For many of us, this is Argento’s masterpiece, the very pinnacle of his career. He would continue making good or even great films right through to Opera in 1987 (after which the decline begins) but nothing would again quite scale the dizzy heights of Profondo rosso. Everything that Argento had been working towards in his first three horror films – L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo/The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Il gatto a nove code/The Cat o’Nine Tails (1971) and 4 mosche di velluto grigio/Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971); the non-genre Le cinque giornate/The Five Days (1973) is a law unto itself and we’ll draw a veil over that for now – came to full fruition here.
In a variation on one of his favoured themes, it’s an Englishman abroad in this one, David Hemmings as jazz pianist Marcus Daly who is in Rome (though the film was shot in Turin because Argento had been told there were more practising Satanists there than in any other city) when psychic medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril) is killed following a demonstration interrupted by her detecting a terrible, murderous presence in the room. Like his predecessors, Daly is haunted by the idea that he’s seen something that holds the key to unlocking the mystery and begins a dogged investigation that leads him to a book titled House of the Screaming Child, a mysterious villa and a childhood trauma that comes to threaten both him and journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi) who has joined him on his quest.
The story is standard issue Argento giallo, albeit with the first stirrings of the supernatural that would inform his two subsequent films. What really matters is the presentation. While the earlier films had all been visually stunning, nothing in them prepared us for Profondo rosso. The story is so unimportant to Argento here that the revelation of the killer is almost a throwaway and is in any case so contrived as to be almost insulting. But for once that doesn’t matter. Its style over substance here and just this once, style wins hands down.
There are few of the bravura camera moves that would become more commonplace in subsequent Argento films (think of the camera swooping down on Daniel as he crosses the plaza at night in Suspiria (1977) or the camera crawling around the outside of the house in Tenebre (1982)) but each shot is framed, composed and lit like a work of art. Argento occasionally indulges, as when his camera scurries across the pages of a music score, winds between abandoned toys in the flashbacks (notably alighting in one shot on the killer’s lost marbles…) or hovering over a piano keyboard. But the most memorable shots are the quieter ones, the less flashy and more meticulously crafted – the opening shots wherein a murder takes place entirely off camera but is later revealed to be the most important moment in the film; a silhouette at a glass door; Hemmings’ uncomprehending face reflected in a pool of blood in the final moments.
No film that Argento had made thus far – and few that would follow – looked as extraordinary as Profondo rosso. The violence is more pronounced, more confrontational, the crude acts of murder and sadism deliberately clashing with the more refined and gorgeously decorated sets in which they usually happen. His playful if macabre humour is in evidence again. Many early scenes prefigure the horrific killings to come later – Daly being scalded by a coffee machine, for example, anticipates the killing of writer Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra) in a bathtub full of scalding water, or close-ups of Daly bashing away at his piano keyboard later echoed in the killer bashing out the teeth of investigating psychiatrist Giordani (Glauco Mauri) on a mantelpiece.
And then there’s the score. Music has always been a key element in a Dario Argento film, from the experimental, almost avant garde jazz stylings of Ennio Morricone in the early films to the pounding heavy metal of later offerings. Profondo rosso was originally set to be scored by jazz pianist Giorgio Gaslini but Argento was unhappy with the work he turned in. Having been rejected by British band Pink Floyd he turned his attention closer to home and contracted up and coming Italian prog rockers Goblin who contributed the bulk of the score (three Gaslini pieces made the final cut). It was the start of a long collaborative relationship between Argento and the various members of the band (fallings out and “musical differences” saw the band splinter with keyboard player Claudio Simonetti alternately going solo, leading the band Demonia and later fronting one of two different touring versions of Goblin). The score for Profondo rosso is a full-on prog assault, a nagging main theme sitting alongside more frenetic aural assaults. The cacophonous racket of the band’s subsequent score for Suspiria may be the more experimental and daring but the soundtrack to Profondo rosso remains one of their most popular.
When the film arrived in English-speaking territories, Argento had snipped out over 25-minutes of footage, mainly comic scenes between Hemmings and Nicolodi. The BBFC took a further 11 seconds from original UK releases due to animal cruelty, though they were restored in later home video releases. The footage removed by Argento was lamented by fans when they first heard about it (many erroneously blamed the US distributors for “butchering” the film) but in truth it seems like a wise move. It’s always preferable to see any films as its director intended but Profondo rosso is often slowed down by the not-at-all-funny comic interludes and their removal speeds things up considerably – though truth be told, the charming arm-wrestling scene and Gianna’s hopeless car are both quite amusing moments.
But both versions are equally magnificent in their own ways. Profondo rosso boasts both Argento’s warmest, most fully-rounded characters (Hemmings and Nicolodi are both particularly very good) but also his coldest, most sadistic killings to date. There’s a perverse poetry to the violence which is simultaneously unbearable to watch but impossible to take your eyes off. The plot plays fair with the viewer (the thing that Daly believes he’s seen while attempting to save Helga really is there – blink and you’ll miss it), is more intriguing than any that Argento had come up with before (he co-wrote it with Bernardino Zapponi) and it seems to have inspired him to up his already considerable game by a few extra notches.
Argento still had Suspiria, Inferno, Tenebre and Opera to come (Phenomena is so insane it exists almost in a world all of its own) and they’re all brilliant films, every one a perfectly formed gem. But nothing would quite match the brilliance of Profondo rosso, the film where everything comes together to form the quintessential Argento film.