In the final shot of Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, 1975), the amateur detective/jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) stares icily at his own reflection in a pool of still-warm blood. The killer is unmasked, and dead; the film is over. Contrary to what detective stories would have us believe, however, there is no relief, no sense of closure. Seduced by mystery, lured into a world of dizzying excess and operatic, inconsequential violence, Marcus, in the film’s final moment, is trapped in this reflection, disconnected from others, floating in space. This year, at the 62nd Melbourne International Film Festival, audiences will be invited to step into this peculiar world, when the festival runs a small retrospective of Italian giallo films that arranges a number of the crime/detection/horror genre’s most salient examples by directors like Argento, alongside some lesser-known gems. Despite the genre’s production peaking in the 1970s, this body of films was practically unheard of outside of Italy and cult film circles, until its popularity was reinvigorated by the global DVD boom which allowed unprecedented access to these previously hard-to-find films. In a superb twist, technological advancement and shifts in exhibition practices have brought the giallo back to the cinema.
The genre’s name, giallo – or “yellow” in Italian – refers to the cover design of pulp fiction novels first produced by Italian publishing house Mondadori in the late 1920s. Often, these cheap paperbacks were translations of crime, detection and mystery stories by writers like Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace, but literary gialli by Italian authors using classic formulas and anglicised pseudonyms were also common. The cinematic incarnation of the genre materialised in the early 1960s with Mario Bava’s 1962 film La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much), a Hitchcockian murder mystery set in Rome, now widely considered by enthusiasts to be the first “true” giallo. It is not until Bava’s next film, Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964) however, that the tropes and motifs that the genre comes to be recognised through begin to crystallise: the black-gloved killer in trench coat and hat, and his – or her – inventive and elaborate methods of execution; the bourgeois babes whose glamorous lifestyles are interrupted, or ended, by the killer’s obsessive acting out of past traumas; and the (often amateur) detective whose obsessive interest in the crime is never quite satiated. As a master of film style, Bava set the cinematic genre’s wheels in motion by drawing not only on the detection or murder mystery novel as Italians knew it, but by instilling a highly expressive and reflexive tendency in these early films that grows through the genre’s mechanics of repetition and difference into a meditation on the ontology of cinema itself.
It is both this particularity and hybridity that makes the giallo a fascinating case study for exploring the processes and organisation of film genre. However, like most non-Hollywood genres, its existence has been almost entirely overlooked in the history of genre criticism. As a number of critics have noted, theorists have historically turned, and returned, to the genre film output of Hollywood – and especially the Western – in their attempts to decode and come to grips with the ways in which film genre operates (1). As Alan Williams points out as early as 1984 though, to progress the work of genre criticism and to assert its validity in contemporary film studies we need to begin to consider manifestations of film genre outside of Hollywood. He writes that “crucially, we need to get out of the United States. Contrary to the impression given by books like [Thomas] Schatz’s, ‘genre’ is not exclusively or even primarily a Hollywood phenomenon.” (2) Nevertheless, the tendency to see non-American genres as exotically-flavoured variants or imitations of Hollywood models persists, with the giallo having been described as a subgenre of “spaghetti nightmare” films, and, more recently, as “Italian film noir”. However, the giallo’s production conditions call for a more complex understanding of these films.
In 1970, the commercial success of director Argento’s Bava-inspired L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), unleashed a tidal wave of giallo film production in Italy. This surge was fed not only by Italian audiences’ taste for murder and mystery, but by pre-existing changes in international markets too. Bolstered by financial aid designed to exert political control over the Italian film industry in the postwar period, the Italian system was primed to respond to the Hollywood production crisis of the 1950s, which sent the smaller American distributors overseas in search of low-cost genre movies to fill screens of the nation’s drive-ins and smaller cinemas. Stefano Baschiera and Franceso Di Chiara explain how, because of this secondary market, the Italian genre film began to broaden the demographics it targeted, seeking not only to fulfill Italian audience expectations, but American and British ones as well (3).
Baschiera and Di Chiara argue that this scenario resulted in certain strands of the Italian genre cinema of the 1960s and 1970s reflecting some of the characteristics of what Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden call transnational cinema, including “the dissolution of any stable connection between a film’s place of production and/or setting and the nationality of its makers and performers” (4). Unlike Italian comedies and melodramas of this period, which characteristically work through traditions and tensions in national identity and culture, the giallo film’s “Italianness” gives way to an indistinct and “vaguely Anglophone” milieu that is built through the use of both Italian and foreign actors, as well as international locations ranging from Athens (La coda dello scorpione/The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Sergio Martino, 1971) to Sydney (La ragazza dal pigiama giallo/The Pyjama Girl Case, Flavio Mogherini, 1977). And although a number of gialli, including Un tranquillo posto di campagna (A Quiet Place in the Country, Elio Petri, 1968), Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, Lucio Fulci, 1972) and La casa dalle finestre che ridono (The House with Laughing Windows, Pupi Avati, 1976) – all screening at MIFF – are set in the Italian countryside, the films habitually frame this setting as a dialectical binary of the late-modern city, reinforcing the sense of uneasiness and displacement that permeate this world.
The lifestyles of those who inhabit this world come stacked with all the accoutrements of modernity and privilege; glamorous parties, air travel, exotic destinations and late-modernist apartments and houses are all motifs exploited by the films and help to deliver a sense of vacuous excess. Mikel Koven has explained this tendency in giallo cinema as an “ambivalence toward modernity” (5), but the giallo’s roots in detective fiction can suggest a more critically engaged site for this dis-ease. Steve Neale has written that “the preoccupation in Film Studies with noir and the hardboiled tradition, [means that] many of the findings and ideas derive from research on detective fiction rather than from research on the detective film as such” (6), and the looking to scholarship around classical narratives of detection that position the solving of the crime as a fundamental principle, we are sure to be disappointed (7). The giallo film is itself typically disinterested in the solving of its own narrative mystery, often eschewing classical models of narrative and linearity altogether. Considerations of the world of the detective story, however – that space that has so fascinated writers like Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin – can help to tease out the complexity of the giallo world, and to illuminate its peculiar logic.
It is no accident that many of the spaces the giallo film’s characters and audience experience recall Kracauer’s description of the hotel lobby, a place he sees as the definitive locale of the modern detective novel, where “togetherness… has no meaning” (8). In his essay on the lobby, Kracauer compares the characteristics of this space, in which transient and drifting individuals find themselves, to those of the church, where community congregates to worship en masse. In each case, the experience of space is characterised by its difference to the space of everyday life; unlike the sense of community fostered by the practice of group worship in the church though, in the quintessentially modern space of the hotel lobby, the experience of detachment from everyday life has no purpose. Those who inhabit the hotel lobby are, as Anthony Vidler describes, “scattered like atoms in a void, confronted with ‘nothing’” (9), and connected only by their anonymity. And this “world apart”, is, for Kracauer, a space that “resembles the rest of the big [modern] world” (10). If an analysis of the final shot in Profondo Rosso reveals it as a small-scale manifestation of the hotel lobby scenario, an abrupt zoom out exposes a world redolent with the sticky ink of fresh newspapers, polishing balm on leather armchairs and the crispness of freshly starched collars – or their late-modern equivalents. The giallo genre behaves like a glass prism that refracts the milieu of Kracauer’s hotel lobby and disperses it as an entire world, and each of the films, in their own way, offer a door into this ambiguous space where human existence mimics that of the “ungraspable flat ghosts” (11) Kracauer describes.
The hotel lobby’s “coming and going of unfamiliar people” (12) is replayed in the perpetual flux of arrivals and departures and in the inconsequentiality of violence carried out in the giallo world. These are characteristics of a world where nothing is stable, knowable, fixed or finite; people catch late flights, ascend and descend staircases, disappear into cabs that speed away into the distance. Or they spend the afternoon in the countryside (rehearsing the tired conventions of the romantic tryst), before returning to cold grey urban centres to run down anonymous hallways, or across the tops of buildings of some architectural interest. One girl gets murdered, another moves into her apartment; a single line of dialogue begins in a car and ends in a park. As Franco Nero’s character Andrea Bild tells the chief investigator in Luigi Bazzoni’s Giornata nera per l’ariete (The Fifth Cord, 1971), “They’re coming and going all the time, from all over the world. It’s like a hotel.” Amongst this instability the amateur detective obsessively tries to re-establish a sense of order through uncovering the traces left behind by the killer, and through piecing them together to carve out logical explanations. The journalists, artists and musicians who become the giallo’s amateur detectives inhabit the very world imagined by Walter Benjamin when he wrote that “in times of terror, when everybody is something of a conspirator, everybody will be in a situation where he has to play detective” (13).
Although there is rarely a full sense of narrative closure at the end of a giallo film, the tropes of disassociation, fragmentation and isolation that Kracauer sees at work in the hotel lobby are foregrounded most aggressively through the genre’s reflexive style. Rupturing zooms, chromatic lighting and soundtracks with supernatural levels of agency provide a reflexive and unrelenting expression of these conditions. As Profondo Rosso’s amateur detective Marcus Daly sits at his piano to work on a new composition, the film’s form reveals how his recent obsession with mystery has now made him the killer’s new target. As the pianist trials a new motif in a number of ascending keys, Argento’s camera follows Daly’s hand in a phantasmagoric pan as he marks notation onto manuscript paper. The repetition of this motif builds suspense, but also begins to dictate the advancement of the killer across Daly’s roof. When this motif played by the unaware protagonist has drawn the killer close enough, a peculiar song that is new to Daly but familiar to us, begins to echo about the apartment. This haunting children’s song from the film’s opening vignette, which Professor Gioddani later refers to as “the leitmotif of the crimes”, emanates from a tape recorder that the killer brings to their own crime scene.
The giallo’s mise en scène is generally disinterested in signs of everyday life. Instead, it is concerned with playing out this moment of crisis in deserted warehouses, in sparsely furnished art galleries, on countless spiral staircases, in shadows and splatters of blood on crisp, white walls. Lived-in spaces are as sparsely furnished as hotel rooms and provide little comfort or sense of safety. Like Kracauer’s hotel lobby, these void-like, impersonal spaces become symbolic of the conditions of modernity. Through the lens of the genre’s aggressive stylisation however, the giallo’s image of modernity emerges as one on the brink of a most decadent collapse. Argento’s later giallo Tenebrae (1982) offers a striking treatment of this world’s fragmentation and chaos in a two-and-a-half-minute, fetishistic shot that sweeps over and around the apartment building of two future victims. Outside the apartment, the shot travels slowly up the exterior wall of vertical bricks, until it reaches a window of horizontal wooden blinds. Panning left, and drawing even closer to the structure’s surface, the shot becomes a textural study of the building’s concrete bricks, gliding malevolently over a panel of metal shutters before discovering a window that exposes occupant Marion, still wet from her shower, draped in a bed sheet. The killer has found a victim, but the camera’s voyeurism overrides this and moves back out of the window and up onto the roof. The micro perspective begins to wreak havoc on the construction of space and logic as we glide over the tiles of the building’s roof. The cinematography refuses to explain how we, even “as” the killer, are able to realise this experience of space or how we arrive at another window which lingers momentarily on another of the genre’s recurrent motifs, the staircase. Next, glossy wood parquetry floors provide a textural contrast to the cement brick of the apartment’s exterior, before we drift, finally, toward the window behind which Marion’s girlfriend Tilde is undressing for bed. That the audience identifies in these shots with the killer is a logical assumption, but the camera’s movement pulls the viewer’s attention away from the construction of linear narrative into a realm of a dark, dream-like logic, where the viewer is forced to observe the magnified architectural detail of a modern home that cannot keep its occupants safe. This loumar crane shot demonstrates the impossibility of escape in the giallo world; if such an experience of space is possible – although we are able to glide in and around the building like some ungraspable ghost, there’s no way to break out of the chaos of this world.h
The hollowness of the giallo’s cityscapes is challenged only by gialli set in the countryside, or by its imagining of the past through characters’ memories; in each case, however, there is rarely comfort to be found. As Koven observes, the narratives of both Don’t Torture a Duckling and The House with Laughing Windows are structured around a protagonist who visits a rural village and uncovers dark, long-hidden secrets (14). In a landscape that is framed romantically so often in cinema, the Italian countryside in the giallo is a malignant place, with a culture weary of intruders. In memories (most often the killer’s), the past is never imagined as a place of wholes or goodness; instead, it is a place of mythologised and aestheticised trauma. Each time Tenebrae’s killer retreats into his experience of the past, we find ourselves on a desolate beach, where he is taunted and humiliated by an androgynous beauty in a white summer dress. In one regression, she steps on the young killer’s face, pushing the heel of her shiny red pump deep into his mouth. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), those most famous of cinematic red shoes, these red heels facilitate a sense of return. But in an antithetical twist, in the giallo world there is no place like home to return to.
What the sustained investigation of the fragmented and decentred giallo world forces us to confront then, is a space that lies between the two points of Fredric Jameson’s distinction “between modernism’s experience of existential time and deep memory and postmodernism’s discontinuous spatial experience” (15). The giallo film is an exemplar of late-modern cinema: a cinema in conscious and reflexive dialogue with the particular conditions of late-modernity. This is not a moment adequately described by a theory that positions high modernist films as pre-postmodern, for such theoretical frameworks fail to account for the peculiar tonality of the giallo world, a tonality that laments the passing of grand narratives it cannot quite remember, that resonates perpetually in a world unable to shift gear or move forward.
The 2013 Melbourne International Film Festival is screening A Quiet Place in the Country, Deep Red, Don’t Torture a Duckling, Tenebrae, The House of Laughing Windows and The Pyjama Girl Case as part of its profile on the giallo genre, Shining Violence: Italian Giallo, between 28 July and 9 August.
- See, for example, Dimitris Eleftheriotis, Popular Cinemas of Europe: Studies of Texts, Contexts, and Frameworks, Continuum, New York, 2001; and Alan Williams, “Is a Radical Genre Criticism Possible?”, Quarterly Review of Film Studies vol. 9, no. 2, 1984, pp. 121-25.
- Williams, p. 124.
- Stefano Baschiera and Francesco Di Chiara, “A Postcard from the Grindhouse: Exotic Landscapes and Italian Holidays in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and Sergio Martino’s Torso”, Cinema Inferno: Celluloid Explosions from the Cultural Margins, ed. Robert G. Weiner and John Cline, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2010, p. 104.
- Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden (eds.), Transnational Cinema: The Film Reader, Routledge, London, 2006, p. 1.
- Mikel Koven, La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md., 2006, p. 46.
- Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 72-73.
- See, for instance, John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1976.
- Siegfried Kracauer, “The Hotel Lobby”, Rethinking Architecture, ed. Neil Leach, Routledge, London, 1997, p. 53.
- Anthony Vidler, Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture, MIT, Boston, 2000, p. 72.
- Sven Elvestad, Der Tod kehrt im Hotel ein (Death Enters the Hotel), quoted in Kracauer, “The Hotel Lobby”, p. 58.
- Kracauer, “The Hotel Lobby”, p. 58.
- Kracauer, “The Hotel Lobby”, p. 58.
- Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”, Selected Writings, vol. 4: 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2003, p. 21.
- Koven, p. 57.
- Fredric Jameson quoted in Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993, p. 171.