Deep Red is a highly influential film that is often considered to be the pinnacle of the giallo genre. It earned Dario Argento the Best Director award at the Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival, and has been referenced by many other filmmakers.
A series of short, opening scenes introduce several plot strands that will quickly be tied together. A murder is depicted as shadows on a wall and is accompanied by children's music. This prologue appears during the opening credits. Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), our protagonist, then appears leading a jazz band through rehearsal.
At a scientific conference, lecturers speak on telepathy and introduce Helga, a woman who has the ability to read thoughts. She becomes terrified as she senses the presence of a twisted mind, and describes the murder seen in the prologue. An audience member leaves, and later brutally attacks Helga. Daly, engaged in conversation with his pianist friend Carlo, hears the victim's screams and rushes to her aid, but is too late either to save her or to apprehend her killer. Daly stays to speak with the extremely unhelpful police, and senses that a painting is missing from the apartment. There he meets the reporter Gianna (Daria Nicolodi), who will introduce him to the scientists from the conference.
The movie is in Italian and English. Hemmings sometimes speaks in subtitiled Italian. Gianna's dialogue is presented as a mix of subtitled Italian and dubbed English. It's not the worst acting I've heard in a dub job, but it's not a voice that I can imagine coming out of Nicolodi's face, and the face and voice never express the same emotion. This is a shame, because Gianna has an appealing quality that Nicolodi rarely exhibits, and the dubbing undercuts that. Fortunately, many conversations are in subtitled Italian, which preserves the delightful chemistry between Marcus and Gianna.
Argento's films can be very serious in tone, but some of Marcus and Gianna's conversations are hilarious. Their hip, quick-thinking banter is reflected by that between Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, so it should be no surprise that Quentin Tarantino has shown Deep Red at his annual film festival.
There's some play with traditional gender roles involving Gianna. She is taller than Daly, and wears a masculine-looking suit. Women's liberation was a hot topic at the time, and when Marcus makes disparaging mention of it, Gianna promptly beats him in an arm-wrestling match. When he tells her that he wants to stay apart from her, she strikes a masculine pose, removes a cigarette from her suit pocket, and assumes a take-charge role in the relationship. Gianna has a counterpart in Carlo's lover, a man who has feminine mannerisms and wears makeup, and whose clothes are something like a feminine version of what Gianna wears. This genre-bending sets up several plot points and red herrings.
The killer breaks into Daly's apartment, as a tape recording of the children's music plays. Daly escapes. The paranormal researcher, Professor Giordano, is able to identify the music, and suggests that the killer uses it as a kind of leitmotif, and that it triggers something that requires that the killer's madness be released. One of the scientist's colleagues points out a similarity to aspects of a certain modern haunted house legend, and suggests that Daly find that house.
Characters who have any information that might lead to the murderer begin to die off. Daly finds the abandoned haunted house, and in it some secrets, but he is bopped over the head by the killer and nearly burned down with the house. The ending unfolds in a rather standard giallo manner, though with much suspense.
Close-up shots of objects are part of the film's striking visual style. The movie is full of beautiful poetic images of simple compositions such as a record playing on a turntable, or a series of small objects laid out on black velvet and caressed by black-gloved hands. Argento uses highly saturated color to show the bloodiest red bloody blood you'll ever see, but most of the film's color palette is more subdued, though very rich. The color scheme is similar to that of Vertigo, though with more sunshine. Exterior scenes use gorgeous location settings, and interior scenes are set in elegant, marble-walled buildings. It is a beautiful film.
Argento is unafraid to juxtapose the movie's beauty with violence and terror. He did not inherit Hitchcock's restraint, and he wants to force us to face the grotesque. I'm not a fan of the phrase "brutally murdered," because it implies that there are gentle and kind murders, but when Argento uses violence he makes it count. Even for a hardened horror watcher, the death scenes here are jaw-droppers.
Children and their objects are used cleverly as objects of horror. The daughter of the haunted house's caretaker kills lizards in what appears to be spellcasting. The killer is associated with dolls, and leaves them hanging at murder scenes. One character is sent a mechanical child as a distraction, then is curb-stomped and stabbed.
"Stick to writing about what you know" department: Daly tells his jazz band that they are too formal and need to sleaze up their music, as it is a style of jazz that originated in brothels. The film side of me knows better than to let the facts get in the way of a good story, but the jazzman side of me feels compelled to point out that jazz was by then decades removed from its brothel origins, and the style they were playing was so modern that one might as well say that it originated right there in that scene.
Connections: One Missed Call also used a children's song as an indicator of death. Some of The Ninth Gate looks like it was filmed on the exact same streets. Numerous other films contain references to Deep Red.