Why this might not seem so easy
If you had to name a 1960s cycle of pulp classics with a distinctly Italian identity – one that influenced its American counterparts as much as it borrowed from them – you’d likely pick the spaghetti western. But Italy was responsible for another exploitation export around the same time that’s less widely recognised. Emerging in the early 60s, it’s a series of films that was just getting into its stride as the golden era of the western was ending.
Giallo, meaning ‘yellow’, is the Italian term for crime fiction, named after the bright yellow colours of early mystery paperbacks. In Italy, ‘un giallo’ (plural ‘gialli’) can be of any nationality. But film audiences abroad adopted it as the name for a peculiarly Italian sub-genre of thriller cinema that had its heyday in the 1970s.
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Although definitions vary, the giallo is most often characterised as an Italian crime film with murder-mystery elements. It often draws on a pool of common conventions: stylised murders, amateur sleuths, black gloves, repressed memories, enigmatic titles and creepy Ennio Morricone music scores.
Its parameters are vague, leaving plenty of examples sitting ambiguously on the fence between this and other genres. And it’s a tradition that gleefully mixes high and low culture, where you’ll find flashes of artistic brilliance sharing the screen with moments of jaw-dropping squalor.
The best place to start – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
If there’s one name most often associated with the giallo it’s Dario Argento. A former film critic and screenwriter, Argento turned to directing with 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which stars Tony Musante as Sam Dalmas, an American writer in Rome. Strolling past an art gallery late one night, Dalmas glimpses a brutal attack taking place inside. Suddenly becoming trapped between its double glass doors, he is powerless to intervene as a shadowy assailant flees and a victim lies bleeding. As he finds himself drawn into the ensuing investigation, Dalmas follows an elaborate trail that leads him to a series of grisly murders, a macabre painting of a forgotten crime, and an obscure clue in the form of a bird with glass-like feathers.
Argento’s stylish debut is like a manifesto for the genre. The violent repercussions of a long-buried trauma, an ambiguous recollection of a crime scene and a neurotic preoccupation with gender are themes that would often reverberate through the slew of imitations that were to follow.
Argento himself returned to the giallo throughout his career. Among his most successful contributions is Deep Red (1975), which echoes Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) by casting David Hemmings as its accidental investigator. Like Sam Dalmas in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Hemmings’ attempts to decode the mystery are rooted in a deeply entrenched, patriarchal worldview. It’s an ideology that becomes increasingly fragile as the plot unfolds. The final frame has him staring defeated at his reflection in a pool of blood. So much for your narcissism, mocks the film’s closing metaphor.
What to watch next
Argento may have kickstarted the giallo’s most prolific period but he wasn’t its original pioneer. In 1963, former cinematographer Mario Bava directed comedy-thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much, widely credited as the genre’s earliest example.
Bava’s film follows the adventures of crime-fiction-obsessed Nora (Letícia Román), a young American tourist visiting a family friend in Rome. Nora’s plane has barely touched the runway before she is plunged into a world of intrigue. An encounter with a smooth-talking drug smuggler at the airport is followed by the sudden death of her host on her first night in town. As she runs for help across the famous Spanish Steps, Nora falls victim to a mugging that leaves her unconscious. She comes to just in time to see a dying woman stagger into view, a carving knife lodged in her back. And that’s all in the first 12 minutes.
Bava had already notched up one classic, the 1960 gothic horror film The Mask of Satan. The Girl Who Knew Too Much pays playful tribute to Hitchcock, while tipping its cap to Agatha Christie and the generic conventions of detective fiction. In fact, the film is so crammed with clichés that Bava is reported to have lost interest in the plot altogether, instead channelling his efforts into the film’s luscious visual style.
Like The Mask of Satan, Bava’s early giallo makes painterly use of chiaroscuro cinematography. This time evoking a look closer to that of film noir, the director makes ingenious use of shadow play and deep focus to transform his Rome locations into a setting of menace.
Even if it’s now rightly applauded for having spawned an entire tradition, The Girl Who Knew Too Much has long lived in the shadow of a film Bava made the following year. With its flamboyant use of saturated colour, Blood and Black Lace (1964) dispensed with comedy altogether, striking a tone much closer to the gialli of the following decade. A dark, violent tale about a killer stalking a group of fashion models, this trendsetting horror-thriller exerted a powerful influence over the work of Dario Argento and helped shape the American slashers of the 70s.
The trickle of gialli over the second half of the 60s gave way to an explosion of production after the release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) manages to include almost all of the narrative elements of the quintessential giallo. There’s a crucial but confused eyewitness account, a series of sexually sadistic murders, a reluctant amateur detective and the revelation of a hidden trauma that sparked it all. It’s as relentlessly gripping as it is thoroughly seedy, helping it to achieve an ambivalent status as some kind of reprehensible classic. In fact, this nasty piece of work is likely to see a new lease of life as a remake by Nicolas Winding Refn looms.
1972 proved to be a bumper year. Among the plethora of entries it added to the genre, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, Aldo Lado’s The Short Night of the Glass Dolls and Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key are standout examples.
But by the second half of the decade, the rate of production was beginning to slow. And while the odd classic continued to emerge throughout the 1980s – Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) deserves singling out – by the 90s, enthusiasm for the form was dying fast.
Where not to start
Dario Argento’s Giallo (2009) never sounded like a good idea. The previous two decades had seen the quality of the director’s work shift from erratic to a steady decline. The announcement of a project that looked suspiciously like self-tribute was bound to be greeted with caution by his much-disillusioned fans.
Set in Turin, Giallo centres on the sadistic crimes of a misogynistic taxi driver, nicknamed Yellow after his jaundiced complexion. Preying on beautiful women, he spirits them off to his lonely hideaway, subjecting them to a series of horrible mutilations.
It’s disappointing to see Argento clambering onto the torture porn bandwagon. But the scenes of bottomless cruelty are not the only part of this misadventure that is painful to watch. Adrien Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner, as the duo on the killer’s trail, are left high and dry by a clumsy script full of comically improbable dialogue. And the coup de grâce is delivered by Marco Werba’s turgid score, which flattens any moments that had potential for suspense.
Having long since been absorbed into the horror-thriller mainstream, perhaps the giallo is better enjoyed by rediscovering the treasures of its original era. In the meantime, only time will tell whether the director that once made it famous will find his way back to the cutting edge.
BFI Thriller, a season of films that get the pulse and mind racing, ran at BFI Southbank from October to December 2017.
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