Argento’s World of Giallo

Dario Argento (b. 1940-) has been making gialli for a long time. His first three features – L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970), Il gatto a nove code (Cat o’ Nine Tails, 1971) and Quattro mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, 1971) – are all examples of the giallo genre. Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975) and Tenebrae (1982) are also gialli, as are Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2001) and a recent film he made with the self-reflexive title Giallo (2009), co-produced by and starring Adrien Brody. In addition, there are references made to giallo in a number of his other works, including Phenomena (1985), Trauma (1993), Il Cartaio (The Card Player, 2004) and a made-for-television feature entitled Ti piace Hitchcock? (Do You Like Hitchcock?, 2005). Although Mario Bava’s La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl who Knew Too Much, 1962) and Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) are seen as the starting point of the giallo film genre, and while a number of Italian filmmakers including Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Antonio Margheriti, and Umberto Lenzi all made gialli during the 1960s, ’70s, and/or ’80s, it is Argento who stands out as the figure who is synonymous with the giallo genre. This is not only because he is an internationally recognised auteur who is still producing giallo films. It is also because of the way he has developed and experimented with the giallo form since the beginning of his film career.

A number of film scholars and critics have talked about Argento’s brand of giallo. Mikel J. Koven, for example, has said that what Argento does in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is take elements of the narrative structure of The Girl who Knew Too Much and combine them with some of the visual tropes from Blood and Black Lace. Koven remarks that: “It is this combination that really defines the giallo film as it is more commonly understood” (1), particularly given The Bird with the Crystal Plumage had worldwide commercial success. With the other two films in the “animal trilogy” – Cat o’ Nine Tales and Four Flies on Grey Velvet – Argento would elaborate on the thematic and structural elements present in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, establishing a visual language of experimentation and a formal approach to narrative construction (which in Argento’s case means that systems of meaning and patterns of action are favoured over individual characterisation). In his second two gialli there would also be more fetishistic attention paid to darkness, insanity and sexual perversion. What Argento managed to do in the “animal trilogy” is not only help redefine the giallo genre but also lay the groundwork for both Deep Red and Tenebrae.

Deep Red

Deep Red

Moreover, in his work Argento has directly or indirectly referred to other films and other arts such as painting and literature. These are extra-textual practices; extra-textual because, on the one hand, they designate the “outside” of the individual film – they indicate other manifestations that the materials being directly or indirectly referred to have had. On the other hand, these materials are used for purposes specific to the diegesis or to creating a visual and aural atmosphere central to the film’s total design. These extra-textual practices represent another context within which to situate Argento’s giallo films. Maitland McDonagh, for example, has argued that Argento’s gialli dialectically interrelate with the thriller genre and this “relationship is a continuing and informed one” that shapes his aesthetic (2). In the context of McDonagh’s argument, the designation “thriller genre” encompasses the “thrillers” of filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock and Bava as well as the literary “thrillers” of a diverse group of European and American writers working in what can, broadly, be referred to as the crime genre: Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (3). The Hitchcock “thrillers” she has in mind include everything from Strangers on a Train (1951) to Rear Window (1954) to Vertigo (1958) to Psycho (1960). The Bava “thrillers” include not only The Girl who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace but also works such as Il roso segno della follia (Hatchet for the Honeymoon, 1970). It is, of course, possible to dispute whether all these texts should be called “thrillers” (4). However, McDonagh’s overall point is valid. In all of Argento’s gialli there is a dynamic interaction with the work of specific filmmakers and writers as well as with particular genres (such as the literary crime genre); in this interaction Argento’s giallo films become part of a multifaceted system of cultural representation.

From Blow-Up to Deep Red

Deep Red was based on a story by Argento, but the script for the film was co-written by Bernardino Zapponi, who had worked as a writer on Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) and Roma (1972).  Zapponi claims that one of the things he and Argento did was look “for all the essential elements that would be scary” in order to create a film that does not allow the audience to relax because they are “always alert and kind of scared”. Zapponi says that such an approach was based on the idea that “continuous evil discomfort… is essential to a thriller” (5). Looking at Deep Red as a thriller, which for the entirety of its duration creates a scary and discomforting atmosphere, is certainly one way to approach it, and is a method other writers have adopted when they have talked about the film as an unrelenting nightmare (6).

Deep Red

Deep Red

However, Deep Red is much more than this. For instance, the casting of David Hemmings as Marcus Daly, the central protagonist in the film, establishes a direct relationship between Deep Red and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). In each film Hemmings plays a character who is an artist, one who turns into an amateur detective after witnessing a murder. Moreover, in both films, each character gets caught up in a mystery that goes beyond solving the initial crime they were witness to. This mystery is about interpretation itself. That is to say, it is about how human beings have the desire to make sense of things and solve the enigmas of reality, yet find that this hermeneutical impulse is frustrated by the role that perception and representation play in creating an unstable environment in which meanings are affirmed and then displaced. In Blow-Up, it is photography that, at least initially, facilitates Thomas’ (Hemmings) investigation into the events he thinks may have happened in Maryon Park. However, when he blows-up the images he has taken in order to dissect what he has seen, he creates abstract, grainy representations that introduce a new way of conceiving perspective. It is the discovery of new perspectives – facilitated by technology and representation – and how these viewpoints relate to subjectivity, which is the real detective story taking place in Blow-Up. In Deep Red, photography, paintings, drawings and mirror reflections all play a similar role in facilitating Marcus’ investigation into the murder that he saw. As he plunges more deeply into the case (and as more murders happen around him), it is representation that affects his perception and understanding of reality (7).

As Sam Rohdie has argued about Blow-Up:

when an image, sufficiently enlarged under the impetus of a mystery, is superimposed on another image, but which is equally mysterious, inconclusive, uncertain… [then] what becomes most interesting, and most mysterious, is [the] constantly shifting meaning, and the elusiveness of the narrative itself, losing a thread, picking up another, moving, but to nowhere in particular. (8)

Blow-Up

Blow-Up

Such words can be readily applied to films like Deep Red. For one thing, as Andrew L. Cooper has noted, Blow-Up “set the stage generally for Argento’s subversion of narrative conventions” (9); that is to say, his experimental visual language and formal approach to storytelling (10). Moreover, Cooper suggests that Blow-Up specifically prepared Argento “for his meditation on spectacle and spectatorship in Deep Red(11), which, as discussed earlier, hinges on the role that representation plays in shaping perspective. However, another reason Rohdie’s words are applicable to Deep Red is because of McDonagh’s argument that the narratives in Argento’s gialli are based on a mode of detection that involves following various threads. She says that these threads do not lead to a solution that provides a definite answer or restores harmony and order. Rather, the network of threads presented in Argento’s gialli show a disordered universe. In this universe the mystery of how human perspective is altered in various kinds of ways by what it sees and how it sees things does not come to an end (12).

The Spectacle of Blood

McDonagh says of the title Deep Red that “profondo suggests a cry from the pit, de profundus, out of the darkest night of the soul” while “rosso is a colour whose connotations are overwhelmingly violent: to see red is to be blinded by blood lust, to be enticed into momentary madness by the flash of crimson” (13). While history and culture condition how colour is experienced and talked about – red does not always have to mean violence – in the context of Deep Red it makes sense to say that red is the colour of madness and murder. This is established, for instance, in the opening moments of the film. After the credit sequence finishes –a sequence that is momentarily interrupted by a vignette that represents a past trauma that is central to the film – the first two shots proper of Deep Red have the camera tracking forward at an eye-level angle through the space of a foyer (14). Eventually the camera reaches some dark, blood-red drapes which are flung open to reveal an auditorium within which a conference on parapsychology is taking place. The auditorium is dominated by various shades of red; the walls and the rows of chairs, for example, are covered in a royal red coloured fabric. On the other hand, the stage is draped in curtains that are coloured more of a bright, orangey-red (although in certain shots the lighting gives this red a crimson hue). On the stage there is a panel of three people, one of whom, Helga Ulman (Macha Méril), is demonstrating her telepathic powers. At one point Ulman starts to receive mental images from an unknown member in the audience. Agitated and disturbed she exclaims: “I can feel death in this room. I feel a presence… a twisted mind sending me thoughts, perverted, murderous thoughts. Go away! You… have killed and you will kill again”. The camera frames her head in close-up while she says these words; at one point there is even a cut to an extreme close-up of her mouth. Among other things, this intimate framing helps to accentuate the character’s coral red coloured lips, which are graphically related to the red curtains that fill the rest of the frame behind her head.

Deep Red

Deep Red

The relationship set-up in this opening sequence between colour, dialogue and narrative event (Ulman’s psychic reaction to the killer), establishes a pattern of colour use in the film. For instance, vibrant reds appear uniform and autonomous in a number of images to do with murder, strikingly contrasted against the skin tones of a victim or the silver metal of a butcher’s cleaver or carving knife. Such colours are not purely affective, for they also function connotatively. For example, at one point in the vignette that disturbs the credit sequence, a large knife smeared with a dark, warm red falls to the floor from frame left. The knife immediately interconnects red with an unsettling event that took place in the past, an event that still has the power to shatter the order of things. For, as Cooper has argued, “the interruption of the credits suggests the force with which the past trauma is reasserting itself in present events” (15). There are also strong splashes of red in the crude children’s drawings that are seen at various stages in the film. These drawings, which represent violent scenes of death, are initially seen early on in the film when the camera scans a row of childlike objects from what is presumably the killer’s point-of-view (16). Similarly styled drawings are later are discovered by Marco in an abandoned mansion in the outskirts of Rome and in a school. These drawings relate to revelations central to the plot and to the psychological history of the killer and, hence, represent another way the colour red is related to the elements of the narrative. The red motif culminates in the film’s extraordinary ending which shows Marco staring at his reflection in a pool of blood. McDonagh writes: “in the depths he’s discovered a world of thought and action he never dreamed existed and through whose scarlet veil he’ll always see” (17). Not only does this suggest that the violent imagery he has been exposed to has altered his reality, but also that he will now see things in terms of spectacle.

Deep Red is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Tuesday 30 July.

Endnotes

  1. Mikel J. Koven, La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2006, p. 4.
  2. Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010, p. 54.
  3. One writer who could be added to this list is Edgar Allan Poe. In various interviews Argento has talked about his passionate relationship with Poe’s writings and, in 1990, he did a version of Poe’s crime-terror tale “The Black Cat” for the portmanteau film Due occhi diabolici (Two Evil Eyes).
  4. It seems that sometimes Maitland is using “thriller” interchangeably with the term giallo, since in its most basic form giallo can refer to crime fiction generally, as well as to any sort of murder-mystery narrative. However, this does not necessarily help to clarify matters. For example, Koven makes a distinction between those gialli that are more like suspense thrillers as opposed to those that are not: “In the classic giallo films, the amateur detective looks for the killer ‘out there’, somewhere in the city; the investigation is external to the film’s protagonist… in the ‘suspense thriller’ gialli, the criminal activities (murder, blackmail, adultery, incest) are internally driven. These films tend to feature fewer settings and locations, restricting most of the action to one or two locations” (p. 8). In other words, for Koven there are different kinds of gialli, which opens up the question of whether there is any adequate shorthand term that encompasses the various forms of giallo.
  5. “25th Anniversary Featurette”, Deep Red, DVD, Anchor Bay Entertainment, 2000.
  6. See, for example, McDonagh: “Beginning with Deep Red, Argento’s films become full-length nightmares… whose oneiric qualities are consistent” (p. 89).
  7. There are, of course, differences between the two filmmakers. For instance, in comparison to Antonioni, Argento places more affective and conceptual emphasis on mysteries that have to do with how dark, sadistic and violently twisted the human soul can become. Nonetheless, what is being suggested in this article is that the two filmmakers do share a similar worldview insofar as they both seek to dissolve the substantial presence of reality rather than reinforce it.
  8. Sam Rohdie, Antonioni, BFI, London, 1990, pp. 1-2.
  9. Andrew L. Cooper, Dario Argento, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 2012, p. 52.
  10. Other Italian filmmakers have also been important to Argento’s style, however. For example, the work of Sergio Leone, particularly his Italian Westerns, has undoubtedly influenced Argento’s approach to shot construction. Among other things, the overall focus on choreography, theatrics, gestural language, and physicality in these Italian Westerns – not to mention the surreal, even hyper-real, attention paid to iconographic details and the use of particular editing techniques (such as the alternation between stylised close-ups of the human face and full-body shots) – are elements that are not directly quoted but used in a kind of piecemeal way by Argento; in other words, he adopts aspects of Leone’s work in a fragmentary and unsystematic way. It is worth noting that Argento was a huge fan of Leone’s and that while he worked as a film critic in the 1960s for the Roman daily newspaper “Paese Sera” he had a meeting with Leone that led to him being hired as a co-writer on Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). For more information see “An Opera of Violence”, Once Upon a Time in the West, DVD, Paramount Pictures, 2003.
  11. Cooper, p. 52.
  12. In Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds, Maitland focuses on the fact that, for both Thomas and Marcus, it is an encounter with representation that leads to an investigative journey; photography in Thomas’ case, painting in Marcus’. During their respective journeys each character discovers that meanings are constantly lost and then recreated, and that images can provide clues as easily as they can mislead. Maitland says that “One thing the two films share… is a fascination with the process of representation: a fascination rooted in their mutual lack of faith in the veracity of two-dimensional representation” (p. 112). What is being additionally suggested in this article is that the unsolved mystery in each film has to do with the different truths that surfaces can reveal, truths that depend on what a representation is and how that representation is read or decoded.
  13. Maitland, p. 99.
  14. It is the American cut of the film that is being referred to here. In the European version the first proper shot in the film is of a group of jazz musicians rehearsing, with Marcus on the piano. This is a brief scene which then cuts to the parapsychology conference sequence. While the differences between the two cuts has implications for the subtexts within the narrative, since the American version is approximately 20 minutes shorter than the European cut and the most of the material that is deleted is narrative information, the use and pattern of colour is basically the same in each version.
  15. Cooper, p. 55.
  16. The shot in question here is presumably from the killer’s point-of-view because their gloved hand eventually comes into the frame to grab a tiny toy baby. However, for the first 50 seconds of the shot, there is no clear indication given of whether the roaming camera reflects a subjective or objective viewpoint. In his films, Argento creates ambiguous and shifting perspectives, which is one way he creates an experimental film language.
  17. Maitland, p. 99.

About The Author

Dr. Tyson Wils is an academic, teacher and freelance writer. His work explores issues to do with technology and aesthetics; human rights in the age of mobile screen cultures and social media; and landscape and nature in art film and popular documentary. His research interests also include German cinema, particularly the films of Werner Herzog.