Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 11 
10 June
2002

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Umberto Lenzi's Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso (Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, 1971) HORROR
Playing
with genre

An introduction
to the Italian giallo

In this practical and concise historical-theoretical introduction to the giallo as it has developed in the Italian cinema, Gary Needham explains why this perenially popular form is less a "genre" in the conventional (US/Hollywood) sense of the term than "a conceptual category with highly moveable and permeable boundaries that shift around from year to year."[*]


Genre issues

In 1929, the Milanese Publishing giant Mondadori launched a line of books in yellow covers, hence giallo—the Italian word for yellow—as part of a large campaign to promote, specifically, tales of mystery and detection. These works consisted primarily of imported translations of British "rational-deduction" fictions of the Sherlock Holmes variety and the early twentieth century American quasi-fantastic murder mysteries built on the Edgar Allen Poe model.

Before 1929, the notion of the detective was something unknown to the Italians, but that isn't to say that works of detection, mystery and investigation were not in circulation; rather those sorts of fictions were to be found under the banner of adventure. The publication of gialli increased throughout the 1930s and 40s, however the importation and translation of the 1940s "hard-boiled" detective fictions from the US were prohibited from publication outright by Mussolini on the grounds that their corrupting influence and glamorisation of crime would negatively influence "weak-minded" Italians.

Book cover for Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose, first published 1984)It wasn't long before Italian authors began writing under anglicised pseudonyms their own gialli based on the early British and American models of rational thought and logical deduction. Only after the war did a truly Italian form of the fiction began to emerge, principally in the work of Leonardo Sciascia. Not only did Sciascia write his own important gialli (including Il giorno della civetta [The Day of the Crow] and A ciascuno il suo [To Each His Own]); he also published two polemical articles in the 1950s on the specificity of the Italian giallo and its need to be taken seriously by Italian intellectuals, particularly those on the left influenced by Gramsci. Today, gialli continue to be written by Italians, Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) in 1984 being the most famous and prestigious outside of Italy. There are also numerous translations into Italian of novelists such as Thomas Harris, Patricia Cornwell, et al.

However, it is the cinematic giallo that concerns us here and it emerges during the "Golden Age" of Italian cinema in the early 1960s. One interesting point about the giallo in its cinematic form is that it appears to be less fixed as a genre than its written counterpart. The term itself doesn't indicate, as genres often do, an essence, a description or a feeling. It functions in a more peculiar and flexible manner as a conceptual category with highly moveable and permeable boundaries that shift around from year to year to include outright gothic horror (La lama nel corpo [The Murder Clinic, Emilio Scardimaglia, 1966]), police procedurals (Milano, morte sospetta di una minorenne [Sergio Martino, 1975]), crime melodrama (Così dolce, così perversa [So Sweet So Perverse, Umberto Lenzi, 1969]) and conspiracy films (Terza ipotesi su un casa di perfetta strategia criminale [Who Killed the Prosecutor and Why?, Giuseppe Vari, 1972]).

It should be understood then that the giallo is something different to that which is conventionally analysed as a genre. The Italians have the word filone, which is often used to refer to both genres and cycles as well as to currents and trends. This points to the limitations of genre theory built primarily on American film genres but also to the need for redefinition concerning how other popular film-producing nations understand and relate to their products. This introduction to the giallo, therefore, begins from the assumption that the giallo is not so much a genre, as its literary history might indicate, but a body of films that resists generic definition. In this respect it is unlike the Italian horror and poliziotto (police) genres yet, at the same time, the giallo can be understood as an object to be promoted, criticised, studied, etc.

By its very nature the giallo challenges our assumptions about how non-Hollywood films should be classified, going beyond the sort of Anglo-American taxonomic imaginary that "fixes" genre both in film criticism and the film industry in order to designate something specific. As alluded to above, however, despite the giallo's resistance to clear definition there are nevertheless identifiable thematic and stylistic tropes. There is a stereotypical giallo and the giallo-fan has his or her idea of what constitutes the giallo canon. The following points therefore, are an attempt to clarify and define familiar aspects of this "canon."

Early efforts

In 1963, Mario Bava directed the first true Italian giallo: La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much). It can be argued that the Italian giallo pre-dates Bava's film, as the term has frequently been used to associate Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943) with the tradition. However, the reason why Bava's film is the "true" starting point of the giallo is its explicit and successful attempt to say to the spectator, in effect, "The Italian giallo has arrived."

Mario Bava's La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963)The opening sequence has Nora Davis (Letícia Roman) reading a giallo novel on an airplane. The entire scene is essentially a foundational gesture that brings together several elements all at once: the staging of the giallo's literary origins through mise-en-abîme (also central to Dario Argento's Tenebre [Unsane, 1982]); the foreigner coming to/being in Italy; the obsession with travel and tourism not only as a mark of the newly emerging European jet-set (consider how many gialli begin or end in airports), but representative of Italian cinema's selling of its own "Italian-ness" through tourist hotspots (initiated by the murder on the Spanish Steps in Bava's film as well as countless deaths in or around famous squares, fountains and monuments throughout the giallo); and of course fashion and style.

I am confident in suggesting that the familiar black raincoat associated with the giallo killer stems from continental fashion trends in the 1960s and has since shifted its meaning over the decades to become the couture choice of the assassin by default in addition to serving as one of the giallo's most identifiable visual tropes. Bava's Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964), set in a fashion house, confirms this observation as the use of a black Macintosh for disguise purposes potentially means it could be any number of the models and, at the same time, situate itself on the pulse of fashion.[1]

Returning to La ragazza che sapeva troppo, the American title of the film is The Evil Eye, illustrating the giallo's obsession with vision and the testimone oculare, or eye-witness. La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much) might have been called Lucio Fulci's Una lucertola con la pelle di donne (Lizard in a Woman's Skin, 1971)The Girl Who Saw Too Much, but that would have betrayed the allusion to Hitchcock in the title. Nora questions the authority of her own witnessing of a murder on the Spanish Steps in Rome. She ends up unconscious and delirious in a hospital, and is subjected to scrutiny by both the police inspector and her doctor—the twin agents of naming sickness and of doubting female testimony.

The hybrid medico-detective discourse is a popular one in the giallo. Hallucinations and subjective "visions" are central both to the protagonists and the narrative enigma in Una lucertola con la pelle di donne (Lizard in a Woman's Skin, Lucio Fulci, 1971) and Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh (Next!, Sergio Martino, 1971) and are part of the giallo's inherent pathologising of femininity and fascination with "sick" women. Hysterics are in abundance here: films such as Il coltello di ghiaccio (Knife of Ice, Umberto Lenzi, 1972) and Tutti i colori del buio (They're coming to get you, Sergio Martino, 1972) anchor their narratives around the collapse of the "sickness" and mystery, albeit through the conduit of femininity.

The 1960s made a slow but sure inroad for the giallo in Italian cinema. The period following 1963's The Evil Eye was clearly a mapping out of new territory for Italian directors, not only for the giallo but also for the Italian horror film. The early- to mid-60s giallo didn't exhibit the strength of other genres of the period such as the western, the horror and the peplum ("sword-and-sandal" movie). However, one remarkable thing about the giallo is its longevity; even if its presence has been slight at times, it has still spanned over four decades of Italian cinema with the latest Dario Argento film, Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2001). Not only does Sleepless constitute a return to form for the director, but it signals a revisting of his own debut, L'Uccello dale piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1969). Perhaps again the giallo's staying power can be reduced to a resistance of the homogenising constraints that traditional genre membership often imposes on bodies of films by making them fit particular historical and critical categories.

Instead of defining the giallo in generic and historical terms, I would like to suggest that we understand it in a more "discursive" fashion, as something constructed out of the various associations, networks, tensions and articulations of Italian cinema's textual and industrial specificity in the post-war period. It happens that the giallo revolves around murder, mystery, detection, psychoanalysis, tourism, alienation and investigation. Therefore, I would like to tentatively flag the following issues as a starting point for future study.

Psychoanalysis

The giallo literally begs for psychoanalytic inquiry and at the same time stages both the "analytical scene" and the "classic symptoms." As usual, this staging occurs through the conduit of femininity but in some cases—as in (almost) every Dario Argento film—masculinity becomes the focal point. The typical Argento protagonist is the victim/witness of trauma who must keep returning to the scene of the crime (the Freudian "nachtraglichkeit" or retranscription of memory; popularly represented via flashback sequences), often committed by a killer who just can't resist serial murder (the psychoanalytic "compulsion to repeat").

Mario Caiano's L'occhio nel labirinto (The Eye in the Labyrinth, 1972)L'occhio nel labirinto (The Eye in the Labyrinth, Mario Caiano, 1972) is about the murder of a male psychoanalyst by his female patient who confuses him as lover, doctor and father. L'occhio nel laberinto also goes so far as to open with a cryptic quote from Borges, from which the film constructs the triple analogy of labyrinth:mind:narrative before structuring the old Freudian war-horse of "woman as mystery." Many of the giallo's female protagonists are either in therapy, have had therapy or are told that they need therapy. (The giallo queen of psychic discontent has to be Edwige Fenech, whose performances confirm that hysteria is always histrionic when it comes to Italian cinema.)

The giallo is a paradigm case in defence of psychoanalysis. It solicits psychoanalytic interpretation and stages every oedipal scenario literally and spectacularly.

Testimone oculare

The Italian term for the eye-witness of a crime. Those who watch their gialli in Italian will here these two words frequently. The giallo makes a point about the failings of vision as a source of authority and knowledge. Il gatto a nove code (The Cat O' Nine Tails, Dario Argento, 1971) goes as far as to create an "aural mystery," a restaging of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), including a blind crossword-puzzle maker as one of its detectives.

Dario Argento's L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970)All sorts of vision/knowledge dynamics are explored in the giallo, but never to such great effect as in L'Uccello dale piume di cristallo, whose foreigner abroad, flaneur Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), is eye-witness to a knife assault in a chic Roman art gallery. The gallery is explicitly concerned with maximising clarity and vision: the space is minimal so there are no distractions for the gaze other than that of the crime; the doors/façade are enormous glass panels; nothing is obscured; the entire area is brightly lit. However, despite all of these supports aiding Dalmas's vision, he fails to see (or in psychoanalytic terms, he misrecognises) the truth of his gaze. Other gialli which foreground the eye-witness narrative strand are Passi di danza su una lama di rasoio (Death Carries a Cane, Maurizio Pradeaux, 1972) and, of course, La ragazza che sapeva troppo.

Quite related to the theme of eye-witnesses and unreliable sight—and in the spirit of Carol Clover[2]—are the numerous incidents of violence done to the eyes (including those in Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro [Eyeball, Umberto Lenzi 1974] and Opera [Dario Argento, 1988]) and the generous amount of titles with "gli occhi" in them, whether this refers to the eyes of detectives, victims, killers or cats (eg, I gatto dagli occhi di giada [The Cat's Victim, Antonio Bido, 1977] and Gli occhi freddi della paura [Cold Eyes of Fear, Enzo Girolami Castellari 1971]). The giallo eye is both penetrating and penetrated.

Detection

As a work of detection, the giallo is less a set of conventions than a playful resource about them. Detection is often the point of entry for an exploration of how to sort out the normal from the pathological through identity and representation. Along with psychoanalysis, detection was one of the great ends of nineteenth-century epistemology and it is by now a cliché to make the analogy between detective and analyst.

Many gialli clearly define the pathological other, including Sette scialli di seta gialla (Sergio Pastore, 1972) and La bestia uccide a sangue freddo (Slaughter Hotel, Fernando di Leo, 1971), and it is the sole purpose of these particular films to exploit this characterisation. The detective's job thus becomes one of uncovering, naming and containing otherness as something socially and morally threatening. However, several progressive gialli (again mostly those of Argento, but also Giornata near per l'ariete [The Fifth Chord, Luigi Bazzoni, 1973]) play with the conventions of detection and investigation procedures in order to explore issues of masculinity and identity. Key themes in such gialli include alienation, failed detection, otherness and the well-worn European concept of the "subject in process/on trial."

Camp

Andrea Bianchi's Nude per l'assassino (Strip Nude for your Killer, 1975)While many giallo viewers await the ubiquitous Susan Scott's next undressing scene, many many others are waiting to see her next fabulous outfit. Such is the giallo that it panders to both readings: erotic anticipation and camp sensibility. The giallo is a document of 60s and 70s style that years later can be seen as utterly camp. Even the most tired of gialli is capable of being resurrected as a "masterpiece," thanks to Alexander Doty's example of making things queer[3] and wardrobe departments whose creativity and expression at times exceeds that of the director.

How many gialli are set in and around fashion houses and photographers' studios? Sei donne per l'assassino, Nude per l'assassino (Strip Nude for your Killer, Andrea Bianchi, 1975) and La dama rosa uccide a sette volte (The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Emilio P Miraglia, 1972), just to name a few. How many of the gialli's victims are fashion models?[4]

The literary

Referring back to the giallo's origins in the 1930s with the translations of British and early American murder mysteries, it appears that the cinematic giallo has never quite forgotten its debt to the literary. The most explicit examples include the staging of the giallo book as an object in La ragazza che sapeva troppo and the author/reader of the giallo as central to the narrative in Unsane. In the latter film, Peter Neal (Antonio Franciosca) is an American gialli author, and Giuliano Gemma's detective is an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes stories who even quotes what is perhaps the mantra of the giallo's dénouement: "Whatever remains, however improbable, must be truth" (from Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles).

Although uncredited, Agatha Christie is the main source of inspiration and imitation for Concerto per un pistola (The Weekend Murders, Michele Lupo, 1970) and Cinque bambole per la luna d'agostso (Five Dolls for an August Moon, Mario Bava, 1970). Edgar Allen Poe is also represented in gialli such as Sette note in nero (The Psychic, Lucio Fulci, 1977), not to mention Argento's ineffectual cut-and-paste of Poe's world in the "black cat" episode of Due occhi diabolici (Two Evil Eyes, Dario Argento and George Romero, 1990).

The postcolonial question

Travel, tourism, exoticism, hybridity and foreignness are all familiar features of the giallo. The textuality of Italian cinema after the 1950s has many features that seem to open up queries problematising the concept of a national film movement and a national identity. The main protagonist of the giallo is often the foreigner in Italy or the Italian on holiday. "Exotic locations" include Scotland (L'iguana dalla lingue di fuoco [The Iguana with a Tongue of Fire, Riccardo Freda, 1971]), Haiti (Al tropico del cancro [Death in Haiti, Edoardo Mulargia, 1972]) and Africa (L'uomo piú velonosa del cobra [Human Cobras, Bitto Albertini, 1971]). Characters don't seem fixed to a home or location; they are always (in) between different places. This justifies the advertisements for various transatlantic airlines that bookend the giallo, not to mention the promos for every traveller's favourite drink—a J&B whisky. This must be the most plugged product in the history of European Cinema. Look out for it.

When the giallo is set in Italy it typically takes one of three different routes. Sometimes it promotes "Italian-ness" through a foregrounding of identifiable tourist spots that often halt the narrative and serve as sheer spectacle. Other times it strives to erase Italian-ness by establishing the setting as an(other) anonymous European city, avoiding distinctive signifiers of Italy altogether. And still other times it constructs a "rural-historical" locale as a place of the uncanny, as in La casa dale finestre che ridono (The House with the Windows that Laugh, Pupi Avati, 1976).

Italian popular cinema tends to promote the non-national, and this variably results in a tendency to exaggerate and exploit the "foreign" through the tropes of travel and the tourist's gaze. Ugo Liberatore's Incontro d'amore a Bali (1969) and the Black Emanuelle series (1975-83) instigated a whole filone of soft-porn desert island and globe-trotting adventure films, fueling what Anne McClintock calls the "porno-tropics"[5], and which in turn influenced the direction of the giallo towards a more pan-exotic exploration of mystery, detection and murder to sustain the public's interest and changing tastes.[6]

Conclusion

The giallo is quite difficult to pin down as a body of films. Criticism tends to gather around auteur directors or singular examples. However, if we can understand the giallo discursively, we may begin to make interesting connections between its textual, industrial and cultural features. Such a strategy would allow us to open the giallo up rather than close it down. One final note specifies the giallo's discursive potential in everyday criticism. A recent Japanese animated feature, Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon, 1997) was referred to as an animated Japanese giallo. There is also a frequent and longstanding tradition of appropriating Spanish (Una libelua para cada muerto [A Dragonfly for Each Corpse, Leon Klimovsky, 1974]), Belgian (Die Potloodmoorden [The Pencil Murders, Guy Lee Thys, 1982]), Japanese, French and Dutch films for inclusion in the gialli tradition.

Gary Needham

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Also of interest

On Dario Argento:

On Mario Bava:

About the author

Gary Needham is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at the University of Glasgow Department of Theatre, Film and Televsion Studies. His dissertation focuses on Italian horror cinema and the giallo in particular. He lectures at the University of Glasgow and John Moores University, Liverpool, as well as at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Currently, he is editing (with Dimitris Eleftheriotis) the Asian Cinemas Reader.


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Footnotes

* Thanks both to Belen Vidal for her thoughts on the literary and to Dimtris Eleftheriotis for conversations that helped shaped my understanding of Italian cinema.return to text

1. Cf Reynold Humphries, "Just another fashion victim: Mario Bava's Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964)," Kinoeye 1.7, 26 Nov 2001.return to text

2. See Carol J Clover, "The Eye of Horror," in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, ed Linda Williams (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994).return to text

3. See, for example, Alexander Doty, Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).return to text

4. See Humphries, op cit.return to text

5. See Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York: Routledge, 1995).return to text

6. For more on colonisation and (post-)colonial issues in the giallo, see Frank Burke, "Intimations (and more) of colonialism: L'Uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, 1970)" in this issue of Kinoeye.return to text

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