Mario Bava might be considered the father of the giallo, the main director behind the giallo becoming a successful genre, was Dario Argento; who now recognized as the iconic master of the giallo. After his first entry into the genre with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970); where he created what is now considered to be the traditional format for the giallo. What makes Argento’s work within the genre stand out from the rest, is not just his rather graphic approach to the use of violence on screen, but his stunning visuals, creative camera movement and from his colourful cinematography it was apparent that he was open to being creative and experimental with the use of colour in his body of work, especially with the colour red.
Argento once said, 'I am in love with the colour red, I dream in red. My nightmares are dominated by red. Red is the colour of pas-sion and the colour of the journey into our subconscious. But above all, red is the colour of fear and violence'. (Gracey, 2010 p24)
Taking from Argento’s own quote, he does come across as a man who has a genuine obsession with the colour red, and from looking at his body of work, there does seem to be connotations of fetishism and the colour red itself; not only with the use of graphic visuals of spilt blood, but also his applied use of the colour red in other areas of his films. He has always had misogynistic criticism thrown in his direction because of the nature of his films and their depiction of graphic violence towards beautiful women.
Gracey notes that “The fetishisation of weapons and murderous implements occurs frequently in Tenebrae, particularly in the flashback sequences fea-turing a woman 'orally raping' a man with the heel of her bright-red stilettos.” (Gracey, 2010 p91)
The fact that Argento goes out of his way to show a rather fetishist approach to torture, with a woman using her stilettos to choke her victim; her shoes are bright red adding to the scenes fetishism. I think that what Gracey is saying is that Argento is not only being creative with the use of what his killers use as weapons for murder, but he also makes a point of revisiting the colour red wherever possible, the use of the red stilettos in Tenebrae (1982) adds a kinky tone to the torture, and is glorified with their bright red finish which exemplifies Argento’s fetishist approach to murder.
Tovoli claims that Tenebrae was perhaps even tougher to light than Suspiria and the vaguely futuristic look was a challenge he relished tackling. The result is a striking looking film bathed in bright whites, with sporadic slashes of bright primary colours. (Gracey, 2010 p87)
I find it interesting to hear that Argento chose to have a giallo film bathed in bright whites; whilst on the surface this might seem like a rather unusual choice for a director making a genre film to work so boldly with a colour that could be deemed to be an almost non-colour, and coming away from the use of vibrant lighting, it actually turns out to be a masterstroke; as because the film is bathed in bright whites, when the use of primary colours comes into shot in Tenebrae (1982), they standout far more; therefore having a greater impact on the audience. It’s also key to note that you could argue that Argento’s fetish of the colour red reaches a new high in Tenebrae (1982), as what better way for blood to be seen than on a bright white background, it is also by far Argento’s most bloody outing in the giallo genre, which you could argue: that he is over indulging in the use of the blood shed.
Clip 2. Tenebrae (dir Argento, 1982)
In this clip from Tenebrae (1982) is a prime example of how Argento manages to use bright whites to make the redness of the victims blood standout greater. It is also worth noting the amount of blood that is sprayed across the white wall as the victim has her lower arm chopped off; the spray of blood is so excessive it borders on the ridiculous, but it’s evidence that Argento himself is bordering on the obsession with the colour red. As the woman turns away and her blood sprays against the wall, what we see as a result is a screen that has a base colour of bright white and then half covered in bright red, Argento then follows this up this shot with a close up shot of an axe penetrating the victims back and we see the blood seep through the victims white dress, holding the shot until almost half of the screen is covered in red, and finally he cuts to the victim falling to the floor; as she turns around it is revealed that her dressed is soaked through with blood. The set itself; the walls, floor and appliances are bright white which makes sure that red is the only colour that holds our attention in the scene.
Even early on in Argento’s giallo career it became apparent that he had an eye for colour and for the colour red in particular, in Howard Hughes book Cinema Italiano talking about the cinematographer’s work on The Bird with the Crystal Plummage (1970);
Hughes notes that “Storaro's Eastmancolor Cromoscoped images bathe the screen in colour-coded symbol-ism, usually involving lurid reds or bright whites.” (Hughes, 2011 p229-230)
Hughes here touches on something with regards to Argento and his use of colours within The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970); taking note of the use of bright whites and lurid reds, though he says that this use of colour is a form of symbolism, he doesn’t really expand this further which is a real shame, as he implies that there is a contextual method of symbolism used by Argento within the film with his use of the colours which red plays a huge part of, but he doesn’t elaborate on this, leaving us the reader to go out and view the film making up our own opinions.
Whilst Argento himself might actually explore the use of colour within the giallo, especially with the use of bright whites and creative lighting techniques using primary colours, it’s still clear that the colour red has a special place in his heart and he expresses his love for the colour throughout his body of work; in fact he at times does go the extra mile to have a personal touch with regards to the involvement of the colour red on screen.
"By 1975 [the black leather gloves] was a giallo cliche: the ritualistic adornment of leather, with its connotations of fetishism and sex, suggesting that [in Deep Red] the killer isn't just a psychopathic murderer but kinky with it" (Grainger 2000: 123). Even more playful, Argento also made it a habit in his films to don the black gloves himself in these sequences, partially as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's cameos, but also, as Peter Bondanella noted, as "a humorous act of identification with his killers" (2001: 420) (Koven, 2006 p101)
Whilst the fact that Argento himself dons the black leather gloves of his film's killers, might be the main reason why he has been labeled as misogynistic by a number of critics, but this fact to me strikes as fetishist approach to how the colour red is used within his films, it could be argued that Argento isn’t happy enough with the redness of blood appearing on screen, but he himself has to be the one who physically makes this happen; with himself holding the weapons that penetrates the victims’ bodies causing the blood to flow. You might say that directing the colour red isn’t enough to appease his fetish; he himself has to be the one that paints the screen red, holding the symbolic brush that is the murder weapon of the killer.