Deep Red Review
If you wish to know what a giallo is, then Deep Red (or Profondo Rosso) is probably the perfect ‘answer’ film. In literary terms, the word is derived from the yellow-covered mystery thrillers once popular in Italy – giallo means ‘yellow’ in Italian. Cinematically however, it refers to a genre characterised by excessive, almost rhapsodic violence, baroque visuals, bizarre, often surrealistic narrative twists, demented psychopaths driven to horrific extremes by outlandish impulses, reluctant protagonists drawn into murder mysteries that apparently only they can solve and perhaps most characteristically, the fact that the investigative element of the story is frequently subordinate to the increasingly elaborate and meticulously staged murder set-pieces on display. Indeed, the concerns of narrative credibility are often eschewed altogether, as is usually the case with director Dario Argento, a filmmaker well known for his preference for style over substance. Argento is renowned for his supernatural horrors Inferno and the classic Suspiria but he began his career making gialli like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, collectively known as the Animal Trilogy. However, it was with the exceptionally stylish and brutal Deep Red that he made his most significant creative leap forward, presenting a reasonably cohesive story to complement the film’s technical virtuosity and striking visual style.
The plot follows the traditional formula of the whodunnit. A jazz pianist, Marc Daly (David Hemmings), working in Rome witnesses the brutal murder of his neighbour, psychic Helga Ullman (Macha Meril), and, believing that he may have seen a vital clue at the murder scene that he can’t quite remember, decides to investigate. Marc’s musician friend, Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), suggests that his inability to recall what it was he might have seen signifies something important so Marc feels compelled to solve the mystery. He is further motivated when his own life is put in jeopardy thanks to an opportunistic reporter, Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who puts his photograph in the newspaper, naming him as someone who can identify the killer. He resolves to find the murderer himself and is aided by the plucky Gianna, with whom he becomes romantically involved, and a psychology professor, Giordani (Glauco Mauri), who was acquainted with the first victim and who helps to profile the psychopath. Marc’s investigation uncovers a murder plot with links to the past, revealing a killer so consumed by a desire to conceal a past crime that he is driven to commit the most ferocious acts of violence in order to ensure it stays a secret. However, every time our protagonist makes a breakthrough, another potential source of information turns up dead and Marc is forced to wonder how the killer is always seemingly one step ahead. Can he be watching? As Marc gets closer to the truth, the murders become even more cruel and sadistic until he finally puts the pieces of the mystery together and comes face to face with his pursuer in an appropriately bloody denouement.
There are so many twists and turns in the story that it is difficult to discuss the film in-depth without giving the game away, however, I’ll try to talk around the plot as much as I can. The casting of David Hemmings in the leading role is interesting as he is perhaps best known for his role in Antonioni’s Blow Up, a film similar to Deep Red in its story of a man obsessed with solving a murder mystery to which he may ultimately hold the answer. In Blow Up, Hemmings’s character believes that the key to unravelling a possible murder lies in the grainy photograph he has inadvertently taken of the crime scene; in Deep Red, his character thinks that a painting that has ‘disappeared’ from the first victim’s apartment may prove to be the missing link in solving the crime. (Of course, Blow Up is famed for its deliberate refusal to resolve its mystery whereas Deep Red ties up all its loose ends at the film’s tense climax.) Both films play with the theme of representation or, in the case of Deep Red, reflection. For example, the film personifies the central character, Marc, as a kind of mirror image of his friend Carlo, with each man represented as the other’s doppelganger. Most obviously, of course, both Marc and Carlo are musicians with a shared love of jazz, indeed the two are seen playing the piano together in one scene, but there are more interesting parallels to be found in the way in which the two characters themselves are depicted. To illustrate, both men are revealed to be somewhat weak and ineffectual, with Carlo portrayed as a depressive, tormented and sexually indecisive drunk. Similarly, Marc comes across as both highly-strung and at times pathetically feeble, coming off second best in an arm-wrestling contest with Gianna in one scene and barely able to defend himself when finally confronted with the killer. Indeed, as the story progresses, it is revealed that both these characters, Marc and Carlo, are, in a sense, victims of the same psychosis. In fact, this notion of reflection (or re-interpretation) pervades the entire film: it can be observed in the grisly painting Marc discovers beneath the plastered wall of an abandoned house and its subsequent, almost miraculous ‘re-appearance’ in a drawing made by a young girl; it can be glimpsed in the aftermath of the first murder where the truth is revealed (but perceived erroneously by the central character); and it is perhaps most clearly evidenced in the film’s final image of a man staring at his own haunted reflection in a pool of crimson blood.
Clearly, Argento was most interested in presenting the film as a kind of extended nightmare, and Deep Red is an excellent showcase of the director’s talent for creating and effectively maintaining a genuinely menacing atmosphere. His masterful use of lurid, often garish colours, off-kilter compositions, weird camera angles, unconventional framing, jarring shot transitions and elaborate set design all conspire to make this film as unsettling as it is visually compelling. I have already stated that gialli are known for their spectacularly nasty murder sequences and Deep Red is no exception. Gore hounds will no doubt be delighted to learn that the film contains copious scenes of bloodletting, including a hatchet murder, a very brutal scalding, a head squashing, a decapitation, and one particularly excruciating scene where a man has his teeth smashed against some furniture in graphic close-up. (Note for movie trivia fans: Argento always acts as stand-in for the killer’s hands in the murder scenes!) The pounding, bass-heavy score by Italian rock group Goblin is used to terrific effect in these sequences, driving home the sheer ferocity and insanity of the violence, at times seeming to act as a catalyst that pushes the killer to ever more frenzied acts of brutality. I must admit, however, that my favourite scene in the entire movie deals not with the graphic depiction of violence but rather the imminent threat of it: a wonderful sequence in Hemmings’s apartment where our protagonist composes jazz on his piano while the killer attempts to break in and kill him is a great example of stylish, show-off filmmaking – a marvellous combination of extreme close-ups, sinuous, prowling camera moves, well-chosen ambient music (in this case, Hemmings’s jazz composition and that nerve-jangling children’s nursery rhyme) and sheer filmmaking swagger that provides great suspense and elicits a palpable feeling of unease. Indeed, the film’s generally restless, dynamic camera work and jagged editing creates a lingering, omnipresent sense of paranoia – you’re never quite sure when the killer might be watching.
Flaws? Well, for a start, the acting quality is variable to say the least, with Hemmings and Nicolodi delivering reasonably convincing performances in the lead roles, although Nicolodi is a little irritating at times. However, some of the other actors involved seem to think they are in a different type of film altogether, particularly Eros Pagni (playing the police inspector assigned to the investigation) who behaves as if he is in some kind of comedy. I don’t mind if a filmmaker decides to use a little quirky, offbeat humour to lighten the mood of a scary movie but this just seemed ridiculous. This is the full-length, uncut version of Deep Red and some viewers may find the running time a little too long, and I will admit that some of the allegedly romantic scenes between Hemmings and Nicolodi were a little too cheesy and comical for my taste, spoiling the otherwise terrific pace and tone of the movie. I have to say though that these are small quibbles and they do not undermine the film’s considerable assets, not least of which is Luigi Kuveiller’s beautiful cinematography which draws the eye even when the images are at their most horrific. The production design of Giuseppe Bassan, heavily influenced by painters such as Edward Hopper (indeed, his magnificent painting “Nighthawks” was meticulously recreated for the scenes involving ‘The Blue Bar’), and the editing work of Franco Fraticelli add greatly to the film’s baroque and highly stylised vision of a world teetering on the edge of madness and chaos, and Dario Argento and co-screenwriter Bernardino Zapponi are to be congratulated for creating a first-rate giallo, a provocative and often horrifying murder mystery, perhaps the very best of its kind. Although it is fair to say that Argento’s directorial output has been less than stellar over the past few years, Deep Red provides ample proof of his extraordinary ability to create nightmarish visions that dwell in the mind long after the film has ended. Highly recommended.
This really is reference quality stuff. Presented in a stunning anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, I could find absolutely no flaws in the picture quality whatsoever. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the film is 26 years old. No signs of any artefacting, edge enhancement or grain, and the print used exhibits no white flecks, dirt, scratches or any of the usual faults that seem to plague many other movies this old. Colours, so rich and voluptuous in the film, are rendered so beautifully here that I was literally speechless when I first saw this version of the film. Black level is spot-on and the image itself is sharp and full of detail. However, there is one small flaw that loses the transfer a perfect ‘10’ score (although it may not bother those who have not yet seen the film.) Those familiar with the film will know that the end credits normally play over a moving shot of a character staring into a pool of blood. However, in this version, the moving shot is substituted with a freeze-frame. A small detail, I know, but it would have been nice to have the original version.
The sound is equally impressive, although it too suffers from a flaw that costs the disc a perfect score. The film is presented in both English and Italian Digital 5.1 (and Dolby Surround 2.0), however, if you choose the English option, parts of the film occasionally revert to Italian (with English subtitles, naturally.) This is due to certain segments of the English soundtrack having been lost or never recorded so you may find the sudden change in language (sometimes occurring in the middle of a scene) distracting. (To be honest, I prefer the Italian language option as it means I concentrate more on the subtitles than on the appalling post-dubbing.) Nevertheless, both soundtracks are extremely well recorded - dialogue is nice and clear and, although the rear speakers are rarely used, the film’s bass-heavy music score will give your front speakers a good workout, particularly during the murder set-pieces when Goblin’s thumping score kicks in. (Another good example of this is Marc’s extended search of the abandoned mansion, a definite musical highlight.)
There are two trailers, one American and one Italian (with or without subtitles), talent bios (of stars Hemmings and Nicolodi, director Argento, composer Goblin, producer Claudio Argento and writer Zapponi), and an interesting 25th anniversary featurette, with interviews of Argento, Zapponi and rock group Goblin explaining their intentions for the film. Argento and Zapponi discuss how visceral they intended the violence to be, how the audience is meant to be kept on edge, and so on. (The featurette also shows the two brief scenes of animal cruelty cut by the BBFC for versions released in Britain, by the way.) It’s a nice little feature but running a measly 10 minutes far too short; an audio commentary by Argento would have been great but I guess you can’t have everything.
What can I say? This is undoubtedly the finest transfer Deep Red has ever had and, aside from a few minor criticisms, this DVD deserves to be a part of your collection. The extras could have been better but the superb video and audio quality more than makes up for that. Buy it!