Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

1963
Dir. Mario Bava

Nora Davis (Letícia Román), a young American woman visiting her ailing aunt in Rome, witnesses the vicious murder of a woman in a deserted piazza after dark. She cannot convince anyone that what she saw was not a dream. She eventually discovers a box of newspaper clippings about a series of gruesome killings in the local area dubbed the ‘Alphabet Murders’. Fearing she is next on the killer's list, she decides to try and track down the malicious culprit with the help of the dashing Dr. Bassi (John Saxon). Can they find the killer before they too become victims?

Mario Bava was a director who not only wielded a great mastery over gothic horror traditions in films such as Black Sunday, Kill Baby Kill and Black Sabbath, he also cut a formidable swathe through the contemporary thriller genre too. With films such as Bay of Blood, Blood and Black Lace and The Girl Who Knew Too Much - a work generally considered to be the first ever giallo film - Bava placed his edgy stories firmly in the ‘now’ (the ‘now’ being the swinging Sixties and impossibly groovy Seventies).


Taking the popular at the time ‘holiday adventure’ movie formula, in which a film’s protagonists would get up to all sorts of misadventures and hilarious romps whilst abroad in Rome, the director turned it on its head. The resultant conception was an unnerving story that would thrust its perky American ‘outsider’ heroine into a dark, tumultuous and labyrinthine twilight world of murder, mystery and sexual intrigue. The murder mystery aspects of the tale were lifted wholesale from pulp crime novels extremely popular in Italy at the time. Dubbed ‘giallo’ (Italian for ‘yellow’) because of the tell-tale yellow covers, these crime mystery books were by writers such as Agatha Christie, Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler and they were marketed as gialli when they were published in Italy.

With The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Bava subsequently created the blueprint for all giallo movies to follow. Many of the basic giallo elements appear here in prototypical form. Nora, an American in Italy, is the typical ‘outsider’ who finds herself in the midst of a murder mystery investigation. This now common notion of the displaced protagonist is one of the most recognisable conventions of the genre, in both its literary and cinematic incarnations. Even though The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered to be the first giallo, another of this genre’s most recognisable traits (that of the killer’s fetishistic wardrobe of black leather gloves, fedora and raincoat) does not appear - though Bava was responsible for creating the memorable look in his next giallo, Blood and Black Lace. Whilst the typical giallo killer garb is absent, the convoluted motive for the killings is very much present and correct. When all is unveiled at the climax, the antagonist's perverted sense of logic is revealed to be rooted in a past trauma that has resurfaced and manifested itself in the murders. References to Hitchcock - another major influence on the giallo film - also abound throughout the film; even the title is a sly reference to The Master.


This being a Bava film, one can expect all the usual visual flourishes and gorgeously framed scenes of tension and intrigue. The Girl Who Knew Too Much is peppered with striking shots and memorably lensed moments such as when Nora awakens in hospital to find a group of white robed nuns crowding around her bed and then dispersing - shot from above the image resembles the opening of a giant flower. When Nora follows a series of clues, she stumbles into an empty apartment and follows the music from a record player down a corridor eerily lit by the swinging bulbs hanging from the high ceiling. It is interesting to see how Bava creates such intense atmospheres and striking shots in black and white (much as he did in Black Sunday) given that he is famed for his use of vivid colours and garish set designs as backdrops for his perverse narratives. The house by the piazza where Nora is staying is comfortable and chic - plush even. Though at night, when the sun goes down and Bava drenches his set in moody shadows and gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting, the space becomes sinister and threatening. The camera stalks through the shadows and menaces Nora as much as her stalker does with threatening phone calls.

The film also exhibits an irresistibly dark humorous streak most obvious in the fun constantly poked at Nora for being an avid reader of crime thriller books. Her ‘mental well-being’ is called into question at several points throughout the film because she loves Agatha Christie et al. A running gag involving marijuana cigarettes crops up time and again and provides the film with a comedic and light-hearted end note. Bava pokes fun of as well as utilises various thriller conventions. Allusions to Ariadne and the minotaur’s labyrinth are brought to a fitting peak when Nora creates a complex web of string throughout her apartment in order to catch the murderer she is convinced is trying to break in, only to have Dr. Bassi accidentally wander into the house to check on her and get caught up in her ‘web’. This also provides the film with one of its most interesting and commanding visual motifs.


The two leads exude a compelling repertoire and sizzling chemistry. As Nora, Letícia Román is fresh, funny and sexy - she exhibits an equal amount of feistiness and vulnerability to ensure the audience maintains a watchful eye over her fate. As the charming and suave doctor, John Saxon delivers a fine performance and brings a welcome light heartedness to what would otherwise be a stiff and nondescript male lead. Through these two characters, Bava shows us around the sights of Rome with all the enthusiasm of someone truly in love with their city. However, in the night-time scenes he deftly weaves an atmosphere of dread and menace and the once welcoming and sun dappled plazas and piazzas take on a more sinister edge. Danger lurks around every corner of this shimmering mystery movie.

With The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Bava effortlessly creates an intriguing mystery and plants it firmly within an atmosphere pregnant with foreboding and strange allure. Unlike the plethora of gialli to follow this movie (including Bava’s own next venture into the genre), the emphasis here is placed firmly on the mystery and the process of solving it. Proceeding titles would focus more on the murders themselves as the narrative and murder investigations took a back seat.

The next significant giallo to terrorise and titillate audiences was an altogether more concentrated and colourful affair: Blood and Black Lace. This film would really cement the conventions of the sub-genre with its overwhelmingly stylish and chic design and the gaggle of beauties within the thin story falling victim to a black gloved lunatic - each act of sadistic violence filmed in glorious, close-up technicolour…

5 comments:

The Film Connoisseur said...

Gotta hand it to Bava, he always filled his films with beautiful actresses!

I like how he made beautiful movies in both black and white and in color! He simply made beautiful images, period.

This seems to have some things in common with Lisa and the Devil, in that one, Lisa is a tourist getting lost in the labyrinth like streets of the city as well.

Thanks for this review! I will be watching this one and Kill Baby Kill very soon! Expect my reviews for them sometime in the near future. Next Bava film for me is Baron Blood which I started to watch last night...

Shaun Anderson said...

Great review James! - The monochrome pallette makes this one of the most unique of gialli. The key thing Bava sets up here is the self-consciousness of the form as you note by mentioning all the in jokes and pop culture references. While Bava put in place many of the popular conventions of the form. If you havent already it's worth taking a look at Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943), a film whose narrative and form one could argue was hugely influential on the later gialli.

James said...

Cheers guys.

Film Connoisseur - Hope you enjoy Baron Blood. Its not one of Bava's best by any stretch of the imagination, but there are still a couple of really atmospheric moments - notably when the titular Baron chases Elke Sommer around the fog-shrouded night streets of the town.

Shaun - thanks for stopping by man - always a pleasure! Thank you so much for the recommendation. I will try and get my hot hands on a copy of Luchino Visconti's Ossessione. If I'm honest, it is a title I'm not too familiar with. Interesting though that it would later influence the giallo narrative structure. Must check it out! Thanks again.

Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

I came to this film completley cold and I almost turned it off because Bava was annoying me by coming off like a poor man's Alfred Hitchcock. But when the film got to the convoluted circumstances of the murder and the vanishing corpse I tumbled to the fact I was watching one of the drollest comedies ever put on film, a film that's equal parts homage and spoof of classic Hitchcock thrillers. The hospital scene and the later outright slapstick sequences with John Saxon's character are the most overtly comical bits, but subtle humor runs throughout the film.

(I'm more of a Hitchcock-watcher than a "gallio" effecianado, so the Hitchcock connection is much clearer to me than the other one.)

James said...

Steve you are absolutely right! I found myself chuckling away to myself whilst watching this - and not because it was corny and dated - but because it is a genuinely witty film with a fleeting little nasty streak running through it. Love it.