Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

The Girl Who Knew too Much (1963) aka Evil Eye aka La ragazza che sapeva troppo
Dir. Mario Bava
Written by Mario Bava, Enzo Corbucci, Ennio de Concini, Eliana DeSabata, Mino Guerrini, Franco E. Prosperi, plus I’m pretty sure it was adapted from Shakespeare
Starring Leticia Roman, John Saxon, Valentina Cortese, Gianni di Benedetto

Here we got a dated but intermittently intriguing mystery/giallo from Mario Bava, centered on visiting American tourist Nora (Leticia Roman, absolutely nothing notable) who comes to Italy only to have her aunt die, get mugged, and witness a mysterious murder unrelated to either of her other misfortunes. Now I’m as hopeless a bleeding heart liberal as the next guy, but still, I believe in personal responsibility. So usually when some young woman goes to Italy and gets involved in a twisted murder mystery I blame her for not knowing better, never go to Italy, jesus, what the fuck were you thinking. I mean, you hate to blame the victim but if you’re an English-speaking young woman who travels to Italy sometime between the years 1960 and roughly 2005, come on, you’re just asking to get dragged into some sicko serial killer boondoggle, that’s just the iron law of the giallo. What did you expect? Use your heads, ladies. Giallo killers can’t help themselves; you can. I’m sorry to be so harsh on you but it’s the only way you’ll learn. Anyway, that’s how I usually feel. But in Nora’s case, it’s hard to see how this was her fault; you see, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is traditionally identified as the first true Italian giallo, so this is the very first time this ever happened! Poor girl couldn’t possibly have seen this coming.

In fact, in true giallo form, pretty much no one could possibly see any of this coming because it’s so delightfully preposterous. From the minute Nora’s plane hits Italian airspace, things start to go randomly and outrageously wrong for her. She has some weirdo’s marijuana cigarettes stashed on her at the airport and has to dodge customs. Her ailing aunt dies pretty much immediately upon her arrival. The minute she steps outside, she gets beaten and mugged and then, unrelated to anything else, she also witnesses a bizarre murder and the cops don’t believe her and keep telling her she’s hysterical. That’s all within her first 24 hours in Italy. And it only gets more unlikely from there. I’m starting to suspect that this movie was underwritten by the Spanish tourist board to scare people off Italian vacations permanently.

Sexiest Hardy Boys adaptation ever.

Bava, as ever, films the whole thing handsomely in black and white (his last B&W film) and seasons it with an unmistakable Hitchcockian flavor (the title, of course, is a direct homage to Hitch’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH). The entire giallo genre was inspired by the series of Italian translations of (mostly) English-language mystery and crime novels with yellow (“giallo” in Italian) covers, so it’s not too surprising to see this trendsetting forerunner owe a lot to Anglo-American crime traditions. But even without the tidal wave of giallo films that followed it for comparison, this is inescapably different and distinctly Italian. Hitch never really cared much about narrative, but even he would have to laugh at some of the more free-associative plot twists this one takes in its meandering tour of every suspicious weirdo in Rome. Even in this early, early iteration, the giallo already had the pure form of providing a loose context for a series of great dream-logic setpieces beautifully filmed and indifferently written. It was only 1963, so the lurid color and pervy sleaze had not yet arrived on the scene, but the true heart of what would become a 30+ year national obsession in Italy is already in full effect here. There’s a great, weird sequence with a tape recorder in an abandoned apartment, a hallucinogenic vision of murder, a possible TOTAL RECALL-style twist(?) ending, and an appropriately outlandish reveal of who the killer is and what they did it.

It’s probably more important as a historical artifact than it is an independent work of art, but it does fine. Roman is likeable in the lead, and having a sexy young John Saxon as her gal Friday doesn’t hurt.* The supporting cast is pretty strong too, especially the person who turns out to be the killer and gives a great over-the-top freakout which is worlds better than the typical giallo reveal. Having the whole thing shot in gorgeous black-and-white amongst a travelogue of beautiful Rome locations lends it an air of (mostly unearned) class, and makes the dark underbelly of murder feel sordid enough to get the job done even without a bunch of gore and leery nudity. And as preposterous as it is, it does at least manage to tell a complete story with main characters and clues and everything, so those off-put by the increasingly rambling nature of giallo narratives will find this one a nice middle ground.

Hard to get any sleep with bigfoot shambling around outside all the time.

Even in 1963, this was still ten films into Bava’s long directorial career, and he’d already been a cinematographer for twenty years prior. He did two more horror films that same year -- THE WHIP AND THE BODY and the anthology BLACK SABBATH-- both of which are probably better than THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. But of the three, this is the most forward-looking, and unquestionably the one which would set the stage for his next film, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, the one which really kick-started the giallo craze. GIRL finds the genre in its beta-testing phase, with the key elements in place already but equally beholden to Hitchcock, film noir, and German crime cinema. By 1970, this one would look quaint and old-fashioned, but even so it has kind of a innocent charm married to its weirdo serial killer mystery. You don’t have to know too much to appreciate that. But anyway, this is the last time that excuse is gonna fly. From here on, any psycho slasher investigations you get embroiled in are on you, ladies. Don’t be a GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Protect yourself. Vacation in Spain instead.

*Saxon just really wants to bone the chick and keeps getting annoyed when she changes the subject and wants to talk about the murders; meanwhile she seems oddly disinterested for reasons which are never made clear (and they’re engaged at the end, so maybe I misread the signals?)


The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: No, although there's a 1969 Adam West movie of the same name. Doesn't seem to be related, though.
  • FOREIGNER: Italian
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Not exactly A-list, but Valentina Cortese worked with Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Zeffirelli, Gilliam, and Dassin, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress in DAY FOR NIGHT.
  • BELOVED HORROR ICON: Bava, John Saxon
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Nah, though Saxon gets a little pushy about it
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Don't recollect any dismemberment.
  • MONSTER: Nah
  • SLASHER/GIALLO: Yep, probably the very first one
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: None
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: Still No dolls.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid/high. Early Bava, not a lot of genre goods.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Don't be a young female tourist in Italy UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Makes it sound a little more conspiratorial than it is, but OK, she DID see too much.
Scores points for style, but probably more of a B-
I know, weird to have an Italian film pass, but there you have it. She talks to her aunt about her life.

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