11/30/09

Dario Argento's Deep Red (1975): Surprisingly Not About Undercover Communists

With Thanksgiving over and Christmas barreling down upon us, its time to start moving out of the oranges, yellows, and browns of fall and move on into more Christmassy colors. You know like a lovely dark green coupled with a deep red. Speaking of deep red and strange ways to intro a review, I finally got a chance this weekend to get around to watching Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso a.k.a. Deep Red. Of all the Italian genre directors I’ve tried, I’ve found Argento the hardest to wrap my mind around. This may be because the first of his films I saw, Opera, is considered by many to be the last good one that he made. It left me a little cold, and when I went back to his first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, I felt much the same. Finally the pair of Susperia and Tenebre convinced me that there was something to this Argento fellow after all. So I’ve been waiting with great expectation for a time when I could get a chance to see Argento’s other widely hailed film.

Deep Red followed in the giallo tradition which Argento had already mined in three of his four first pictures (Bird, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, and Cat O’ Nine Tails). This time out the focus lands on Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), a jazz pianist who teaches at a nearby conservatory. One night, walking home with his drunken pal Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) he witnesses the murder of a renowned psychic. As Marcus begins to unravel the mystery of the killer, murders continue to happen all around him. With the help of journalist Gianna Brezzi, Marcus must remember the clue he saw at the scene of the first crime if he’s going to stop the sadistic killer.

There are several different cuts of Deep Red floating around out there, and the runtime varies anywhere from the American 98 minute cut to the full 126 minute Italian version. For better or worse, the version I watched was the latter. Generally I feel that an hour and half is the perfect running time for most films, and I wonder what I would have thought of a shorter cut. I say this because no matter how much I laud the acting and cinematic brilliance of this film it felt a bit overlong at over two hours. Generally a film with as much flair as this one can keep my attention pretty well rapt, but I found myself with my mind wandering or distracted by the nearest shiny object. Several times when the film switched from dubbing to subtitles I had to run it back to catch up with what was up. Losing track in a gialli is anathema to the enjoyment of the film, and for whatever reason, it was quite hard for me to keep this one on the rails.

Now that I’ve griped about the long running time, let me get into a few of the things I really liked about Deep Red. First off the film is stunningly shot. While the dynamic color palette that Argento shows off in many of his other films feels conspicuously absent, the fluidity of the camera movements more than made up for the subdued tones. Argento chose to work with cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller who he had previously paired with for his Italian Revolution film Five Days in Milan. The pair created some masterful brushstrokes with the camera, but the lack of a deep color field definitely felt like a limitation. Kuveiller would continue to work until 2004, and he even paired with another of the Italian horror masters in 1982 when he shot Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper.

Another of the great things about Deep Red was the casting. Let’s start with David Hemmings. I love this guy. From Blow Up (1966) to Camelot (1967) to Castellari’s The Heroin Busters (1977) and even his small part in 2001’s Mean Machine, I consistently find him a very engaging and entertaining actor. Deep Red is no exception. Hemmings’ jazz pianist is another in a long string of unlikely gialli detectives, but he manages to pull off the amateur detective role with an air of believability. The only thing about his character that bothered me is that even though the film spans several days either Hemmings’ Marcus only has one outfit or he wears it day in and day out. The black shirt and white pants combo were very stylish and perhaps a subtle nod to his chosen profession, but it bothered me that this dashing young pianist would have come to Italy without a change of clothes.

Hemmings’ co-stars were all equally as well cast and entertaining. Daria Nicolodi, Mr. Argento’s longtime paramour, acquits herself well as the brash reporter Gianna Brezzi. She made a good investigation partner for Hemmings’ character, but I never felt a spark in the romantic angle of the story. Also there were many superfluous scenes filled with humorous banter between the pair, and these were the times I found myself most apt to let my mind wander. Deep Red also features a fine performance from Gabriele Lavia as Marcus’ drunken pal Carlo. Some may recognize Lavia from his roles in Zeder (1983) or Beyond the Door (1974), but he also was an influential Italian stage actor. Some of his performance, especially scenes framed wide with the characters performing in the distance, seemed to draw from his stage experience to great effect.

While the actors and cinematography both have their strong points, the best and most memorable part of Deep Red has to be the music. As with many Argento films, the score is provided by the prog rock gods known as Goblin. Every scene where their music appears meshes perfectly with what is happening on the screen. I picked up the soundtrack after seeing the film, and there is no doubt that hearing those pieces brings back memories of what was going on in each scene. I always find this a hallmark of a great score, and Goblin definitely knocks the ball out of the park with this one.

Now before I sign off I want to talk about my other gripes with Deep Red. My favorite part of gialli is normally the guessing. The endless red herrings keep me riveted to the screen in an attempt to outsmart the film before the denouement reveals the mystery. Deep Red left me at a loss here. I never suspected anyone. I had no idea who the killer was and when the ending rolled around even in reflection I could not see the clues. Perhaps on a repeated viewing I might find the ending more satisfying, and there is always the chance that when my mind wandered they marched the clues across the screen. The other problem I had with the film was a lack of sex and style. There was little in this film that struck me as having the same kind of flair exhibited by film makers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci in his giallo days, or even other Argento films. There are certain things I expect a gialli to deliver, and on both of these counts it fell a bit short.

In the end, I have to still recommend Deep Red as required viewing for fans of the Italian film world. While I had quite a few reservations about the film, in the end it still feels like it hints at the work that lay ahead of Mr. Argento. Only two years later Argento would hit an artistic peak with the film Susperia, and with that film he would move beyond the giallo into a color drenched world of abject horror. So if you haven’t checked out Deep Red, then you definitely should, and if you have let me know what you think. I know I’m not the only one who runs hot and cold with Argento, and I’m interested to see what you folks out there have to say.

Bugg Rating

1 comment:

  1. I tried watching one version of this recently online and found it unwatchable. There was far too much cut out! I have a much longer version here on dvd.

    And as for running hot and cold about Argento- that sums up my feelings about the dude too. Argento is capable of flourishes of excellence in what ultimately proves to be a mediocre movie. But he is often far too inconsistent for my tastes.

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