During the 1950s and ’60s, Rome was the glamorous center of the world. It started when a group of bold Italian fashion designers challenged the dominance of Paris on the runway, and won. Suddenly, all eyes turned to Italy, still recovering from the ravages of World War II and the overthrow of their government. The world discovered that something amazing was growing in the post-War wreckage, a certain attitude and style, an effortless cool in the face of hardship. Something that would become known as sprezzatura. Where fashion went, other arts followed, including film. And in particular, the American film industry. Benito Mussolini had considered film an important tool for his Fascist government. He undertook a massive expansion of the Italian film industry’s resources, including state-of-the-art studios. After the war, Italy didn’t exactly have the money to relaunch a robust film business, but they did have all of this amazing stuff, relatively unscathed by the War (US and German forces, with some exceptions, tried not to damage Rome too much). The new Italian government devised a system to entice international filmmakers. It worked.
A healthy exchange program between the Italian and American film industries blossomed, dubbed “Hollywood on the Tiber.” Hollywood, keen to take advantage of lower costs for skilled labor (and circumvent the various craftsmen’s unions in the United States), would take advantage of the abundance of facilities, striking locations, costumes, sets, and legions of willing extras (the Italian economy was only just beginning to recover from the war) and laborers available to the in Italy. Italian productions were then able to recycle sets and costumes for their own films, as well as hire American (and British) stars who were in town anyway, either for an American production or because they wanted to make the Via Veneto scene, the be-all end-all of chic “see and be seen” location, immortalized (for better and worse) in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita. For a decade, up until the center attention shifted to Swinging London in the 1960s, Rome was the place to be.
Films, both American and Italian, reflected this newfound glamor (and decadence). Even horror films capitalized on (and critiqued) the situation, and would continue to do so for decades. Although the heyday of giallo didn’t come until the 1970s, the genre traces its roots back to the early 1960s and the “Hollywood on the Tiber” renaissance. A sightseeing aspect would remain a staple attribute of the genre for most of its lifespan (as would an obsession with fashion) and is particularly evident in one of the earliest gialli, La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much,1963).
Upon completion of the historical epic Erik the Conqueror (1961), Mario Bava was lukewarm on continuing his career as a director. A special effects man, sure, and cinematographer, but he wasn’t convinced he wanted to be a director. He took some time off to mull over his future, most of which he spent reading horror and mystery thrillers. Producers Samuel Arkoff and Jim Nicholson, who had recently started dubbing and importing Italian genre films into the US under the banner of their American International Productions (AIP), convinced Bava to give it another go.
The result was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a film that everyone from Bava to John Saxon to most critics both in the 1960s and today consider, at best, a footnote in Bava’s career, a trifle in between his moments of greatness. Bava dismissed the story& as silly, too light to be taken seriously. Critics searching for something nice to say praised Bava’s technical achievements, his use of shadow and canted camera angles — excusing the director while waving away the film itself. John Saxon, who turns in a credible performance in a bland role, joked that he ended up in the film because he and Leticia Román were friends and she asked if he wanted a free trip to Rome to make a horror film, which Saxon misheard as an “art film.”
Even today, about the best it can hope for is to be referred to as “mostly harmless.” And yes, it is a bit of a trifle, but sometimes trifles can be enjoyable. Even Hitchcock had a sense of humor, after all, and some of his own films are considered light by people looking for more visceral thrills. Perhaps that’s the problem The Girl Who Knew Too Much has suffered. People come to it looking for Black Sunday and Blood and Black Lace. Or they’ve heard it’s an homage to Hitchcock and they think Psycho, but what they get is something much more akin to To Catch a Thief. Perhaps framing the film as the first giallo sets certain expectations the film doesn’t meet. It’s not particularly violent (there are other murders, but we don’t see any of them happen; just the corpse afterward). It has a spring in its step, but descriptions of it as light and frothy are overstating things. It isn’t grim, and it does have a certain spirit to it, but it also dabbles in a tense Gothic atmosphere.
Judging The Girl Who Knew Too Much from its first scene, however, it would be reasonable to assume one was watching a Fellini movie, or at least a decent imitation of Fellini. The opening shot of a TWA plane in flight toward Rome, the bustling capital of high style, suggests the dawn of the age of the jet set, as does the introduction of the film’s main character, stylish, naive American Nora Davis (Leticia Román, Russ Meyer’s Fanny Hill and the Elvis film G.I. Blues) who is being pestered by her Lothario seat-mate — while she is trying to read a giallo novel, which is also the first indication that something a little more sinister might lurk beneath the fashionable good times.
Tourism and Terror
The plane touches down at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, opened just a short time earlier in 1961 and meant to herald the golden age of jet travel and Rome’s post-war position as the focal point of global glamor and cool. Bava’s camera captures all this emerging elegance, even dipping into a Fellini-esque sequence in which Nora discovers her pushy fellow passenger is attempting to smuggle cigarettes full of marijuana into the country (and had loaned her a pack, which she discreetly tries to drop before going through customs). All that’s missing is Marcello Mastroianni waiting in an Alfa Romeo outside to whisk her away to a cafe on the Via Veneto.
Well, she doesn’t get Marcello Mastroianni, but she does get John Saxon, and his character is named Marcello. Marcello awaits her at the home of an elderly relative with whom Nora will be staying during her magical time in the Eternal City. Which is about when this movie stops looking like a Fellini film and starts to more closely resemble the Gothic chillers for which Bava would later be known (and was already known somewhat, having directed Black Sunday in 1960 and the strange, psychedelic sword and sandal by way of Gothic horror film Hercules in the Haunted World in 1961). Nora’s relative has fallen ill, and despite the reassuring presence of Saxon’s young doctor Bassi , Nora finds the whole situation a bit eerie, especially since the apartment at which she has arrived is bathed in sinister shadows and antique accoutrements.
It gets worse for Nora later that night. The elderly Ethel suffers a heart attack as thunder and lightning rages outside. Unable to get a reliable phone connection to the hospital, Nora ventures out onto unfamiliar streets and is soon disoriented—which, it turns out, is the least of her worries. Almost immediately, she is set upon by a purse snatcher. In the ensuing struggle, she falls and is knocked unconscious. When she comes to a few minutes later, she is horrified to see a woman staggering toward her. The woman collapses, revealing a knife in her back. Seconds later, a man Nora cannot clearly see arrives and carries away the body. Overwhelmed by it all, Nora passes out again.
Bava shoots this sequence like one of his Gothic horror films, with harsh shadows cloaking streets and faces. This film is often considered Bava’s most overt Hitchcock film, and while there’s little denying the influence of Hitchcock (right down to the title of the film), it’s more reminiscent of the noir-horrors director Jacques Tourneur made at RKO for producer Val Lewton, though Bava’s moody visual approach is never quite in tune with the tone of the script, which is considerably less brooding than the average Lewton production.
Nora is discovered the next morning by a passerby who tries to revive her with a slug of liquor, and then by a police officer who, confronted by her boozy breath and hysterics as she awakens, assumes she is a drunk. In the hospital, she hardly helps herself by continuing to rant about murder. Luckily, Dr. Bassi sees her and extracts her from this predicament. Everyone chalks the murder up to a combination of disorientation, grief, and the fact that she was mugged and took a concrete pillar to the head. Nora, however, is certain that she did not just hallucinate the whole thing.
And perhaps she didn’t…because now, a mysterious man has taken to following her around. She meets a kind woman who lives near where Nora saw the murder, and the woman (Valentina Cortese, Antonioni’s Le Amiche, Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, and Orson Welles’ Black Magic) invites her to stay in the apartment…then promptly leaves town. It’s going to be a struggle to convince the authorities she’s something more than a hysterical woman (it’s notable that everyone called in to judge her from a position of authority is a man and instantly dismissive of her claims) while also being stalked. Sure of her own sanity, she turns to her beloved mystery novels for guidance, invoking the spirits of Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie to assist her in devising defenses against whatever shadows threaten her at midnight.
If the primary accomplishment of The Girl Who Knew Too Much is its visual style, that’s still an accomplishment, and Bava has indeed composed a stylishly shot and attractively framed film that exists somewhere between his own taste for the noirish and Gothic and the dominant trend of the day to depict the urban and ancient Rome as a place of wonder, excitement, and occasional danger. Bava indulges in a spot of Roman travelogue footage since he knew the film’s primary audience might be found in the United States, where the sites and sounds of Rome would still be exotic and thrilling to many moviegoers. It’s a bit like Roman Holiday if Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn got caught up in a murder mystery.
In the somewhat fluffy script, one finds just about all the ingredients that would be further refined by Bava a year later in Blood and Black Lace, then cooked to perfection by Dario Argento in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Román is the quintessential giallo protagonist: a foreign outsider swept up in sinister Italian intrigue. She becomes obsessed with solving her own case (which most people aren’t even sure is a case) and is surrounded by nothing but red herrings, sinister strangers, and people telling her she’s crazy. Her histrionics can be, at times, a bit much, but by and large she’s a companionable and sympathetic enough person with which to spend the movie. The strain of cynicism and misanthropy that would come to define the giallo of the 1970s (and indeed, Bava’s own Blood and Black Lace) is not present here. For the most part, it’s about as innocent as murder can be, and perhaps that’s why it disappoints many.
Judged on its own merits, it’s a spry little thriller with gorgeous photography and a couple of game leads (even though both of them end up dubbed).When they imported it to the United States, AIP retitled the film Evil Eye, chopped it up, and changed chunks of the plot by dubbing in new dialogue and adding additional scenes. In both its original Italian and altered American editions, it failed to accomplish anything at the box office. Had not Bava gone on to become a legendary name, it’s likely almost no one would remember The Girl Who Knew Too Much or think to elevate it to its rightful place in the history of giallo.
Perhaps one is better disposed to enjoy the film if it is measured not against Bava’s masterworks or the giallo of later years, but instead is placed in the context of less somber affairs. It’s neither bad nor boring. It’s briskly paced, stylishly appointed, and artfully shot. It’s lightweight, but so was Sugar Ray Robinson. It might be something less than “La Dolce Vida with murder,” but if you happen to have a fascination with Rome and Italian filmmaking at a time when Rome was the center of the art and fashion world, then Mario Bava is a reasonable guide and The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a fun tour.