Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Deep Red

Whereas 'The Bird with the Crystal Plumage' and 'The Cat O'Nine Tails' are immediate in the instigation of their narratives (Sam Dalmas is walking home when he sees something; Franco Arno is walking home when he overhears something), 'Deep Red' sets out its stall in a more roudabout, even oblique, fashion. The first scene shows very little but is full of significance: we see a table set for dinner, a gramophone stand, a Christmas tree, an expanse of parquet flooring. A child's nursery rhyme plays liltingly on the soundtrack. In shadow, an indeterminate figure knifes another figure in the back. The bloody knife is thrown to the floor, suddenly occupying the screen in grotesque close-up. A pair of legs enter the composition, feet halting before the knife. Small feet. Those of a child.

The lilting song is replaced by Goblin's bass-heavy score ('Deep Red' marks Argento's first collaboration with the band; their music would become a mainstay of his films). The opening credits over, a POV shot takes us into a hall, heavy red curtains drawing back theatrically, where a conference on parapsychology is in progress. Psychiatrist Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) is interviewing a famous medium, Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril). Helga demonstrates her powers with a borderline parlour trick (correctly identifying an audience member she's never met) before jolting back in her seat, body wracked as if in agony. "I have contacted a twisted mind," she gasps. "You ... you have killed. And you will kill again." Another POV shot as the still anonymous newcomer to the conference just as quickly withdraws. Helga returns to her hotel room, keen to record her perceptions of this telepathic experience. Her few pages of notes are summarily removed after a shocking attack by a black-clad antagonist wielding a meat cleaver.

It is only now that, in true giallo fashion, our wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time hero happens along and witnesses the murder. Introduced a few minutes earlier rehearsing with his band and berating them for sounding "too clean, too formal ... this kind of jazz was born in brothels", Marc Daly (David Hemmings) is an English musician living in Rome. Walking home, he stops to chat with his friend Carlo (Gabrielle Lavia), a pianist-for-hire at a trendy bar. Marc remonstrates with Carlo about his drink problem and the way he squanders his talent. "You do it for the love of it," Carlo returns; "I do it for the money." This remark suggests that Marc occupies an ivory tower while Carlo lives in the real world. Seconds later, the real world (or at least Argento's hyper-stylised version of it) comes crashing into Marc's life as a scream rings out. Seconds after this, he sees Helga plunged face-first through a plate glass window.

By the time Marc gets to her apartment the killer has fled and it's too late. The police arrive, again adhering to giallo archetype: Superintendent Calcabrini (Eros Pagni) stuffs his face with sandwiches at the crime scene, demonstrates more interest in what instrument Marc plays than in generating lines of enquiry, and basically proves as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot. Marc, meanwhile, fixates on the surreal paintings that line the walls of the hallway leading to Helga's apartment. Something bothers him; something he can't quite put his finger on.
Threatened by the killer, who plays the child's nursery rhyme outside Marc's apartment prior to warning him to leave Rome, Marc joins forces with flamboyant journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, making her first appearance in an Argento film) and they begin their own investigation. Marc buys a recording of the nursery rhyme and plays it to Giordani, who suggests it might be linked to a formative and probably traumatic event in the killer's childhood. Marc learns of a book detailing unsolved mysteries in which the nursery rhyme is mentioned. There is an illustration of an old house. Marc tears the illustration out of the book, and sets about tracking down the author, Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra). The killer beats him to it. Frustrated, sickened at the brutality of Amanda's death, Marc overlooks a vital clue. Giordani, who visits the scene later, sees what Marc has missed. He returns to his office, confident that he knows the murderer's identity ...

Marc, meanwhile, locates the old house. He makes a couple of discoveries, but is coshed, left unconscious and wakes to find the place in flames. It seems like the killer has, once again, been one step ahead of him. Then he unearths a final clue which leads him to a confrontation in a deserted school ... but even then, there's something that doesn't add up. And there's one more nasty surprise lying in wait for him.

'Deep Red' meets all the criteria expected of a giallo. So what makes it transcend the sub-genre? Why is it arguably Argento's greatest achievement? Firstly, there's the script, which Argento co-wrote with Bernardino Zapponi (who worked with, among others, Fellini): crafty, clever, intricately structured, it leaves its greatest conceit - the transference of guilt from killer to protagonist - beautifully understated, assuming that the more the viewer thinks about the last-act revelation, and the motivations behind the murder and mayhem, the more apparent the supposed hero's complicity will become. That's all I'm saying on the subject, by the way; if you haven't seen the film yet, I don't want to deprive you of the jaw-dropping confidence which with Argento shows/conceals the murderer's identity quite early on. Structurally, the script offers a number of 'rhymed' scenes: incidental details and bits of throwaway dialogue which presage the mechanics of the various death scenes.

There's also the introduction, for the first time in Argento's filmography, of the supernatural, Helga's telepathy providing the impetus for the first murder. When Giordani introduces Helga, he talks of telepathy in the animal world, how a butterfly, in danger, will mentally communicate with others of its species, a mass of them responding. (This line finds its visual corrolary, only with flies instead of butterflies, in a key scene in 'Phenomena'.) Argento would go on to make two supernatural/horror films: 'Suspiria' and 'Inferno', the first two parts of his only-just-completed Three Mothers trilogy.

'Deep Red' brings the horror ethos to the fore, both in terms of elaborate, blood-soaked set-pieces (the title, 'Profondo Rosso' in its original Italian, is certainly apt) and the dark psychology behind them. I won't dwell on the latter for fear of giving too much away (suffice it to say that key themes here - duality and complicity - are taken to their logical extreme in the later 'Tenebrae'), so let's consider the former. The death scenes are bloodier and more violent than anything Argento had depicted before - something he would raise the bar on with (again) 'Tenebrae'. But there's more going on than just a B-movie guts 'n' gore exploitation workout. Argento raises the bar on tension, as well, particularly in Giordani's death scene, where he is menaced by an unseen assailant only for a rabbit-faced life-size mechanical doll to come hurtling into his office, maniacal giggling filling the soundtrack. Typing a description of this scene, I'm aware that it probably sounds ridiculous. Onscreen - take my word on this - it's fucking terrifying.

Just as creepy are the pre-murder scenes where the camera pans, in fetishistic close-up, across a collection of childhood mementos set against a backdrop of black velvet. Again, a simple description doesn't communicate much; but the combination of image, music and camera movement add up to one of the most effective head-fucks in cinema.

Argento's technical bravura is also evident during the wordless 15-minute sequence where Marc prowls the old house. With Goblin's soundtrack again providing aural assault, Argento's camera gets as much inside his protagonist's head as it does the empty rooms, dusty corridors and flooded basement of the house itself. The full extent of Marc's obsession is documented here.

Hemmings's performance, reminiscent of (as well as slyly satirising) his earlier work on Antonioni's 'Blow-Up', is one of his best. His scenes with Gianna work well, too, her supreme confidence an eternal threat to his painfully thin veneer of masculinity. Marc emerges as an often vulnerable but likeably tenacious character - multi-layered in a way that Sam Dalmas or Carlo Giordano aren't. And yet it's this tenacity that leaves him, in the film's powerful final image, looking back at his own image in a pool of blood, silently reckoning the cost of his obsession.

1 comment:

Meeg said...

Nice. You're review makes me want to rewatch the movie. And I totally didn't realize Hemming from Blow Up was in this movie too (I guess the viewings were spaced pretty far apart for me, plus I watched this one in Italian).

If you want, check out my post on the Three Mother's Trilogy and let me know what you think.