Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento, 1975)
David Hemmings plays an English pianist in Turin who witnesses the brutal murder of a German medium and becomes drawn into an obsessive quest for the killer, based on visual clues and cues. What happened to the painting he saw in the victim’s flat only to find it vanished five minutes later? What message is hidden on the bathroom wall of a second murdered woman? What does the picture revealed when he scrapes a wall in a mysterious villa have to do with the murderer? Argento provides answers and a narrative closure of a sort, but clearly he is more interested in the metaphysical journey on which Hemmings’ pictorial-based investigation takes him.
The connection with the Hemmings character in Antonioni’s Blow Up, 9 years prior, instantly jumps at us. Just like Brian De Palma, another baroque, mannerist filmmaker, would make his own variation (Blow Out) a few years later, here Argento takes that seminal film as a springboard for his own enquiry into the link between looking and reality. Unlike Antonioni though (and more like De Palma), his cinema is one that blends genre (the giallo, murder mystery, horror) with appropriated elements of modernist cinema.
Argento, ardent cinephile, throws in a host of film references (from Antonioni to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) as well as nods to instantly recognisable paintings: note the scene just before Hemmings’ witnesses the murder, in which he roams a set divided into conjuring both Giorgio De Chirico’s antiquity-inspired surrealism and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. A visual summary of Argento’s dual status making films categorisable both as populist and as art cinema perhaps? But also of the central question in his filmmaking: how does one keep making films when the weight of cinema (and art) history weigh upon us?
The answer: with plenty of gusto and flourish. Cinematic prestidigitator that he is, Argento dazzles with seemingly impossible POV shots, sound effects, a deliciously baroque sense of artifice, fetishistic close-ups, zoom-ins and crop-outs. He even has the daring to show us the killer within the first 20 minutes, knowing that the sleight-of-hand performed by his mise-en-scene will make us completely miss that. And the prog-rock Goblin score is pretty magic too.