This week’s entry: Giallo
What it’s about: America had pulp novels; Italy had giallo. The word for “yellow,” giallo refers to a series of paperback mystery novels published in the ’50s with bright yellow covers. The name was used again for the wave of horror films first produced in the ’60s, and for Italian horror ever since. (The books were mostly repackaged Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and the like, but the films were original and sometimes termed “spaghetti thrillers,” à la spaghetti Westerns.
Biggest controversy: Film critics agree that giallo has themes and tropes specific to the genre, but like most subgenres, there’s lots of room for disagreement about exactly which tropes (and particular films) are and are not gialli (the plural of giallo). For starters, there’s a significant overlap with often crime-themed giallo and poliziotteschi, Italian action movies that centered on a violent cop (influenced by American movies like Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and The French Connection).
Gialli are generally concerned with crime, but with an outsider, often a young woman, playing the detective, facing off against a killer who operates from the shadows. Often the villain’s identity isn’t revealed until the end of the film. Gialli also invariably feature an imaginative array of gruesome deaths, as well as explicit sex. But while some gialli are seen as merely exploitation films, many straddle the line between grindhouse and arthouse.
Strangest fact: The first giallo film was an American story. James M. Cain’s 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. The story, about a couple in a sadomasochistic relationship who conspire to bump off the woman’s husband, was adapted into the classic 1946 film of the same name with Lana Turner and John Garfield. Three years earlier, it was adapted in Italy as Ossessione, and is considered both the beginning of Italian neorealism and a starting point for giallo.
Thing we were happiest to learn: It didn’t take long for the genre to go from disreputable to, well, reputable. While Ossessione is widely considered giallo’s starting point, it took 20 years for another giallo film to be made. The genre began in earnest in the mid ’60s with Mario Bava’s back-to-back films The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood And Black Lace, which cemented the genre’s basic elements (the former concerns a young woman who witnesses a murder, is ignored by authorities, and has to find the killer herself; the latter, a masked man slaying beautiful women). Neither got positive reviews, though Bava did get credit for his stylish visuals.
In 1970, giallo’s best-known director, Dario Argento, came onto the scene with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, a huge hit that gave the genre a shot of respectability. Plumage got near-universal praise, with The New York Times saying, “It is pleasant to rediscover old horrors in such handsome new décor.” What followed was giallo’s peak, with 65 films released between 1971 and 1973 alone.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Unsurprisingly, a genre with strong roots in exploitation film can tend to be misogynistic. The sex-and-violence-heavy genre frequently focuses on young women in peril, and often scantily clad young women at that. Defenders point out that most gialli feature a young woman in peril turning the tables on her attacker, and at least one film critic saw giallo as commentary on the social upheaval of the ’60s, with the backlash against women’s burgeoning autonomy taken to a deadly extreme.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Germany had its own tradition of masked-killer films in the ’60s, Krimi (short for “Kriminalfilm”). Oddly, nearly the entire genre of films was produced by the same company, Rialto, and based on the works of a single crime novelist, Edgar Wallace, who was not German, but British.
Further down the Wormhole: While most of the actresses made famous by giallo films were Italian, Queens-born Barbara Bach (also known for her marriage to Ringo Starr), starred in several gialli before her first English-language role, as the female lead in The Spy Who Loved Me. Bach was a fan favorite Bond girl (perhaps her giallo background prepared her to join a series of thrillers with questionable sexual politics). Wikipedia has a mountain of information on 007, handily organized into an Outline Of James Bond. We haven’t seen anything similar on Wikipedia—a comprehensive set of links on the subject with no intervening text. Toward the end is a list of Bond parodies, from Our Man Flint to Archer, which includes OK Connery, an Italian spy film in which Bond’s brother (played by Sean Connery’s brother, Neil) is obliged to fill in. We’ll take a look next week.