Back in 1975 Dario Argento, a filmmaker from Italy, pushed the limits of horror by exploring sexual dynamics. Even though his father was a successful producer, he did not jump into the family business right away. Argento started out as a film critic. When given a chance, he broke into directing with a film called Bird with the Crystal Plumage. He then went on to make Cat O’Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet. All three thrillers composed the Animal Trilogy. They have nothing in common but the fact that some kind of animal is mentioned in the title and that they all have an Agatha Christy whodunit story. The murders are tame are so tame that Bird with the Crystal Plumage is rated PG.
Wanting to do something different, Argento made a movie called Le Cinque Giornate; a comedic western that poked fun of politics and the middle class. This film is as not yet available in the USA. It’s considered Argento’s lost film (all of his films are available uncut in special editions as of this post).
Argento then came back with his Agatha Christy-like style with a mystery called Deep Red and reveled in the giallo style. This time he brings something extra to the screen: graphic violence. What constitutes graphic violence is that the viewer is privy to it. The filmmaker does not pull away. We witness the penetration of a weapon into human flesh. The act of showing penetrating flesh is considered pornographic in this country (the USA); hence the porn industry and the fact that the USA cut up most of his films for distribution.
True, Argento is doing nothing new. Before him was Mario Bava and Hershall Gordon Lewis. But Argento raises it a notch by leveling the violence with art. Although he doesn’t make it pretty, he makes it downright horrible. He takes great pains into making the vicious beautiful on the screen.
But the revolutionary violence is not even what makes Deep Red so brilliant. Nor is the whodunit mystery. It’s the play on sexual politics that make Deep Red stand out to the viewer and even adds some humor to the film, but not in a campy or obvious way.
Deep Red is about an American Jazz pianist named Marc Daly who’s staying in Rome and teaching at the conservatory. One night, he witnesses the murder of a renowned psychic who accidentally reads the mind of a twisted killer. Marc doesn’t see the killer’s face, but he does witness something that he cannot place; something was added or taken away at the scene of the crime. With the help of a female reporter named Gianni, Marc searches for a killer and the one piece that he can’t remember.
Argento sets up Marc Daly as a sensitive, nervous, and articulate artist; these qualities are often ridiculed by the mainstream world. For example, when the police arrive at the psychic’s apartment, the investigating inspector questions Marc and asks what he does to earn a living. When Marc tells the inspector he teaches piano at the conservatory, the inspector laughs at him as if Marc doesn’t have a real job. Playing piano is not a real job in the eyes of the working class. It is something you do to relax or pass the time. Like writing poetry. Of course Marc takes offense and the inspector apologizes half-hearted.
Later in the film, Marc looks for his friend Carlo at his mother’s apartment. Marta, Carlo’s mother, cannot seem to grasp that Marc is a pianist; she keeps calling him an engineer. Marc grows frustrated with her.
At the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT) where we discover that Marta is the killer, the viewer might wonder if Marta’s misconception had an antagonistic intent. Like the cop, is she baiting and ridiculing Marc? It might be true. Marta’s son, Carlo, is also a pianist, one that plays to survive as apposed to Marc who plays for the love of it.
Although we never see Marta and Carlo together we can imagine that she might ridicule her son for playing the piano, for being an artist. Yet, Marta used to be an actress. Acting is an art. Art takes a certain level of sensitivity. Sensitivity is a female trait, not often related to men. Most art does not take great physical strength. Maybe that’s why art is usually associated with women.
So either she’s calculating mind attacks on her nemesis (which would make sense since she knows what it’s like to be an artist and she lives with a pianist) or she could be down right insane and holding onto the delusion that Marc is an engineer.
The key relationship that stresses Marc’s inferiority to the male sex is with reporter Gianna who has to be smart and aggressive. After all this was 1975 and women had to be independent and survive in a man’s world. And she does quite well.
She arrives at the scene of the psychic’s murder before any other reporter and pushes her way into the story. Gianna is so aggressive that she imposes a romantic relationship on Marc; which seems to be a very manly thing to do. She even has no qualms about having sex with him in such a sort period of time. Her excuse for such a move: to get rid of his nervousness. How many times has a man said sex would relieve a woman’s anxiety?
Argento even goes as far as to have Gianna save Marc not once, but twice from the killer. As a man shouldn’t he be saving himself? He doesn’t even save Gianna when the killer attacks her.
There are two beautiful moments that Argento uses to bring out the contrast of this relationship. Gianna’s car is one. It is a piece of crap. So much so that she’s not able to lock any of the doors, fearing that a mechanic has to open it, and that sometimes she has to get in and out through the sunroof. When Gianna starts driving Marc around in her car, his seat drops down a foot, making his head just barely looking over the dashboard. Visually, Argento defines the sexes.
Another moment is the arm wrestling scene. Gianna beats him, twice. Of course, having his masculinity wounded, Marc calls her a cheat. She continues to tease him about it, driving Marc to hit her below the belt: not letting her know when she can see him again. This is a classic move among women in noir stories, often leaving the men pushing the women for another meeting. In this case, Argento switches the sexes.
Argento not only uses dramatics, but also stark visuals to create this exploration of the sexes. Hence why Deep Red will always continue to stimulate the intellect as well as the baby gore hound inside.
M.E. Purfield is an urban contemporary and noir fantasy writer. You can find him at http://mepurfield.livejournal.com