The TV documentary “Dario Argento: An Eye For Horror” is terrific, and available on YouTube in nine parts.
Dario Argento was fairly discouraged at this point. Cat O’ Nine Tails was a more conventionally-made thriller which he cites to this day as one of his least favorite films, and Four Flies On Gray Velvet, a return to a more abstracted, Freudian, expressionistic style, while successful at the box-office, didn’t do nearly as well as he had hoped. He switched gears, making the western-comedy Five Days in Milan (Le Cinque Giornate, 1973). The general sense I get from the various available sources is that Five Days in Milan was veteran producer Salvatore Argento’s (Dario’s father), and executive producer Claudio Argento’s (Dario’s brother) best practical idea for Dario’s next career move. He’d already collaborated on a great western (Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West), and with films like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) stirring up both controversy and theater attendance, audiences were primed for westerns that incorporated a historical bigger picture. The Italian revolution of 1848 would be a good parallel for the shifting Mexican – American intrigues of the early 20th century; the insurgence of Pancho Villa and the fictional fiefdom of The Wild Bunch’s Mapache. Alas, it was a bomb, and is very hard to locate today for confirmation of either its ineptitude or irrelevance – but my impression is that it’s so Italian-history specific that it never had a chance in wider markets, even if Italians thought it was watchable. Which, apparently, they didn’t. *(Some further homework on the subject, notably Maitland McDonagh’s valuable book Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds: The Films of Dario Argento, reveals that Le Cinque Giornate was just as much Dario’s idea as anyone else’s – he was genuinely anxious to tell this particular story cinematically.)
Dario then returned to the giallo well, and, in many ways, and with many consensus defenders, the result, Deep Red (Profondo Rosso) (Italy, 1975) may be one of the finest landmark giallos ever created. Remember those cinematographers from Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies… who, despite their not-unimpressive talents, didn’t quite measure up to Mario Bava’s cinematographer, Ubaldo Terzano? I want to assure you that Luigi Kuveiller, who is credited as Deep Red’s cinematographer, is a seasoned pro. But his camera operator on Deep Red was none other than Ubaldo Terzano, and I suspect he took on a few more responsibilities than supervising reel changes and focus pulls. There’s a frosty crispness to Terzano’s images in this film, an artfully stylized fashion-mag clarity that returns to the effectiveness of Vittorio Storaro’s similar images in Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and, of course, Bava’s Blood And Black Lace.
In Bird…, our protagonist was a writer who accidentally witnesses a violent crime, and is compelled to investigate what the origins of the situation really are. This classic Hitchcock set-up is reliably recycled once again by Argento here in Deep Red; David Hemmings plays Marcus Daly, a musician and composer making his living in Turin as a college music teacher, who witnesses a grisly murder, and, egged on by a police investigator (with more than a passing similarity to The Thin Man’s Lieutenant Guild) and a precocious but dogged female crime reporter, Gianna (Daria Nicolodi), involves himself to the point where he becomes the potential next victim. We see him early in the film, jamming at the piano with some students in what seems to be a converted chapel; the piano is directly against a large white stone altar in the center of the room. Later, as Marcus makes his way home, he checks in on another piano-playing friend, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), outside the bar/lounge he gigs at in the Piazza San Carlo, and, true to form, Carlo is hanging outside, half in the bag, in front of another large classical sculpture and fountain. It’s shortly after Carlo leaves, and Marcus is making his now-short walk home, that he sees the ax murder of his neighbor, Helga Ulmann (the reliable Macha Mèril), at a third floor window directly above the street. Rushing up the building stairs, Marcus bursts into her apartment, and finds her semi-impaled on the shards of the exterior window, in a hallway filled with paintings. The police are called, Marcus is questioned, and, after a long day, he again meets Carlo in front of the bar in the square. Relating his previous night’s experience, Marcus is trying to reconstruct the event in his mind, but his alcoholic pal advises him; “Sometimes what you actually see, and what you imagine, get mixed up in your memory like a cocktail from which you can no longer distinguish one flavor from another… You think you’re telling the truth, but, in fact, you’re telling only your version of the truth.”
“The truth,” it turns out, relates to two earlier scenes in the film that seem wholly disconnected from Marcus’ (and Carlo’s) story, but insinuate themselves quickly into the fabric of the mystery. A short, silent prologue which opens the movie shows us a shadowy murder witnessed by a child. The entire sequence is shot at floor level – we see the child’s shoes, the silhouetted killing against the rear wall, and the bloodied knife falling at the child’s feet. A short time later in the film, we’re at a well-attended academic/scientific symposium, and the guest of honor is Marcus’ neighbor, Helga Ulmann, a woman who is extraordinarily sensitive to other’s emotional states, and can construct loose visions of the events that led to those neuroses and, in this case, psychoses. She feels the presence of the person who committed that murder, in the auditorium with her there, even years and years after it actually happened. Profondo, indeed, and Helga’s revelation is her undoing; the perpetrator stalks and kills her, and Marcus enters the tale.
Argento is pretty scrupulous about surrounding his characters with specific art and culture references; in Bird…, it was the modern sculptures in the Rainieri’s gallery. In Deep Red, it’s classical sculpture and paintings. And in a rare instance where telling you a twist doesn’t ruin the movie (when the film’s over, you can rewind and see it, but you won’t catch it the first time because you won’t know how to find it), I can tell you that the paintings in Helga’s hallway obscure the fact that Marcus looked the murderer directly in the face. That’s pretty cool, but, of course, Marcus doesn’t know that yet – that’s Carlo’s ‘cocktail’ – so he must find his own way, with Gianna’s help, to discover the family behind that initial murder. He and Gianna enlist the help of one of Helga’s associates, Giordani (Glauco Mauri), who in turn leads them to the author of a book about the murder, Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra), and Righetti’s book leads them to the impressive art-nouveau home where the family originally lived. Giordani and Righetti are, of course, dispatched in inventive giallo fashion. Deep Red is especially good on creatively grisly deaths, including the denouement of the killer at the end, all the handiwork of a familiar make-up man – Carlo Rambaldi.
A few other notes – Argento, most certainly a Michelangelo Antonioni fan, must have been thrilled to land Hemmings, the star of Blow-Up, for his own film. It’s a nice parallel role for Hemmings – in Blow-Up, he’s the photographer that shot evidence of a murder that no one seems to care about. Argento’s story takes him down a similar path for different purposes, but Hemmings creates a markedly different character from Blow-Up’s Thomas. This was also the first film that employed the Italian rock-group Goblin for its musical soundtrack (the jazz musician Giorgio Gaslini had done some music for the film, but Argento wasn’t happy with it), and they became regular collaborators, not only for a number of Argento films, but also for George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978). Deep Red also continues Argento’s penchant for portraying sympathetic gay characters; here one of the most interesting supporting roles is a transsexual friend of Carlo’s, played by actress (I’m assuming, based on other credits) Geraldine Hooper. The old-house-caretaker’s young daughter is also an interesting curve-ball character. And I should also mention that, on the cursory homework I’ve done, the shorter 106-minute version of the film (I watched the ‘uncut’ 126 minute version) seems to only be missing a great deal of not-very-convincing flirtatious sparring between Marcus and Gianna. I always vote for the director’s version, and the Blu-Ray version is visually indispensable, but I don’t think the older, shorter versions will cheat you of much in this case. *(Maitland McDonagh in Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds, a far more thorough and formal analysis of Argento’s work, and this film, understandably disagrees with this.)
Deep Red is considered by many to be, along with Bava’s Blood And Black Lace, one of the masterpieces of the giallo form. And it’s very good, a real culmination of the good ideas Argento processed his way through in his earlier films. But it’s here I must veer away from the popular opinions and state that I didn’t think Deep Red was the pièce de résistance of Argento’s oeuvre. (And, again, I, and many others, don’t consider Suspiria a true giallo.) For that, IMHO, you must jump to 1982’s Tenebre, which I would rate as a smarter, scarier and more impressive film than even this one. It’s my favorite Argento. We’ll get to Tenebre after I’ve gone through a large chunk of other deserving 70s work from other directors – Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, Aldo Lado, Massimo Dallamano, Luciano Ercoli, and others. The seventies really were the heyday of giallo filmmaking, and familiarity with them will render Tenebre even more impressive, I promise.