June 1, 2016


Hi there, Person I Just Made Up, how are you?

- Fine, Dave. And yourself?

Profoundly uncomfortable in this heat but otherwise just fine. Today begins our great trip through the Italian giallo. Are you excited?
- I would be if I knew what a “giallo” was.

Well, “giallo” is the metronymic name given to an entire swath of Italian mystery thriller films made en masse throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Though the giallo has never really gone away, the bulk of all gialli were made during those decades, totaling approximately 200 films. In comparison, throughout the 1980s to present day, less than 75 gialli have been produced.

- That's good to know, but what does “giallo” actually mean?

The term “giallo” originated back in 1929 when a publishing house in Milan called Arnoldo Mondadori Editore released a collection of mystery thriller short stories titled I gialli Mondadori. The decision to brand their mystery releases with yellow covers was chosen as a way to make the products instantly recognizable among the dozens of other publications often sold in train stations and book shops. The success of Mondadori's imprint led to other publishers jumping into the ring, publishing Italian translations of everyone from Agatha Christie to Raymond Chandler. They all kept the Mondadori styled branding, releasing their books into the wild with yellow covers. And that is where the term “giallo” comes from. It's the Italian word for “yellow”.

Unfortunately, as fascism rose in Italy during the 30s and 40s, gialli fell into disrepute with the Ministry of Popular Culture all but banning the publication of mystery thrillers. They were thought to be corrupting influences or dangerous distractions. So for a good long while, the giallo disappeared from shelves. It wasn't until 1946 that Mondadori began publishing their collections again, this time bolstered by a new breed of Italian mystery writers. 

- So a giallo film is really just a cinematic translation of giallo novels? 

Kind of. Or not really. Defining what makes a giallo film a “giallo film” is difficult. There was a relatively short time between the beginning of the giallo publishing craze and their descent into the purgatory of fascistic government censorship. The Italian film industry simply didn't have enough time to get the ball rolling on translating gialli from the printed page to the silver screen. Mario Camerini's 1934 film GIALLO, an early Italian sound film, is (to my knowledge anyway) the first attempt at making that transition. It never really escapes the “white telephone” craze that was popular in Italy at that time (“white telephone” films were light comedies or light melodramas usually set in upper class settings), but the inspiration of the giallo thrillers shines through. Think of a less sinister, less artistic version of Hitchcock's SUSPICION. 

Throughout the fascist era, a couple of gialloesque films were released, most notably Luchino Visconti's OSSESSIONE, a loose adaptation of James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and widely considered the first Italian neorealist film. But really, the era of true giallo films would have to wait until the 1960s and unfortunately many gialli released during that time feel like relics. They were referencing conventions and tropes from novels written shortly after the turn of the century. But this was 1960, not 1920, and it would take quite some time for the giallo film to catch up to modern sensibilities.

- So giallo is really a literary genre and not a film genre? I'm confused. Were all of these early gialli adaptations of old novels? 

No. In fact, relatively few gialli are directly based on novels, but they all pay homage in one way or another to classic mystery thriller tropes. The use of red herrings, unreliable narrators, detection and deduction… They're all present in most of the gialli made during the 60s and 70s. However, how strictly they adhere to these narrative devices varies on a film to film basis. And that's because the giallo isn't really a genre or sub-genre in the strictest sense of the term. Many writers choose to use the term “filone” in discussions of the giallo film and for good reason.

- And what exactly is that?

The most common and useful way of explaining a filone is to think of it as a steam that branches off from a larger body of water. That stream will wind in varying directions, at times crossing into other streams before branching off again on it's own. Some place down the line, that stream might split off again, forming smaller streamlets, some traveling great distances, others short lived. But no matter how divergent the paths or how complicated the flow of water can be, the source of that stream will always be traced back to an original source.

In this respect, to speak of a filone is to speak of a kind of film “in the tradition of” mystery thriller novels. Unlike the designation “sub-genre” which is rigid and fixed, a filone is a living, evolving kind of film. If we were to visualize the entire history of the Italian giallo film, it would not be a straight line. It would look very much like a typical Darwinian tree of life representation, with branches sprouting in many directions but sharing a common source.

- So the giallo was constantly in flux?

At times the giallo would cross pollinate with other popular forms of Italian genre cinema like the Nazisploitation film, the Eurospy thrillers or the hard-nosed police action films collectively known as Poliziotteschi. Often these films were co-productions, usually with Spanish or German film companies. The latter helped produce several films which crossed the DNA of the giallo with the DNA of the krimi, a collection of Edgar Wallace adaptations almost entirely produced by the famous Rialto Films in Germany during the 1960s. That co-production endeavor resulted in four films (DOUBLE FACE, THE BLOODSTAINED BUTTERFLY, SEVEN BLOODSTAINED ORCHIDS and WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH SOLANGE?) that are as interesting as any in the entirety of the filone, krimi films in origin but giallo films in execution. Similarly, you can find gialli where the lead character is a cop, like Paolo Cavara's THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, a Poliziotteschi in a giallo's skin.

The giallo was never uniform in design, even if it finally settled during the 1980s in the land of typical slasher films. The first two decades of gialli are populated with films ranging from conspiracy thrillers, psycho-sexual thrillers, tales of blackmail or madness, body count films and art films. The giallo could literally be whatever it needed to be.

- Which just begs the question: how do you know what is a giallo film and what isn't?

And this is where the real problems begin. Given how wide open to interpretation gialli are and how little constraints were put on the productions at the time, you might think casting as wide of a net as possible would be a good idea. Unfortunately, you would end up dragging in films that are merely superficially related to the giallo (like Antonioni's BLOW-UP or Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA). Cast too small of a net and you'll miss the films that used the giallo conventions in ways that approach abstraction (like Guilio Questi's DEATH LAID AN EGG or Sergio Martino's ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK). It seems the best way to determine what is or is not a giallo is to remember what the foundational roots of the giallo are: the mystery thriller. 

Most people assume that all gialli are murder mysteries and to be fair, most of them are. But there do exist more than a few gialli that eschew the typical murder mystery narratives for more intimate, though no less interesting, tales of deception, blackmail and torment. These films would include Romolo Guerrieri's THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH and Luciano Ercoli's THE FORBIDDEN PHOTOS OF A LADY ABOVE SUSPICION. Neither film fits the murder mystery narrative, but both utilize common tropes and themes often found in classical mystery writing. Both qualify even if both films are the exception rather than the rule.

- I thought giallo films were formulaic, like slasher films. I thought they all told basically the same story.

Well, “formula” doesn't quite equal “same story”. During the 1960s, there really wasn't a giallo formula. The first modern giallo films were made by Mario Bava in the early 60s (you can read all about them HERE and trust me, you'll want to if you plan on following along), but the narrative devices and visuals Bava used in those films would not become codified until Dario Argento arrived on the scene in 1970. Before Argento created THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and solidified all of Bava's individual bits and pieces into some kind of industry standard, the giallo was a goddamn free for all.

But even after Argento's debut kickstarted the giallo film, other narrative strands emerged that took inspiration from films like Ernesto Gastaldi's LIBIDO and the aforementioned THE SWEET BODY OF DEBORAH. It became apparent that there was not just one giallo formula but two, with variations of both running wild as the 1970s rolled on. The Amateur Detective narrative would prove the most popular. These stories mostly centered around a young man or woman (usually a foreigner) who witnesses a murder or an assault. The protagonist then has to figure out who committed the murder before ending up a victim. This simple narrative formula has nearly two dozen variations alone.

The second most popular narrative, the Poisoned Past narrative, is no less malleable with nearly a dozen variations. The Poisoned Past narrative is usually more of a psycho-sexual affair than your average Amateur Detective narrative, focusing on a protagonist, usually female, who is harassed, threatened, manipulated or abused by someone within her social circle or past. These kinds of gialli tend to vary more wildly than the Amateur Detective sort, spilling over into everything from skin flicks to witchcraft-tinged pseudo-horror gialli.

- So this sounds a bit more complicated than I expected it to be…

Yes, it is. But that's why we're going on this journey, to look at not just the history of the giallo film but the evolution of the giallo film. Evolution does not happen in a vacuum. Environmental pressures affect the evolution of a species, no different than how cultural and political pressures affected the giallo film. Individual films caused seismic shifts within the filone, forcing mutation and adaptation to occur at an exponential rate. What I want to do during this long journey is to follow that stream from its source, exploring the streamlets and creeks that split off to find their own way through the exploitation landscape.

This journey will take us through the lands of Freudian psychology, lesbianism, incest, rape and murder. We will have to brave the turbulent currents of pseudo-science, Cartesian doubt and untruth. It won't be an easy journey. Strange avenues will threaten to derail us at every turn and things will get very weird very quick. By the end, I promise we will be battered, bruised and exhausted. 

But oh what sights we'll see along the way.

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