Hello. AsimovLives here.
This article is about another aborted series I planned, this time about my favourite films directed by Dario Argento i created back at Talkbacker. The name of the series was “Argento On The Silver Screen”, a pun on the name of Argento which in Italian (and latin) means silver. If ever a director had a name that fitted so well to his profession, that’s Dario Argento.
The series would be about my four favorite films of Argento, which are:
- Deep Red/Profondo Rosso
Of those, I only got to write reviews for the first two. When I was creating the review for Inferno, I found myself at a loss at what to say about it, much less how to describe a movie that defies description.
But fortunately, Deep Red was easier to put thoughts to word.
So, without much further ado, here’s my review for…
Deep Red/Profondo Rosso
Greatness starts in red.
I must confess that I have a limited knowledge of the whole of Argento’s film career. So I’ll talk about his movies that I like the most and what I think are his best. And it starts with Deep Red, also known by its original Italian title of Profondo Rosso.
The culpable parties:
Title: Deep Red (Profondo Rosso)
Director/Hands Of Murder: Dario Argento
Producers: The Two Argentos, Dario and Salvatore
Script/Murder Planner: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi (uncredited)
Music: Goblin, Giorgio Gaslini
The victims: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia, Micha Meril, Giuliana Calandra, Glauco Mauri, Clara Calamai, Piero Mazzinghi and Dario Argento as The Hands Of The Murderer
Running time: 126 minutes (longer version)
During the opening credits, a creepy lullaby plays on the soundtrack and a scene of murder unfolds, presented in the shadows projected on a room’s wall. A bloody knife falls to the floor and the feet of a child enter the frame.
Turin, present day (as in 1975): Marcus Daly is a British ex-patriot who teaches music at the conservatory. He’s obsessed find the truth in the art and not performance perfection, to go behind first appearances.
Elsewhere in a theatre psychiatrist Dr. Giordani is presenting a lecture about the psychic abilities of Helga Ulmann. She claims to be a psychic empath: Neither a true telepath or a clairvoyant, she can sense and read intense thoughts and feelings, be they in the present or the past of a person, but never the future. After a few successful demonstrations of her abilities, she is overwhelmed by the psychopathic murderous thoughts of somebody in the audience, who takes a leave before (s)he is identified. The lecture ends and as she retreats home, she still senses the murderer’s thoughts presence, but attributes it to the lingering of such violent intense thoughts in the room. In reality, the murderer is spying on her.
At home, Ulmann confides on the phone to an unknown friend her stressful experience and expresses a desire to immediately return to Germany. But the murderer attacks her, preceded by the playing of the creepy lullaby from before, played in the prelude shown during the opening credits.
Marcus is heading home, where he first finds his friend Carlo, a fellow pianist and a chronic alcoholic who spends his days boozed up when not at work. Carlo decides to fill up some more, while Marcus heads home. He looks up and witnesses the murder of Ulmann through her apartment window. Rushing in to her apartment, he enters the open door and crosses a corridor, until he reaches Ulmann, too late to save her life. Looking out the window, he sees a shadowy figure leaving the scene, with Carlo standing right next in the corner oblivious to the whole events.
The police interrogates Marcus at the scene, where he informs that he knew the victim as his down-floor neighbour and why he witnessed the crime, as he was heading home. The cops press Marcus for facts but he can only provide impressions, like his inability to be sure if the shadowy figure was the murder as he never saw the perpetrator up close. But something is obsessing his mind, as he notices that something is different in the murder victim’s apartment corridor. It’s filled with paintings but it seems one is either missing or displaced. This perks his curiosity. But the cops don’t take easy on Marcus’ uncertainties and decide to take him to the station for further interrogation. Meanwhile, a nosy reporter arrives during the police crime investigation, the perky Gianna Brezzi, who immediately deduces that Marcus discovered the murdered victim and has more to him then just being a passive witness.
Arriving from four hours of useless police questioning, Marcus finds Carlo still in the same corner, even more drunk than before. Marcus confides to Carlo his confusion about the changed corridor and his need to remember, but Carlo tells him it’s all his mind playing trick, Marcus’ inner guilt for not having arrived in time to save Ulmann.
At Ulmann’s funeral, Marcus is accompanied by Gianna, who informs him of Ulmann’s professional acquaintances, namely Dr Giordani. It’s clear that Gianna has taken a shine to Marcus and figured out that he is not letting things rest but decided to do a bit of sleuthing on his own, motivated by the “corridor problem”. There is a truth to be found and he wants to know what is. If only he could remember what is missing.
Gianna gives Marcus a ride by what can only be charitably called a car, as the thing barely works even on a fundamental level, much to the chagrin of Marcus. He asks to leave him at a place where his friend Carlo works, and has to came out of the car through the roof door as once the passenger door is locked it can’t be unlocked unless by a mechanic. It will not be the last time in the movie where Gianna’s wreck of a car is played for laughs (kudos to the Italians for having a sense of humour about the then famed unreliability of the Italian cars).
Marcus can’t find Carlo at work and goes to his mother, a former movie star who is now showing signs of senility. She gives Marcus an address where Carlo often goes to cure his worst hangovers. It turns out to be Carlo’s male lover’s address. Carlos adds being gay as another self-hate element to his own personality, besides his alcoholism. As Marcus and Carlo leave, the lover asks Marcus to keep an eye on Carlo’s self-destructive tendencies. Marcus and Carlo bound by playing piano in the bar which is Carlo’s working place.
Marcus also bonds with Gianna over their mutual sexual attraction, even if he tries to downplay it as he’s obviously not comfortable with a situation of being the seduced party instead of the seducer. He shows some straw-man machismo tendencies which are completely obliterated by Gianna, like losing an arm wrestle with her. But they can’t help but feeling attached and attracted to one another, using the pretense of the murder investigation.
Later that night, as Marcus is composing a piece of music, he’s visited by the murderer, which is again preceded by the playing of the lullaby song. Marcus manages to foil the attempt due to his perceptiveness, but the experience scares him tremendously. He knows the murderer is into him and his investigation, and things start to become a pressing matter. He manages to track down the lullaby song, and shows it to Dr. Giordani, who profiles the murderer as somebody whose murders are influenced by an intense past trauma where the song played a part. One of his colleagues remembers a book of present day folklore where a house was thought to be haunted by a murder and where a ghostly lullaby song would be heard by past proprietors. Marcus deduces that this house might be linked to this particular murderer and skims through the book, where he sees a picture of the house in question, though no address is given. He rips off the picture page and leaves, but somebody is spying on him from afar.
Marcus decides to go look for the author of the book. But he’s being followed by the murder, who guesses his intentions and arrives at the author first, one Amanda Righetti, who lives in a house isolated from the city.
The murderer again plays the lullaby preceding the attack. Righetti recognizes the song from the story she wrote in her book. She is attacked by being stabbed, bashed against a wall and having her head shoved down on boiling tub water. In her last moment alive, she manages to write a message in the condensed water on the bathtub tiles. Marcus arrives at the scene again too late and seeing the dead Righetti he flees the scene. He confides to Gianna that if he goes to the police he will be apprehended as a suspect due to his connection to two crime scenes. So he must continue in his search for the house of the folklore story alone, to avoid bringing danger to others, namely Gianna, while somebody else more discreetly should cheek out the house for clues. Gianna, being a high profile reporter would not be ideal either, so they ask the help of Dr Giordani. Giordani after talking to the house keeper, he quickly deduces the last actions of the murdered victim and by running hot water he manages to read the message left in the condensation, which identified the killer (but only he is privy to that information, not the viewer).
Dr Giordani goes home and tries to contact Mark by phone but is unable to, since Marcus is away on his own quest (ah, the days before cellphones!). Driving around the suburbs of Turin and helped by the expertise of botanists who sold rare trees as the one seen from the house photo, he finally identifies the house in question, an abandoned and near ruin palatial residence. And as he investigates the house, he starts to notice that something doesn’t add up about it. Revelations ensue and the murderer keeps on striking again on all those who are into the investigation.
Preclude to murder:
In my opinion, this is the first of the truly great films that Dario Argento directed and which are the reason for his fame and reputation as a master of the Giallo and a legend of cinema. His previous movies had been good watches and already made his name in his native Italy, but with Deep Red Argento struck gold which would last for the next decade of his career and produce in quick succession memorable and unforgettable movies and made him into an international figure of renown (and infamy as well). Being at that time and seeing Argento producing classics of horror one after the other must had been a boon for any horror fan.
I have discovered Argento’s work a bit late in my time as a movie geek. I can recall that I had seen his movies for the first time in my early 20s, but my exposure to his work has been very sporadic and episodic. Only recently I have been able to watch them in more of an order, and I have been re-watching his movies I like the best, and that has inspired me to write this review.
Edit: Since I wrote this review I have watched some more Giallo movies. Still, with so many movies made and so many yet to discover and watch, I still feel I’m a newbie on the genre. But I say, it’s worth discovering, there’s a lot of fun to be had in discovering and watching them. And perhaps surprisingly, some of them are genuinely good movies on their own.
I re-watched Deep Red recently and I discovered that I like this movie the more I repeat watching it. The mystery is something that is lost after the first watch, for obvious reasons, so in the following re-watches a movie has to live and die by its own film-making merits. And this is where I think the movie excels. It might lack in some moments a certain sophistication that Hollywood movies could put to their films even at that time, namely in editing finesse, but what lacks in that department Deep Red more than makes up in panache, style and imagination.
For Deep Red was the first film in which, in my mind, Argento showed a genuine inventiveness and imagination unusual not just in the Giallo genre but also in cinema in general. The movie doesn’t go for the more extreme stylizations as seen later in Suspiria or Inferno, but you can see the seeds of those in this film.
Certain stylizations like the combination of deep focus cinematography, precise framing, a lingering editing style, macro close ups, strange camera angles and movements, and the use of very inventive unconventional (for the time) music, all things that are the identity cards of those two aforementioned movies make their first presence felt in Deep Red. And already on first showing they are very effective.
Even today, Deep Red is a tense and scary movie. I can only imagine how much more so it must had been for the audiences of the time. But this film’s strategy to scare is not just with the building of tension, of which it has plenty. The film is chock full of very tense moments, yes, but it also plays another card as well, which was at that time and even today a very graphic depiction of onscreen violence in the murders. And even if the gore might not look as impressive as it would back in the day, especially in regard to the garish colour of the blood, there is a brutality to the way the murders are depicted and as they happen that’s just so cringe inducing to watch. Argento attempted to have the murders play out as the worst way a person could die and make the audiences emphasize the most with the victims from their torments, and in that I think he succeeded admirably. The gore might be outdated, but the brutality is not. The extreme brutality the victims suffer at the hands of the killer also helps humanize them, making the audience feels for them, since all of them are characters who we had spent so little time with before their demise. Well, that is, for those who watch the movie not just for the sole purpose of seeing gory deaths. For the latter’s, carry on, you will get what you paid for.
The casting of this movie gained a lot by the hiring of the actors who played the film’s three main characters: David Hemmings as Marcus, Daria Nicoodi as Gianna and Gabriele Lavia as Carlo. Lavia makes for a very pathetic and sympathetic man who is in the brink of complete self-destruction and the actor sells the notion that it’s only his friendship with Marcus and the care of his very nice lover that still makes him still endure.
In a nice touch, especially at a time where gay characters were usually depicted as perverts or evil, the movie’s most obviously nice person in the whole story is Carlo’s gay lover. It’s a nice progressive touch for the times the film was made. Today would be just a matter of course, but back then it would be quite daring.
But the film obviously belongs to Hemming and Nicolodi. Their chemistry is just great and they make for a good foil to one another. I have learned recently that there are two versions of the film, and the shorter version sacrificed many of their scenes together, especially those involving their flirtation and blooming romance. I only know the longer version, and frankly, I can’t think of this movie without those scenes. Mostly they play for laughs, and even though the comedy is not sophisticated, sometimes even as simple slapstick, they work just because how much fun it is to see those two interact with one another, the emotionally reserved British Mark against the openly emotional and flirty Italian Gianna.
The two actors rise to the challenges of the dual nature of their roles. In their flirty and lighter hearted moments, it’s clear they go for a more improvisational acting style. But in other instances, especially when the investigation or the murder scenes are the focus of the story, it goes for a much more stylized acting, and the actors raise to the moment, becoming stylization pieces themselves. And it works. I feel that to eliminate one moment from the movie from the other would hurt the film. The thing is, even if from an editorial technical story standpoint those flirt scenes can be sacrificed for the sake of the murder narrative, as they do not have a direct impact to the investigation, without them there is a lack of human dimension to this characters and it’s important to that you care for them. By the end you care for them. And this is important, since they eventually get targeted by the murderer, Marcus at more than one occasion, it’s imperative that you have known this characters as people in more ways than just them being amateur sleuths. You feel and fear for them.
The casting of David Hemmings would also have a meta quality, as many people of that time the film was made would had remembered him from his star-making role in another movie made a decade before by another Italian director: Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. It’s perhaps hard for many to understand now how influential and popular that film was with both audiences and a whole generation of few filmmakers that came afterwards.
In Blow Up a murder mystery is used as a secondary element to the movie’s main theme of memory, perception and truth. The most memorable moment in the film is a sequence where the main character played by Hemmings, playing a photographer, he proceeds to do blow ups of a small detail of a photo to the point that the final blow up, having reached the maximum of the photograph resolution, seems to indicate the occurrence of a murder. But things are left vague, and it’s that vagueness that’s the whole point of the film. This has inspired other sequences in other films that explore the same problem of detail taken as context or when a detail can cause the change of contest or even be a false clue to the whole context. Following films who took inspiration from Blow Up were such films as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out or the scene of the photograph enhancement in Blade Runner. In fact, any film of TV show you see the enhancing of an image as being an important plot point or detail owes to Blow Up.
In Deep Red, the references to Blow Up have to do with detail and memory. The whole movie hinges on the fact that one important detail is overlooked early on and the protagonist can’t remember what, and that missing piece is pivotal to the resolution of the mystery, with the rest of the investigation being a replacement for the lost piece of memory.
If in Blow Up the mystery crime plot was secondary to a story about perception, Deep Red is a mystery crime story where perception is a plot point. Attentive viewers of the time or today can take an extra level of meta-enjoyment of this movie from the direct deliberate invocation this film makes to Blow Up.
It’s impossible to talk about Deep Red without mentioning the film’s score by Goblin. This was the first partnership between this Italian progressive rock group and Argento, and they started on the right foot. The music is just fantastic. The creepy murder lullaby, the main theme and a track called Mad Puppet are all extremely memorable, but it’s all a very admirable film music work and they add a great sonic dimension to the film, enhancing the mood and viewing experience of the film. It’s not for nothing that Goblin gained quite a following among horror fans and deservedly so. One could almost say that Dario Argento lost something when he stopped using Goblin as his films’ music composers.
I have to comment on my favourite sequence in the film, which is when Marcus investigates the abandoned palatial mansion. I have to confess that of all the scenes in the movie, this was the one that definitely sold me on the film. And I doubt that most filmmakers today would dare to have the scene be presented as it is in the movie. It’s by far the longest sequence in the film. It’s quiet, drawn out, edited in a slow paced manner, it builds and builds mood, the tension made by the fact it looks to the audience they take as long to figure out the house’s secret as the protagonist.
It’s not like that in fact, since the editing jumps time, but the way it does it, emphasizes just how long it takes for the protagonist to figure things out. This lends the film a good deal of believability. Even if eventually Marcus almost stumbles over the solution, even if it looks like he lucks out in finding it, it’s established that he had to search the whole large mansion for it. He didn’t just arrive and find it, he had to do a lot of looking around, and even then he had to do two visits to finally discover the reason why the damn house looked peculiar and things didn’t add up since he first saw it. The clues are subtle and we, the audience, share the “Eureka!”- moment with the character. We are with him.
I wish movies today had as much patience as Deep Red and other movies made in this era had.
I would also like to add a few words about the violence in Deep Red and also on the Giallo genre in particular. Take into account I’m a very early arrival on the genre and they should be taken in the spirit of the newly arrived who has still in him the feelings of the excitement of a new discovery.
Often times, the Giallo movies are described as operatic, with good reason, as the high emotions often displayed in this movies and the over-the-top violence depicted seems more like something out of an opera and not as movies that try to present a more naturalistic type of story, many times they come with few concessions to either reality or the conventions of traditional cinematic narrative.
But one should take into consideration the peculiarities of the Italian culture. For people from Northern Europe or the USA, the fascination of a Giallo movie, or their revulsion toward them, might be caused by witnessing their hyper-emphasized elements.
But they do gel in and are consequences of the very culture that produced them. And this is not just something you can just trace to such a relatively recent thing as Italian opera. It goes even further than that.
Take, for instance, the Renaissance sacred art in pieces like the Pietàs and the depictions of the flagellation, the carry of the cross, the Calvary and Crucifixion of Jesus. They are works of art that invoke the sublime by presenting earthly images of extreme physical violence on Jesus and the grotesque of his enemies. Already at that time in Italian culture, graphic violence and grotesqueness was used to present an image or an ideal. This means that the Giallo genre doesn’t exist isolated as merely exploitative use of violence imagery, but they are a long continuation in Italian culture use of pictorial violence.
And this goes even further back, even before the Roman civilization, all the way back to the very first civilization that inhabited the Italic Peninsula and the first influence of early Rome, the Etruscans. This was a civilization obsessed with death, most if not all the archaeological remains of this pre-Roman civilization are burial grounds or related to funerary rituals (they also invented gladiatorial games as events of the funeral rites of kings), and their few remaining writings and art are also preoccupied with death. Again, the notion of death is something that has been all too aware in the various people who have inhabited the Italic Peninsula all the way till today.
So the Giallo genre and all in its obsession with murder and extreme graphic depiction of violence is not merely based on the intentions of money-grabber producers or filmmakers trying to upstage one another in how far can they push the envelope of screen violence (which also happened) but as also a direct consequence of the culture and history of the Italians themselves. The quirk of the Giallo genre goes beyond the mere curious thing from a foreign perspective but as elements of the Italian culture reflected in film. Films, like all art, are also the mirrors to which society sees itself, even in such a thing as “mere” popular entertainment.
One interesting relic element of the times the movie was made is that the movie does some spend scenes about Marcus’ perceived machismo and chauvinism toward women. This should be taken into account of the time when the movie was made, when feminism was finally marking its influence on Western societies and mentality. And the movie uses this as an opportunity for comedy at the expense of Marcus. It’s quite clear the movie takes every opportunity to take pot shots whenever Marcus tries to assert a superiority of the male over the female. And this comes from a director who often was accused of being misogynist. But it’s interesting that rarely this movie is used to show that Argento, quite the contrary to the popular opinion of him, he does seem to have all his sympathies toward the women in his movies. Yes, they are constant victims of violence, and often very graphically violence, but to say that in itself represents misogyny seems to stretch things a bit. And if anything, in Deep Red murder happens to both males and females in equal fashion. In this film, gross murder befalls all people regardless of gender, with the most graphic of them all happening to a male in a such drawn out sequence that can only be taken as a clear case of very dark comedy (don’t worry, it happens to a bad guy). So, in Deep Red, the murderer is an equal opportunity killer sadist.
Deep Red can both be seen as a movie in its own terms or also as a part of a continuation of the most flourishing and most inspired part of Dario Argento’s career. As for me, as much as I enjoy watching this movie, I can’t help but put it in a continuum of Argento’s career, a period that I see started with this film and ended with Phenomena.
And something must be said about Daria Nicolodi in relation to this and in this period of Argento’s career. Often times she was called his muse, and given the general quality of the movies of this period, one can’t help but think that she might have been a very positive creative influence on him, the power behind the throne, both in front and behind the cameras. It’s said that Nicolodi worked on all the scripts of Argento’s films but with the exception of Suspiria, they all went uncredited.
But like all good things, it didn’t last. But while it lasted, wow! What movies were created. In this period, Argento was on fire and he graced the silver screen with gems for the ages.
Today a movie like Deep Red might be seen as merely a relic of an age and a genre, but at the time it was a huge popular success and it influenced a generation of both filmmakers and horror fans to come. Just as Argento had been influenced by masters from the past, later filmmakers took inspiration from Dario Argento, so much so that often times he’s called “The Maestro”. Even after his inspiration seems to have taken a fall and he no longer seems to be the same imaginative director he once was, the impact his films caused on cinema, starting with Deep Red, can never be underestimated. Dario Argento will always be admired as long there are people who are capable of enjoy and be awed by this movies, and Deep Red is one of them. Deep Red is a keeper.
As always, thank you for reading.
This is AsimovLives signing off. Have a better one.