Why might this not sound easy
If you had to name a ’60s course of pulp classics with a distinctly Italian identity — one that influenced its American counterparts as much as it borrowed from them — you’d probably choose the spaghetti western. But Italy was responsible for exporting another exploit around the same time that was not widely recognized. Featured in the early 1960s, a series of films that were just treading with the end of the golden age of the West.
Giallo, meaning “yellow,” is the Italian term for crime stories, named after the bright yellow colors of early mystery paperback books. In Italy, “un giallo” (plural “gialli”) can be of any nationality. But movie audiences abroad adopted it as the name for a peculiar Italian sub-genre of thrillers that had their heyday in the 1970s.
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Although definitions vary, Giallo is often described as an Italian crime film that has elements of murder and mystery. It’s often based on a host of common conventions: flowery murders, amateur detectives, black gloves, repressed memories, obscure titles, and scores of creepy Ennio Morricone’s music.
Its criteria are ambiguous, leaving many examples sitting ambiguously on the fence between this and other species. It’s a tradition that happily blends high and low culture, where you’ll find flashes of artistic brilliance sharing the screen with moments of incredible filth.
The best place to start is the Crystal Feather Bird
If there is one name often associated with giallo it is Dario Argento. A former film critic and screenwriter, Argento turned to direct the 1970 film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, which starred Tony Musanti as Sam Dalmas, an American writer in Rome. Strolling in front of an art gallery late one night, Dalmas catches a glimpse of a brutal attack taking place inside. Suddenly trapped between its double glass doors, he is powerless to intervene as a mysterious attacker flees and a victim lies bleeding. Finding himself drawn into the investigation that followed, Dalmas follows a detailed path that leads him to a series of gruesome murders, a gruesome painting of a forgotten crime, and a mysterious clue in the form of a bird with glass-like feathers.
Argento’s elegant debut seems like a statement to the genre. The violent fallout from a long-buried trauma, a vague recollection of a crime scene and a neurotic preoccupation with sex are themes that often resonate through a plethora of tradition that followed.
Argento himself returned to Giallo throughout his career. Among his most successful contributions is Deep Read (1975), which echoes Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) by choosing David Hemings as the episodic investigator. Like Sam Dalmas in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Hemmings’ attempts to demystify are rooted in a deeply rooted, patriarchal worldview. It is an ideology that becomes more fragile as the conspiracy spreads. The last frame made him stare defeated defeated at his reflection in a puddle of blood. So much for your narcissism, he makes fun of the film’s closing metaphor.
What do you watch next
Argento may have started Giallo’s most prolific period but was not its original pioneer. In 1963, former cinematographer Mario Bava directed the thriller comedy The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which is widely credited as the first example of the genre.
Bava follows the adventures of a fantasy-obsessed Nora (Letsia Roman), a young American tourist who visits a family friend in Rome. Nora’s plane barely touched the runway before plunging into a world of intrigue. An encounter with a smooth-talking drug smuggler at the airport is followed by the sudden death of a flight attendant on her first night on the town. As she runs for help down the famous Spanish Staircase, Nora falls victim to a robbery that leaves her unconscious. She came just in time to see a dying woman reeling on the horizon, a carving knife lodged in her back. And that’s it for the first 12 minutes.
Bava had already made one movie classic, the 1960’s gothic horror film The Devil’s Mask. The Girl Who Knew Too Much pays tribute to Hitchcock, while tipping her hat to Agatha Christie and the general mores of detective fiction. In fact, the film is so full of cliched words that Bava completely lost interest in the plot, and instead directed his efforts toward the film’s visual style.
Like the Devil’s Mask, the early Giallo Bava uses chiaroscuro cinematography. This time the director evokes a closer look to that of film noir, as he masterfully uses shadow play and deep concentration to turn his locations in Rome into a dangerous one.
Even if she is rightly hailed now for having spawned an entire tradition, the girl I knew so much lived long in the shadow of a movie Bava made the following year. With its brilliant use of saturated color, Blood and Black Lace (1964) dispensed with comedy entirely, setting a tone much closer to gialli in the following decade. A dark and violent tale of a killer who stalks a group of supermodels, this horror-thriller powerfully influenced Dario Argento’s business and helped shape the American chops of the 1970s.
Al-Jalili’s meagerness during the second half of the 1960s gave way to an explosion in production after the release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Massimo Dalamano What did you do to Solange? (1972) manages to include nearly all of Giallo’s essentialist narrative elements. A critical but confusing eyewitness account, a series of sexually sadistic murders, a reluctant amateur detective, and the revelation of a hidden trauma caused it all. It’s sweeping as relentlessly as it is downright sloppy, helping it achieve a paradoxical status like some sort of obnoxious classic. In fact, this misdeed will likely see a new lease on life as a remake of Nicholas Winding Refn looms large.
1972 proved to be a prosperous year. Among the many entries she has added to the genre, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, Aldo Lado’s The Short Night of the Glass Dolls, Sergio Martino’s Your Vice Is A Locked Room, and Only I Have the Key are notable examples.
But by the second half of the decade, the rate of production began to slow. And while quirky classics continued to emerge during the ’80s—Argento Tenebrae (1982) deserved exclusivity—by the ’90s, enthusiasm for the format was fading fast.
Where not to start
Dario Argento’s Giallo (2009) never seemed like a good idea. The past two decades have seen the quality of the director’s work go from erratic to steadily deteriorating. The announcement of the project, which seemed to be a self-esteem, had to be greeted with caution by much-disappointed fans.
Set in Turin, Giallo focuses on the sadistic crimes of a misogynistic taxi driver, nicknamed Yellow after his jaundice skin. He exploits beautiful women, turning them into his only sanctuary, and subjecting them to a series of horrific mutilations.
It is disappointing to see Argento climb the torture porn bandwagon. But the endless scenes of cruelty aren’t the only part of this unfortunate adventure that’s hard to watch. Adrien Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner, as the duo on the killer’s trail, are left high and dry by a goofy script filled with improbable comic dialogue. And the knockout is delivered by Marco Yerba’s colossal score, which smooths out any potentially suspenseful moments.
After so long immersed in the mainstream world of horror and thriller, the giallo is perhaps best enjoyed by rediscovering the treasures of its original era. In the meantime, only time will tell if the once-famous director will find his way into the latest style.
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