Thursday 26 February 2015

Profondo Rosso (Deep Red)

Flats N’ Sharps

Profondo Rosso (Deep Red)
Italy 1973
Directed by Dario Argento
Special 40th Anniversary screening at the 
Barbican with live score accompaniment by Goblin

So this was yet another revisit to what was, for me, the third of Dario Argento’s movies that I saw all those years ago, after first seeing Suspiria and Tenebrae. Not one I was due to look at again anytime soon... not because it’s not a great movie (it’s fantastic) but because there are so many films I haven’t seen yet by so many people which get first priority. However, with the promise of a reformed Goblin providing their score live (they left the George Gaslini material on the soundtrack of the print they were using) headed up by the one and only Claudio Simonetti on keyboards, this was a screening I really didn’t want to miss out on.

Profondo Rosso is Argento’s fifth film as a director, although he did provide a few screenplays for films before his early classics and is perhaps notable for working with Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Donatti on the story for Leone’s epic Once Upon A Time In The West, seven years before he directed this film. It’s also the fourth giallo he made after taking a break from his animal trilogy of gialli (The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet) to work on Le Cinque Giornate. After the relative failure of that film at the box office, when compared to his phenomenally successful trilogy, Profondo Rosso was seen as very much a welcome return to the genre for the man who, right from the start of his directorial career, had become known as “the Italian Hitchcock”. And, of course, it was also another smash hit.

The film stars British actor David Hemmings and Dario’s then lover (and mother to his daughter, the famous Asia Argento) Daria Nicolodi as, respectively, the witness of a horrific murder and a reporter who wants to nail the story. The film starts off, after an off camera but bloody murder set to a lullaby style theme written by George Gaslini, with the presence of a supernatural element in the guise of a lady who becomes the film’s second victim (if you count that opening murder sequence). She is a psychic in a stage demonstration of her mysterious powers who picks up the presence of a killer and draws attention to the fact that there is a murderer in the theatre. This supernatural/psychic element of the story, along with talk of a house where ghosts dwell later in the movie, is really just a tool for Argento to get things moving. When the psychic lady drops out of the movie in a violent sequence near the start of the film, that unearthly element also drops out and so this is not, in fact, a horror movie like Argento’s next film, Suspiria, would be. Profondo Rosso stays well inside giallo territory throughout the running time and it’s important, I feel, not to get the two genres confused (as many do, for some reason).

The film continues as an investigation of the murder by David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi, as more bodies pile up and Hemmings wrestles with a mysterious puzzle piece in his mind of something he’s missing from when he rushed into the flat of the murdered woman at the start, who the killer left bloodily hanging out her smashed window. This, of course, ties it in thematically to Argento’s directorial debut The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, in that both films have a central protagonist who was both an eye witness to the opening key ‘event’ and who has to try and unlock the one thing that his brain is hiding from him to solve the mystery. Now Argento is quite bold in both The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Profondo Rosso because he actually does show the audience exactly what those protagonists see in those specific scenes. Now in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, I had no troubles at all in seeing the answer to the end of the movie within the first five minutes of the film while the character, played in that film by Tony Musante, saw it happening. In that film the clue comes in the way in which the eye witness and the audience perceive what they are seeing. This didn’t spoil the movie for me, it’s too well put together, but I did see the ending coming a mile off in that one.

Similarly, in Profondo Rosso we are shown the identity of the murderer in exactly the same way that David Hemmings is shown the information but, like him and almost guaranteed on the first time you watch the movie, you miss it because you perceive it as something else completely. Which is great because when the killer is finally revealed, and we suddenly wonder if we’ve been misled, we are fortunate enough now to be living in the age of the home video system and you can rewind to the original scene, once the trick of it has been revealed at the film’s denouement, and prove to yourself that Argento didn’t cheat his audience. Of course, back when this was released, this wasn’t possible as it pre-dated home video systems and I wonder just how much of the film’s large box office take was due to repeat performance attendances as people went back to the cinema to make sure the footage revealed at the end was indeed in the opening reel. It’s a great trick for bumping up box office, I suspect.

Another similarity between the two films is that the killer is, just before the final scenes, revealed to be a different character than who it actually is... and that someone is a) covering up for the real killer and b) violently killed while the main characters still believe that person is the culprit. When the real killer is revealed, there is also another link between the two films but... I really don’t want to tell you what that is because, if you’ve never seen either movie, then I really don’t want to spoil the pleasure you’ll get from the unravelling of the thread leading to the conclusion of each film.

Another commonality between the movies, which seems to be almost a stylistic trait for Argento at this point in time, is the fascination with the pondering and highlighting of flat surfaces. In The Bird With The Crystal Plumage we have the two glass doors which trap Tony Musante between them and hold him a captive audience for the first ‘incident’ and we have the constant pondering of the painting by an artist which gives a clue to the killer’s identity, and which Musante keeps coming back to. In Profondo Rosso we have the paintings on the walls again, we have the surface of the wall with the child’s drawing underneath the dried paint... not to mention the wall that Hemmings spends a lot of time bashing through to find the skeleton of the very first murder victim from the opening of the movie. We also have the scene where a lady who has pretty much had her face boiled off (possibly in tribute to the fate of the character played by Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat but in a more graphically revealing sequence) writes her name in the condensation on the side of a bath as she lays dying and another character’s realisation of the possible location of a message on the flat, reflective surface as he turns on the hot taps to reveal what has been written. So, yeah, there seems to be a prominent fixation on flat surfaces in certain early works in Argento’s oeuvre, it seems to me.

The film is one of the all time great giallo movies of Italian cinema of the period and it shares all the trademarks that you would expect from one of these. The gialli tended to have bad acting, bad scripts, beautiful photography and shot design that takes your breath away, fantastic editing, wonderful camera movement through the sets and absolutely killer music. Profondo Rosso is no different although the screenplay is a little better than one might expect. The acting by various cast members is pretty good too although, even with people of the calibre of David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi, there are moments when the acting seems a little over the top. However, I have a new theory about why that is, actually... and it’s all due to Luigi Cozzi’s later science fiction movie Star Crash...

In Star Crash (reviewed here) we have a groovy movie with one of my favourite actresses, Caroline Munro, playing the central character Stella Star. Now there’s a bit fairly early on in the movie where she is having a conversation with her companion in her star ship and she suddenly, in the final cut, yells the words “Go for hyperspace” in, frankly, a way that seems seriously too enthusiastic to fit in the scene at that point. It draws attention to itself in an unnecessary way and I always thought... well that’s a pretty bad slip up from Caroline on this one. However, as I found out years later... it wasn’t her fault at all, it’s the fault of the edit. To explain, when one of the last DVDs came out of Star Crash... I think it’s the beautiful one put out by Shout Factory in the US... there are a load of deleted scenes and also extended versions of scenes which were pared down in the final cut and the scene I just described is one of those included in a much longer version than it’s presented in the final movie. In the full version of the scene, there is a lot more dialogue between the two characters and Munro naturally reaches that point in her performance where her line “Go for hyperspace” makes much more sense in the way in which she delivers it. However, when Luigi Cozzi cut a load of that dialogue out in the finished version, he kills her performance in that scene and the line seems almost nonsensical in the context of the pared down cut. So, in a similar spirit, I think it’s quite possible that Argento might have done something similar with some of the scenes between Hemmings and Nicolodi (who have great chemistry together) in this one, and might be the root cause of the excess one might detect in certain sections of this movie (and seeing the longer cut with the Italian sections in helps with that too... but that’s another story and one of many I can’t take up space on in this review). But, obviously, that’s just a theory.

All the good stuff you expect from this genre niche is present and correct, though. The mise en scene is bloody fantastic... as well as being fantastically bloody in one or two places, and the music, by both George Gaslini and Goblin, is phenomenal, of course. Now I don’t want to go into too much detail about why both Gaslini and Goblin ended up supplying music for this film... but I do seem to remember that it was Nicolodi who introduced Argento to Goblin and the rest, as they say, is Italian genre cinema history. I think Goblin had about three progressive rock albums out before working on Profondo Rosso, at least one of them under a different band name (Cherry Five) but this was their first go at writing and performing the score to a movie. It was, of course, phenomenally successful for them and they would do many more films for Argento and for other directors in their career.

I’ll spare you the explanations of possibly why there are so many incarnations of the band over the years and why it was important for me that the version of the band playing at the Barbican was headed up by the composer Claudio Simonetti on keyboards, but I will say that the sound that Goblin produced for this movie was hugely influential to giallo and, even more so, to horror films... both in their native Italy and in the US actually. For example, American horror maestro John Carpenter had made two amazing films, both with scores by him, before his breakout film Halloween (which were Dark Star and Assault On Precinct 13... both much more well known movies these days, of course). However, if you listen to his score for Halloween, and even certain sections of the music for his fantastic movie The Fog, and then go back and listen to what Goblin did for Profondo Rosso, it’s almost impossible to imagine the scores for those specific Carpenter movies existing without Simonetti’s group making popular the concept of playing through a sequence with a hard, progressive rock guitar or synthesiser line. For his previous three gialli, Argento had worked with the master of Italian film scoring Ennio Morricone, which gave him three jazzy and sometimes atonal, absolutely beautiful scores (Argento would return to Morricone for his awful version of Phantom Of The Opera and his brilliant movie The Stendhal Syndrome years later). After Goblin scored Profondo Rosso, the heavy beat fuelled, driven school of scoring became the norm for a while and I’m sure many composers were asked to produce Goblin-like scores after the impact of both this and Suspiria.

That being said, the live accompaniment at this special screening of Profondo Rosso felt a bit flat for the first hour. Not because of anything wrong with what Goblin were doing, they were brilliant. However, what I and probably a lot of audience members didn’t necessarily realise is that the movie is quite loosely ‘spotted’ during the first half. There are some small snatches of score at regular intervals but nothing really to get your teeth into for too long during the first half and then, presumably because the Barbican venue wanted to sell loads of beers in the intermission, they foolishly put a 20 minute interval halfway through the film. Which, to be honest, kind of killed things a bit, for a while. The lady I was with for the screening, who was almost as familiar, if not more so, with the film as I was, actually considered going home in the interval because she was so disappointed. However, I persuaded her to stay (silver tongued devil that I am) and I’m glad I did because the next hour of the movie has a lot more music in it and has some key and truly toe tapping cues which Goblin performed amazingly well. I found the way the drummer managed to keep hitting the symbols, Mickey Mousing David Hemming’s attacks on the wall as his hammer bashed through each time, absolutely mesmerising. This was good stuff.

And then, after the movie had finished, came the piece de resistance. Goblin then played through long versions of some of their classic Argento tunes in a kind of mini concert encore to the movie, starting off with two that Argento produced but didn’t direct himself which were Demoni (Demons) and Zombi (Dawn Of The Dead... and not the track that is usually covered from that film but one of the longer, main action cues). They then followed these up with full renditions of the themes from Suspiria, Phenomena and Tenebrae and, frankly, it was a real treat. I didnt get home until midnight that night but I had a really good time at the concert.

So, final verdict in terms of this mini review... yeah, if you’re not familiar with either Dario Argento or the giallo genre at all then Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red) is definitely one of the great ones to start with. Like most of these kinds of movies, especially Argento’s, it’s a tour de force of moving camera taking you to extraordinary shots and places and, for all the flaws that you often find in the genre, it’s an absolutely brilliant experience... more so on a big screen, of course. So definitely take a look at this one if you’ve never seen it and certainly, if you get the opportunity, catch Goblin’s 40th Anniversary tour of the movie with live musical accompaniment. It’s good to still see some of these guys going after all these years and, seriously, they rock!

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