quickly ignored but at the same time never disproven – genuine clairvoyance is simply a part of this film’s real world logic. Argento would fully enter the world of the fantastic with his next film, but he started all of that here, although to be fair there were elements of his earlier films that also flirted with far-out elements. I’d say they were more successfully woven into the narrative with Deep Red though.
If you attempt to approach this film as a straight-up genre film, then the thriller element of Deep Red is engaging, satisfying and occasionally pretty damn chilling. Argento has yet to throw all of his logical caution to the wind at this early stage. However, the film’s greatest pleasure lies in the sheer verve in which Argento delivers all of this.
As Michael McKenzie states in his great documentary that was included as part of the Deep Red’s Arrow Films Blu-Ray release, to criticise Argento for being all about style over substance misses the point. The style is the substance. I mean, we get a five-minute plus sequence of Marc investigating the interiors of the possible murder house and there’s no dialogue – just pure visual and musical splendour, and I dig every moment of it. The house is beautifully eerie and full of atmosphere, so why not take the time to check it out? The music, chiefly by eventual Argento regulars Goblin as well as original composer Giorgio Gaslini (of whom only a few pieces of his made it to the final cut), is utterly spellbinding. The more conventional Gaslini stuff is lush and chilling, but the Goblin stuff is a fantastic prog-funk concoction that brings to mind Rick Wakeman (solo and Yes) and is utterly addictive, delightfully heavy on the bass-groove and full of still-iconic melodies that elevate the film to an even higher degree. They give the murder scenes in particular a real charge that’s unforgettable. A non-murderous musical highlight is during the house-investigation scene when the score suddenly stops when Marc accidentally steps on some broken glass, stays silent for a moment or two, and then abruptly comes in again when a set of curtains falls to the ground. Yep, it’s totally bringing attention to itself, and it’s having lots of fun doing so. I suppose the burning question is whether or not you as the viewer end up having as much fun.
Ah, but what about the performances? Well, whatever disinterest Argento would apparently later have for actors hasn’t manifested yet – his cast here is arguably the most in-sync, engaging and on-form he would ever work with. Hemmings is a delightful lead – he has a great, expressive face and a vulnerable presence which suits the film remarkably well. He’s brilliantly matched by Nicolodi as Gianna – their back-and-forth chemistry is a delight and she is one of the director’s most fun characters. They were a couple in real life during and after this film and as their relationship became more tempestuous, the treatment of her characters got a little nastier to say the least. Here, Gianna is the strongest and resourceful of all Argento’s characters from his classic era – she rightly takes down Marc’s sexism, is brave, funny and confident, even if she does ultimately cheat at arm wrestling. The supporting performances are lively and entertaining, especially Lavia’s tragic Carlo, Clara Calamai as his eccentric mother and Glauco Mauri as the enthusiastic professor Giordani. Not once does any of the acting take you out of the film, which is sadly something that some of the more wooden turns in later Argento films have been guilty of doing. No, here they are essential parts, rich and all part of the film’s lush fabric.
Notably, Deep Red was edited by around 22 minutes for export release, and while this tightens the narrative and surprisingly doesn’t become incoherent in the process, many of the pleasures of the full-length version are missing. The character of Gianna is severely truncated and in the process, much of the film’s gender politics are gone. Elsewhere, lots of nice character touches, humorous elements and moments that may not seem to add much but are just pure pleasure to watch are gone. Take the bit when Marc is snooping around the murder house – there’s a bit where he gets distracted by something and runs outside to investigate. It’s nothing, so he goes back in. The export cut edits this out to make Marc’s detection run a lot smoother, but I did miss this little aside in the shorter cut. Also, there’s the issue of which dub to go for – I’ve always watched the film with the Italian soundtrack because that’s the one I first watched (when it was released by Redemption Video in the 90’s – an almost entirely uncut version) so for me it’s weird watching the English dub, even if that really is David Hemming’s voice!
Deep Red’s entertainment factor may depend on how many thrillers you’ve already experienced – it definitely shakes the genre up a bit, for those who think they might have had their fill of this sort of thing, you may have a lot of the fun seeing the form played around with. That’s not to say it’s a wink-wink parody – no way. As I said, the film is a first-rate thriller and full of suspense, shock and gore. But it’s also gleeful too. Like the investigators in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Marc and Gianna seem to having too much fun at first in their sleuthing, which they probably wouldn’t be having in real life. However, if you think of the characters as stand-in viewers of this kind of mystery, then their enthusiasm makes sense. And wisely, when the stakes become seriously dangerous, that playfulness dissipates to make way for some serious chills. The final scene, as over-the-top as it is, is nonetheless disturbing, horrific and home to one of the all-time great final shots, which I won’t reveal here.
So there you go – on one level a classic chiller of the genre, on the other, one of the all-time great visceral experiences of cinema, a disorienting, off-kilter and wildly odd masterpiece that’ll still knock you sideways and have you coming back for more.