In my attempt to go from zero to hero on the subject of giallo cinema, I feel that I have been given a rare opportunity to take a backward approach toward film studies. It isn’t often that you are given a chance to explore a (sub)genre from a critical perspective before experiencing it firsthand. Even when studying film in a formal setting, you have some base familiarity with the genre you’re exploring. Can you imagine, for example, reading about noir or musicals before actually sitting down to enjoy one?
With that in mind, I present to you my overview of giallo cinema. While this article should present an accurate and (hopefully) interesting base of knowledge for newcomers and fans of gialli alike, please be aware that it does come with its limitations. At its best, this piece will be somewhat like a player piano – all the right notes, lacking in soul. Just the facts, ma’am.
Any explanation of gialli must begin with the word itself. “Giallo” means, quite literally, “yellow,” and refers to a popular series of translated English-language crime novels in Italy, featuring the works of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. These books featured a characteristic yellow binding that can still be found today. Throughout this article, I will lean heavily on the descriptions provided by Mikel J. Koven in his book, La Dolce Morte. As he explains,
The term giallo acts as a metonym for the entire mystery genre: in a British or North American bookstore, if we wanted to find, say, an Agatha Christie novel, we would look for a section called “Mystery”; however, in an Italian bookstore, that section would likely be called “Giallo.” So at the most basic level, any murder-mystery narrative could be classed as giallo. (Koven, 2006)
As such, gialli keep their roots firmly planted in the murder mystery genre; what separates them from traditional noir is their emphasis on voyeurism and mutilation, two traits that both symbolize Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s and set the foundation for what would eventually become the American slasher film. The critical importance of the giallo film, as I have come to understand it, is not only in the auteur studies of several of its most celebrated directors – Mario Bava and Dario Argento, to name two – but also in its place as the historical segue between the murder mystery and the slasher film.
But what makes a giallo film? Or rather, what allows us to identify a series of films as belonging to the giallo movement instead of, say, traditional horror or crime films? There are a series of indicators, both thematic and visual, that have come to identify gialli. As Peter Bondanella writes in A History of Italian Cinema, “A number of traits or family resemblances are, however, typical of this particular filone [movement], and in order for a film to be defined as a giallo, at least a number of these traits should be present.” (Bondanella, 2009)
First, most gialli feature an amateur detective who attempts to discover the identity of the murderer. This role is often thrust upon him by circumstance; often times, one of the murder victims is a friend or relative, or the amateur detective has become a suspect in the formal investigation. This helps set the giallo apart from the murder mystery by taking the investigation out of the hands of a professional – a private detective or a police officer, for example – and placing it into the hands of a bystander. Along the way, these amateur detectives also acquire “helpers,” people who have access to information connected to the crime that they may lack. These helpers can be psychologists, historians, reporters, or even eyewitnesses, and they often fall prey to the very murderers they are trying to track down.
The giallo also features a fair amount of suspects to the crime, which, in turn, helps separate it from the slasher film. Where a slasher film is only concerned with survival, and does not attempt to disguise the identify of the killer, the giallo narrative still retains its murder mystery roots in giving us a kind of ultra-violent whoddunit. This means plenty of suspects, tons of red herrings, and a killer who is ultimately revealed to be one of the characters we, the audience, have previously been introduced to. The red herrings come from the fact that most characters in gialli are involved in some kind of morally ambiguous activity, allowing everyone to be an easy suspect.
And what about the killer? The typical giallo killer features several traits that separate the filone from other similar murder mysteries. First, there is the manner of dress. The traditional outfit for a giallo killer is a black trenchcoat, black gloves, and a black hat. While this outfit is only featured in a handful of gialli, it is certainly the most iconic, and has become the traditional uniform attributed to the androgynous killer of the filone. What most movies have in common is some form of full body disguise; scarves, gloves, masks, and hats will do in a pinch (one giallo film even has its killer dress in a gorilla costume). Not only does these outfits allow the killer to be shown in the act without being identified, it also hides visuals clues toward the gender of the killer. This is in keeping with the giallo‘s reputation for featuring sexually ambiguous killers, a reputation that Koven notes is somewhat overblown:
To be sure, many giallo killers are “sexually ambiguous,” but not all of them are; the “sexually ambiguous” killer has become so associated with the giallo, much like the disguise of the black gloves and hat, that its iconicity is more potent than its actuality within these films. (Koven, 2006)
What is true is that the giallo killer is inventive in the way in which he/she dispatches their victims, although many of these murders are performed using low-tech weaponry and devices. The giallo killer strongly favors stabbing and slashing as means of murder, and will use anything from knives to letter openers to garden utensils to get the job done. Giallo killers may also choose to strangulate their victims, either by using cords or with their bare hands. These forms of murder also help support the link between sex and murder in giallo; after all, stabbing has always been a stand-in for other means of penetration in cinematic psychoanalysis. These killers are also often motivated by a traumatic event in their past, the details of which are unlikely to be revealed until the killer has been unmasked. While audiences today would likely scoff at the cliche of a bad childhood being the cause of a movie murderer, the giallo is notable – or notorious, if you prefer – for the structural weakness of its stories.
It is this last point that really helps separate the giallo from other traditional horror or crime films. Up until this point, I have described a traditional murder mystery with perhaps a slightly penchant for the macabre. In practice, the giallo stands apart for how much effort and style go into the suspense and murdering sequences. Koven makes a passionate argument in his book that we must approach gialli as they would have been watched at the time. The giallo was not a film that would be released at an art-house theater; instead, these movies would be found at cheap urban theaters, where contemporary audiences were as likely to hold a conversation as they were to hold their breath in anticipation. In this way, the giallo parallels the American drive-in movie or the grindhouse film, and gialli were made to be structured around their murder sequences, which would (in theory) catch the attention of the audience long enough to both shock and entertain them.
This means that the stalking and murder sequences of the giallo were the real focus of the film, and the narrative was the framework upon which the murder sequences were hung. This is where the giallo demonstrates its place as the slasher film prototype. The audience is not called upon to cheer for the survival of characters, but to enjoy the spectacle of death, and the new and interesting ways in which the director/auteur can deliver upon the promise of a visually striking murder. In fact, these murder sequences are so out of step with the rest of the film that they have been compared to “musical numbers,” sequences that allow for the excess and style that the otherwise banal narrative lacks. Once again we refer back to Koven.
(S)et pieces in vernacular cinema … are like unique minimovies within a larger filmic context that break from the diegetic “reality” the plot of the film has so far established. These set-pieces, however, despite their similarity to “numbers” in either pornographic or musical films, also need to conform to Totaro’s description above; that is, they are extended pieces of action, usually in one location, and last for longer than is necessary for strictly narrative purposes. These set pieces, like the musical number, are designed to be appreciated in their own right. (Koven, 2006)
And that, dear reader, is as far as I can take you without actually watching the movie. Certainly, there are more points made in the criticism written by Bondanella and Koven that I hope to get to – to tease out organically through my reviews of the films – but we have reached the point where the words on the page are no longer enough. It is one thing to read that the giallo is a precursor to slasher films, and yet another to see how the murder sequences take place. Are they bits of virtuosic violence, brought to us by some of the finest international horror directors? Are the films simply genre fodder with very little to redeem them, as so many critics of the time noted? Does the violence play out as fun and exploitative, or merely as mid-century torture porn?
Without watching any of the films, I cannot say for sure. Luckily, I happen to have a stack of DVDs on my shelf and the entire “Giallo Fever!” weekend to look forward to, and I feel that should be plenty of time to make up my mind, one way or the other. Stay tuned: we’re just getting started over here.