I’ll admit that after four days of gialli, the films can blur together a little bit in your head. In order to keep them straight, I’ve started grouping them together based on common themes or important production notes regarding the films. For example, day one of the festival was Origin Day, with the first entry in the genre by both Mario Bava and Dario Argento, the two directors most responsible for defining and popularizing the conventions of the giallo. The second day of the festival was Priest Day, with both movies prominently featuring a Catholic priest who may or may not have something to do with the killings. Day three was Deep Red Day, because there was Deep Red, and there were the movies that came before and after Deep Red, and that’s all the organization that I need. And day four was the day of the Maybe Giallo, where I have my doubts that either movie actually qualifies as a giallo.
Now, saying that I have my doubts as to whether or not they should be considered gialli is not the same thing as saying that they don’t belong in the festival. I have seen both movies on enough lists of gialli to know that they are widely considered to be part of the genre, even if people tend to have their own categories for them (the phrase “Gothic giallo” is kicked around a lot as justification for A Quiet Place in the Country, for example). Despite the sheer number of movies I’ve watched in the last week, I’m still new to the genre. There’s a lot about the giallo that I still won’t understand until I’ve seen another dozen of these films.
This goes back to a running theme that I’ve had throughout the weekend, which is that the giallo is a very loose title and allows for a wide range of narrative and stylistic choices. There are some very fundamental differences between The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Don’t Torture A Duckling, and yet both are considered gialli because they adhere to certain aspects of the genre. If these two movies (A Quiet Place and One On Top Of The Other) are to be included with the other gialli that I’ve watched, then I feel this presents me with a great opportunity to explore the fringe of the genre – or if you prefer, the borders between the giallo and the police film or the psychological horror – and see what earns these two films with their place among the others at Giallo Fever!.
Let’s start with A Quiet Place In The Country. The film tells the story of a successful painter who finds himself mentally falling apart; his dreams take on a darkly disturbing bent, and he is no longer able to create. When he finds a villa in the countryside that seems to call to him, he and his lover (slash-agent) move everything to the country and he begins to focus on finding his creative spark again. Instead, what he finds is the ghost of a woman who was murdered thirty years before; he then becomes obsessed with the girl’s sexual habits and ultimate demise, and begins to plot against those who would do her spirit harm. Surreal, disjointed, and manic at times, A Quiet Place focuses on the mental deterioration and striking visions of its main character at the expense of a cohesive narrative, a decision which rewards just as often as it frustrates.
At first glance, this doesn’t appear to fit in with the rest of the gialli. While a woman was in fact killed, it happened years before the beginning of the movie. The normal relationship between the murder and the protagonist – namely, that he or she was connected in some way to one of the victims or is a suspect in the crime – do not apply here. And the visual style of the movie is more in keeping with an art film of the period than a giallo, with trance-like sequences and a chaotic soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. If you were to measure up A Quiet Place against the gialli that comprise the “classic” movement of the genre, you probably would have a hard time making a strong argument for its inclusion (Mikel Koven, for example, does not even mention it in La Dolce Morte, though he provides a wide berth for alternative gialli).
However, if we take a step back from the movie and apply some of our general knowledge of the genre, we can see why it has been included in the Giallo Fever! lineup. Although the murder of the countess occurred 30 years prior to the artist moving into the villa, his obsession with discovering more about her does constitute an amateur investigation of sorts. The typical giallo amateur detective is someone who has the money and time to pursue and obsession, and the artist in A Quiet Place has both. Furthermore, while the story notes that she was killed by stray gunfire from a passing fighter plane, it does end with a dramatic reveal of a secondary character as the real murderer (and jilted lover) who simply used the fighter plane as an excuse to shoot her himself. Shocking, abrupt, and with no foundation in the story up to that point? Sounds like we have ourselves a giallo murder.
You can also make an argument that the voyeurism of a giallo is in full force in A Quiet Place. As I noted in my review of Who Saw Her Die?, the giallo often serves as a “vacation novel” for the viewer, presenting audiences with several locations and plenty of opportunities to admire the full beauty of Italy. And if you aren’t interested in the beauty of the countryside, then how about the beauty of the backside? There is no shortage of sex and nudity in A Quiet Place, and the set pieces that we have come to expect from the genre – extended sequences of vice that are longer than the narrative should require and possessing of a great deal of visual style – are everywhere. The movie’s most memorable set piece may be its first, with both characters incorporating bondage and electronic devices in their fetishism – which ultimately leads to the imagined murder of the main character by his lover.
It’s these last two ideas of voyeurism that also apply to One on Top of the Other, which spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the rolling hills of California and… well, the other rolling hills present in California. Again, the idea behind the set piece is not simply that the movie portrays violence or sex, but that the violence or sex becomes the focal point of the film, and that these sequences are extended beyond what the plot could possibly require. Granted, with a complicated plot that seems influenced by the twists and turns of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a healthy dash of sex and nudity could help distract the audience from only holes that may be present in the narrative. But each sequence of nudity in the film – including Jean Sorel’s sex scene with his wife, with his mistress, and the suggested sex scene between both his wife and his mistress – provides the only incentive that the audience needs to pay attention to the screen.
The film tells the story of Dr. George Dumurrier, a man who alternates his time between fundraising for the clinic that he and his brother own and cheating on his sick wife. When his wife passes away, George is shocked to find that she provided him with a huge life insurance policy in his name, which allows him to finally pay off the debt of the clinic. Then George receives an anonymous phone call that sends him to a night club, where he encounters an exotic dancer who looks almost exactly like his dead wife. This sparks a a complicated plot where George and his girlfriend are trying to figure out what role this mystery woman may play in his wife’s death before the police can make a case that the insurance policy in George’s name was actually motivation for murder. One on Top of the Other certainly owes a great deal to Vertigo for the conspiracy-laden plot centered around a woman and her double, but many of the Italian crime thrillers that precede the genre of the giallo draw heavily from Hitchcock. Where does this film belong?
Due to its strong roots in the Italian police drama, One on Top of the Other may be the fringiest of all the gialli being shown at Giallo Fever!, but the strength of the movie is in the set pieces. While a traditional crime film may play at showing vice, One on Top of the Other practically lays down and rolls around in the nudity and sex of its main characters. Sequences of sex and suggested sex are established and then teased out over a disproportionate amount of time, giving us a murder mystery that seems more interested in cleavage than it does justice. Another set piece takes place when the body of Mrs. Dumurrier is exhumed as part of the investigation. Is showing her decomposing corpse necessary for the sake of narrative? Not at all. Is the slow zoom into the fleshless skull shocking and the proverbial “money shot” for the entire sequence? You betchya. These are the signs of a film that is beginning to grow out of its traditional genre and looking for ways to take the step forward into something new. It would be less than three years until Fulci embraced the brutality of Don’t Torture a Duckling, but One on Top of the Other seems like his first tentative steps into realm between crime and horror, a realm that the giallo calls its own.
This movie also seems like the first half-step away from the police procedural that spawned the giallo – while most of these movies have featured some sort of detective or police officer, One on Top of the Other is one of the first films I’ve seen to actually feature a great deal of information from only the police point of view. We see the investigation into the death of Mrs. Dumurrier unfold independently from George’s point of view, and are privy to evidence and locations that he does not himself see. This is different from the giallo, which typically anchors any police involvement from the point of view of the amateur detective, meaning that the police are only portrayed when questioning the amateur detective or using them to investigate a crime. However, like other gialli, the police in One on Top of the Other are incapable of discovering the real killer. In other words, the police are present and active, but it is only through the efforts of the amateur detective – in this case, both George and his girlfriend – that the truth comes to light.
In conclusion – although I use the word “genre” to describe gialli throughout these posts, it’s important to think of these films as more of a mutation out of the police thriller and the American crime film. If not every film seems to adhere exactly to the tropes that are often discussed – masked killers with black gloves, childhood trauma, buckets of red paint – then that’s ok. My suspicion is that we should not measure the relevance of a giallo by how exactly it follows the formula, but by how much it represents a step away from the crime thriller or (more recently) the horror film and towards something that is recognizable as influenced by gialli. Both of these movies are not cut-and-dry examples of the genre, but they blur the line between the two, and that makes them very fun to think about. And because these two films walk and talk more like a psychological thriller and a Hitchcock thriller than a “classic” giallo, they might also have some strong crossover appeal to people who aren’t normally fans of the genre.