In Deep Red, Dario Argento finally synthesizes his art and obsessions, and creates a film where the entire visual strategy of the film is fully integrated into his output. There are no longer “normal” sequences and “suspense” sequences. Every scene in Deep Red has the visual flair and style of the “good” parts of his previous movies. There are no static conversations. There is little exposition. Every resource of this film is put into the mise-en-scene. The camera is constantly moving unless it is still to punctuate the movement.
If only the story were worth the production…
Here’s the story, as I understand it (and I’ve seen this film many times). A jazz pianist, played by David Hemmings, witnesses a murder in his apartment building. He tries to rescue the victim, and in so doing spots a clue he can’t explain. No one is interested, except a female photo journalist. They have some ham-fisted conversations about feminism, and then go on to investigate the murder, both together and apart.
Hemmings’ investigation is clearly being followed by the killer, since said murderer gets ahead of him at every turn, leaving dead bodies for him to discover. Eventually, he find a house where the murderer might have once lived, and in the middle of excavating it uncovers a corpse, hidden for decades…but he’s knocked out before he can do anything about it.
Deep Red (Profondo Rosso in the original Italian) is a story with plenty of complications and twists, but not a ton of logical follow through. It’s held together by beautiful settings, lovely cinematography, and a muscular cinematic drive that can propel the action forward even as the storycraft falls by the wayside. Also, it’s the first Argento film scored by Goblin, an Italian progressive rock band that would be instrumental in the impact of this film’s to come. Soundtrack and picture move together to mesmerize… but do they cohere into a real story?
Even once the story is told in full, it neither makes much sense, nor is all that compelling. It’s a cliché to complain that something is style over substance. But Deep Red is all style. It’s attractive camera movements, and inventive framing devices. The mise en scene of Deep Red is immaculate. Even dull conversation scenes have visual strategies which combat the dullness. In scenes where the camera can’t create interest, there’s on-screen action to keep the talk from lapsing into dullness. Every telephone conversation is competing for volume, or fighting against the noise of a crowd.
The shame of it all is that Deep Red isn’t that great a story. It’s difficult to reconstruct it without spoilers, particularly since it isn’t a deeply logical story, so all the particulars have to, therefore, become spoilers: you can’t hint at story elements that are arbitrary.
So, we have our hero, who has witnessed a neighbor murdered. He seeks to investigate it, but not by seeking physical evidence. The victim was a psychic, so he consults her psychic colleagues and their world view. The crazy thing is, it works… but also for the murderer, since his leaps of illogic apparently are precipitated by the killer, who gets there ahead of him, and kills his potential interview subjects. You can’t think about Deep Red‘s story too much, because it all falls apart. But when you watch it, it’s so beautifully put together and propulsive that it feels like a great story. Even when it isn’t.
This move towards arbitrary illogic and an abandonment of story works better in the horror genre that Argento’s reputation was mostly made in. With Deep Red, a giallo-style thriller, it can make many scenes frustrating… particularly because the murder sequences in the film are so expertly crafted. If there were as expert a story to go along with the filmmaking, the experience would be highly elevated.
The murder sequences are where the film’s real heart is, and they are brutal and grotesque. Throats are gouged. Teeth are bashed out. A woman’s face is boiled in her bath tub. There’s a horrific inventiveness to the killings, and a relentless style which would carry over into Argento’s later work, when he became committed fully to horror.
On this 4K release, it’s even easier to appreciate Argento’s achievement of style. Pitch dark blacks, vivid colors in this most vivid film, and an incredible clarity, this is the best looking of the early Argento 4K releases. There are two cuts of the film here: the full Italian edit, and the English cut-down version that was released as The Hatchet Murders. The Italian cut is made from multiple sources, but I couldn’t visually detect where they cuts were made. Unfortunately, there are several sections that do not have English audio, so those parts of the full cut of the film have Italian audio and English subtitles.
As it stands, Deep Red is a proper culmination of Argento’s work in the giallo genre. His subsequent work in horror, where logic is more easily suspended, fit his skills better. But Deep Red is still a masterpiece of style. The fluid camera movements and scenecraft are impeccable, even if the story they tell might feel lacking. One can wish the screenplay was more clever or the entire story better thought out, but the fashion in which Argento tells this story is outstanding.
Deep Red has been released on Ultra HD 4K by Arrow Films. The release has two 4K discs – one for the full cut of the film, and a second for the shorter export release. Note that there is not a standard Blu-ray disc in this release. The first disc contains a pair of audio commentaries: an archival commentary by Argento expert Thomas Rostock, and a new commentary by Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson. Video extras include “Deep into the Red” (58 min), a 2018 interview with Dario Argento, and an archival interview with Daria Nicolodi; “The Medium Wore Black” (21 mins), an interview with actress Macha Meril; “16 Years in Red” (47 min), an interview with production designer Angelo Iacono; “Death Dies” (15 mins), an interview with composer Claudio Simonetti; “Carlo Never Dies” (16 mins), an interview with actor Gabriele Lavia; “I Am the Screaming Child” (8 min), an interview with actor Jacopo Mariani; “Bloodstained” (6 min) an interview with Lino Capolicchio; and trailers and image galleries.
The second disc contains the export release, which is 105 minutes long, and only include an English soundtrack. Video extras on this disc include “Profondo Giallo”, (33 min), a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie; “2011 Introduction by Claudio Simonetti” (24 seconds); “Profondo Rosso: From Celluloid to Shop” (15 min), a tour of the Profondo Rosso shop in Rome; “Rosso Recollections” (13 min), a discussion with Dario Argento; “The Lady in Red” (19 min) an interview with Daria Nicolodi; and “Music to Murder for!” (14 min) an interview with Claudio Simonetti; and a U.S. trailer.