While I read a great deal about the red herrings and plot twists prevalent in gialli, I can now say first hand that the plots are indeed a little difficult to follow. Who Saw Her Die? tells the story of Franco (George Lazenby), an up-and-coming artist who has separated from his wife and is currently living in Venice, Italy. Franco is visited by his daughter, the red-haired Roberta, and the two of them embark on a picture-esque journey through Venice. However, Roberta has become the target of a killer, and after several near misses, is murdered and found floating in the canals. Franco is driven mad with grief and begins to explore his network of fellow artists and wealthy patrons, some of whom have dangerous hobbies that put them in Franco’s spotlight. While the film also features subplots about group conspiracies and a wealthy pedophile with powerful friends, a quick rewatching of the final scenes confirms that the unmasked killer ultimately has very little to do with these larger conspiracies. Still, there are worse things in life than a deus ex murderer, I suppose.
The first thing I noted about Who Saw Her Die? was how well it demonstrated another one of author Mikel J. Koven’s points regarding the typical narrative of the giallo. Much of the film seemed to be a tourist advertisement for Venice, both in the places we expect – such as a pigeon-filled Piazza San Marco - and the back alleys and curios that only a local would be privvy to. These sequences are wonderfully shot, and provide us with a vision of a living, breathing city. As Koven mentions in La Dolce Morte mentions:
(T)here is a suggestion these films are the cinematic equivalent of “vacation novels,” the kind of stories one might consume while on holiday, and the gialli locations are a reflection of this… “(R)epresentative of Italian cinema’s selling of its own ‘Italian-ness’ through tourist hotspots… as well as countless deaths in or around famous squares, fountains and monuments throughout the giallo.” (Koven, 2006)
Perhaps it was the inclusion of George Lazenby and Adolfo Celi, two actors from the popular Bond franchise, but there were many moments in the movie that reminded me of the tourism-type scenes of a Bond film, where the main purpose of a sequence is to show off an exotic locale. Scenes where characters ride speedboats down the canal from one location to another, for example. While the narrative may require them simply to get form point A to point B, the formula of the giallo and the desire of the audience to be given the aforementioned “vacation novel” experience mean that the travel itself is the focus. To this end, Who Saw Her Die? largely succeeds, showing wonderful vistas of the Venitian skyline and many different shots of Franco running through courtyards or along the waterfront as he pursues his leads.
But if we’ve learned anything about giallo over the past week, it’s that the narrative and most of the action serves only to help set up the ‘set pieces,’ the sequences of suspense, sex, or murder that are intended to snap the audience’s focus back to the screen. How are the set pieces in Who Saw Her Die?
There are several sequences leading up to the murder of Roberta where the killer unsuccessfully attempts to catch her alone. If we continue to define our gialli set pieces are being both stylistically important and considerably more lenghty than the narrative requires, then these sequences fit perfectly. After all, the title of the film gives away the fate of Roberta; each “near miss” in the beginning of the film only delays the inevitable and one would be more than enough to establish that the killer has targeted Roberta to be his next victim. However, while these stalking sequences may be narratively redundant, there’s no denying that they are both well-crafted and quite fun for the viewer. A great deal of that comes from Ennio Morricone’s theme for the killer – “Canto Della Campan Stonata” - which manages to be both ethereal and jarring at the same time, and which director Lado darts in and out of the soundtrack based on the proximity of the killer. This song frequently crescendos to an almost unbearable volume, but is used even more effectively when it barely registers, fading in and out at a low volume to indicate that the killer’s work has already been done.
Meanwhile, Lado shows off his skill as a director of giallo by providing us with several key murder set pieces, my favorite of which occurs during a rendezvouz between Franco and his sometimes-girlfriend, who claims to have important information for him regarding the murder. These sequence takes place in a movie theater, where the characters appear to be watching an adult film. I admit to being a sucker for any horror film that attempts to invade the physical space in which audiences watch horror movies, and Who Saw Her Die? is no different for me. Furthermore, the characters appear to be watching an adult movie, which mirrors the voyeurism and escapism that the real-life audiences of Who Saw Her Die? would be engaged in. A giallo promises murder and sex in equal amounts, but, as Lado demonstrates, just becuase you’re located on the other side of the screen doesn’t mean you’re safe from harm. Fans of gialli should know better than most that every vice comes with a price tag. We are not safe from the monsters of the world, even in a crowded movie theater.
As the movie came to its conclusion and I was left to try and reconcile a week’s worth of reading with a 90-minute movie, I found myself reflecting on a summation of giallo that Peter Bondanella wrote in his book, A History of Italian Cinema:
The formulaic nature of a genre film does not generally detract from its enjoyment as entertainment if the “rules of the game” are applied intelligently and an appropriate visual style carries the storyline forward. In genre films, however, some touch of originality and intelligence is required to make any film following a general formula worth screening. (Bondanella, 2009)
There is a not-so thinly veiled insult in this summary that Koven takes issue with in his own writing on gialli, but I felt that Bondanella’s statement was more revealing than originally suggested. Bondanella, like many critics referenced in the reading that I have done, seems to suggest that the subgenre (or filone) of gialli is ultimately a crass form of entertainment, with perhaps its only redeeming quality being a bit of visual flair by its directors. But at the same time, there is the hint that, regardless of what the critical analysis of gialli may be, Bondanella is incapable of denying the nasty fun of the genre. I would say that this point of view also matches my own initial viewing experience of gialli. There certainly is enough stiff acting, poor language dubs, and incomprehensible plot twists to make the formalized film critic in me shake his head; however, the part of me that responded to Koven’s argument on vernacular cinema, who views the intent to entertain without enlightening to be a perfectly acceptable form of movie-making… that critic is excited at the prospect of a half-dozen more of these films before the “Giallo Fever!” festival at the end of the month. There really is a great deal of perverse charm to these films, and I hope to better articulate why over time.