Few things are as thrilling as turning points. Those moments when an artist goes from merely good to great. There's an energy, an excitement to be found in watching a creator's body of work culminate in something so dazzling that, for a moment, as if by a flash of lighting in a thunderstorm, the path for their future is laid bare. What's even more thrilling is when that moment not only marks a turning point for the artist, but for their medium as well. Think of Fellini when he directed La Strada – and explored the limits of post-war neorealism, while moving beyond those limits to something more abstract, prefiguring La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. Or consider the Beatles' Revolver – in which the simple harmonies of the Fab Four's early albums gave way to an aural experiment, a fusion of tones, styles and forms that led to Sgt. Pepper and The White Album. Something similar happened with Dario Argento's Profondo rosso, a.k.a Deep Red. It's the movie on which the Italian filmmaker moved from being a competent director of thrillers to an auteur capable of giving visual form to the deepest madness clouding the human brain. It's the film on which Argento became a great horror movie director.
Argento's work prior to Deep Red met with critical and popular acclaim. Having co-written Sergio Leone's masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West and directed his own "animal trilogy" of giallo films: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. But after helming those three films, Argento took a well-earned break, recharging his batteries before returning to the screen with something… different. Profondo Rosso, like much of his early work, was steeped in the tradition of Italian thrillers, and heavily indebted to Hitchcock. But for the first time, Argento took an almost painterly approach to his story. He kept his camera in constant motion, though never haphazardly so. He put the viewer not only in the mind of the protagonist, but of the killer as well. Best of all, layered over everything, like an electric blue mist, was a soundtrack by a group of four young music conservatory students who would become known as Goblin.
The plot of Deep Red is pretty straightforward. Marcus, an English jazz pianist (played by David Hemmings) working in Rome witnesses a murder one evening while walking home from work – the first, it turns out, in a series of slayings. Like the everyman of many a Hitchcock film, Marcus gets more entangled in trouble as the film progresses, and the deeper he investigates the killings, the more closely they follow him. He's aided by a Gianna, a daffy Italian reporter (played by Argento's then girlfriend, and eventual Suspiria co-writer, Daria Nicolodi). Eventually, Marcus discovers the identity of the killer, or so he thinks. A surprise finale reveals the perpetrator's true identity, and one of Argento's most memorable kills.
The last time I saw Deep Red was on Blue Underground's now outdated 2007 DVD release. It was a frustrating way to watch the film, because although the disc presented, for what I believe was the first time in the U.S., the full-length, uncensored director's cut, it did so with a voice track that wavered back and forth between English and Italian. I'd pretty much given up all hope of seeing a commercial release of the film with consistent audio, so the company's new Blu-ray release is major cause for celebration, as it contains a full-length Italian language version of the cut. It's now easier than ever to assess Deep Red. It still has a few flaws. Hemmings, playing a role similar to his in Antonioni's Blow Up, performs admirably, though it's unfortunate his voice is entirely dubbed in this cut. A few scenes of exposition run a little long; and Nicolodi's character is saddled with some goofy dialogue that renders her a little annoying sometimes (though truth be told, as one would expect of Asia Argento's mother, she's also kind of adorable). But the directing here is the real star. The scenes in the killer's lair, with the camera flowing across clues and murder weapons caressed by malevolent black-gloved hands (Argento's own), still stand out. As do the elaborately staged murder scenes. Anyone can stage a clever kill, but only Dario Argento can look like he's making love to his characters as he's killing them. He also demonstrates an uncanny ability to turn the trappings of childhood – dolls, pets, children's songs – into something unspeakably evil. And the Goblin score, a mix of then popular progressive rock and the synthesizer music that would later adorn the Suspiria soundtrack, remains memorable.
The image on Blue Underground's new Blu-ray is terrific. Grain is present, as one would expect from a fairly low-budget Italian film from 1975, but it never gets out of hand, even with Deep Red's many nighttime scenes. There's also very little evidence of DNR. I'm guessing this is about as good as Deep Red can look on Blu-ray. (I've long since given up on saying things like "This is the best it will ever look", because if there's one thing technology's taught me it's that there's always room for improvement).
Unfortunately, the extras on this edition are pretty scarce, as the powers that be have just ported over the DVD's editions bonus features. You get the Italian and English language trailers and a ten-minute retrospective featurette with Argento, his co-writer Bernardino Zapponi, and the members of Goblin (Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli & Agostino Marangolo). And that's it. A film of Deep Red's importance warrants at least a half-hour documentary, if not one feature length.
For Deep Red, in many ways, is the apotheosis of the giallo. Like its central character, it's aware of its roots as a lurid, sensationalistic entertainment medium. But also like the jazz musician, it sees the way for something new, and doesn't feel the need to follow the rules, to stay within the lines. Like the best art, it does so invisibly, quietly breaking down a genre and rebuilding it. Laying the foundation for Suspiria, for Inferno, and for all the films they would inspire. Don't be surprised if you find yourself staring at it in amazement. But don't blame me if you get whiplash. Some turning points don't come with warning signs.