The Giallo Project #1: The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Alternative titles: La ragazza che sapeva troppo; The Evil Eye (alternate US edit); Director: Mario Bava; Starring: Letícia Román, John Saxon, Valentina Cortese, Dante DiPaolo; Music: Roberto Nicolosi; Italian theatrical release date: February 10th, 1963
We all have to start somewhere, and I can think of no better film with which to begin this lengthy and probably foolhardy project than this 1963 offering from Mario Bava. While I doubt that you’d ever be able to find two people who completely agree on the definition of the word “giallo” and every single title that it encompasses, it’s more or less unanimously agreed that The Girl Who Knew Too Much was the film that launched its cinematic form (unless you count Luchino Visconti’s 1943 Obsession - Gary Needham, I’m looking at you!). It’s ironic, then, that the first true giallo film is one of the most tongue-in-cheek of the cycle. Almost a parody of thriller conventions, it sends up heroine Nora Davis’ (Letícia Román) obsession with paperback gialli and her less than accomplished attempts at amateur sleuthing.
Bava and his five co-writers use the “foreign tourist in Rome” framework that would become so popular with other filmmakers as the giallo gained popularity, placing the wide-eyed Nora against the backdrop of a series of killings known as the Alphabet Murders (actually the title of a Poirot novel and a very self-conscious reference to the giallo’s roots in Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and Mickey Spillane novels - all of whom are referred to by name in this film) and forcing her to team up with the charming Dr. Marcello Bassi (John Saxon) to solve the mystery herself when she is met with the same disdain and disbelief that The Establishment would dole out to so many other giallo leading ladies. A rather likeable heroine, Nora is a bit silly and possesses an over-active imagination, not to mention a tendency to faint when things get a bit too much, but a lot more independently-minded than many an Edwige Fenech or Suzy Kendall. It also helps that Román has a decent sense of comic timing, playing the slapstick romance scenes between her and Saxon well and not afraid to make a fool of herself when the script calls for it. Indeed, the banter of the pair in many ways prefigures that of David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red, while the running gag of one or the other continually causing injuries to Marcello is a good one and helps lighten the tension.
Indeed, this is a decidedly light-hearted giallo, with its tongue firmly in its cheek at all times. The Italian version (the American version, released under the title of The Evil Eye, is substantially different, featuring a number of alternative scenes and a different music score) features a male narrator continually commenting on Nora’s plight which, in addition to providing a lot of humorous moments also serves to highlight the genre’s literary origins. On the other hand, the manner in which it is shot is anything but frivolous: one of the few gialli to be shot in black and white, Bava, who was also the cinematographer, makes superb use of his monochromatic palette to create a world of great foreboding, foregrounding extremes in light and shadow and turning many of the familiar Roman tourist traps, including, most famously, the Spanish Steps (which provides the film with its key set-piece), into places of mystery and dread. Bava takes the Rome of picture postcards and rips open its seedy underbelly, and Marcello’s insistence that the Rome of bright sunshine and milling tourists is the “real” one never quite ring true.
This is clearly a very prototypical giallo, and while some elements are already in place, others are either not yet fully formed or else absent entirely. There is no hidden, black-gloved villain - all the potential suspects are unmasked - and the outlandish murder set-pieces that would later become the format’s hallmark are nowhere to be found. “One moment and it’s all over,” the killer promises Nora when finally unmasked, a far cry from the protracted stalk-and-slash scenes that would later delight audiences. There are only a handful of murders, and they are largely committed off-screen, with the body count aesthetic that would emerge in Bava’s next giallo, Blood and Black Lace, not yet established.
Of all the Bava films I’ve seen so far, this is actually the one that I enjoy the most, and in fact I would put it ahead of Blood and Black Lace, for reasons that I’ll explain when I get round to discussing that film. It lacks both the depth of a Deep Red and the camp sleaze of a Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, but it got the giallo movement off to an impressive start, and it holds up today as a thoroughly enjoyable stand-alone film.
Next time, I’ll be looking at Mario Bava’s second giallo, Blood and Black Lace.
Update, August 17th, 2007 03:35 PM: At the recommendation of Marcus, the next title to be covered will now be The Telephone segment of Black Sabbath rather than Blood and Black Lace.