Deep Red Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
English jazz pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings) lives and works in Italy. One night while walking back to his apartment following a rehearsal, Marc witnesses his downstairs neighbor Helga Ulmann’s (Macha Meril) brutal murder from the street level and is not fast enough to rescue her before she bleeds to death. While discussing the attack with Italian police, Marc meets reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who takes his picture and publishes it on the front page of the local paper. Marc confronts Gianna, who charms him into joining her on an amateur investigation of Helga’s murder. The team meets Dr. Giordani (Glauco Mauri), who explains that Helga was a psychic medium who experienced premonitions of violence during her latest exhibition. Assuming someone in the audience was her killer, Marc, Gianna and Giordani delve into research, while a black gloved killer continues a bloody killing spree.
Warning: this review contains several pints worth of spoilers
Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970) was not the first Italian thriller to carry the tag giallo. It wasn’t even the first big hit to hold the label. But it was the first to become a massive international hit and, as such, it went on to redefine the genre and create a hard-line formula that stifled the director’s creative instincts over the course of his next two films, The Cat o’ Nine Tails (Italian: Il gatto a nove code, 1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italian: 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971). Following this Animal Trilogy, Argento attempted to break genre, making an historical dramedy entitled Le cinque giornate (aka: The Five Days of Milan, 1973). When it failed to connect with critics or audiences, Argento reluctantly retreated back to familiar territory to make his most elaborate and celebrated thriller, Deep Red (Italian: Profondo Rosso, 1975). Deep Red was probably designed to be his final word on the subject – an idea that seemed sustainable when his first foray into fantasy horror, Suspiria (1977), became his signature picture.
Argento made another “giallo to end all gialli” – Tenebrae (aka: Tenebre and Unsane, 1982) – when his career teetered again in the ‘80s, but, autobiographical elements aside, Deep Red is the superior (hypothetical) final word on the post-Bird with the Crystal Plumage era. Judging on conventional critical terms, such as actor performance, balanced, clearly-stated screenwriting, and technically adept direction/cinematography, Deep Red is among the best and most thoughtful “pure” gialli ever made. At the very least, it is a complete embodiment of Argento’s defining characteristics as a writer and filmmaker, from his oddly specific story tropes to his obsessive attention to fine visual details (Suspiria is the more spectacular achievement, but it isn’t as thoroughly Argento-esque by any measure). In addition, Deep Red succeeds on a more conventional critical level by traversing the popular (and, frankly, correct) assumption that the giallo genre is an exercise in style over substance.
One way Argento does this is by acknowledging his own tropes. Marc embodies the essential aspects of the Animal Trilogy protagonists – he’s a professional creative type (in this case, a pianist/composer, as opposed to Bird’s writer, Cat’s puzzle-maker, and Flies’ drummer) who stumbles into the role of amateur detective after coincidentally witnessing a murder. His pathological need to solve the crime then puts him and his loved ones in danger. Marc is purposefully modeled after Thomas, the smarmy photographer from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) – a film that is often recognized as an esoteric arthouse predecessor to what became the giallo genre – right down to the casting of David Hemmings. After establishing that his protagonist fits a mold, Argento endeavors to subvert the model by broadening it and poking a little fun at its conventions. This idea is largely demonstrated in a running gag where Marc is emasculated during the investigation. Sometimes, his inherent nebbishy is his downfall, but, more often, it is the actions of his costar, co-investigator, and love interest, Gianna, as portrayed by Argento’s future muse, Daria Nicolodi. Gianna bucks stereotypes by acting as the aggressor in their budding relationship, proving herself the better detective, and saving Marc when he almost dies obtaining clues. Incidental characters are treated similarly, as Argento magnifies certain comedic traits. For example, over the course of the Animal Trilogy, law enforcement is depicted as increasingly feeble, thus requiring their protagonists to take more of the investigation into their own hands. Deep Red magnifies the issue by turning the police into little more than a punchline, personified by an idiot lead detective who comically shoves food into his mouth while intimating that he doesn’t consider being a pianist to be a “real job.”
Deep Red’s sexual politics are also uncharacteristically sophisticated, from Marc’s friend Carlo’s (Gabriele Lavia) homosexual self-loathing, to literal battles of the sexes between Marc and Gianna. The latter establishes a romantic subplot that harkens back to Hollywood’s screwball era, including an impromptu arm wrestling session, which Marc loses, and blames on an unimportant technicality (“It seems there are just some things you which you just cannot do seriously with liberated women”), and Gianna’s tiny, broken down car, which offers a visual representation of his figurative castration. Argento imbues Gianna with gumption and charm not often seen in Italian comedies or thrillers. In comparison, the Animal Trilogy features similarly emasculated male leads, but their major female characters tend to be props for the killer to slaughter, love interests who are near-casualties of the protagonist’s incessant crusade, or murderers with tragic backstories. Carlo’s sexual identity, on the other hand, is a far less amusing and more complicated issue. Deep Red was not the first or last time Argento had dealt with homosexuality, though gay characters tended to be good-natured comic relief in those early cases. Some might argue that Carlo’s sexuality is a symptom of his damaged emotional state (more on that below), but Gabriele Lavia doesn’t play him as a stereotype and his preferences aren’t perceived as a problem by anyone but himself, which might be a clearer symptom of his mental state. Whatever Argento’s specific intention, the role has aged surprisingly well. It’s also worth noting that Carlo’s (possibly transgender?) lover is played by a woman (Geraldine Hooper) wearing a false mustache and dubbed by a man (in English and Italian). Seven years later, Argento would employ an actual transgender actress to play the Dream Woman in Tenebrae’s nightmarish flashbacks.
Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage formula can be applied to a myriad of giallo antagonists, as well. Often, they are the victims of emotional and/or physical trauma themselves. Sometimes, this means that their tormentors are the real villains of the story – an idea that can be traced back to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Deep Red magnifies the Psycho-isms by casting Carlo as the red herring. He has spent his miserable life in the thrall of an overbearing mother, who we discover murdered his father when he was still a child. Unlike Norman Bates’ mother, she survived and is forced to continue her murder spree in order to cover up her original crimes and protect her now adult son. Unlike his beloved Agatha Christie, Argento rarely played fair with his audience when it came to the identities of his killers. Throughout his work, the murderer is almost literally the last person the audience suspects, not because the mystery is particularly clever, but because Argento refuses to give us any substantial clues. This problem (if you consider it one) permeates throughout the gialli that followed, to the point that ridiculously convoluted climatic confessions became a principal part of the genre’s appeal. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Flies on Grey Velvet have particularly satisfying denouements, in which Argento reveals the naughty tricks he has played on the audience alongside the shocking reasons that the secret antagonists had started killing people. Deep Red isn’t quite as clever on its surface, but the pageantry behind the big reveal is still cannily metatextual, acknowledging the genre’s greatest inspirations and the manner in which Argento himself had changed the conventions.
In her book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (University of Minnesota, 1991/2010), Maitland McDonagh directs our attention to the easily overlooked role of the doppelganger. Besides noting Argento’s use of mirror images (i.e. the protagonist’s biggest clue and the haunting final image), McDonagh notes examples of Carlo acting as Marc’s pseudo-twin. While making her point, McDonagh discusses the difference between the ghostly doppelgänger relationships found in films, like Paul Wegener’s The Student of Prague (1913), Basil Dearden’s The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), or Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), and the relationship Argento crafted:
In Deep Red, the doppelgänger relationship of Marc and Carlo is of a different order: each character is contextually real, and they don’t bear a conventional doubling relationship to one another – they aren’t siblings, lovers, namesakes or dead ringers to one another. But they’re linked by circumstance and detail in a number of ways, and the linkage is so obsessive and pervasive that it demands structural resolution.
Basically, Carlo is a version of Marc who has been cursed by trauma. He puts it best himself when we first meet him, drunkenly languishing beside a fountain after a long night shift at the local bar – “The difference between you and me is purely political. You see, we both play good piano, right? (laughs) But I’m a proletarian of the keyboard and you’re the bourgeoisie. You play for art, and enjoy it. I play for survival. (wags finger) That’s not the same thing…”
Another Argento trademark, balletically graphic violence, is also laced with a bit of playful metatext. As noted by critic Kim Newman in his seminal tome Nightmare Movies (Proteus Books/Bloomsbury Publishing/Crown Publishing, 1985/88/89/2011), some of the more violent bits are foreshadowed during seemingly incidental dialogue, as if we, the audience, have inherited Helga the clairvoyant’s ability to glean murderous intent. Newman’s examples include: Marc’s psychiatrist’s belief that he only plays piano because he subconsciously wants to bash in his father’s teeth in, prefiguring a moment when the killer slams an ally’s mouth on the mantelpiece, and a sight gag in which Marc is scalded by a steaming espresso machine, prefiguring a particularly shocking instance where a woman is burned to death in a boiling bathtub (a murder set-piece that was later borrowed by John Carpenter and Rick Rosenthal for Halloween II, 1981).
As often happens with Argento’s films, there are multitudes of alternate cuts and censored versions of Deep Red on the market. Excluding minor trims to violence by European censors (for example, the British Board of Film Censorship removed brief images that constituted animal cruelty), the three major releases were the original Italian cut, which runs 126 minutes, the ‘export cut,’ which was reportedly re-edited under Argento’s supervision and runs about 105 minutes, and the R-rated US cut, which was re-entitled Hatchet Murders and ran a paltry 100 or about 95 minutes, depending on which VHS tape you were unfortunate enough to see. Some fans prefer the 105-minute cut for its tighter thrills, but a lot of the comedy and most of Gianna and Marc’s interplay/characterization is lost in this edit.
Here in America, The Hatchet Murders cut was released by HBO Video, then by various budget label companies on VHS. This same cut and cropped 1.33:1 transfer later popped up on budget label DVD collections from grey-market exploiters, Diamond. Columbia Video’s Japanese Laserdisc became a heavily bootlegged item among fans for its superior 2.35:1 letterbox treatment, though there wasn’t a widescreen release of the Italian cut until Anchor Bay issued simultaneous VHS and anamorphic DVD collections. That acceptable transfer was then recycled for Blue Underground’s later DVD. In the meantime, nearly 20 DVDs of similar quality were released throughout Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia, leading to the film’s HD debuts via Blue Underground (2011), Arrow in the UK (2011), Wild Side in France (2012), and others. In 2014, Cineteca Nazionale Italienne restored the film in 4K from the original Techniscope negative. Some missing frames were then replaced with interpositive elements. While almost all DVD and Blu-ray releases have included the complete Italian version and/or the 105-minute export version, there has been at least one minor detail missing from all previous versions: originally, the end credits ran over moving footage of David Hemmings peering at his reflection in a pool of blood, but those DVDs/BDs used a still frame of Hemmings’ reflection. This remaster corrects the issue.
In 2016, Arrow was the first and (as yet) only company to issue the new restoration on home video. Their UK Limited Edition Blu-ray included additional restoration, which was carried out at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Italy (including separately produced restorations of the English language credits). That 2.35:1, 1080p transfer was then reused for a standard issue UK disc, a Limited Edition US disc in April of 2018, and, now, a standard edition, minus the 105 minute cut and a few extra collectible bobs & bibs. I have taken screen caps from my old Blue Underground review and included them here for comparison’s sake. The order is as follows: Arrow remaster top, Blue Underground Blu-ray second, original Arrow Blu-ray third, and the Anchor Bay/Blue Underground DVD last. This review is already getting really long, so I’m mostly going to let the screencaps speak for themselves. The restoration produces far superior detail, especially in medium and far shots. This increased clarity is boosted by better levels and contrast, which corrects earlier transfers’ tendency to over-brighten moody scenes and blow-out highlights. The darker approach decreases detail during darker shots, but doesn’t crush the more delicate black shadows. Colors are slightly cooled and the previously yellowed warm hues now lean more towards scarlet and maroon. Also important, though not as obvious, the 4K scan brings out more natural film grain, replacing the previous releases’ problems with CRT machine noise and other digital artifacts.
Deep Red was, like almost every Italian movie of its era, shot without sound, dubbed in post, and mixed in mono. Over the years, the Italian, English, and German language dubs have been remixed into stereo, 5.1, and even 7.1 tracks for DVD and Blu-ray releases. This Arrow collection features Italian and English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 tracks, alongside a 5.1 DTS-HD MA version of the Italian track. The 5.1 option sounds to me like it is based on the same remix as Blue Underground’s 7.1 track. It makes little difference where sound effects and dialogue are concerned (which is good, considering how bad mono effects can sound when remixed into multi-channel surround), but does punch up Goblin’s outstanding score with its stereo spread and LFE enhancement. Deep Red was Argento’s first collaboration with the Italian prog-rock group and, in turn, Goblin’s first attempt at film scoring. As a result, it includes some of the group’s purest rocky/jazzy compositions and a number of songs that work outside the context of the film itself. I do enjoy the warmth and echo of the instrumentations, but otherwise don’t have a lot of interest in the inherently artificial sound of the remix. Assuming you aren’t invested in 5.1, the choice between the uncompressed mono dubs is almost entirely aesthetic, because the sound quality is nearly identical. Personally, I very much recommend the English dub for its performance quality, specifically David Hemmings, who does a fantastic job re-recording his own performance. The major argument against my recommendation would be that Daria Nicolodi and some of the other Italian actors dubbed themselves. However, I’d argue that Carolyn De Fonseca – a top tier performer also known for dubbing Barbara Magnolfi in Suspiria, Alida Valli in Inferno (1980), and who Nicolodi again in Phenomena (1984) – embodies Gianna beautifully.
Do note that certain sections of the Italian cut were never dubbed into English and that the English mono track does occasionally switch to Italian with English subtitles.
Commentary by filmmaker and Argento expert Thomas Rostock – Rostock takes a slightly more technical approach to his commentary (describing camera rigs and techniques, for instance), but also sets aside plenty of time for analytical discussion, anecdotes, and historical/contextual notes. My only problem with this nicely paced, full-bodied track is Rostock’s occasional habit of narrating on-screen action.
Introduction to the film by Claudio Simonetti (0:23, HD)
Profondo Giallo (32:57, HD) – A re-release exclusive visual essay by Michael Mackenzie that delves into Argento’s early career, his impact on giallo, the making of Deep Red, its stylistic influences, diversions from Argento’s formula, and major themes. Mackenzie’s explorations of the director’s visual choices are especially astute.
Rosso Recollections: Dario Argento’s Deep Genius (12:26, HD) – Argento recalls making Deep Red in this somewhat awkward archival Arrow interview.
The Lady in Red (18:47, HD) – Actress/star Daria Nicolodi discusses her first collaboration with Argento, the couple’s resulting long-term relationship, playing Gianna, her co-stars, and more.
Music to Murder For! (14:07, HD) – Composer/Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti talks about being approached to score Deep Red, the challenges of turning from a rock band into film composers, inspiring John Carpenter’s Halloween score, and how the soundtrack helped to shape his career.
Profondo Rosso: From Celluloid to Shop (14:30, HD) – A tour of the Profondo Rosso shop in Rome with long-time Argento collaborator Luigi Cozzi.
Italian theatrical trailer
The images on this page are taken from the Remasterd Arrow BD (top), the Blue Underground BD (2nd), the original Arrow BD (3rd), and the Anchor Bay/Blue Underground DVD (bottom) and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.