‘Have it your own way, stupid.
I’ll carry out my own investigation and we’ll see
who comes out on top.’
Part murder mystery, part screwball battle of the sexes comedy, Deep Red is one of the high points of director Dario Argento’s career and therefore one of the best horror films of the 70s. I just wish it wasn’t so damn long!
I’m not going to give away too much of the plot, because I’d like to think I’m not a total jerk. Let’s just say that Jazz pianist Marc witnesses a murder and finds himself a target of the killer along with brassy reporter Gianna, played by Daria Nicolodi, who would marry Argento shortly after meeting on this film. Dario and Daria – somehow, I can’t imagine dating someone who has pretty much the same name as me, but I guess they made it work for a while. The whole film is practically a love letter from Dario to Daria – she’s always beautifully lit, and even simple shots like the twirling of a cigarette or walking out of a room are staged with an operatic grandeur.
The whole film has the swagger of a young director reeking of confidence, and rightly so; here Dario is working with possibly the best cast, crew and script he ever had. The story is a typical giallo, but with the addition of some subtle supernatural overtones – I love the fact that one of the characters is a genuine psychic is readily accepted by everyone, no questions asked. Oh Helga? Yeah, she’s a psychic. Don’t worry about it.
Argento’s confidence is staggering – from the prowling, roaming camerawork to using the background of a scene to homage Edward Hopper’s famous painting Nighthawks – but it can also be his undoing. During the last 40 minutes of the film, over 15 minutes are spent watching Marc investigate a house (twice!) and a school. It’s hard to be mad because the sequences are shot with such verve and style, but in a 126 minute movie I can’t help but feel they could at least have been shortened. In fact, the version that nearly made the Nasties is the shorter 105 minute international cut, which in some ways improves the pacing of the film, though sometimes at the expense of some amusing character moments between Marc and Gianna. In particular, the absence of most of the police inspector’s scenes are an absolute godsend. I could also do without the flashes of animal violence, such as the fighting dogs and pinned lizard, but it’s not like we’re watching Faces of Death or something.
In a way it’s surprising that Deep Red didn’t end up with the Section 2 films. The violence is fairly drawn out and sadistic and, worst of all, relatable. A woman being burnt with boiling water and a man smashing his teeth off a table are the sort of awful things that could easily happen to anyone, and make the scenes truly wince-inducing. At the opposite end of the spectrum we have a death at the end of the film that is so spectacular and drawn out that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn it was the basis for the Final Destination movies.
Deep Red is such a definitive example of the gialli that Argento left the genre behind for several years, instead fully embracing the supernatural elements that this film only hinted at with Suspiria and Inferno, both of which will be making an appearance shortly.
On a personal note, when in Rome in 2015 I visited the Profondo Rosso store, Dario Argento’s horror memorabilia store run by his friend and fellow Nasty director Luigi ‘Contamination’ Cozzi. Downstairs there’s a museum of horrors that features several props used in Dario’s movies – from Deep Red there’s the knives and, of course, the painting that plays such an important role. After a long day my fiancée and I got back to the hotel and switched on the tv right as Deep Red was starting in unsubtitled Italian.
Did we sit and watch it? What the hell do you think, pal? When in Rome…