All the Colors of the Giallo: ‘Deep Red’/’The Perfume of the Lady in Black’

A violent, labyrinthine species of thriller known as the giallo (named for the yellow covers of paperback novels) flourished in Italian cinema during the 1970s, and two new releases demonstrate the genre’s stylistic extremes.

Dario Argento’s Deep Red or Profondo Rosso (1975) is as pure an example as you’ll find where the sleekness of the camerawork and color design is matched by the queasy bursts of brutality, and where the screenplay’s twists reflect the sexual twists of the tortured mind whose guilt is finally revealed via double-whammy. The disorientations of style and plot are based upon the uncertainty of the mind itself and of the hero’s ability to remember or understand what he’s seen. We identify with his confusion in this maze, and we’re really trapped with him in the killer’s insane worldview. In this case, our hero is a jazz musician (David Hemmings) who witnesses the hatchet-murder of a psychic woman. The wide screen is crammed with meticulous details that must be sifted. Previous DVD versions offered the Italian soundtrack; this edition has the English track, so we hear Hemmings deliver his lines in English, as he spoke them on camera. Other actors, however, may be dubbed in English; it’s the way of Italian films.

If Argento’s film is almost too much of a thriller, Francesco Barilli’s The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974) almost isn’t one at all. It’s mainly a psychological study of its heroine (Mimsy Farmer), a chemist who’s going bonkers. She seems to be re-enacting childhood traumas, and indeed her pushy child-self moves into the apartment and begins reading from Alice in Wonderland. That’s on the one hand; on the other hand, there really may be a conspiracy going on, and by the time the bodies start piling up, it’s hard to say what’s going on. The baffling finale partakes of Italian exploitation cinema’s fascination with cannibalism and may or may not have socio-political implications about feminism and Marxist politics. Thus we see how the giallo links up with, say, the territory of Marco Ferreri.

In an interview, Barilli cheerfully admits to not always knowing what’s happening or how certain scenes can be explained, whether they’re real or fantasy. He dismisses the concept of rationality in such a scenario and says he’s drawn to the primal power of certain visual ideas. This makes his movie almost literally nightmarish, if relatively subdued, and foreshadows the direction Argento would take in increasingly senseless (yet beautiful) films like Inferno. Both the English and Italian soundtracks are included on this disc. Don’t get excited by the promised “fully illustrated booklet containing critical analysis”, which is a mere insert.

RATING 7 / 10