Profondo Rosso, aka Deep Red, depicts a series of gruesome murders committed by an unknown person (who turns out to be the mother, take that Friday the 13th!) as well as bits of the supernatural, childhood/psychological trauma, and one outlandish score by prog-rockers Goblin. Similar to other horror films like Bluebeard (Ulmer, 1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lewin, 1945), it is the visual art featured in Profondo Rosso – a painting, a mirror, and a child’s drawing – that function as the objective clues that lead the characters and the audience towards the source of the horror. Integral to the narrative’s suspense and resolution, the artworks not only reveal who committed the murders but also the personal history as to why all this carnage began.

Maybe the painting was ready to disappear because it represented something important – Carlo

While standing in the courtyard with his extremely depressed (and drunk) friend Carlo, pianist Marcus Daly witnesses his neighbor, psychic Helga Ulmann, spectacularly killed in her apartment window. In his hurried attempt to help her, Marcus runs through her hallway entrance, blurring past a sequence of paintings lining the hall. They are such grotesquely haunted looking works of art that it seems only natural that they aren’t just the backdrop to murder but have also become the killer’s hiding place. 

When the finally police arrive, Marcus senses that something is missing and insists that it’s one of the hallway paintings. He says this feeling is, “Just an impression,” and he’s somewhat right. Only here this perceived absence is actually a very present and revealing object – a mirror. Argento reveals this truth (to us and to Marcus) in Profondo Rosso’s very last scene by re-creating a slowed-down image of the first time we saw the hallway of paintings, giving enough perspective to discover that wasn’t a missing painting at all but rather a hanging mirror. And just in this moment of information and security, the mirror discloses the truth again – the murderess is lurking in the reflection!

Visual artists have often used the mirror as a metaphor for identity, truth, and illusion. Looking back in art history, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) and Jan van Eyck’sThe Arnolfini Portrait (1434) used the mirror as a way to simultaneously show and distort perspective. In Las Meninas, the viewer is in the same perspective as the mirror Velázquez uses to paint himself into the portrait, meaning that we see the entire scene played back as a painterly reflection. Van Eyck is also present in the The Arnolfini Portrait. Subtly reflected in the small wall mirror behind the couple, the viewer witnesses the artist during the act of creation.

Jump forward a couple hundred years to contemporary artist Anish Kapoor. The construction of many of his public sculptures and gallery works is made of a reflective mirror-like material. His popular Bean in Chicago’s Hyde Park and his 2011 Sky Mirror in Kensington Gardens offer an endless illusion of the surrounding landscape (both architectural and natural). More poignantly in relation to Profondo Rosso is Dan Graham’s Double Exposure (1995-2003), a mirrored structure housed in the Serralves Foundation gardens in Porto, Portugal. Whether standing inside or out, its mirrored state offered multiple versions of the viewer’s one current reality causing a friction between illusion and the truth.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words – Frederick R. Barnard

So if the painting-cum-mirror reveals who the murderer is in Profondo Rosso then it’s the child’s drawing that explains the origins of the killer. The drawing of a child with a bloody knife, a dead man, and a Christmas tree is seen in two parts of Marcus’ investigation: the first as a mural in the abandoned building and then with journalist Gianna Brezzi as a work-on-paper in the archives of the Leonardo da Vinci children’s school. Marcus’ friend, Carlos (a drunk, guilty homosexual with mother issues) made these drawings and because Argento establishes a link between the drawings and Carlos, it’s assumed he’s the perpetrator. Unfortunately, Carlos was merely a bystander to his mother’s insanity and killing of his father during a holiday dinner. We (us and Marcus) don’t discover this until the mirror comes into play.

Witnessing his mother murder his father has left Carlos with some serious residual issues; these problems he clearly and repeatedly attempted to discuss via a visual language. In Using Drawing as Intervention with Traumatized Children, Cathy A. Malchiodi says, “Drawing is a natural language for children and especially for the child who has been traumatized or experienced a significant loss. Self-expression through the simple act of drawing is one of few means of conveying the complexities of crisis, repressed memories, or unspoken feelings.” Clearly drawing this horrific incident did not recuperate any of Carlos’ trauma but it did act as a significant marker in Argento’s expression of how childhood trauma can be determined (and misinterpreted) as well as how art and discovery (self or factual) are often intertwined.

Culling from an art historical usage, the painting/mirror and drawing in Profondo Rosso are embedded into the film’s narrative as “objects of truth” that function in the same way: they temporarily subvert the identity of the killer only to later reveal the truths they contain. As a director, Dario Argento utilizes this conceal/reveal structure with the artworks as a way to drive forward Marcus’ investigation of Helga’s death and to punctuate our own progress through the mystery.