It may seem odd to make an argument about the supremacy of sound in the films of Dario Argento, which bear such a recognisable visual flair. While it’s impossible to discount Argento’s expressive imagery, his creative use of sound is an often overlooked element of his style. This isn’t too surprising, since I believe sound is an overlooked part of cinema as a whole. When most people do think about what they hear during a movie, it’s usually in terms of music. However, sound mixing plays a huge psychological role in cinema, not just in terms of mood, but in terms of the way we perceive space. Through the example of Dario Argento, I’m going to take a look at how the ear functions in cinema.
In terms of aural dimensions, Dario Argento is perhaps most famous for his soundtrack collaborations with Italian progressive rock group Goblin. While the use of rock music soundtracks is memorable, this is just one piece of Argento’s seeming fascination with sound. I’m more interested in the way he uses it to construct spaces in a more palpable way. In Suspiria (1977) and Deep Red (1975), diegetic sound becomes a plot element in addition to being background noise. In both films sound is used to create a sense of depth, and to reveal a dimension of reality that vision often fails to reveal. Given these are Argento movies, this reality is often tied up with all that is sinister and evil.
Using sound to paint a picture
Here it may be useful to rewind a bit and consider the case of early sound film. When sound was first introduced, it was messy, as the movie Singin in the Rain (1952) depicts with relative accuracy. For this reason, soundtracks were often recorded separately and post-dubbed. This often created a kind of sterile silence behind the vocals. After a few years, directors began using diegetic sound strategically to add greater depth to their images. Rouben Mamoulian did this with his first sound film, Applause (1929), playing with volume to make a more realistic world. Rather than employing static recording and post-dubbing which took place during this period, Mamoulian found a way to make the sound more authentic by mixing several different recordings together. Thus, in a film that takes place in a burlesque theatre, the roar of the crowd often penetrates to the backstage area, creating a more vibrant world.
We often take it for granted that sound performs this function in cinema, as it does in real life. Aside from providing verisimilitude, the world of the film is fleshed out by the use of sound. Whenever we hear someone talking from off screen, as in a traditional shot-reverse-shot structure, we understand the diegesis extends beyond what we can see. The images are not just pale flickers, but represent a whole dimension to which we only have partial access. The perceived distance and closeness of noises also helps us to understand the depth of a space being represented in two dimensions.
Argento continues with this lineage in his films, using sound to draw viewers even further into the warped world of the film, but also using it as a plot device that forces us to imagine things Argento doesn’t reveal in his camera lens. The audio is another available sense that is often more truthful than what the eye can see.
In Suspiria, a young ballet student named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) moves to a prestigious dance academy to find very strange circumstances awaiting her. In the middle of a wild storm she arrives at the door just as another girl about her age departs, screaming, and clearly scared to death. This is just the first of a series of strange events that make it clear all is not well in her new home.
Bannion’s roommate, Sarah (Stefania Casini), suspects something foul is afoot within the school itself, and it may have something to do with the teachers’ nightly routine. At 9:30, the teachers all file out of the school “like clockwork,” retreating to the city. As the girls stop to listen one night, they (and we) hear footsteps passing through the corridor on the other side of the wall. In a state of drugged delirium, Bannion suggests that the staff may not be leaving the building at all, but moving further in. As Sarah furiously catalogues the movements of the teachers, the camera zooms through the hallway, forming a concrete image to flesh out the loose blueprint sketched by the direction of the footfalls. The soundscape provides depth to the images that we see, creating a more complex environment that draws the viewer into Bannion and Sarah’s perspective. Furthermore, sound provides the means to discovery. When Suzy and Sarah hear the footsteps resounding into the depths of the school, they realise there is a part of the building that goes beyond what they have previously seen.
The heroines often rely on their ears to make connections that would have been impossible just with vision. They identify the headmistress of the school, for instance, by her wheezing snore. And when Bannion once again encounters that snore by following the direction of her teachers’ footsteps, she discovers its owner is actually invisible, and any other means of tracking her would have been impossible.
Sound as evidence
Deep Red is possibly even more overt in its playful contrast of soundtrack and visual elements. Blow-Up (1966) veteran actor David Hemmings once again finds himself at the centre of a murder mystery, this time as Marcus Daly, a classical pianist. The phantom of his former role follows him to this one, bringing a certain aura of metaphysical investigation. In Blow-Up, his camera mechanism revealed something the naked eye would have found impossible to see. In this film, his human vision once again fails him continuously. Meanwhile, a killer stalks Rome with a tape player in tow.
Daly gets drawn into a mystery when he witnesses the murder of a psychic, a woman who becomes aware of the killer’s presence through extrasensory means. During a conference, she hears a song in her head that will soon become well known to the viewers. Her character is also important because she provides an alternative to sight – a way of perceiving that is not entirely visual. The psychic immediately gleans the identity of the murderer, who quickly dispenses with her following this discovery. Standing in the street, Daly witnesses her distress and runs upstairs to help. When walking through the hallway to locate the body, Daly passes by a long wall of portraits, one of which subsequently disappears. This oddity propels him to dig deeper into the case. However, his vision continuously leads him astray. For instance, he realises too late that the missing picture was not a portrait at all, but a mirror that had reflected the killer’s face. The visual surface plays a trick that leads him down a faulty path.
Once again, sound provides a clue that helps Daly move forward in his search for the killer. The murderer plays a recording before each attack. Sung by a young child, the tune floats eerily through the rooms of each victim before each death. One of the detectives goes so far as to describe it as “the leitmotif” of the murders. The killer uses the music to reenact a distant memory, to return to a space in time that facilitates a state of madness. In this way, the song also forms a psychological bridge to the past. While the murderer remains unseen up until the very end, the song becomes a marker of identity, a kind of synesthetic costume, and the most reliably consistent thing about them.
In this film, noise becomes almost a palpable entity. This idea is underlined by the extreme close ups of the mechanisms that create sound, like the hammer and the string inside Daly’s piano. Using the camera, Argento even makes the tune visible as he glides quickly down a line of sheet music while Daly plays it. Here, sound is a force. In the same way, the “leitmotif” penetrates the environment prior to the killer’s appearance, as if it is an extension of the murderer’s body, or a weapon in itself. Before being killed, the child’s voice on the recording alerts victims to an intrusion. In a way, it is the music itself that is the intrusion, an invasion of silence, an unwelcome noise. As he is practicing piano, Daly knows that the killer has entered his home when he hears the recording playing. To prevent his assailant from becoming wise, he keeps practicing, asserting his presence with the use of music. Where he fails in his vision, he remains in power when guided by his ears, which give him a sense of how close the killer is, even when he can’t see him.
The lingering experience of sound
Allowing sound to take a more central role helps us realise how much of our construction of the world comes from what we hear, not just what we see. Sound enhances our vision in often surprising ways, venturing into places people themselves cannot go. In doing so, it makes the unseen visible through a sort of echolocution. This makes the soundtrack a powerful complement to the camera, which can also penetrate spaces, psychological and otherwise, that no human can actually enter. This is particularly true in this day and age, when entire films can be constructed on a computer screen. Whether a noise is carving out a physical space or alerting viewers to something we can’t yet see, sound is an integral part of the filmgoing experience, and Dario Argento knows this very well.
About the Author
Kate Blair is a writer based in Chicago, IL. She has an MA in Cinema Studies and enjoys covering just about any topic related to film and other visual media. You can find also find her writing at Selective Viewing, a cinema blog.