Last October three Diabolique editors–Samm Deighan, Kat Ellinger, and myself–embarked on a daily examination of the wondrous genre of giallo cinema in a series we called 31 Days of Gialloween. In my writing about one of the defining classics, Sergio Martino’s exquisite 1971 picture The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, I mentioned a notion almost in passing–that virtually all gialli seem to occur in an imaginary space of high sensation called Gialloville. In this place we find that a large portion of the population is rich, bored, and sexy as hell. Characters of all genders are prone to hysteria and histrionics, while lustful murderers are seemingly behind every corner. The time has come to examine Gialloville in depth, which could be located everywhere and nowhere, but could often be mistaken for a coastal town in the Balearic or Tyrrhenian Seas full of itinerant, decadent, and/or despicable tourists. The more I consider it, to say Gialloville could be anywhere is a misnomer, as it almost always includes a Eurocentric outlook, the borders of which expand and contracts in an unpredictable manner, fifty years ago and today.
For those not already familiar, giallo translates to “yellow” in Italian, and the genre we know by this word today traces its roots back to thriller and mystery paperbacks bound in yellow covers, first published by Mondadori in the late 1920s. Initially, the authors were those internationally touted as the greatest in the genre like Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie, before the publishing company began including domestic writers as well. Thus, gialli have always had something of a cosmopolitan quality to them. The Italian-language Mondadori paperbacks were even precursed by an English line of paperbacks put out by Hodder and Staughton in the 1920s referred to as The Yellow Jackets, which had quite similar content.
Considered one of the first giallo films, Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka Evil Eye, 1963) opens appropriately. Leticia Román plays our protagonist Nora, an American tourist on a flight to Italy, completely enveloped in a crime paperback called “The Knife.” Her curiosity and penchant for lurid fantasy is what drives the entire picture, traits that would certainly drive fans of the genre watching these films for years to come. This metatextual commentary Bava uses is not something particularly new–as Jane Austen used a similar framework in regard to women reading gothic novels in Northanger Abbey as far back as 1817–but rather a tactic used that quickly allows audience members to identify with and quickly become engaged in the story, in this case regardless of personal characteristics like gender and nationality. Often throughout The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a commanding male voiceover will impose on the image, although through the look we see in Nora’s eyes, we know it is her psyche driving that narration. By the end of the film, the whimsically handsome love interest Marcello (John Saxon) is encouraging Nora to stop reading or even thinking about detective fiction, because he wants all of her attention to himself. It is almost like the giallo pits its entire genre as an imaginary space to preoccupy readers/viewers minds, unintentionally or not in competition with the pleasures of social connection. The fantasies involved allow for the audience to become enraptured in macabre and/or sensual experiences that may be practically unachievable in real life.
The tourist as super sleuth is one formula that appears in some of the most popular gialli, recurring again of course in Dario Argento’s masterful debut The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Deep Red (1975). Both of these, along with The Girl Who Knew Too Much, are highly effective in using Italy as a sense of place. But what does the figure of the tourist evoke? First, we feel an unfamiliarity and hence heightened curiosity with our surroundings. Tourism can also be considered in terms of class. Usually it are only the middle and upper classes who have enough mobility to travel far and wide for extended periods of time, and so it is worth noting that with this, comes a certain stability that not all audiences may be familiar with. To many citizens of the world, gallivanting around foreign countries and even being able to solve crimes that the police cannot, are highly fantastic activities. Gialli are often simply about being somewhere else. They allow a type of escape.
As Diabolique Editor-in-Chief Kat Ellinger mentions in her book All the Colours of Sergio Martino, the director of classic gialli like All the Colors of the Dark (1971), The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, and Torso (1973), has mentioned that he often sets his thrillers in different countries because Italian audiences would not have found them believable otherwise. But why though? Martino never seems to elaborate on this (or if he did and you know of it, please direct me to that bit of information). We can only speculate why he would think this. In All the Colors of the Dark, Edwige Fenech’s Jane Harrison traverses London, only to return again as the titular Mrs Julie Wardh in Strange Vice, this time taking cover from the sex maniacs of Vienna. Additionally, the director along with actors George Hilton and Anita Strindberg, travelled to London and various locations in Greece to bring us The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971). Did Martino, and by extension, much of the Italian population, just think that the outrageous content of gialli was the kind of thing that could never happen at home? Certainly Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita (1960) showed the potential for Italian bourgeois excess, decadence, and even murder by the early 1960s (taking into account Marcello’s rich friend, turned murderer Steiner (Alain Cuny)). Or perhaps Martino was implying that folks in his country associate thrillers with settings beyond borders because that is where so many of the original mystery stories originated. All that we can really be sure of is that Sergio Martino believed that a giallo happening in Italy is nothing less than unbelievable–this being said about a genre of cinema with a characteristic desire to defy belief.
In Arrow Video’s Death Walks Twice box set, screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi is interviewed, at one point stating casually that “The producers used to make them [movies] wherever they wanted to, because it was convenient.” In discussing practical matters such as salaries and production costs, Gastaldi–who wrote all of Sergio Martino’s gialli, as well as Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks in High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972)–reveals that the international, jet-setting quality that the films embody may simply have to do with the financial aspects of filmmaking. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with how the industry works, although it may take out a bit of film criticism’s desire to generalize about filmmakers’ genius in some kind of mystical way. Sometimes decisions are made because something is convenient and cheap. Apparently, during the making of Death Walks in High Heels, Paris, London, and rural England were convenient locations.
Italy is known for their industry practice of shooting films and dubbing almost all spoken dialog afterwards, something that adds a distinct feeling to their cinema. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, gialli would be shot with the knowledge that separate Italian, English, etc, tracks would be created for the ease of export to other countries. Some films even shot scenes with dialog twice, having actors recite the lines in Italian and English. It is one of the only countries in which the cinema is conceivably just as acceptable when watching an English dub as it is watching it in Italian with English subtitles, because quite often the industry intended it either way. Thus when Julie Wardh’s Austrian taxi driver blurts out–in English–how he wants all the sex perverts to be executed, the exagerrated quality of his accent, which frankly sounds like a parody of an American making fun of a German accent, adds a certain charm and hilarity to the film that is not found in the Italian language version of The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh. Similarly, Gio Baldi, one of the love interests in Ercoli’s Death Walks at Midnight (played by Simón Andreu) has a wacky French accent in the English version. Just in case national identifiers such as these aren’t enough, at one point in the film one of the cops attempting to get Gio’s attention hollers out, “Hey you, Frenchman!” In many gialli, the act that goes on in identifying foreigners as such is simply a whimsical quality found in Gialloville. This kind of irreverence would most likely be met with outrage if used today, although HBO’s decision to cast an international bunch of actors, all speaking English, as Russians in their Chernobyl mini-series appears to have bothered few people (at least in the US), perhaps because the tone is far more serious than an Italian thriller from fifty years ago.
The thing that ultimately makes gialli so interesting are their often freewheeling, decadent depictions of socioeconomic class. Essentially this is a cycle of films about rich or well off people who act in brash, selfish ways, and usually pay for it in some gruesome manner. As early as the Christian Haute Couture sign that is the opening shot of Blood and Black Lace (1964), we are given the idea that the folks we see on screen are of a bourgeois ilk, who either have a lot of money and style, or would do anything to get these things. When watching a giallo, the audience member wants one of two things–either to vicariously live through the upper class excess the characters experience on screen, or to see these rich fools die horrible deaths for the base, solipsistic, grotesque lifestyles they lead. These are people who have huge, urban apartments and sprawling vacation homes. If they have jobs, then they must have a lot of vacation time. If they don’t have jobs, then their inheritances must be enormous. Of course this is not the case with every character in all gialli, but it is often enough the case.
In Death Laid an Egg (1968) the suave Jean-Louis Tringinant plays Marco, a man who marries his older spouse Anna (Gina Lolabrigida) because she has money made from an inhumane, genetically-modified-chicken farm. From the early scenes, they both acknowledge that the workers there hate them. If either of the characters played by Edwige Fenech in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh or All the Colors of the Dark had a job, perhaps they would not have had so much time on their hands to go nuts while overthinking kinky sex games and/or witch cults. Meanwhile, the aristocratic Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen), protagonist of The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) certainly has a spacious dungeon in the basement of that castle he casually owns. These are just a few of the well off characters in a list that continues on and on.
There is no doubt that much of the audience for classic gialli at the time of their release were working class, provincial folks. In his book La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, scholar Mikel J. Koven writes about spectatorship at terza visione, or “third-rate” theaters in Italy during the 1970s. Of course, some gialli opened at the first run theaters in urban centers of Italy, as well as abroad, but the genre–or filone–was most popular in working class regions of the country. The spectators, mostly male at the time, would pay attention to the films primarily during scenes of sex and/or highly stylized violence, having no problem socializing with other patrons during the less selacious portions of the movies. More often than not, those characters having sex or dying violently where from the middle and upper classes.
Two of the best gialli work in themes of class, gentrification, and industrialization that fit in well with the seduction and brutality, showing that the rich were not always central in these plots, or if they were, how things did not always bode well–Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, 1971) and Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Ducking (1972). A Bay of Blood still features middle-upper class characters, living around a secluded bay, but much of the conflict and death involved has to do with desires to develop the area into a commercial and entertaining tourist destination. Some folks want money and power, others just want the bay to be kept pure–by the end, they are all dead, leaving greed to the next generation. Characters are willing to hang their elderly, wheelchair-bound relatives if that means getting them out of the way for commercial development.
In the opening shots of Don’t Torture a Duckling, we see highways slowly encroaching upon a small village. Incidentally released the same year as Deliverance in the US, Don’t Torture a Duckling shares its themes of development and savagery. In the town of Accendura, the children of poor families are going missing. Who or what is responsible? Stupidity? Seductive excess? The church? Or perhaps it is some kind of pagan femininity in the form of Maciara (Florinda Bolkan), the crazy hermit. A Bay of Blood also hints at witchy possibilities with Linda Betti’s character Anna and her Marseilles tarot deck, but the culprit turns out to be something different each time. In Don’t Torture a Duckling and A Bay of Blood, there is an existential and practical anxiety about outside forces changing an environment and the routines there forever.
It would be wonderful to say there is some kind of distinct connection between the cosmopolitanism of giallo cinema and the European Union, but that may be a bridge too far. Many of the films were co-productions between two or more countries, while others touted an international cast that defeated babel through the power of dubbing. Gialli are not particularly special in regard to this kind of collaboration. It can be seen in cinema from art house productions to Jess Franco’s endless succession of trashy delights. This cosmopolitanism works for gialli because the confusion over story and place only fuels the accessibility to perverse pleasure and fantasy that the films provide. The ambiguity and performativity of setting allows for greater latitude in other aspects of viewership as well, like spectator/character identification and plausibility of narrative. There is an uncanny quality to many gialli, in which we think we know this place, or that we feel comfortable around these people, or that we understand where the story is going. Just as easily, this comprehension can be blown away, leaving us with a film that may seem nonsensical to some while resembling a hypomanic reverie to others.