Regarded by critics and his peers as a master in the field of horror and the supernatural, Dario Argento is an interesting case in the world of cinema. He is a director who has built up an auteur type level of reputation whilst working mainly within the confines of the ‘lowly regarded’ genre cinema. His influence has been felt throughout the world of horror, with the likes of George A Romero, John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino widely acknowledging his impact upon their work. His particular type of ‘nightmare’ cinema has led to his name being used as a brand, much in the same way Hitchcock’s name is used as a shortcut in describing a certain type of thriller.
It was the film Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) that saw Argento stepping out of his thriller roots and embracing the elements of Art Cinema. Prior to Deep Red, Argento had lensed the loose ‘animal’ trilogy consisting of three ‘giallo’ thrillers, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies In Grey Velvet (1971). These films all were extremely popular throughout the world leading to a boom of giallo thrillers made in Italy, a sub-genre that lasted throughout the decade. It was the return of Argento to the sub-genre in 1975, that audiences saw a marked difference between those three films and Deep Red.
Historically, Deep Red came along at a significant moment in the career of Dario Argento. After the three ‘animal’ giallo, Dario joined forces with his father Salvatore and his brother Claudio who began to produce his films. Their first production was the historical drama ‘Five Days In Milan’, a huge departure from the films he’d done prior and would do in subsequent years. The film was a commercial disaster and for their next production it was decided that they would go back to familiar territory and produce another giallo thriller. However this time it would be different.
“I started making thrillers which were the animal trilogy…when I did my last film ‘Four Flies On Grey Velvet’ I thought that if I was going to do this type of film again I would make it differently. I took a long break and after this break I came back with Deep Red which wasn’t the classical thriller there was something in it that was very strong and new and a new way of using the camera to present the facts.” (Argento, 25 Year Anniversary Featurette, Anchor Bay DVD) (1)
The Introduction of numerous visual techniques immediately signalled that this film was going to a different type of giallo movie. The introduction of the disguised flashbacks, the innovative camera movement, the foreshadowing of the murder sequences, the numerous references to other giallo, to the conventions of the gialli, the preoccupation with gender issues and the distinct references to Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up all these features indicate that we are dealing with a much more involved film that had been previously been delivered from Argento.
There are frequent references in Deep Red to the film by Argento’s fellow countryman and the leading proponent of the European Art Cinema movement, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up. The inter-textual referencing to Blow Up indicated a director whose sensibilities lay towards the art as well as the exploitative. This blending of European Art cinema and the exploitative would continue throughout the rest of Argento’s career but it was in Deep Red that it first came to the forefront.
When the opening credits roll on Deep Red you know immediately that this is different from other giallo. Gone is the traditional Ennio Morricone score from the ‘animal’ trilogy and is replaced with the unique driving progressive rock soundtrack by the newly established outfit The Goblins, or Goblin as they would go on to be known. A black screen with simple white credits accompanied with the pounding music over the top. Suddenly the music stops cold and is replaced by a haunting nursery rhyme. We then see the flashback of a murder shown in silhouette, a child’s stocking feet and a bloody knife. Then with no explanation we cut back to the credits sequence and the pounding soundtrack. Argento is implying that this scene is so important that he has interrupted the credits just to show the audience. The credits continue to roll then the music abruptly stops again and the director’s credit appears on-screen. Within the opening credits sequence we are signalled to the importance of the director. The absence of music makes the viewer under no illusions as to who directed this film and who is the driving force behind the vision. The surreal film sequence that is offered up to the viewer without any explanation, the unique soundtrack and the silence over the director’s credit all signals a different Dario Argento.
The fundamental conceit of the film; that Marc, and by extension the viewer, has seen something in the victim’s apartment that is vital to solving the crime, invites repeat viewings. Marc enters the apartment of Helga Ulmann and strides down the corridor replete with ghastly, haunting portraits. What he misses, and so does the viewer, is that one of the portraits is actually a mirror showing the face of the murderer. Argento seems to delight in playing with the viewer’s perception throughout the movie. He foreshadows lots of events, keying viewers over what to expect.
Beginning with the parapsychology conference at the start of the narrative, Helga Ulmann senses the presence of an ‘evil mind’. She reads the thoughts of the killer and afterwards when discussing the experience with Professor Giordani she describes it as ‘like a knife entering my flesh’. She foretells her brutal death at the hands of the black-gloved killer. Prior to her death, Argento moves the camera into her apartment with a dolly shot. The camera sweeps in to see Helga on the telephone; it rests on her for a moment before panning across to the right to show us the corridor full of portraits. Argento signifies the importance of this corridor with the short scene, giving the viewer warning that the corridor is important.
The death of Professor Giordani is particularly brutal as he has his face bashed into the corner of a mantelpiece smashing his teeth and mouth. This is repeated on the corner of his desk before being stabbed with an ornate dagger. Argento cues the audience to this scene in the conversation between Marc and his journalistic helper/love interest Gianni Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi). When asked why he became a pianist, Marc says
“ Well my psychiatrist would say that, er, it is because I hated my father because I, when I bang the keys I’m really bashing his teeth in” (Deep Red 33.54mins) (3)
The scene is also alluded to with the inclusion of two disturbing scenes at the childhood home of Carlo. Marc has spoken to Rodi, the caretaker of the house who has charged his daughter with taking Marc up to the house and unlocking the gates. In a scene that firstly seems to be in only to disturb, Rodi calls his daughter back and shouts at her then slaps her across the face. She smiles in a masochistic manner and goes back to Marc. Marc asks her why her father slapped her and she replies that he is crazy. The camera cuts back to Rodi and pans down to reveal the reason he admonished his daughter. There is a lizard writhing on the floor with a pin stabbed through its neck. While this scene is disturbing in it’s own right, it also reinforces the themes of disturbing childhood and acts as a precursor to Professor Giordani’s death with the dagger.
Argento keys the audience to the death of the false killer Carlo in a seemingly insignificant scene. When Marc Daly is driving home after visiting the house depicted in the fairytale House Of The Screaming Child, which is the family home of Carlo, he passes a repair truck at the scene of a car accident. The camera lingers over this accident as Marc passes in his car. Later Carlo is killed quite gruesomely by being dragged through the streets of Rome by his feet that are caught on a stray metal hook on a passing truck. The vehicular theme is driven home when Carlo injured from being dragged through the streets has his head crushed under the wheels of an oncoming car.
Before the murders are committed the killer has to create a certain set of circumstances, one of which is the playing of a piece of music.
After an aborted attempt on his life, Marc Daly becomes aware of this music, which leads him to the home of author Amanda Righetti. To foreshadow her violent death by having her head thrust into scalding hot water, Argento has Marc in a café/bar on the telephone to Gianni asking her to find Amanda Righetti’s address. He positions Marc on a telephone next to the coffee machine where is consistently being burned by the cappuccino milk frother. His conversation with Gianna is constantly being interrupted by the scalding steam. At one point in the scene he actually says, “Why did you put the phone here?” The director is alerting the viewer to the importance of the seemingly unimportant scene by having Marc ask the same question to the coffee shop owner that we want to ask the director.
During the set piece depicting the murder of Amanda Righetti, the killer sets up a small naked plastic doll and hangs it from the ceiling of the corridor in a noose. The image of a child being hanged is a disturbing one in itself and it could be explained away as being done to create a sense of foreboding and terror. However Argento layers another meaning on top of this initial interpretation. As Righetti moves to touch the swinging doll its head falls off and falls to the ground. But as we have seen throughout the film Argento is giving us the clues for us to interpret ourselves. The head of the doll being severed by the noose presages the death of Carlo’s mother Martha, the real killer, as she is decapitated when her own pendant on her necklace is caught in the lift shaft which then tightens when the lift moves down and cuts through her neck severing her head from her body.
When looking at the work of an auteur the preoccupations of the director are evident in the body of work. In the case of Dario Argento the preoccupations start to become evident in Deep Red. In the music industry there is a tradition of response songs. These are songs that answer the questions raised by previous songs. Some examples being Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama which is a response to Neil Young’s Southern Man, Elvis Presley’s ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ was answered by Dodie Stevens ‘Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight’ and Napoleon XIV’s ‘They Are Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaaa!” was answered by Josephine XV singing “I’m Happy They Took You Away Ha-Haaaa!’. In the earlier ‘animal trilogy’ there had been loose, vague references to Antonioni’s Blow Up, with Deep Red Argento brings that to the fore and make his filmic response.
Firstly the casting of David Hemmings in the lead role of Marc Daly mirrors the casting of Thomas in Antonioni’s Blow Up. While in Blow Up, Thomas is a photographer who without realising witnesses a murder in a London park, that only becomes apparent when he develops his photographs as Deep Red’s protagonist Marc witnesses something about the painting in the victim’s apartment. Both protagonists become obsessed with what they have seen and it’s connection to the murder.
In Deep Red, Marc is released from police custody after giving his statement and meets up with his friend Carlo in the streets of Rome in the early hours of the morning. Their resulting conversation echoes the themes of Blow Up, with its discussion over the nature of truth, the perception of truth and the reality of truth. Fundamentally where they differ is in their approach.
“Blow Up is, as many commentators have indicated, an anti-giallo, a deconstruction of the thriller that ends with Hemming’s protagonist possessed of a new understanding of the world but essentially unable to function. A man has been murdered, but there is nothing he can do.” (Brown, Giallo Fever) (4)
Argento seems dissatisfied with the ambiguous nature of the ending of Blow Up and it is this sense of irresolution that he resolutely avoids. He has his protagonist doggedly refuse to give up in existential angst and pushes him to solve the mystery. Where Antonioni’s vision of art cinema seems to take his film away from the trappings of the murder mystery genre, Argento’s vision of art cinema attempts to create art within the confines of the genre, in this case, the giallo.
The intertextual referencing within the confines of Italian cinema continues with Argento’s referencing of the telefoni bianchi or white telephone films of the Italian fascist era. These bourgeois melodramas and costume pieces are signalled to initially during the murder of Helga Ulmann. She is on the telephone, white naturally, when the child’s nursery rhyme plays. She hangs up the phone, clumsily and goes to answer the door. The killer, Martha, bursts into the apartment and bludgeons her with a hatchet. Later in the film when Marc calls upon his friend Carlo, he is greeted by Carlo’s mother Martha. She invites him in and they engage in a conversation about Martha past history as an actress. We see lots of still photos of the actress in the type of films usually referred to as ‘white telephone’ films. To reinforce this strand of referencing that Argento cast well-known Clara Calamai in the role of Martha, an actress who made her name by appearing in such films.
He continues to make these intertextual references with his construction of his night times in the streets of Rome. Referencing the work of American realist painter Edward Hopper, specifically the piece of work Nighthawks (1942), Argento recreates this painting writ large on the screen in the form of the Blue Bar. Carlo and Marc are stood in front of the recreated bar talking when the first murder is committed. Helga Ulmann’s scream echoes through the streets of Rome, to which Marc and Carlo react to but the inhabitants of the Blue Bar remain inactive like characters in a painting.
This scene is worth looking at in more detail as Argento does some interesting working with its construction. Firstly the murder of Helga Ulmann is divided into two scenes; in effect she is murdered twice. The viewer sees Helga attacked by the leather-clad killer in her apartment. She is hacked at with a hatchet and the killer searches for her notes she has made about her psychic reading of the killer. The killer finds them and crushes this in their fist.
Suddenly we cut away from this sequence to a crane shot starting high looking down on Marc Daly as he meanders through the streets of Rome. The camera tracks down to street level and follows Marc as he walks past and towards a square with a huge statue water fountain. We see a man slumped on the floor near the statue but we continue past and finish on the Blue Bar. The Blue Bar being Argento’s recreation of the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. Argento then suddenly cuts to an extreme high long shot of the square. Marc begins to walk towards the man and we cut to a tracking mid shot of Marc walking. Marc and Carlo discuss Carlo’s drinking, with the camera cutting between the two with a variety of slow-moving camera shots. They stand and begin to walk towards the Blue Bar. The camera settles on a mid tracking shot following them, before positioning itself behind them with the Blue Bar in the background. A scream violently breaks the silence and Argento cuts to an extreme reverse zoom, start from a close up of the pair zooming out very fast to a high extreme long shot showing the pair in the square. We cut back to a mid shot with Carlo facing the camera and Marc with his back to the camera. Carlo comments that it was the sound of someone being raped, to which Marc looks around uncomfortably. Carlo says goodbye and enters the Blue Bar. The camera slowly tracks following Carlo into the bar then picking up Marc as he walks away drawing a cigarette.
Throughout this first part of the sequence no soundtrack music is played. It is deathly silent aside from our two protagonists talking. A scream breaks the silence but is shrugged of as being unimportant to the two. The whole sequence has a constantly moving camera, but it is moving leisurely. Also Argento has tended to favour a slower editing style to depict the lazy walk of Marc, the slightly inebriated drunk Carlo and the ultra cool bar. Immediately that all changes as Marc walks towards his apartment, the camera tracks him and starts to pan upwards. Before we can get to anything of interest in the frame, Argento cuts to a mid shot of Helga Ulmann framed in the window of her apartment. She has her mouth open as if she is screaming but we hear no noise. Cut back to a long shot from Helga’s point of view of Marc stood in the square followed by a fast jump cut to a close up of Marc’s face. Reverse medium shot of Helga framed, cut to a brief long shot of Helga. Fast cut to a close up of Marc then back to the long shot of Helga. We see a figure behind Helga raise a hatchet and start to bring it down. Cut to a mid shot of Helga’s body smashing through the window. The smashing of the window breaks the silence and Goblin’s Death Dies score, the theme for the murders, erupts once again.
Already the editing has quickened cutting between close-ups and the frequent jump cuts of Marc and Helga. Once the music starts up again we realise that we have had no incidental music for the past five minutes.
The camera cuts between Marc and Helga’s neck impaled on the shards of broken glass before Marc rushes into the apartment. The camera cut inside the stairway and Marc running up the stairs. We get a good look at the iron railings of the lift shaft that will play an important part in the film’s finale. Cut to the inside of Helga’s apartment, Marc opens the door and tentatively enters. He pauses in the doorway and again inside before putting his coat down and walking fast off-screen down the corridor. Argento cuts to a floor level dolly shot going down the corridor then to a fast tracking mid shot of Marc and the ghastly portraits on the wall flashing past. Then Argento cuts to a shot from Marc’s point of view as he rushes down the corridor. The elaborately framed portraits flash past, as does a portrait in an enclave, which is actually a mirror showing Marc and the audience the killer’s face. The killer’s face is on-screen for ten frames, under a half of a second.
Cutting to this ‘point of view’ shot puts the viewer in the same position as Marc Daly. He is certain later on that he saw something of importance in that corridor. By giving the audience the same opportunity as Marc to witness something, Argento is playing with the audience’s interaction with the film.
The themes of gender play a major role in Argento’s body of work, and in Deep Red this preoccupation is apparent. The gender of the killer in many of Argento’s films is female, which is a rarity in the giallo genre. He plays with the audience’s expectations throughout the film, deliberately obscuring the dividing lines between genders.
The ongoing developing relationship between Gianna and Marc provides much of the films comment on gender. The character of Gianna is that of an independent woman whose job puts her in the male dominated world of journalism. Her strong character acts as a foil to Marc. Both Marc and Gianna constantly argue over gender issues in various childish ways, culminating in an arm wrestling contest, that Gianna wins. She ridicules him over his nervousness (traditionally viewed as a feminine trait). It becomes clear that Marc has a slight misogynistic streak in him and we are clearly meant to side with Gianna in their heated exchanges about sexual equality as Argento humiliates him in these arguments.
The emasculation of Marc serves to highlight the divide between the male and female roles that comes to its ultimate conclusion in the final revelation of the identity of the killer being Carlo’s mother Martha. In his scenes with Gianna he is consistently placed in a depowered position. The arm wrestling contest in which he loses is one instance, but the car journey with Gianna is another. After seeing Professor Giordani, Gianna and Marc are driving back, Marc is in the passenger’s seat with Gianna driving. As if to reinforce Marc’s lack of power, the seat collapses to the floor of the car leaving Marc looking up to Gianna and barely peering over the dashboard. Argento employs a similar visual shot when Marc is exploring the childhood home of Carlo. We see a shot of the grand architecture with Marc’s face cut off just under the eyes.
Argento further highlights these mutable gender divides when we are introduced to Carlo’s lover, Ricci. In an earlier scene Carlo describes his piano as a beautiful woman but then his sexual preferences is called into question with the introduction of his male lover, Ricci. Once again, the specific gender roles are blurred. In a further playful twist, Argento cast a woman in the role of the effeminate Ricci. He would complete a similar casting trick in his 1982 giallo Tenebrae where he cast a man in the role of a woman.
“Male inadequacy is also illustrated in the character of Marc’s friend Carlo, who is portrayed as a drunk and in denial of his homosexuality, while his boyfriend is depicted in a decidedly feminised manner, wearing heavy eye makeup and women’s clothes. The boyfriend’s femininity is also shown to be a clear source of discomfort for Marc – although, not, it would seem, his sexuality, given that his behaviour towards the decidedly more masculine Carlo does not change following the discovery of the fact that he is gay. The overall impression given of Marc is that femininity is a source of anxiety for him, and when confronted by powerful, assertive femininity, he is inclined to become hostile.” –(Mackenzie) (6)
Early in the film, Argento employs the point of view camera to show us the killer’s perspective. The camera enters a bathroom and runs the water in the sink. We hear sound of retching. The camera then shows us the face of the killer in the mirror but as the mirror is scarred and marked all we see is the outline of a head. The person could be male or female. Then we see a man about to leave the bathroom, he asks the killer if they need any help. It seems that Argento is deliberately obscuring the gender of the person in one instance then telling us the killer is in the men’s bathroom implying that he is male. But again this is open to discussion as in Italy various bathrooms have an anteroom before leading into the male and female bathrooms. Once again it appears as if Argento is toying with the viewer.
It is these well thought out deliberate acts of confusing the viewer and muddying the waters between what is expected and unexpected is what saw Argento stepping out from the straight forward thriller director into what is more likely to be considered as an auteur. His referencing to the traditional white telephone movies and the work of Michaelangelo Antonioni shows a director concerned with the way his films would be considered after ten viewings. His desire to ‘respond’ to Blow Up’s anti-giallo murder mystery resulted in a wonderful merging between the two seemingly incompatible genres, the murder mystery thriller and the art film.
Argento was interested in creating a landscape in which he could use the mechanics of the thriller genre but could also extend into areas of the supernatural. The use of telepathy as a central idea for a film had been with Argento since Four Flies On Grey Velvet in 1971. At that point in his directing career he could not find a way to make the outlandish ideas of telepathy and extra-sensory abilities gel with the deductive side of the giallo thriller. His subsequent work from the 1970’s and the early 1980’s show a filmmaker building on the artistic success he achieves in Deep Red. The blending of the thriller and the horror film started here with the hyper-real thriller and would continue to greater and lesser success in his surreal nightmare movies Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). But it was with Deep Red that he showed he had served his apprenticeship and was now to be considered an auteur.
Argento, D (2000) Deep Red: 25th Anniversary DVD Featurette Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD
Deep Red DVD Another World Entertainment
Brown, K H (2008) Giallo Fever Blog: Some Thoughts On Profondo Rosso UK
Mackenzie, M (n.d) Points Of View: The Camera And Subjectivity In Profondo Rosso com.
Gallant, C(ed) (2000) Art Of Darkness: The Cinema Of Dario Argento Surrey, UK. Fab Press.
Koven, M J (2006) La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema And The Italian Giallo Film. Maryland, USA. Scarecrow Press.
Brown, K H (2008) Giallo Fever: Some Thoughts On Deep Red…
Flangan, P (1999/2000) Dario Argento’s Deep Red and The Uncanny (www.contamination.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/articles/deep_red.htm)
4 Mosche di Velluto Grigio/ Four Flies On Grey Velvet, Italy/France: Dario Argento, 1971
Blow Up, UK: Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1966
Le Cinque Giornate/The Five Days Of Milan, Italy: Dario Argento, 1973
l Gatto a Nove Code/The Cat O’ Nine Tails, Italy/West Germany: Dario Argento, 1971
Inferno, Italy: Dario Argento, 1980
Profondo Rosso / Deep Red, Italy: Dario Argento, 1975
Suspiria, Italy: Dario Argento, 1977
Tenebre/Tenebrae, Italy: Dario Argento, 1982
L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo/The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Italy/West Germany: Dario Argento, 1970