Thursday 12 January 2012

Viva Bava, Part 2: Women in refrigerators

After Mario Bava first gained fame outside his native Italy with 1960's Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, three years passed before his return to the horror genre. Not, mind you, that Bava was idle in those years. On the contrary, he directed, shot, co-directed and salvaged no fewer than five pepla in 1960 and 1961 (Esther and the King, The Last of the Vikings, The Wonders of Aladdin, Hercules in the Haunted World and Erik the Conqueror, since you ask).

This breakneck pace was not unheard of in the rough-and-ready boom days of the Italian film industry, but it could only be achieved by rushing production and releasing films in short intervals (the last three on the list above all hit cinemas in a timespan of just five weeks). Thus we have no Bava films from 1962, but he hit the ground running, and February 1963 saw the release of The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sapeva troppo).

By that time, cinema at the intersection between horror and murder mystery wasn't what it had been just three short years previously. Psycho had changed the rules of the game forever, introducing a focus on the lurid, female victims and disturbed psycho-killers that was immediately copied across the pond.

Granted, Hitchcock's tour de force had actually come out six weeks before The Mask of Satan, but if you expect copycats to appear that quickly I think you're overestimating even the great Italian rip-off machine. A few years on, though, Psycho's mark on Italian cinema was indelible. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is, therefore, above all a homage to the master of suspense (some have called it a spoof), referring to his work in its title (a play on Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much) and its camerawork. But it's also already something else: the prototype of a new subgenre, the first of the gialli.*

Nora Davis (Letícia Román) is an American visiting her sickly aunt Ethel (Chana Coubert) in Rome. During the night Ethel dies, and Nora is walking to the hospital to notify them of the death when she is mugged and knocked out on Piazza di Spagna. When she regains consciousness, she sees a woman staggering towards her before falling over dead, a knife in her back, and being dragged away by a bearded man. Nora faints again and is revived with brandy by a stranger, but the good Samaritan flees at the approach of the police - who, of course, will not listen to Nora's ravings, believing her to have been drunk, grief-stricken and delusional, especially since no body has been found.

Our heroine is still unsure if she's imagined the whole scene but gladly accepts when the late Ethel's neighbour, Laura (Valentina Cortese) offers her her house while she leaves the city for a few days. Nora explores Rome with the late Ethel's doctor, Marcello Bassi (John Saxon), but soon discovers that what she saw fits the profile of a murderer who killed three young women whose names began with consecutive letters of the alphabet ten years previously. Since her surname begins with a 'D' and she Knows Too Much, Nora fears she may be next.

It's almost as if Bava knew he was making the first cinematic giallo: The Girl Who Knew Too Much is positively awash in explicit references to that post-war Italian genre of cheap paperbacks that blended crime, horror and titillation. One of the very first things the voiceover narration (which would not become a trope of the genre) tells us about Nora is that she is an avid reader of libri gialli, 'yellow books', the full meaning of which is not quite conveyed by the 'murder mysteries' as which the subtitles translate the phrase. Later, our heroine uses skills gleaned from her reading to ward off the killer.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much is the first time the giallo made the jump to the big screen, but it's also Bava's last feature filmed in black and white. As such, it marks his highest mastery of monochrome both as a director and as a cinematographer. Bava may not have thought much of his lead actress ('it could have worked with James Stewart and Kim Novak, whereas I had...oh, well, I can't even remember their names'), but he sure made the most of Román's skin and blonde hair by throwing shadows on it, for delightful and spooky contrasts:

So even if Román's performance isn't all it could be (while John Saxon seems a bit lost, she looks uncomfortable, as if the on-set experience wasn't altogether pleasant), she certainly has the face to carry off a giallo. I don't subscribe to blanket condemnation of exploitation films as misogynistic: while they do have ingrained and often actively nasty patriarchal structures, they can also perform gender in surprisingly transgressive ways, as Carol Clover and others have shown.

But Ramón's character pioneers the 'type' of woman gialli would keep going for - young, beautiful, blonde - and the fact that the victims are women at all. Unlike the American slasher, which killed both sexes, though in heavily gendered and stereotyped ways, gialli almost always preferred female victims. The film's Italian poster says it all: if slashers are Dead Teenager Films, gialli have to strain not to be Dead Woman Films - hence the post title.

Bava's direction consciously borrow from Hitchcock - witness his use of signature zooms and pans - but in speaking its own visual dialect it sets up the giallo's most distinctive characteristic: in contrast to their sometimes brutally artless brethren across the pond, gialli are stylish. As such, you pretty much trip over moments of extraordinary visual flair like this shot in which Nora, lying in bed, finds herself menaced by a dark silhouette on the other side of the window:

The dramatic musical cues (lots of strings, à la the screeching climax of Psycho) and the editing by Mario Serandrei both betray Hitchcock's influence and mark the new subgenre (a cutaway on a crescendo is particularly effective). The outsider, often a foreigner, who's in the city where he witnesses a crime only for a limited period of time - another giallo distinctive - is also introduced here. (It survives in fossilised form in Black Christmas and subsequently disappears in North America.)

All in all, The Girl Who Knew Too Much seems like a sign of things to come. An emphasis on style (not, as yet gore) rather than plot; a list of female victims to be stalked and killed; crimes that (mild spoiler) are ultimately senseless and not rationally motivated; a knife-wielding murderer, though not yet masked; the presence of John Saxon, he of Black Christmas and A Nightmare on Elm Street: why yes, I think we're in proto-slasher territory.

At the same time, that teleological perspective is massively problematic. Reducing the giallo to the precursor of the slasher - even viewing The Girl Who Knew Too Much as nothing more than the first giallo - risks engaging in presentism and papering over the very real differences between genres and films.

The humour, for example: The Girl Who Knew Too Much is funny in quite a few scenes, and terror sometimes resolves into comic relief - something that is unheard of in at least the first wave of North American slashers, which seem to come from a darker, more brutal place. Even the film's outrageous final twist - which reveals either the protagonist's or the writers' ignorance of the psychoactive properties of marijuana - is ambiguous. We can't switch off hindsight, but The Girl Who Knew Too Much really does feel like Bava had discovered a potent formula - and there was more where that came from.

*The Girl Who Knew Too Much was released in a truncated cut in the US, as Evil Eye. This review is based on the original Italian version.

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