Profondo rosso (1975)
“You will NEVER forget it!!!”
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, Gabriele Lavia
Synopsis: A musician witnesses the murder of a famous psychic, and then teams up with a fiesty reporter to find the killer while evading attempts on their lives by the unseen killer bent on keeping a dark secret buried.
After a brief, unexpected diversion into comedy (Le cinque giornate, 1973), Italian horror director Dario Argento returned to the giallo genre with Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), a typically twisted story of bloody murder and psychotic madness. For the lead role of musician Marcus Daly, he cast David Hemmings, the British star of the 1960s whose acting career was pretty much going nowhere at the time. The movie wasn’t a success at the box office, although it did win critical acclaim, which is surprising considering its rambling structure. However, the version I watched was the 98 minute US version, which runs nearly thirty minutes shorter than Argento’s original cut. That doesn’t really explain why it seems so loosely put together, though; if anything, it would suggest that the longer version is even more prone to navel gazing and superfluous dialogue. Either way, the cuts that were made are pretty brutal; at times it’s like watching one of those 70s Scandinavian porn movies that were cut to shreds by the BBFC (so I’m told, of course…).
The movie proper opens at a lecture given by Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril), a German (or Lithuanian — the movie can’t seem to make up its mind) psychic who declares that someone in the audience has killed, and will kill again. This comes after a brief, enigmatic (but atmospheric) prologue in which we see shadows on a wall, one of whom stabs the other to death, followed by a shot of a child’s legs standing in front of the body as a bloody carving knife is thrown to the floor. Presumably, this was the murder to which Ms. Ulmann referred. What the psychic failed to see, however, is that one of those murders to come would be her own that very night. Daly sees the woman’s head pushed through a plate glass window from the town square below her apartment, where he is gently chastising his drunken friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) for his dissolute lifestyle. Rushing to help, he’s too late to save Ulmann, but he does see a figure wearing a black mac hurriedly leaving the murder scene.
As a key witness to the murder, Daly finds his face plastered all over the papers, thanks largely to the efforts of feisty newspaper reporter Gianna Brezzi, who is played by Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s long-time partner (and mother of Asia), which goes a long way to explaining why she is so badly miscast in the part. She’s not helped by her character being a generally irritating one who contributes little to the story, other than placing Daly squarely in the sights of the killer when her photo of him is prominently splashed over the front pages of the newspapers. For no logical reason, she suggests that she and Daly team up to investigate the murder, and for no logical reason Daly agrees. Such is Italian giallo, a genre which pays scant attention to logic if it interferes with its thirst for bloody sensation.
While Argento’s story-writing skills are woefully flabby, he does have a knack for staging terrific scenes of suspense, one of which is the scene in which the killer enters Daly’s flat as he composes music at his piano. For reasons which become apparent at the movie’s end, the killer has a signature tune, one of those insanely catchy kiddies tunes that will probably roll around inside your head for days after watching this, which, while it might get them in the mood for a little killing, also tips off Daly to their presence, and he continues to play the piano with one hand as he desperately searches for a weapon with which to defend himself with the other. He’s saved by a ringing phone, but the killer whispers threats through the door that separates them before departing.
After tracking down the killer’s signature tune in a record shop, Daly learns that the song forms part of a folktale about a haunted house featured in a book written by Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra). Before he can talk to Miss Righetti, however, she becomes the killer’s next victim — another well-handled scene which includes the dying victim scrawling a clue into the condensation on a glass tile in the bathroom just before it becomes invisible thanks to the breeze through a window. And so it goes; each clue brings Daly a little closer to identifying the killer while also signalling the murder of another person until the inevitable cat and mouse finale in which Daly must avoid becoming the killer’s final victim.
Profondo Rosso is one of those movies for which the whole proves to be substantially less than the sum of its parts. It contains some clever ideas and an undeniable enthusiasm, but it lacks shape and discipline. In any other genre such an incongruous mix would spell disaster, but the horror genre stands alone from others in as much as its devotees are far more forgiving than other genres’ fans of certain shortcomings if they don’t derail a movie completely. Argento and co-writer Bernardino Zapponi went out of their way to provide murders which viewers could relate to, so that instead of gimmicky deaths we see people dying from having their face plunged into scalding water or repeatedly slammed into unyielding surfaces. It’s a good idea, which adds a definite potency to the death scenes. Argento also has an eye for the bizarre, and doesn’t seem to care how he shoehorns it into the picture once he’s struck by it. Consider, for example, the creepy mechanical doll that serves as a distraction for one of the killer’s victims. It defies logic that the killer would have carried that child-sized doll around with them, but Argento doesn’t care, and the moment when it makes its arrival is highly effective.
Profondo Rosso is a typical Dario Argento movie, which means that if you like his stuff you’ll like this, and if you don’t, you won’t. It’s big, ambitious, and messy, and it has a great time telling its story. You probably won’t figure out the identity of the killer before it’s revealed but, to Argento’s credit, the clues are all there when you think about it…
(Reviewed 12th September 2013)