At a parapsychology conference in Rome, renowned psychic Helga Ullman (Macha Meril) recoils in horror when she senses a murderer amidst the audience. “You have killed and you will kill again!” she intones ominously. Later that night, Helga is viciously murdered in her apartment by a mystery maniac wearing a trenchcoat and leather gloves. Across the street, jazz pianist Marc Daly (]David Hemmings) witnesses the whole thing alongside his troubled, alcoholic colleague Carlo (Gabriele Lavia). Pushy reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) realizes Marc is onto something when, certain he has overlooked a crucial detail in Helga’s apartment, he begins piecing together the labyrinthine trail of clues that lead to the killer, who is ruthlessly eliminating anyone who can reveal his/her identity…
Deep Red (or Profondo Rosso to use its more poetic Italian title) ranks alongside Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969) as a key giallo and is arguably the definitive expression of the form. Following the proliferation of genre titles throughout the early Seventies and the lacklustre reception given his historical comedy-thriller The Five Days of Milan (1973), maestro Dario Argento seemingly set out to show everybody how a great horror-mystery should be done. The result was this intricate, artfully woven masterpiece whose nightmarish set-pieces, satirical asides (note the police inspector who dismisses Marc’s jazz career as not being ‘a real job’), and multilayered plot display a remarkable thematic consistency.
Throughout the unfolding narrative, Argento repeatedly points to art, literature, music, even a child’s mural as keys to unlock the human soul. Combined with an intuitive performance from David Hemmings (whose presence surely alludes to Blowup (1966), confirming that Michelangelo Antonioni is as crucial an artistic influence as Alfred Hitchcock or Sergio Leone), Argento virtuoso cinematic style makes the process of crime-solving as enlightening as scrutinizing an artwork, savouring a piece of music, losing yourself in a good book or - hey! - watching a really great movie.
Accompanied by Goblin’s alternately unsettling and beguiling rock score, Argento’s acrobatic camera plunges us into a world of irrational, often childlike terrors (creepy cackling dolls, malevolent birds) where the killings are extraordinary brutal (a victim’s face plunged into a tub of scalding hot water) and often foreshadowed by sly, throwaway remarks. Note how Marc’s statement that playing piano represents a symbolic bashing of his father’s teeth prefigures the unforgettably gruesome set-piece wherein one character has their jaws repeatedly smashed against a fireplace.
It is that rare Argento movie that plays just as well in an English dub, maybe even better. Countering past (and future) criticisms that his characters are paper-thin, Profondo Rosso features his warmest, most faceted protagonists. Both the Marc-Gianna and Marc-Carlo relationships are well drawn, the latter encompassing a sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality. Daria Nicolodi’s cute, sparkly performance contrasts disquietingly with her later Argento roles, where their real life romantic relationship was on the rocks, but watching Marc and Gianna bicker about gender roles and his nervous artistic temperament plays like a warm portrait of domestic life chez Argento. Some find the comedic subplot hit-and-miss - and large sections were edited out for the international version - but moments like the arm-wrestling scene and the malfunctioning car have their charm and it remains refreshing how she is the sexual aggressor while he is hesitant.
Although the blood and gore are suitably shocking, it’s the peripheral details that really unsettle: surreal episodes of possibly supernatural foreboding (that inexplicable wind-up doll); the haunted mansion where Marc finds and misinterprets a vital clue; a cameo from Nicoletta Elmi, that ubiquitous red-haired little minx of Seventies Italian horror, as another terror tyke; and most disturbingly, the school that seemingly churns out generation upon generation of psychotic killers. Equally worthy of note are instances of Argento’s subtle wit, e.g. the moment psychic Helga recoils in horror before the killer bursts through the door; the camera that dollies past the killer’s lost marbles (geddit?) and the climactic identity reveal that must have tickled the cinefile inside the maestro.
Italian horror maestro who began his film career as a critic, before moving into the world of screenwriting, collaborating most notably with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci on the script of Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Argento's first film as director, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) set the template for much of his subsequent work - inventive camerawork, sly wit, violent murder set-pieces, and a convoluted whodunnit murder plot. He perfected his art in this genre with Deep Red in 1975, before proceeding to direct the terrifying Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), the first two parts of a loose trilogy of supernatural chillers that were finally completed with Mother of Tears in 2007.
Since then, Argento has pretty much stuck to what he knows best, sometimes successfully with Tenebrae and Opera, sometimes, usually in the latter half of his career, less so (Trauma, Sleepless, Dracula), but always with a sense of malicious style.