Sunday, 13 June 2010

Being a defence of the giallo movie and the place it holds in popular culture.

I read a book about two years ago called La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film by Mikel J. Koven and all this time later... it’s still really irritating me. The giallo film has been generally looked down on and has suffered, along with both the horror genre and the giallo’s less appetising (to this writer) illegitimate child the “American slasher movie”, onslaught after onslaught of critical attack as it struggled to rise above the accusations of being an artistically devoid and trashy sub-genre of film coupled with the usual accusations of anti-feminist misogyny often levelled at this kind of genre.

Okay then. Time to take a strong stance at this collective sneering and attempt to let people “wake up and sniff the Kafka” so to speak. I will go on the record right here and now and say that, judging by the sixty plus giallos I have seen, I not only think the genre is one of the most artistic genres of film-making anywhere, but it can also be held up as having an extremely positive, pro-feminist attitude towards women. Furthermore, the giallo should be celebrated and re-evaluated in a much more serious manner than has been attempted before, certainly in the aforementioned book.

Now then, before going any further I am going to announce that the following article will, indeed, contain paragraphs associated with that wretched word “spoilers”. I hate spoiler warnings on anything other than reviews because I always assume that the reader is going into reading an article with his or her eyes wide open and especially so in this case since, for my own part, the principle interests in a giallo movie lie not with the stories, which are almost always rubbish, but with the overall cumulative effect on the collective audience psyche of the sheer power of the mise-en-scene in these kinds of films. However, I know that some people will moan at me when they read the identity of killers in certain films so, please, treat this paragraph as your special spoiler warning.

“really irritated me...”

Okay then... I don’t want to pick on Mikel J. Koven here because the guy has put all this effort into what is effectively the only mainstream printed tome to date on the subject of giallos in the English language, and it will at least provoke discussion of the genre but, I must admit, that his book was off to a very bad start for me even in the introduction where, and this really irritated me, the author says that various films were not taken into consideration because he could not obtain copies of the prints to view or because ebay merchants were charging too much for them.

Okay Mr. Koven just lost me right there. It surprised me because, lets face it, I am not a scholarly writer doing serious research and writing on a film genre... I just lay claim to watching and enjoying the odd movie here and there. But I have got most, if not all, of the movies Mr. Koven purports to not be able to get to view. Something’s wrong here. For starters, most of these films, if they’ve not been released legitimately, can be purchased as bootleg prints transferred to DVD from any of the well known... um... events in this country.... for maybe a fiver or a tenner! Another source is the various internet outlets offering this stuff also at a very reasonable price. This stuff really isn’t, for the most part, that hard to get hold of and even if there was some question of Mr. Koven’s ability to access this work in this fashion, for goodness sake man, pay the money! You purport to be doing a serious critical analysis of the genre but instead you are skimping on your main avenue of research... actually watching the movies for yourself. If you can’t be bothered to do that then just don’t write the damn thing in the first place.

Secondly, and this really hurts this writers chances of being taken too seriously by me, Mr. Koven “defends” the giallo by restating the context of the giallos’ primary audience as responding to the lowest and therefore, in his mind, popular ingredients of these films (the high levels of nudity and bloody violence which the genre is, perhaps wrongly, recognised by) and saying... okay they are not that artistic and are not going to stand up to the same rigorous scrutiny of, say, a Fellini or a Visconti movie, but that’s okay because they are not aimed at that kind of audience.

I’m sorry but that’s plain wrong (and a little insulting). Some of the most interesting and vibrant shot set ups in cinema history are to be found in the giallo and more than compare to the works of the perceived upper echelons of the Italian movie-makers. And guess what people? They were popular. For every La Dolce Vita or NIghts of Cabiria knocked out and released to critical attention on the international stage (and I’m not knocking Fellini here folks, I think his movies are great) there’s a Blood and Black Lace or a Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) raking in the cash. In fact, when the, then, young actor Michael Brandon (of Dempsey and Makepeace/Jerry Springer The Opera fame) was starting out in the seventies, he got interested and accepted Dario Argento’s offer of the starring role in Four Flies on Grey Velvet because his agent was telling him that Argento was “bigger than Fellini” in his native country and that was pretty much the case... Argento was already established as “the Italian Hitchock” just on the strength of his directorial debut which popularised the giallo, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.

Okay rant over, for now, on La Dolce Morte. You know one of the things I’m defending the genre from. I would urge anyone with an interest in these movies to pick up Mr. Koven’s oh-so-quickly out of print book from a legitimate source because, like it or not, you will learn something of interest from this work and he seems to really want to sell the giallo to a wider audience. But please don’t, I implore you, be taken in with the widely popular theory that Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up is a giallo. It seems a lot of people are trying to legitimise the giallo as an art form by counting Blow Up as a masterpiece of the genre... and for all I can make out, just because it has David Hemmings in it!

Again, don’t get me wrong, Blow Up is a great work of cinematic art but... it’s just not a giallo. There is an ambiguity about whether there has even been just one murder over the course of this film (guys, you at the very least need a “series” of murders to classify a giallo) and there is an even bigger ambiguity as to whether the main protagonist of Blow Up even exists in the film. Probably not because, you know, he kinda winks out of existence at the end of the movie. Antonioni’s film is not a giallo movie, it’s about playing with the medium of film itself, both the medium of the still photograph and the medium of the film being projected at the cinema. Please realise that the giallo movie really doesn’t need Antonioni to legitimise its quite obvious status as an important artistic phenomenom in it’s own right.

“protective arms”

I’ll talk about the perception of these kinds of movies as an affront to the fairer (and in my opinion, tougher) sex a little later on in this article but right now let me get down to brass tacks and figure out, first, what a giallo is and isn’t before I throw my protective arms around the genre.

The term giallo is, obviously, Italian for “yellow” and the giallo takes it’s name from a series of books first published in Italy starting in 1929 by the Mondadori publishing house and “branded” with predominately yellow covers and the term Il Giallo Mondadori. These were various crime thrillers and whodunnits which were Italian prints and reprints of authors such as Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace. The giallo film seems to be a much more narrow field than the basis of it’s genre title suggests in that the movies tend to share several common features which will mark them out to any fan of these movies immediately as a giallo. A list of these common features will be at least, say, half of the following 11 common signature points which I think define this style of movie-making...

1. A series of murders (an absolute necessity) which are usually quite brutal and violent and not necessarily, as popularly conceived, against a mainly female cast of victims.

2. A killer who remains unknown until the last five minutes of the movie - the only giallo I saw where the killer was revealed within the first five minutes was Luigi Cozzi’s absolute masterpiece “The Killer Must Kill Again” aka “Il ragno.”

3. More often than not, the killer will wear black gloves, a mask, a trilby hat and a long trench coat. This is always seen as a very stylistic signature of the giallo but I personally suspect it grew through the more practical reality that these kind of props will help disguise from the viewer (and also the killer’s victims and hunters within the context of the story) the identity and sex of the killer. It also means that anyone can stand in for the killer in various scenes when the killings are being done. In fact giallo-master Dario Argento used to pride himself on always playing the “hands” of the killer in his early films.

4. A convoluted and often ridiculous plot with more red herrings than you can comfortably shake a fishing net at and all in the interests of not allowing the audience for one moment to suspect the true identity of the killer. The film-makers want to surprise their audience at the end so will usually go to great and bizarrely imaginitive lengths to provide a pointed suggestion that each and every one of the key characters could be the murderer. Not one person is presumed innocent... even the “dead” victims, as they have also been known to pop up as the killer at the end of the movie too.

5. An international cast, all of whom are speaking their own language (these films were not recorded with live sound and Cinecitta studios are based near an airport so it’s no wonder) and who are later dubbed, very badly, into both Italian and English for their respective markets with no real regard for actual lipsynch in either case.

6. There is quite often a slightly well known B list American or English actor playing the main male lead in the film in an effort to more easily sell the movie to the more profitable American market. So these films will regularly have people like David Hemmings, John Saxon, Karl Malden, George Lazenby or, recently, Adrien Brody turning up in them.

7. Terrible and often unintentionally amusing dialogue and scripting and even worse acting by almost all the cast with the exception of the American or English actors mentioned previously. If you are wanting to watch a movie for its story or acting performances then you really shouldn’t be bothering with a giallo.

8. Exploitative and gratuitous glimpses of female nudity. Now I’m a bloke so I’m certainly not going to make a fuss about this but I know the audience for these films were not just male so I’m not going to try to defend or attack this ingredient here. In most countries, censorship is more inclined to allow a female nude than a male nude so it’s not as if the balance could be redressed legally by the people who make these movies.

9. Absolutely gorgeous scores by great masters of musical composition like Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai, Goblin and Stelvio Cipriani.

10. Absolutely stunning photography and elaborately contrived shot compositions.

11. For the most part they have really silly, complicated titles which don’t always have much resemblance to the movie itself... here are a few of my favourite giallo titles: Seven Blood Stained Orchids, Seven Deaths in a Cat’s Eye, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, Forbidden Photos of a Woman Above Suspicion, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Iguana With A Tongue of Fire, The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, Your Vice Is A Locked Room and Only I Have The Key, What Are Those Strange Drops Of Blood On Jennifer’s Body? (aka The Case of the Bloody Iris), The Black Belly of the Tarantula, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, Short Night of the Glass Dolls, Strip Nude For Your Killer, In The Folds Of The Flesh, The House With The Laughing Windows, Death Walks At Midnight, Death Carries A Cane, Death Walks in High Heels and Spazmo!

The giallo movie is generally thought to have started with master director Mario Bava’s 1963 monochrome classic The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Not only is it a classic giallo but it has strong moments of humour and a central, female protagonist who clearly enjoys reading the very giallo thrillers from which these movies take their collective term. He made a couple of these kinds of films including the style setting masterwork Blood and Black Lace but the giallo was not popularly received until Dario Argento’s genre classic The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, which was unofficially based on writer Fredrick Brown’s popularly adapted novel, The Screaming Mimi.

This film was an even bigger hit with audiences than the very popular Italian “Spaghetti” Westerns which were playing to packed cinemas at the time and so, in typical Italian style, the Italians started making hundreds of giallos with the same passion with which they had appropriated the American western and peplum (sword and sandal epics) genres before them. And so an explosion of giallo were unleashed upon an unexpecting and mostly censorous international audience.

Now these films have two main levels of interest to viewing them (ignoring the obvious sex and violence portion of the audience which I suppose also exists but whom I would like to think are in a minority). The first and fun level on which these things can be watched is the puzzle element. Can I, as a viewer, figure out who the killer is before the characters in the film can?
Well, unlike most American movies these days, the answer is usually a resounding no. These films are hard to solve because there are so many red herrings scattered among the clues. More often than not the person you think is doing the dastardly deed is dead within 10 minutes of you suspecting him/her (with the exception of perhaps the aforementioned The Bird With The Crystal Plumage which seems pretty obvious from the first five minutes). So there is this element to these movies and, really, if this was the only element of interest to be found in this genre then it would have been relegated to cinematic trash long ago.

The more interesting way in which these movies can be viewed is to to watch the psychedelic colours (Mario Bava’s hallucinatory and unnatural ways of lighting sets with juxtaposing reds, greens and purples etc for no apparent reason was later appropriated by Argento - indeed, Argento even employed both Mario Bava and his directing son Lamberto Bava on the odd occasion to help on his own movies) and the amazing, crisp compositional experiments, all set to a kick ass, half-melodic/half atonal and sometimes progressive rock soundscape courtesy of the cream of Italian score composers.

This is a group of films that really wears it’s mise-en-scene on it’s sleeve, so to speak, and my personal theory on why these films look so good and so interesting is simply this: The scripts and acting on these films are so boring and rudimentary and probably so deadly dull to actually shoot that, I think, the directors and cinematographers just used to want to keep themselves amused by, if you like, “over-stylising” the look of the films. But whatever the reason, the majority of these movies look fantastic.

These films are high art in, at least, sound and look so I really don’t think they deserve the lack of critical attention that has been payed to them so far.

“orgy of blood and violence”

Okay... the other and much more expected criticism of this style of cinema, and it’s also always levelled at horror and slasher films too (there wouldn’t be rubbishy slasher cycles like the Friday the 13th series or the Scream series without the much more stylishly thought out Mario Bava giallo Bay of Blood - aka Twitch of the Death Nerve), is that of treating women as objects to be sexualised and then brutally excised in an orgy of blood and violence.
Well okay then... putting aside the more obvious defence that there are just as many male victims as female in these movies... the fact that there usually is a lone woman in peril near the ends of these movies speaks volumes on the strength of the female roles therein. If you’ve got a female protagonist near the end of the movie getting ready to fight off a serial killer then you’re probably going to have a script which spends time setting up that character and strengthening her position in the minds of the audience. And this is not a phenomenon to be sneered at. Long before Sigourney Weaver donned her boiler suit and her alter ego Ellen Ripley ushered in the so-called age of the strong female leads in genre movies, giallo were doing exactly the same kind of thing in no uncertain terms (and so were studios like the British pseudo-gothic Hammer Films... check out Susan Strasberg’s role and ultimate twist reveal in Hammer’s Taste of Fear if you want a good place to start).

The strong female lead is nothing new but has never been as widely recognised as it is now. Most Hollywood actresses would tell you that finding a strong role for a woman is a hard task these days. For every Lara Croft, Beatrice Kiddo and Lilith Silver there’s a dozen twist-yer-ankle damsels in distress to be rescued by their male counterparts.

And not only are there female survivors but it is really not uncommon for the murderers in giallo movies to be women too. I’ve not studied the numbers but I reckon it might even be more than 50% female killers in these movies. Take Dario Argento’s first four giallos for example. Only the second of these movies, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, actually has a male murderer. In the other three instances it is a strong female character doing the killings.

Even Argento’s famous horror film cycle, The Three Mothers Trilogy comprising Suspiria, Inferno and Mother of Tears - aka The Third Mother, are, obviously, three strong female presences- in this case famous witches inspired from a page or so long passage in the follow up chapters to Thomas De Quincey’s famous Confessions of An English Opium Eater.

If this doesn’t show that the films are not content to just objectify and eradicate the female form then I don’t know what does.

“trashy throwaway junk culture”

In conclusion then, I think what is demonstrated here is that far from being the trashy throwaway junk culture they are often perceived as being, the giallo films were for the most part, not only a major provider of strong female roles to actresses like Suzy Kendall, Susan Scott and the unsurpassed queen of the giallo, Edwige Fenech... but they were also a stylish and vibrant form of cinematic art and their influence was far reaching. For a view of how these things were obviously received on an international level, check out some of those beautifully shot “pinku” and other Japanese exploitation movies of the early seventies such as Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight, Sex and Fury or the Female Convict Scorpion films to see exactly the kind of intense colours and strong compositions which were the strength of the giallos.

At the end of the day... there really is no need to stand up and say, okay you’re looking at these things in the wrong context and what you need to take into account is the taste of a populist audience. Because in the cases of some of those directors like Argento, Bava, Sergio Martino, Luigi Cozzi and Umberto Lenzi... at least in terms of the look and sound of these films, these directors easily hold their ground with the Bergmans, Kurosawas, Kieslowskis and Tarkovskys. And there can be no greater compliment than that.


  1. I bought that book too; have yet to delve into it's pages!!!


    1. Blimey Jake. Didn't realise you'd commented on this until just now. Thanks geez!

      And see you soon!

    2. An amazingly succinct and comprehensive examination of the giallo form, very well done. A convincing argument, and one with which I agree virtually point for point. I especially liked your 11-point "giallo checklist" -- now I have an more ready answer when someone asks me what constitutes a "giallo"!

      Speaking of books on the subject, have you ever had the chance to peruse Tim Lucas's unimaginably opulent volume ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK? I haven't yet been able to convince myself I can afford to buy it, but I get to look through a copy for about an hour ... man, what a book.

  2. Good grief, two typos in one short post. I must have been groggy from eating too much lunch ... [sigh]

  3. Hi again.

    Wow... for a Video Watchdog writer you say the nicest things. ;-)

    Yeah... I got bought the Bava book the Christmas just after it came out. It's one of my most treasured possessions (such a beautifully produced and well written book) but you really need something like a lectern to be able to read it on.

    I think it took me about three weeks to get through it to the end but it was worth it. Amazing director and an amazing book.

    Really pleased you liked my giallo article. It's good for me to get feedback so I know whether my theories are in the general ballpark or are missing the point completely.

    Again, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog posts.

    All the best to you.