[25 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It is usually difficult for a trendsetter to stay ahead of the fad or frenzy they have created. The most popular superstar or commercially viable format only need to overstay its cultural welcome a month or two too long and it’s a trip into oblivion or outright hatred. Such was the case with Dario Argento in 1975. He had created one of the most successful strings of films in the history of Italian cinema: the Animal Trilogy of giallo-style thrillers (represented by the titles, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and would later be labeled the heir to Hitchcock.
With such an achievement came the deluge of copycats and imitators, each taking Argento’s use of the camera and convention breaking to try to repeat his success. His career sat at a crossroads, in more ways than one. An attempt at a comic western (The Five Days of Milan) had failed, and left the reigning king in a dangerous state of audience languor. He needed something both to challenge his skills and to regain his crown as the king of the thriller.
As usual, it was a dream - about a medium reading the mind of a psychopath - that brought about the idea for another terror tale. But this would be a crime story like none other before or after, a gruesome saga of a disturbed mind on a murderous spree to cover up the past. The screen would be filled with blood, deep red rivers of gore. Style would be heightened and the experimentation with angles, techniques, color, and sound would be as important as the emphasis on story and acting. This would be the birth of a new style giallo, one filled with artistic as well as criminal elements.
And it would mean the reawakening of Argento, not just as a commercial director, but an important cinematic visionary. It was here where he would truly earn his new Master of Suspense label. This film bridged the gap between previous real world based movies and began the ascent into the realm of the fantastic and the frantic. It would announce Argento as that rarity among directors - a visionary. Profondo Rosso, otherwise known as Deep Red (now on Blu-ray from Blue Underground), would mark the true origins of his style and the sense of horror that would herald and haunt Argento the rest of his career.
During a conference on the paranormal, a famous psychic, Helga Ulman (Macha Meril), has a powerful vision of a murderous, deranged mind in the audience. Later that night she is brutally hacked to death. Witnessing the killing is Marc Daly (David Hemmings), who lives in the apartment above the murdered woman. The next day the police question him, and thanks to a picture in the paper by reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), Marc is labeled a crucial eyewitness. This also labels him as the killer’s next victim.
Marc goes to visit his gay friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), a drunk, to ask him about the night of the murder. Seems they were both in the vicinity when the murderer left the scene. He remembers nothing. Together with the reporter, who he is now involved with, he tries to unlock the secrets of the crime with the killer following close behind, making sure that as many loose ends as possible can be cleared up before the truth is discovered.
Frankly, there is no better Italian thriller, giallo, detective, horror, or slasher style film than Deep Red. It resonates with all the visual excesses and subliminal undercurrents that Argento would later explore to their maximum capacity. It is a tour de force of camera, composition, and film craft skills. It is such a benchmark of smart, passionate film construction that it surpasses expectations and thwarts potential imitations. In his rethinking of the psycho killer genre, he focuses less on the murderer and more on the climate of fear. He wants the threat to come from the unknown, not some clear-cut origin
Argento makes several conceptual deviations that cause Deep Red to stand out. First was the idea of creating isolated vignettes, moments in screen time that would not be explained and simply left for the audience to mull over and formulate their own narrative associations. Argento employs this device from the very beginning of the film. As the credits roll and the wonderful score by Goblin begins to throb like the thrillers engine in idle, we wait for the story to motor out of the starting gate. But then Argento turns down the rock and introduces a nursery rhyme style music box melody, and our first vignette plays out.
It is Christmas, and in the shadows near the tree, we see a struggle and a stabbing. A scream echoes across the soundtrack and then a huge knife plunges to the floor. As it rests there, the music continues its cheerful childishness and then, a pair of highly glossed juvenile shoes appear, standing over the knife in a shot so exquisite it’s like witnessing the birth of a masterwork by a celebrated painter. Before it all registers, we are back to black and the rock throb of the score. The rest of the credits play, and the movie proper begins.
Along with breaking convention (the second major deviation to discuss), this immediate interruption of the flow of the film shows that Argento is ready to throw out the standard cinematic guidebook on narrative drive and cohesion and begin his journey into the unexplained. A series of questions arise from the opening moments, questions that will not have answers given to them for a long time, if at all. What did we see? Who had the knife? Is someone hurt? Dead? Why is there a child there? Did the child see it? Did the child do it?
Argento uses these questions to begin the process of cinematic prestidigitation, to create a story where everything and nothing is important, all things and only a few things have meaning, and each new scene or character will provide more issues than their presence or dialogue will answer. By building layers of inquiry, Argento is creating substrata in his storyline and the characterization. He is also sewing the seed of suspense. Bit by bit he intends to address everything that he will show onscreen, but he is not about to make the connections or explanations easy. The audience has come along for the ride, and they have to do some work in order to get the most out of Deep Red. The results, however never fail to send a chill up one’s spine.
It really is about breaking expectation. Convention would not have a killer employ boiling water or windup dolls as slaughter devices. Convention would not have a child who stabs lizards or hidden portraits of death located in decaying mansion walls. A normal thriller would have a villain, ready to strike at any moment and a hero in hot pursuit of the truth that will set him or her free. Sure, there will be red herrings and false directives, but in the end, everything will add up, motive will be established, and a nice tidy resolution will occur.
Well, if those are the customs of the thriller, Argento directs around each and every one. In Deep Red, the killer does try to kill Marc (the eyewitness), but then takes a decidedly different tactic. Instead of continuing to pursue him directly, he or she kills any and every one who could possibly have information on who they are. So the killer anticipates the resolution to the story, and then backtracks to slaughter all who could provide the links on how to get to it. As for those scarlet sardines, since Argento is never playing fair to begin with, everything becomes a clue and everything becomes a MacGuffin. Take the scenes were Argento leisurely tracks over some obscure items (a yarn doll, a switchblade). What are we supposed to make of them? Are they important to the mystery? To the killer? To a victim? Nothing is fully explained.
This is why a film like Deep Red is so effective. Argento, as a director, is building his signature style out of the ashes of his previous successes and his desire to try new and inventive techniques. Deep Red is the place where the most outlandish novelties are attempted. Like when the camera tracks a long dagger as it is raised, then bluntly lowered, into a poor man’s neck. Or the use of steam as a means of clue creation and magical eradication. No other director would spend untold minutes exploring a decaying, gloomy house in the dark, our hero and his way lit only by the fading twilight and a single flashlight beam.
Yet Argento understands the primal fear that comes from exploring a place, within the context of a murder investigation, knowing that anything or anyone can be around the corner. POV shots, odd angles, overlapped dialogue, and specific musical types (jazz, rock, and electronica) are all employed in the creation of a grand collage, another means of creating order out of chaos. All the random pieces are strung together in such an artistic way that only a true visionary could be responsible. It is his skill as a great cinematic artist that makes Deep Red work so well, and simultaneously ruining it for all who follow. Kind of like Hitchcock, come to think of it.