The story follows Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) and his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) who are temporarily residing in Rome. One night Sam witnesses a fight taking place in an art gallery: a beautiful red-haired woman (Eva Renzi) is struggling with a black-clad knife-wielding killer. Trying to intercede, Sam find himself trapped between the entranceway’s inner and outer glass panes and he watches impotently as the woman collapses and the villain escapes. When the police arrive, they confiscate his passport, involuntarily forcing Sam to open his own investigation before he can go home.
One way he does this is with over-developed characters. These are minor characters that are given extreme quirks, outrageous personalities or elaborate backstories even though they will have little or no bearing on the plot. Examples here include a hermit artist who feeds the hero cat meat from his feline kennel and a kindly imprisoned pimp who overcomes his stutter by finishing sentences with “goodbye.”
If Argento had pointed out these connections directly, everyone would have known they were red herrings. The subtly of this schema is perhaps best displayed by a moment when Sam throws the victim’s husband a cigarette box and he catches it left-handed. Mystery enthusiasts know to watch cigarette preferences and left/right-handedness like hawks as they’re virtually clue clichés, but these pieces of trivia turns out to be relevant in a way more likely to misdirect the viewer than to enlighten. Argento accepts that a lot of people will miss the game completely, but explanatory codas ensure that everyone comprehends the final reveal (in this case, a talky tv special literally spells it out for the audience).
Long before the giallo, Italy had a tradition of dubbing rather than using subtitles. Since this meant that quality writing and dialogue-heavy performances would inevitably suffer in foreign markets, it sent much of Italy’s film exports down market. Mysteries in the style of Sherlock Holmes or Law & Order: Criminal Intent, that are often based on solving cases through verbal cues, psychological traps and the Socratic method would be lost in translation.
I’d speculate that the decreased reliance on dialogue also encouraged the rise of atmospheric soundtracks to fill the silence. Ennio Morricone worked on this film, for example and would help shape the mood on many other gialli to come. He established a tradition of horror music that saturates the action rather than simply accentuating the dramatic moments.
It also fits that protagonists in gialli are usually not private detectives or policemen called in to investigate, but first-hand witnesses to a crime. Argento established a popular system where the solution to the case hinges upon a detail from that first trigger event, often involving a reinterpretation of an image that the hero, and by extension the audience, already saw. “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” is a very clever example of this, while “Deep Red” takes it to the extreme.
Argento uses a particularly neat structure for effecting the observer-to-victim transformation. Sam is an unhappily passive observer during the first attack. The audience and their surrogate are frustratingly trapped outside, forced to watch the action with the detachment of window shopping. At the conclusion of the film, Sam and the killer will return to the same location, but this time Sam will be trapped under a heavy, spike-bristling sculpture as the killer threatens to stab him. It is almost as though he were reliving the first scene as the victim. “Suspiria” and many other Argento films follow this pattern.
Another example is an assassination attempt on Sam featuring a killer in a bright yellow jacket. The jacket serves as a striking contrast during a nighttime chase through a parking lot filled with blue busses and helps the audience follow the action even in the dark. Argento then plays with our expectations as Sam turns the tables and uses the jacket to trail his attacker. The identifying feature is soon lost in a convention of auto mechanics all wearing the same jacket.
Walrus Rating: 8.0