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 Issue 11 
10 June

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Dario Argento's Profundo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)HORROR
The principles of association
Dario Argento's Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)

In this provocative theorisation of Argento's horror-producing effects, particularly in Profondo rosso, Aaron Smuts employs the philosopher David Hume's reflections on causality and the association of ideas to shed light on the director's strategy.

Profundo rosso (Deep Red, Italy, 1975) is a paradigmatic example of the visually excessive Dario Argento style. As such, it serves as a veritable index of his favourite subject matter: the psychic powers of insects; vast evil houses; Edward Hopper-inspired tableaux filled with profondo rossos (deep reds), greens and stained wood; elaborate sets of architectural richness; broken glass; and wildly inappropriate funk jam music, often from the group Goblin.[1] Argento's films are driven more by the surface associations of elements, often from the above list, than by inductive logic, an unusual fact given that most of his work falls within the mystery/suspense genre. This is especially true of Profundo rosso, which is constructed both structurally and stylistically around what might be called the "principles of association."

Dario Argento's Profundo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)The story line in Profundo rosso is an amalgamation of film references, mixing elements from the "lonely American in Europe" story, the fast-talking female reporter from screwball comedies, and the buried clue structure of the Hitchcockian psychoanalytic suspense film (especially Spellbound, 1945). Attempting a rough-inspiration remake of Antonioni's Blow Up (1966), Argento cast David Hemmings in the lead role as Marcus Daly, an American pianist working in Italy who may have witnessed a murder. The first victim is a psychic who picks up on the presence of the killer's evil, but still dormant, thoughts, hence threatening his/her exposure. Teamed up with a journalist played by Daria Nicolodi (Argento's long-time partner), Marcus tries to find the killer before he and all the other possible witnesses are killed first.

Though the plot sounds typical, techniques of "association provocation"—stylistic and narrative patterns that rely on common associative thought-processes for their effectiveness—make the film exceptional in its musical violence numbers, its violation of the logic of the suspense genre, and in the visceral character of the violence depicted. "Association provocation" is a fairly obvious, but perfectly natural, twofold technique. It involves:

  1. encouraging viewers to pair disparate elements in a film, and
  2. using pairings established within the film and in normal everyday experience to provoke and heighten the viewer's response.

The philosopher David Hume wrote extensively on the association of ideas, attempting an exhaustive categorisation of the principles of association: "to me there appear to be only three principles of connection among ideas, namely Resemblance, Contiguity in time or place, and Cause or Effect."[2] As we shall see, all three principles are represented in Profondo rosso.

Contiguity: musical cues for "violence numbers"

In one particularly self-referential scene, Profondo rosso showcases Argento's technique of associative horror. Midway through the film, Marcus locks his office door after realising that the murderer is in his apartment, and in so doing narrowly avoids becoming the next victim. A strange children's song playing on a hand-held tape recorder clues him in to the murderer's presence. Later, a professor of psychology posits an explanation of the murderer's motivation for playing the song in question prior to each attack. He suggests that the killer suffered some traumatic episode in his past and must recreate certain aspects of the original event—mainly the contiguity of music and violence—in order to kill.

This hypothesis serves a second, self-referential purpose: the associational theory explaining the murder's emotional state could also be said to describe a prominent technique of provoking an emotional response from the audience. Argento attempts to place the viewer in a similar position to the killer via the repetition of certain musical elements during the film's "violence numbers."

Dario Argento's Profundo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)This notion of "violence numbers" is essential to explaining the characteristic effectiveness of Argento's horror. Cynthia Freeland presents an informal definition of "number" that meshes with both critical and common usage and works for widely accepted instances in film:

Numbers are sequences of heightened spectacle and emotion. They appear to be interruptions of plot—scenes that stop the action and introduce another sort of element, capitalizing on the power of cinema to produce visual and aural spectacles of beauty or stunning power.[3]

The attributes of numbers identified by Freeland may be included in a larger, symptomatic definition of the term. Violence numbers can thus be understood as possessing the following qualities (or symptoms):

  1. though apparent interruptions, they nevertheless serve a pivotal narrative function;
  2. they have divergent or excessive aesthetic qualities;
  3. they are preceded by cued entrances or other transition devices;
  4. they have an experiential character;
  5. they incorporate irregular behaviour;
  6. they involve spectacle;
  7. they involve heightened emotion;
  8. they possess unit distinctness as a scene.

An important side-effect of violence numbers is how the attributes listed above endow the scenes in question with a certain staying power.

The third feature of violence numbers listed above, especially those found in Argento's films, is typified in the role music plays as a transition device, serving to cue the entrance for often gruesome acts of bodily violence. One of the most familiar (but difficult to account for) characteristics of Argento's films is the effectiveness of Goblin's musical accompaniment. This music—a sort of downtown jazz crossed with a funk-jam sound—is radically out of synch with the calm Hopperesque settings and has seemingly few filmic precedents. However, Goblin's accompaniment adds distinctness to the violence numbers by serving as a transitioning device into the horrific excess characteristic of Argento's films.

Argento creates a symmetrical relationship between the use of diegetic and non-diegetic musical elements. The Goblin/violence contiguity is paired with the murderer's tape recordings of lullabies, which also serves as a primer for the violent acts to come. The association via contiguity of violence and non-diegetic musical elements is common in horror movies, especially in stalker films. Steven Schneider calls the non-diegetic "ch-ch-ch...ah-ah-ah" sound accompanying Jason's movements in the Friday the 13th series, for example, the "idée fixe of the monster."[4] These elements often help focus the viewer's attention on the monster by heightening a sensation or affect.

Jason's non-diegetic auditory device expresses the bodily sounds and rhythms—especially the ratio of heart rate per breath—of heightened awareness.[5] Argento's use of music, however, is more like that of a music video, almost taking centre stage rather than serving as an ancillary sound effect. The music of Goblin is used as both a drum roll for the killer's entrance and the backbeat of the violence numbers.

Dario Argento's Profundo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)Beyond the killer/audience musical (associational) symmetry, the characteristic Goblin sound is further visually associated with the killer's knick-knacks of pain. The Goblin funk sessions are repeatedly associated with panning shots that give an overview of the killer's twisted menagerie of baby dolls and demon toys—a complete smoke shop inventory, save the crystal wizards and pewter dragons. The repetition of these scenes is perhaps intended to give the audience some insight into the lunatic's mind, but given the unexpected prominence of the music and the practically characterless images, it more effectively associates the sounds of Goblin with an abstract insanity. When the music starts up again, the association is carried forward and the violence numbers are introduced with greater emphasis.

Resemblance: flight of ideas in plot development

The turning point in the quest to discover the identity of the murderer comes as a "flight-thought association" (a typical thought disorder accompanying mania and schizophrenia) by one of the psychologists, thus bringing Argento's associational style into the core logic of the film. Rather than following the format of the "buried clue" mystery narrative, where information must be teased from the protagonist's unconscious (Spellbound) or from a recording of the initial crime (Blow Up; Blow Out, 1981), the breakthrough in Profondo rosso comes from a marginal character reflecting on evidence gathered after the initial, catalytic event.[6] Marcus recalls having heard a children's song when the murderer was in his house.

Dario Argento's Profundo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)Reflecting on this clue, in the same consultation session mentioned above, the psychologist recalls having once read in a book of folk tales about a haunted house that emanated sounds of children. This is not seen as a strange or flighty comment; rather it is taken as a strong clue in the investigation and the rest of the film is guided by its exploration. Argento seems to intentionally derail the believability of the story by this logic, but there is a good chance most viewers will not even notice this bit of associative fancy on a first viewing. The illogic may even seem perfectly justified if we are operating in this associational mode.

More powerful than inductive reasoning or exhaustive investigation, ill-founded associative thinking proves key to discovering the identity of the killer. Traditional mystery structures allow for somewhat convoluted patterns. Who, for example, can remember the twisted logic of Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946) for more than a few hours? Though coincidence may play a role in the final unraveling of the veil of mystery, plots are generally driven through inductive strategies and the following of rigorously gathered clues. However, Argento unselfconsciously violates genre convention and the logic of suspense through an imaginative leap of associative thinking. Not only does the clue come too easily—its source and viability are completely ridiculous. Association does not merely drive the emotional response and characterisation, it is the very engine behind the plot and the brains behind our flighty sleuths.

Cause and effect: the "visceral technique"

There is something about the manner of violence depicted by Argento—its intimacy and sheer visceral quality—that makes it more "effective" than most other types of screen violence. This is partially related to the difference between murderous violence as depicted in horror movies (usually with knives and other sharp implements) and the (frequently gun-heavy) violence found in other genres. Argento develops his visceral technique by both following cinematic horror convention in confining the violent imagery to scenarios of mundane experience and relying on the property of "linear amplification" of effect that underlies the folk psychological theory of causation.

In an interview included on the Profondo rosso DVD put out by Anchor Bay, Argento describes how he tries to confine displays of pain to common experiences, thus evoking more visceral reactions from viewers. Rarely will he have a character shot by a gun, since few of us know what it is like to be shot; rather, his victims are usually either stabbed or, what is more likely, cut by a broken window. In discussing cause and effect relations, Hume comments that "if we think of a wound, we can scarcely forbear reflecting on the pain which follows it."[7] We all know what it is like to bump our heads against a sharp table-edge and to hit our teeth on a drinking-glass, so Argento couples these two common experiences and shows people getting their teeth rammed against a table corner.

Agento's strategy[8] relies on some sort of psychophysiological memory of cause and effect. It is not that we don't believe getting shot hurts, but that we probably know what it is like to get cut, either from a small cooking knife or from broken glass. We evidently have some sort of "physical memory" akin to what Antonio Damasio describes as "dispensational representations," sparked by visualisation that makes these actions more emotionally provocative.[9]

Throughout Profondo rosso the instruments of death and torture are rarely your typical tools of violence; instead, the director presents extreme versions of common dangers. Almost everyone has been burnt by hot water and many have run a bath too hot to enter. Argento takes this commonly experienced pain from a minor household danger and amplifies the source into a horror device. One of the victims in Profondo rosso is burnt to death in a giant tub filled with scalding hot water. And as noted above, windows are another of Argento's favorite danger-amplifying devices, featuring prominently in Profondo rosso, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1982).

Dario Argento's Profundo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)Most people have at one point or another cut themselves on a small piece of glass, perhaps stepping on a shard from a broken wine bottle. Argento asks us to imagine how much more we could get hurt by one of the giant pieces of glass that line our homes and offices, especially if our tender throats (and not our tough feet) were the sliced flesh. In Inferno, Argento goes so far as to have the killer use a broken window as a veritable guillotine.

Argento's violence numbers are as much characterised by the musical cueing and accompaniment of Goblin as by the visceral nature of the depicted violence and pain. He deliberately confines his imagery to base fears and once-felt pains. The prolonged death scene at the end of Profondo rosso is a perfect example. Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), Marcus's alcoholic friend, is tortured in a variety of ways that amount to exaggerations of common experience: he is hooked by a sharp piece of metal hanging off a garbage truck, dragged down the road, smashed into poles and finally crushed by a car. In a different context this scene could have become slapstick, since Profondo rosso's finale relies on excessive use of the same associative strategy; here, however, Argento's "visceral technique" heightens the viewer's response through a provocation of cause-and-effect associations.


Argento is a highly visual filmmaker who spends more time designing sets, lighting colour-saturated stages with deep hues and constructing elaborate shots than he does developing rounded characters and realistic dialogue. He relies heavily on images and medium-specific associational strategies. For instance, the killer in Profondo rosso is frequently shown applying eye-liner in street walker quantities. Argento uses this murderer/eye-liner pairing to mislead the viewer by provoking false associations and suspicions. At one point the reporter is suggested to be the murderer through a close-up on her eye makeup; and the transvestite boyfriend of Carlo, who appears in one brief scene, is made suspect by his use of eye makeup as well.

What at first may seem like a style of mere surface texture is actually the engine of the film. Associational techniques are to be found in some form or another in most movies. In Profondo rosso, however, they play a disproportionately large role in defining the stylistic structure and lending to the film's overall effectiveness. Argento's success as a horror director lies in his understanding of the importance of association to emotional response, leading to the development of a full-blown, influential associational style.

Aaron Smuts

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A reader responds...
  • Mundanity before murder:
    Julian Coldrey suggest additional means by which Argento uses "ill-founded associative thinking"
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About the author

Aaron Smuts studied philosophy in the PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written on David Hume and is working on the paradox of emotional response and the concept of violence "numbers." Currently, he is director of development at a software company in New York and is involved in Jakarta, the open source software project. He will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison next Fall to do graduate work in film theory, philosophy and cognitive science.

Also by the author

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1. To many, the visual/aural discord resulting from Argento's frequent collaborations with Goblin is the defining aspect of his films.return to text

2. David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed Antony Flew (La Salle: Open Court, 1994), 69.return to text

3. Cynthia A. Freeland. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (Colorado: Westview Press, 2000), 256-57.return to text

4. Steven Schneider, "Uncanny Realism and the Decline of the Modern Horror Film." Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres vol 3, no. 3-4, October 1997: 419.return to text

5. An innovative example of the body-murmur amplification technique can be found in The Wild Bunch (1969), where director Sam Peckinpah brilliantly incorporates a heartbeat with the diegetic music of the band playing in the temperance parade.return to text

6. In discussing The Killers (1946), David Bordwell identifies a "generic rule [of the classical detective film]: at the end, the detective should disclose an unexpected causal link." The overall unveiling of the mystery and its clues that drive the investigation are generally smaller, expected causal links. Argento breaks from tradition in driving the investigation in Profondo rosso through a conjunction of loose, unexpected associations and the discovery of character-motivating (causal) events. See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press: 1985), 198.return to text

7. David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Antony Flew (La Salle: Open Court, 1994), 70.return to text

8. Attributing this technique to Argento alone is really just shorthand for an overly simplistic auteurist-speak. In the same interview mentioned above, Bernardo Zaponnini, the co-writer of Profondo rosso, spoke with analytic coherence about what I am calling the film's "visceral technique"; whereas Argento seemed much less cognisant of the strategy. This may have been particular to the interview, but the qualification is worth noting, especially if the genius of the film has been completely misattributed. In come the historians....return to text

9. Antonio Damasio. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Quill, 2000).return to text

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