Dario Argento has created a number of compelling roles for women over the years.
A profoundly influential film, Dario Argento’s 1975 giallo thriller Deep Red still manages to fly relatively under the radar with regards to the general film-going public. This is a film that was directly mimicked or referenced in films including Halloween, Scanners, Evil Dead II, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Saw and that influenced countless others. In revisiting Deep Red, it is immediately clear that much of it holds up today, 42 years after its release, particularly its excellent score by the Italian synth-rock band Goblin and composer Giorgio Gaslini, its cinematography by Luigi Kuveiller and its editing by Franco Fraticelli. However, one of the more subtle facets of the film, one that shows it to be ahead of many movies released today, is how it deals with female agency. Even though it features a male protagonist, Deep Red’s women drive the plot forward and make all of the important decisions. Argento, a champion of women throughout his career, does the admirable job of presenting women as good and bad and in-between, something many legendary filmmakers today (looking at you, Spielberg and Scorsese) neglect to do.
Deep Red (released in Italy as Profondo Rosso) gives women their own power right from the very beginning. The first major character we meet is Helga Ulmann (Macha Méril), a psychic presenting at a parapsychology conference in Rome. While discussing her psychic abilities, she accidentally taps into the mind of someone in the audience—someone who has committed a terrible murder. While Helga possesses a special gift, she is also multifaceted: she is beautiful and physically weak, even delicate. This is a theme that Argento plays with in many of his films: he allows for all permutations of women. A strong woman doesn’t have to be beautiful and physically able, an evil one need not be ugly, a smart one can be sexy, yet a sexy one can also act stupid. It’s particularly progressive to see such a realistic view of women in a genre like giallo, which stresses the supernatural and the gothic.
Soon after the conference, Helga is brutally murdered while writing down an account of the visions she experienced during the conference. Her upstairs neighbor, pianist Marc Daly (David Hemmings, a favorite of Michelangelo Antonioni), witnesses the murder from the street below their apartment building and runs up to help. Though he doesn’t arrive in time to save Helga, he notices a striking painting that is no longer there when he returns to the apartment to speak to police investigators. He also meets the crime journalist Gianna Brezzi (played by Argento’s favorite leading lady Daria Nicolodi).
Marc is a rather bland character who basically serves as the eyes for the audience as he investigates Helga’s murder and stumbles upon a deeper mystery. Gianna, on the other hand, is vibrant, kooky and independent. While Nicolodi is undeniably beautiful, she is not a classic Italian ‘70s beauty, and her conservative attire and sassy attitude emphasize her brain rather than her beauty. She proposes that she and Marc team up to solve the crime, which will offer him resolution and will aid her career. In the scenes that follow, we see Gianna in various moments of independent action: she drags Marc along as she investigates in her tiny Italian car, she works furiously in a crazy Italian newsroom, she pulls an unconscious Marc from a burning building and she goes to check out strange noises in the dark while she and Marc are investigating some archives. She even challenges Marc to a round of arm-wrestling and promptly wallops him.
Where Gianna is strong, independent and ambitious, two other minor characters exhibit agency in their short screen-time. One is Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra), the author of a book of local folklore that appears to be linked to Helga’s murder. Though Amanda is murdered in a boiling bathtub (a scene mimicked by John Carpenter in Halloween 2), she uses the steam from the tub to reveal the name of the murderer before she dies. The fact that Amanda holds the knowledge of the murderer’s identity, and that she circumvents the murderer’s intentions by revealing that identity, gives Amanda power. Another character, Olga (Nicoletta Elmi), is a cruel little girl who likes to spear lizards with hairpins. As punishment for misbehavior, Olga is tasked with cleaning her school’s archives. There she discovers the horrible drawings of a disturbed child, and those paintings lead Marc and Gianna closer to the killer. Olga isn’t the typical cute, innocent little girl often seen in film; she is violent, disobedient and cruel, and she makes her own choices.
Deep Red’s ultimate feminist statement comes when the murderer is revealed to be Marta, the senior citizen mother of Marc’s homosexual, alcoholic friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia). When we first meet Marta, she seems confused and harmless, babbling to Marc that her career as an actress had been ruined by her husband’s demands. In the big reveal, we learn that these demands (and a healthy dash of psychosis) led Marta to stab her husband with a butcher knife in front of a young Carlo. In the film’s final confrontation, she gains the upper hand over Marc, only to be beheaded when her necklace becomes lodged in the bars of an elevator door. Her necklace is so ostentatious that Argento appears to be making the point that Marta is killed by her vanity. Even though she loses in the end, she is still largely in control of her own fate.
Dario Argento has created a number of compelling roles for women over the years, and those in this film are no exception. Rather than simply being good or evil, the women of Deep Red act out their own respective wills within a complex moral spectrum, something film could use a lot more of today.