Deep Red (1975)

Viewed January 13th

In this Dario Argento film, David Hemmings from Blow Up plays a pianist turned amateur detective after witnessing the violent murder of a famous psychic.

A detail from the history of opera is that, when you go beyond the great composers, mainstream Italian opera has been criticized as a platform for beautiful arias with little concern shown for the recitative and other musical & dramatic elements in-between. These parts of the operas function merely as a time-fillers with nods towards telling some sort of story, but no interest in real drama until things are ratcheted up during the arias and become "operatic." The same has been said of Italian giallo films (and later, the genre they helped create--the 1980s "slasher" film): they demonstrate little concern for the expositional content in-between the violent, cinematic murder set pieces. However, Deep Red, like a Verdi or Rossini opera, elevates an otherwise sometimes sensationalistic form into something deeper. 

Argento takes the drive in giallo toward detective mystery stories, the search for visual clues, and the obsessive, even perverse focus on portraying violent murder as an analog to the act of the viewer's experience of watching a film. The cinema audience, like the amateur giallo detective, builds together a world through the act of looking at images the filmmaker directs their eyes to absorb. So when exposition and clues are presented in Deep Red, they're presented in visually engrossing modes in which the filmmaker's camera and editing capture the viewer's eye, directing it to look, uncover the information, and receive pleasure in that looking. For example, in order to present background about the killer, the information is not relayed through dialogue or banal shots of family photos, but through a justly famous surveying of a felt table lined with various objects that, in their gradual visual accumulation, signal a psychological state, an obsession with childhood and violence. This visual surveillance is choreographed in conjunction with the film's great score to ultimately land on a frame of the glimmering knife and send a chill up the viewer's back. Another example is when, in a later scene the detective learns of a clue through a child's drawing, he doesn't merely pick up the drawing and allow the camera take a look, he is forced to pick away through drywall, little by little, to reveal it painted on the wall. The slowness and gradualness function the way that a striptease draws in the gaze, creating erotic suspense before the ultimate reveal. Deep Red is filled with examples in which the act of the protagonist as one who looks and detects is mirrored in the act of viewing the film itself. Perhaps the most incredible example is that the viewer is presented with the opportunity to scoop the detective early on in the film when the identity of the killer is, hilariously, presented in clear view for those who can spot it. 

But before we go too far in praising the technique of Deep Red, it's worth remembering that this is also a decidedly low culture exploitation film aimed at satisfying the most craven male scopophilic desires. In the wake of the great humanism of Italian Neo-Realism, the phantasmagoric personal cinematic odysseys of Fellini, and the intellectually sophisticated art films of Bertolucci, Antonioni and others (among other cornerstones of high Italian cinematic culture from this period), Deep Red and the giallo tradition, like Spaghetti Westerns, is largely sensationalistic and not obviously in the business of engaging with the viewer on an intellectual or moral level. The audience, then and still to this day when you watch giallos at repertory houses, cheers at the perfectly executed killings the way crowds at the Coliseum satisfied their bloodlust by watching the gladiators at the height of Roman culture.

But, again, Deep Red is a different case. The use of David Hemmings as the star adds a resonance and a bridge between the low of the giallo and the high of the Italian art house film. He was, then as now, best known for his starring role in the Antonioni classic Blow Up, a metaphysical mystery in which he plays a photographer who may or may not have captured a murder through his camera lens. In Deep Red, Hemmings plays a very similar cocky, bourgeois artist character with almost identical clothes and hair. It's a bit of deja vu seeing him in Deep Red, back at it, caught up in a murder mystery in which he inserts himself as the amateur sleuth. But Argento does some interesting things. He takes away Hemming's camera/phallus and makes him a musician, a piano player, and gives the power of the camera to the spunky female journalist who accompanies him. This character is played by the absolutely incredible Daria Nicolodi in costuming and hair styling that directly mirrors that of Vanessa Redgrave in Blow Up. At the risk of giving away too much, this gender switching, in which the power of looking is transferred to the female, is then pushed even further in the concluding reveal of the film's mystery. These touches make Deep Red a sort of meta-film, not only for the giallo genre, but for a key Antonioni film, as well. By doing so, it becomes not merely an indulgent splatter-fest but, as its Italian title says, rosso profondo.