DEEP RED: Chills & Thrills, Italian-Style

by John S. 

Even the most casual film fan knows exactly who Alfred Hitchcock is. However, drop the name “Dario Argento” on the same unsuspecting person and you’ll probably get a blank stare. In fact, there are probably even some fervent cinephiles out there who have no idea who Argento is. Which is a shame because, just like Alfred Hitchcock,  in his own way Dario Argento has shaped the Thriller and Horror genres and made them what they are today. So much so that a common nickname for Argento is… The Italian Hitchcock.

Scarecrow’s crosscut theme this month is Red May, highlighting films with the word ‘red’ in their titles. Argento’s best film falls into this category. Called Profondo Rosso in its native Italy, the flick’s literal English translation is Deep Red. As you might guess, the crimson color plays a prominent role in the narrative – but not just for the reason you may suspect. Yes, there are violent deaths where the red stuff gets splashed about (though not as much as you’d think). However, the hue also manifests itself repeatedly in the film’s set design and backdrops. Consequently, since red is the color of alarm Deep Red has an atmosphere of ungoing tension wherein danger lurks around every corner, nothing is what it seems, and no one is safe.

Dario Argento, along with Mario Bava, popularized in the 60s and 70s a sub-genre of the Thriller Genre known as “Giallo.” Coined after the traditional yellow covers of murder/mystery/suspense novels in Italy, Giallo thrillers share several usual traits: (1) American or British protagonists in Europe (usually Italy) who (2) become embroiled in murder-mysteries and (3) end up being pursued by the black-gloved killers as they (4) conduct their own investigation because the cops are too oblivious. Gialli (plural of Giallo) are also usually marked by stylish, colorful setpieces that turn murder into a kind of performance art.

The premise of Deep Red is pure Giallo: Marcus Daly (Blow Up’s David Hemmings), a British expat living in Rome, glimpses his German neighbor, Helga Ullmann (Macha Meril), being murdered by a shadowy assailant through her window. By the time he reaches Helga’s flat, the killer is gone but Marcus glimpses a vital clue that he cannot recollect later on. This mystery of what Marcus saw that may actually reveal the killer’s identity leads to one of the best final twists in Thriller-dom. Unlike many suspensers that cheat in order to get a “clever” ending, Deep Red plays fair and you will find yourself watching it again to see what was under your nose the whole time. Argento’s body of work is full of these last-minute revelations but the one here is undoubtedly his most elegant and effective.

As with all of Argento’s flicks, though, the journey is just as important as the destination – sometimes even more. Marcus takes up investigating Helga’s murder with the help of tough-but-playful feminist reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi). The two have a nice, peppery banter that goes a long way towards making them likable, although it does occasionally paint Marcus as a bit of a sexist bastard. Fortunately, Hemmings’ smooth manner keeps Marcus amiable overall. Meanwhile, the vibrant Nicolodi (who began a relationship with Argento during filming) does something neat with her role. Even though Gianna is written as a feisty and loyal “Girl Friday,” Nicolodi also imbues her with a certain cool ambiguity that makes her a bit elusive, as well – turning Gianna into a sexy enigma who keeps you constantly on your toes. Gianna Brezzi is easily one of the best Argento heroines.

Deep Red is celebrated by many as Argento’s best movie. However, the rest of his oeuvre also features many notables worth seeking out and enjoying for their intrinsically Italian flair.  Hitchcock was never this flamboyant. It’s an Italian thing.

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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