Fittingly for a tale of split personalities and violent mutilations, Dario Argento’s 1975 giallo Deep Red exists in multiple versions, the Italian cut running a full 20 minutes longer that it’s US counterpart. In both versions the last image is of Marcus Daly’s reflection in a pool of blood. In the US version this image is freezeframed behind the closing credits, but in the Italian, the film continues to roll as we watch Marcus look on in horror at what we cannot directly see – the decapitated body of the killer. At one point, he covers his eyes, but, like us, he cannot look away.
Evidently, this image resonates with the title in a very basic way. In this bloodiest of films, the red of the title evokes imagery of blood and violence. Yet, the generality of the title as either an adjective without a noun (deep red what?) or as an abstract noun (deep red), also hints at a detachedness, as if the title itself has been sutured from the thing it names. It seems to direct us more towards the redness of the substance than the bloodiness of the story. The title suggests an almost sociopathic abstraction, a reluctance to name the thing that is being seen, even while looking right at it.
The horror of blood is the horror of excess. It is both the excess of what is inside of us that is more than ourselves, the mucus, bile, and shit that pumps through our bodies, what Julia Kristeva calls the abject. This is the forgotten life substance, all that we must to put out of mind to feel like whole and discrete entities. This is vitality, the stuff of life, but seeing it, knowing it, is a reminder of our mortality. The sight of blood is a question to our very sense of self, of where I end and nature begins. It situates the body at the scale of the cosmos and makes it insignificant. Yet, paradoxically, if these blurred boundaries between self and substance create a crisis of meaning, in culture the excess of the brute, unsymbolized real carries with it an excess of symbolic meaning. We associate blood with guilt, violence, passion, contamination, inheritance, sacrifice, etc. History, as we say, is written in blood.
In some ways, Deep Red is best understood as a story about what it means when we confront this excess. It begins with a critical miseeing. Marcus crossing a large piazza on his way home from work witnesses a murder in the apartment above his own. Standing below, he sees a woman cry for help from behind a closed window, before the window shatters and she is impaled upon a shard of glass. He bravely runs upstairs to confront the killer but is too late. By the time he has made it to the window where the victim died, he looks down to the piazza to see the killer escaping.
The plot hinges upon Marcus’s nagging doubt that there was more to what he saw than what it appeared. In particular, when he first entered the apartment, there was a painting of three monstrous figures that is no longer there when he returns with the police. Carlo, his troubled friend – more involved than he first seems to be – cautions him that sometimes “what you actually see and what you imagine get mixed up in your memory like a cocktail where you can no longer distinguish one flavour from another.” Carlo’s words are directed to the audience too. “Maybe you’ve seen something so important that you don’t realise.” In fact there was no painting. It transpires that what Marcus actually saw was not a painting at all but a reflection of the face of the killer. Argento’s gambit in the film is to play the same trick on the audience that Marcus’s imagination plays on him. We too saw the killer’s face but had not realised.
The revelation should draw us back to Marcus’s reflection in the pool of blood. There is a certain visual rhyme between these two reflections – the killer’s in the glass and Marcus’s in the blood – which bookend this macabre tale. Should we not take heed of Carlo’s warning? Are we being deceived somehow?
We return to the last scene again. The blood is that of the killer. In her struggle with Marcus, her necklace is caught in the machinery of the building’s elevator. Marcus presses the button to call the elevator and she is gruesomely beheaded. It is told through a quick montage of detail: the trapped necklace, the panic, the button, the machinery; then the necklace tightening around the neck, the crimson blood, and Marcus’s scream of horror.
This ending is consistent with conventional slasher film morality. A killer is on the loose and must be stopped at all costs. Yet, paying heed to Carlo’s advice, to look again, we might see it rather differently. From another perspective, the killer is already trapped, and thus no longer poses an immediate threat. Marcus might have called the police and thus subjected the killer to the machinery of the justice system. Instead he chooses to press the elevator button. This is no longer an act of self-defence. When we see Marcus’s face in the pool of blood, are we not once again seeing the reflection of a killer?
When Carlo confronts Marcus in the school just before he too is killed in a freak accident, he seems to suggest that Marcus is more responsible for the serial murders than we might have suspected. “Don’t you realise it’s all your fault?” he cries. But what can this mean when, but for the final confrontation, Marcus commits no crime. All he does is play the piano – once in duet with Carlo –, argue with Gianna the journalist, and investigate the killer’s identity. In this latter endeavour, he takes on the role of an accidental detective, but his pursuit of truth only serves up further victims. The killer is always one step ahead of his investigation. It is as if motive has been turned upside down.
Tzvetan Todorov argued that the classic detective story can be understood as an intersection of two separate stories. The first is the story of a crime. This is where the detective story, the second story, begins. The first story, with its own motives and passions, is only revealed through the telling of the second. In classic detective fiction, such as in a Sherlock Holmes story, the crime always precedes the detection. The detective story is a lens through which the distorted shapes of the first are made visible.
In Argento’s gialli, however, this distinction between the two stories is often murky and confused. The real detectives in his films are always peripheral, skeptical figures always a step behind the action. Instead, his films draw a link between the accident of witnessing and the desire to solve a crime. This is captured beautifully in the opening scenes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) which begins when an American writer chances upon an attempted murder in a contemporary art gallery. When he tries to intervene he becomes trapped between two automatic glass doors, unable to do anything except watch on helplessly. The screen is a trap, but he emerges from it transformed. The accidental witness is compelled to delve deeper, to become the detective. But this also means that the ‘detective’ in Argento’s fictions is emotionally implicated in the crime from the outset. The world of his films is a liminal, in-between world of and rather than or, where dispassionate, analytical observation is impossible, and where to witness means to become implicated in the crime.
Here we begin to see the outline of a certain logic at work. If every crime is constituted from a series of positions: killer, victim, witness (each corresponding with a symbol in Argento’s visual vocabulary: knife, blood, eye), then these positions turn out to be fluid and changeable. Marcus can begin as an eyewitness and end as a killer, while the killer in the end takes the place of the victim. If we follow this cycle of violence, then we can begin to see the shape of the other story, the one on the other side of Marcus’s investigation, and to see what his role in the killings is.
To do this we must return to the theatre where the killer’s first victim Helga Ulmann, the parapsychologist, is speaking. The killer is in the audience. Ulmann is gifted with the ability to read other people’s thoughts. During a demonstration of her abilities she points to a seat in the darkness of the theatre from where she is receiving images of murder (“blood, death”). “You have killed”, she accuses the darkness, “and you will kill again.” The killer flees from the theatre. Afterwards Ulmann tells her colleague that she intends to write down everything she saw when she gets home. We see all of this from the killer’s perspective.
It is this intention to expose the killer’s story which unites all of the victims (a folklorist who has written about a haunted house, which turns out to be the scene of the killer’s very first crime; the psychic who finds the folklorist’s message written on the bathroom mirror in her dying moments; the journalist who is in competition with Marcus). Marcus’s investigations too risk bringing her story into the light. But this is precisely what a detective story is, a story which brings the story of a crime to light. But if this is often presented as a neutral act of justice, in the complex moral world of Deep Red, the desire to uncover the crime is implicated in the crime itself.
What we know is this: when Carlo’s mother married his father father, he forced her to give up a promising acting career – Marcus sees the photographs on her wall. Later, when Carlo was a young boy, she was placed in an “institute” at her husband’s will and against her own. When he threatens to send her back, the threat is frightening enough to her that she is compelled to murder him, on Christmas day, in front of her child, Carlo, the first witness. The first violence was the violence of husband to a wife, the violence of power exercised against her own desires. The second violence, the murder of the husband, is an act of of self-preservation; a reaction to the terror of being returned to the “institute”. Each threat of exposure, each attempt to uncover the story (or the killing covering up the killing in an endless chain of killing), brings back the terror of the institution and the first killing. Marcus’s investigation undoes the meticulous work of covering up that first crime; the room of the house where he was murdered has been hidden behind a fake wall, the traumatised paintings of her son plastered over. Surfaces are made to conceal the depths of the violence. It has been an act of survival, an attempt to rebuild the facade of a damaged life, a facade which, first the parapsychologist, and then Marcus, threaten with exposure.
Marcus’s impulse to uncover the truth is a direct attack on the killer’s very motive for killing. Marcus, the detective, wants to tell the story of the crime he has seen, but what he doesn’t know is that the killing he was itself part of the killer’s attempt to hide the violent murder that allowed her to live in the first place (although the signs are that both she and Carlo have been deeply affected by the ordeal). This is the excess of history, the story of a (necessary?) violence that we cannot and don’t want to know. When Marcus presses the button to become her executioner, choosing not to pursue the legal avenues for justice, and thus refusing to acknowledge the question of justice that initiates her story, he may not know it but he is acting in vengeful sympathy with her abuser. MD