It’s regarded as a genuine classic of Italian cinema so let’s find out why as we take a look at DARIO ARGENTO’s PROFONDO ROSSO – DEEP RED…
In 1963, legendary Italian director Mario Bava released La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Evil Eye). It was a mystery-fuelled romp of a film that twists and turns throughout in stark black and white. Bava’s next film, Sei donne per L’assassino (Blood and Black Lace), was considerably more important though. This was a film of outrageous colours with a sweeping, almost uncontrollable camera and stylised moments of brutal violence. Its significance comes from the genre it ushered in; a genre that would provide a creative outlet for the baroque imaginations of a select group of Italian filmmakers. Those films are renowned for cruel, often indulgent murders, exuberant colour palettes and a central mystery the director will do anything to cloak in a cape of convolution. Those films are rightly revered and respected. Those films are giallo, and the greatest exponent of the genre was Dario Argento.
After an early career penning screenplays for second rate spaghetti westerns Argento’s first contribution of note was to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West in 1968. Despite the success of that film, Argento’s interest lay more in horror-inflected thrillers pioneered by auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. Heavily influenced by Bava, Argento’s début feature L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) in 1970 stuck to the basic giallo template, but added a refreshing new dimension. Alongside the familiar tropes, the director introduced a cool paranoia mixed with a biting energy that was reflected in the bold sexual politics. It was with Profondo rosso (Deep Red) in 1975 that Argento really found his feet in the genre and also opened up a supernatural element that he would explore in several later films. It was also the film that would seal his place in history and is not only the director’s best work but the best of the giallo films.
After two fairly dull and poorly written attempts following his auspicious introduction, Argento seemed to undergo something of a cinematic transformation. Familiar giallo tropes exist in Profondo rosso, but Argento blends and distorts them with a newly found confidence as a filmmaker. After witnessing the brutal murder of one of his neighbours, British jazz musician and teacher Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) sets off on his own, rather bumbling investigation. Aided, or mostly not, by the formidable and sexually-forward journalist Gianni Brezzi (Argento regular Daria Nicolodi), Daly struggles to remember a key element from the murder scene that may unlock the mystery as he seeks the elusive masked killer.
With the introduction of the supernatural (the first victim we see was a psychic), Argento opens up a new aspect with which to further baffle and confuse his audience. Not only is there the unknown killer rampaging around mercilessly, but there is a now a noticeable foreshadowing to the crimes and an underlying feeling that is almost impossible to fully put your finger on. This sense of the unknown, of chaos existing behind the façade of normality is a key trait of Argento and is one that runs through many of the films that followed Profondo rosso. Many of the prominent giallo themes are here; the brutal murders, the prowling camera, the amateur investigator, but Argento allowed his creative side to run riot. This is a film of contrasting personas and beliefs, of supernatural precognition and of dark secrets. It is a film that showcased Argento’s decadent camera work, of wildly original fixed camera angles and sweeping, almost unsustainable, flourishes. The complex plot is peppered with a mystical eeriness that often presents more questions than it answers, but the intrigue that germinates while viewing is reflected in Daly’s own stunted investigation. Just like the central ‘hero’ you also feel you’re missing something blatantly obvious; and upon second viewing, as you wander around the first murder scene with Daly, you’ll realise how obvious that actually is.
Another example of Argento’s burgeoning understanding of his craft is in the foreshadowing of the murders. Each death follows a similarly-themed accident. Moments before a character meets their end in a bath of boiling water Daly scalds himself on a coffee machine. These indulgences and possibly inconsequential motifs serve to ground the murders, giving a sense of reality to crimes that would possibly have felt more distant if committed with knife or gun. We can all relate to how hot water feels on skin or how much a stubbed toe or a bruised eye can hurt, and when those incidental accidents are scaled up to murder they carry a deeper recognition and linger longer in the memory.
Repeat viewing of Profondo rosso rewards the viewer much more than any other of Argento’s works. Never has the director’s often hidden but slyly mischievous sense of humour been more prevalent than in this film. Despite the intricacies of the plot, the clues to the killer are all clear; if you know where to look that is. Not only is the ‘reveal’ evident in the first victim’s apartment, the story is full of clues and nods that are too easy to overlook while watching, but that are frustratingly obvious when you know how the film ends. The darkly sinister house that Daly explores looking for answers turns out to be full of what he seeks, but those answers are too often just out of the reach of the struggling sleuth, but offer intrigue and a knowing satisfaction when the film is viewed again.
Most of the films of the great giallo era are notable for their soundtracks and Profondo rosso contains one that is both typical of the genre but more sinisterly inflected and invasive than most. Regular collaborators Goblin created a jazz-rock blend of sound that perfectly contrast Argento’s striking visuals and a sound that not only compliments the film’s murderous intrigue but effectively adds to the supernatural atmosphere. Goblin’s unique style benefitted many of the best films of the giallo period but rarely did their throbbing music fit as perfectly as it does in Profondo rosso; just like one of the killer’s trademark leather gloves.
Profondo rosso is not only the most important entry in Argento’s filmography, it is the key entry in the giallo canon. There are other great films from one of the most productive periods of Italian cinema, but none quite reach the heights of Profondo rosso. Lucio Fulci’s Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture A Duckling) is significant for its rural, peasant setting that contradicts the urban beauty present in the majority of giallo films, and also for its sweeping score by Ennio Morricone. More famous, or possibly infamous, for his cannibal films Umberto Lenzi made several giallo films, but a trend towards more of a fun element was noticeable, and if wanton indulgence is your thing then Sergio Martino produced an interesting series of films, all of which were brutally shocking in places, but perhaps more superficial in style.
Dario Argento’s films offer something different that was rarely seen in the genre. His later work, particularly The Three Mothers Trilogy of Suspiria, Inferno and Tenebrae, all play around with the giallo style more than Profondo rosso but while beautifully horrific in their own right never quite match the energy and style of this predecessor. It is rare for a film to not only define a genre but an era in the way Profondo rosso does. This is a seminal work from a director who was never more inspired as he was in 1975.
The ARROW VIDEO release PROFONDO ROSSO is out now in a special edition 3-disc set – including the Director’s Cut (running 127mins) and a new 4K scan of the International Cut of DEEP RED (105mins), plus a plethora of extras including a soundtrack CD and featurettes.