Insofar as Deep Red is widely acknowledged as a giallo masterpiece, one of the first examples of the form that the interested should seek out, we need only give the briefest of synopses:
At a parapsychology conference in Rome, psychic Helga Ullman announces the presence of a murderer in the audience. That night she is murdered in her apartment. Alerted by her scream, Marc Daly, an English jazz pianist, rushes to the scene. Unable to save Helga or prevent the killer from escaping, Marc soon becomes convinced that some vital detail about the crime scene has changed and thus embarks upon his own unofficial investigation...
If this plot derives primarily from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and can thus in turn be traced back to Bava’s The Girl Who Saw Too Much, Argento’s aesthetic approach emerges as the fulfilment of the poetics intermittently present in Cat o' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
By poetic I mean two interconnected ideas, the first coming from Edgar Allan Poe and the latter from Pier Paolo-Pasolini. For Poe, a key principle in creating a composition was that of unity of effect: the author should determine the overall effect he wanted to have on his audience and then, working backwards, gear his aesthetic choices to this end. For Pasolini, the cinema was poetic rather than prosaic when it used technique expressively, as a means of articulating and embodying the consciousness of its characters and author beyond a mundane narrative mise-en-scene. Mikel Koven uses this idea in relation t the vernacular poetry of the giallo set piece, but I would argue that here Argento goes further towards the intertwining of narrative and set piece, approaching the point where they becoming indistinguishable.
In Cat o' Nine Tails, Argento's direction is at its most poetic in his representation of the insane killer as an disembodied eye. Excepting the sight of the killer disappearing into the shadows as they make good their escape from the Terzi Institute, we never actually see them as possessing a body. All the murders take place almost as if through some supernatural force – a garrotte extends around one victim's neck, a knife slashes the face of another – rather than through the usual black-gloved hands trope of other gialli. This, I would argue, expresses the killer's position as a scientist whose future is compromised by a genetic flaw. The killer's insane desire, I would argue, it to be a disembodied consciousness, a brain without a body.
In Four Flies on Grey Velvet, this poetic aspect is evident in the recurring use of circular and meandering camera movements. The former are particularly associated with the killer, expressing their psychotic inability to overcome the past trauma that has determined their present and – in the film's final scene, in which a last look back precipitates their death – ultimate future. The latter are associated with their persecuted victim, expressing his paranoiac difficulties in finding a line that makes sense: why are they, whoever they may be, doing this to me?
But, if Cat expresses a character's insane desires and Four Flies madness and paranoia in a poetic way, they do so intermittently, with less sense that the whole film has been constructed backwards, orchestrated with a single idea or effect in mind as Poe argued for.
In contrast everything in Deep Red seems to function to unsettle the viewer, inviting him or her to make connections between seemingly irrelevant details – why bring attention to a road repair truck, for example – to get the sense of another terrifying, irrational, illogical world subsisting alongside this one, a world of ghosts, doubles / shadows and other things existing beneath, between and behind the seen / scene.
The film is also replete with unmotivated camera movements and retrospectively false POV shots, beginning with the camera that tracks in on Daly to then – as his voice fades out on the soundtrack – continue on past him into the auditorium of the conference, travelling across time and space, before successive shots and movements position us with what can only be read as an invisible, haunting, presences.
Another key element here is the use of Gaslini and Goblin's music, which goes beyond that provided by Morricone for the Animal Trilogy to increasingly lead rather than supplement the visuals, with a more successful integration of the diegetic and non-diegetic than Four Flies on Grey Velvet and a greater kinetic intensity/affect. Indeed, as with Suspiria and Inferno, some passages within the film, most notably Marc's investigation of the haunted house of the screaming child, are almost free from dialogue - if not music.
In returning to certain themes from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage the film also goes beyond its immediate model in a way that demonstrates just how far Argento had come in his filmmaking since his already audacious debut.
Two things immediately come to mind.
The first is the presence of David Hemmings as Marc, with the intertextual allusions this establishes in relation to Blow-Up. Blow-Up is, as many commentators have indicated, an anti-giallo, a deconstruction of the thriller that ends with Hemmings' protagonist possessed of a new understanding of the world but essentially unable to function. A man has been murdered, but there is nothing he can do.
Argento was famously dissatisfied with this irresolution and, having skirted around the issue in his earlier gialli, finally responds to Antonioni directly in having Hemming's character doggedly refuse to give up in existential despair and solving the mystery, albeit with considerable irony in terms of the additional deaths his involvement could be argued to have precipitated.
The second is the way in which Argento handles the central scene in which the identity of the killer is revealed and concealed. Whereas in Bird the vital use of a reverse angle prevents the viewer from seeing whose hand is grasping the knife and thus splits us from the detective protagonist, within Deep Red Argento allows us to see, however fleetingly, the face of his killer, confident that, like Marc, we will not recognise this image within the frame. Watching the film a second, third or even twentieth time, one can never fail to be astonished at his misdirecting sleight-of-hand here.
Another vital way in which Deep Red presents an advance on its predecessors is its engagement with history. While personal history had long been an Argento theme, in terms of the traumatic incidents in the past that, hitherto repressed, erupt into the present, his attempt at engaging with its collective counterpart in Le Cinque giornate had been less successful. Though I would actually recommend that fans see the film, with its allusions to Soviet Montage and Chaplin's Modern Times by way of the cynicism of Leone's Duck You Sucker, it remains perhaps a step too far away from the earlier gialli with which he had made his name.
History emerges within the film in the form of a Fascist / Holocaust subtext also found in Suspiria, Tenebre and Phenomena. Though Deep Red is certainly far less explicit in this regard than the contemporaneous likes of The Night Porter, Salon Kitty, Salo, something is nevertheless there if we consider the use of Christian and Jewish iconography in the representation of a traumatic domestic scene from the killer’s past, complete with Christmas tree, and the Menorah and Magen David figures in Helga’s apartment, and the absence of issues of religious difference from the Animal Trilogy; here we can also note that the killer’s distinctive pendant in Four Flies on Grey Velvet was originally going to be a cross, and that within the mise-en-scene a number of cruciform shapes do remain, but denuded of wider associative meanings.
(If Four Flies' killer’s circular pendant, with trapped fly, re-iterates the theme of circular entrapment in time, a cross might have made the theme of death that bit stronger given comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell’s identification of the cross as the ultimate symbol of death in The Hero with the Thousand Faces.)
That the traumatic nature of 20th century history should emerge in Argento’s cinema around this time can be ascribed to both personal and political factors. In terms of the former, it is noticeable that this period in his work coincides with his relationship with Daria Nicolodi, who has identified her own upbringing as both Catholic and Jewish, with her maternal grandmother being of the latter religion. In terms of the latter, it is again Italy’s struggling to come to terms with its past around this time, as the return of those aspects of history like collaboration and complicity with rather than resistance to fascism which necessarily had to be suppressed and repressed in the immediate post-war reconstruction of the body social and politic.