Friday, 9 March 2012

06 Chapter One: History of the Giallo and the birth of the Masked Killer

Just by looking back at the history of the giallo and its recognized birth, automatically, controversy strikes as to why this genre of film has been kept in the dark from an artistic standpoint and rather labeled as an exploitative genre.

The giallo takes its name from a series of lurid thrillers with trademark yellow covers (giallo means 'yellow' in Italian), which first appeared in Italy in 1929. Typically Latin in nature, the giallo took the staid crime novel and spiced it up with doses of sex, glamour and violence - and great soundtracks. (Kerswell, 2010 p44)

What Kerswell is saying here is that the giallo took inspiration from the lurid thriller novels that were popular travel reading material; and to make them stand out from traditional crime thrillers, the giallo added elements of sex and violence that would excite and please a cinematic audience looking to be entertained.

The later giallo filmmakers tend to be contextualized within other forms of exploitation horror cinema, although often they worked in as many different genres as were being produced within Italian cinema at the time-mondo documentaries, zombie pictures, police action films (poliziotto), and sex comedies. So most histories of giallo cinema, such as are available, contextu-alize the genre within the history of Italian horror cinema, rather than the crime film, with Mario Bava unofficially credited with inventing the giallo as a cinematic genre. (Koven, 2006 p3)

What I think Koven is trying to say here, is that because of the later forms of the giallo grew more into the exploitation genre of film making of the time, with the increased amount of sex and graphic violence being shown; the genre itself lost it’s original identity and has since become shoehorned into the history of Italian Horror rather than it’s true roots which would be more akin to the crime thriller; this lead to Mario Bava being recorded as the father of the genre, even though there had been previous films based on the source material.

Despite the fact the gialli’s roots are deeply set in the thriller genre that can best be summed up as simply as murder mysteries; looking into the lurid thrillers that were being released in Italy at the time, they were predominately Italian translations of British/American writers including some household names and highly respected writers like Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen for example; yet despite having these roots in well respected works within literature, the giallo has become no more than a exploitative horror genre that it seems, only has what can best be described as a cult following outside of Italy. And it seems that not just the miss-interpretation of the giallo with regards to genre, but also its birth with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) commonly regarded as the invention of the genre. It was actually released almost 20 years after the first giallo film.

Literally the first giallo film was made under Mus-solini's nose toward the end of Italy's participation in the Second World War. Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1942), although mostly heralded as the first neorealist film, since the film is loosely based on James M. Caine's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), is also the first giallo film. (Koven, 2006 p3)

Here Koven is pointing out that Ossessione (1942) is actually the first giallo film and pre-dates Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) (commonly labeled the first giallo film) by 20 years.

What I feel this points out is a certain phobia that film academics and film theory writers have with the possibility of high art being linked with any genre of film that is considered to be low art or exploitive, in turn indirectly labeling those films to be less valuable than those considered high art. But it is not the murder and the violence that makes a film a giallo, it is the work of the lurid thrillers with their yellow covers. Of course the genre grew on to be more violent and graphic but to deny the genre it’s history just because some might feel it tarnishes a highly regarded genre is unacceptable. The film Ossessione (1942) itself does have significant links to the giallo genre that bursts into peak during the 1960s and 1970s when the surrounding history of Mussolini crops up again in genre again, this time not surrounding the release of the giallo film but the effects of Mussolini on the characters within the genre.

The gialli were not intended for consumption in the first-run theaters in Italy or meant to circulate internationally through film festivals and art-house theaters. These films circulated on the margins of Italian, European, and International film exhibition-the drive-ins and grindhouses, rather than the art houses. They appealed to the most salacious aspects of literary crime fiction, thereby making these films closer in spirit to horror films than to mysteries. (Koven, 2006 p16)

Koven here is pointing out that the giallo wasn't intended to be viewed by the same audience of those in the high art population being shown in various art houses; the giallo was being targeted to the audience of the drive-ins and the grindhouse scene where the audience is purely looking to be entertained and the narrative can almost play as a second fiddle, as it's target audience would have a more relaxed approach to consumption.

And within this context, not only in terms of production but perhaps more importantly consumption, a traditional aesthetic consideration of the giallo alongside high-art filmmakers such as Fellini, Bertolucci, and Antonioni cannot work. The giallo is not high art; it is vernacular in its mark-keting, consumption, and production. (Koven, 2006 p16)

Here I think that Koven really hits the nail on the head as to why the giallo and the high art works from Italian directors of the same era are kept from being linked. He points out that the aesthetics and consumption and production are so vastly different and the giallo itself cannot be considered high art therefore trying to juxtapose the giallo with the high art movement wouldn't be complementary or beneficial to either the high art or the exploitative horror. 

But returning to the birth of the giallo as it is seen most commonly today; there are 3 films that together give birth to the traditional giallo that became hugely popular in the 1970s and early 1980s. Though it was Mario Bava who is credited with creating the genre as we know it, beginning with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) and again 2 years later with Blood and Black Lace (1964) it isn’t until Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) that the giallo’s identity is set in stone and the masked killer becomes infamous.

Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La Ragazza che sapev troppo) (1962) established the giallo films' narrative structure: an innocent person, often a tourist, witnesses a brutal murder that appears to be the work of a serial killer. He or she takes on the role of amateur detective in order to hunt down this killer, and often succeeds where the police fail. Two years later, Bava further developed the genre with Blood and Black Lace (Sei donne per l'assassino) (1964). This film, although the narrative structure is quite dif-ferent from Girl, introduced to the genre specific visual tropes that would be-come cliched. Specifically, the graphic violence was against beautiful women; there were many murders committed (in Girl, all the victims ware stabbed the same way, but in Blood and Black Lace we see stabbings, strangu-lations, smothering, burnings, and other violent acts); but most important is the introduction of what was to become the archetypal giallo killer's disguise: black leather gloves, black overcoat, wide-brimmed black hat, and often a black stocking over the face. (Koven, 2006 p3-4)

Here Koven is telling us how Mario Bava created the now considered traditional giallo; he first points out that The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) builds the narrative structure of the giallo and 2 years later with his next film Blood and Black Lace (1964) Bava creates the graphic murder sequences adding more creative techniques and weapons that were missing in Girl and also adding the famous image of the giallo killer; dressed in disguise with black leather gloves etc…The combination of the two creating what is now consider the traditional giallo.

The year 1970 is generally considered the key threshold for giallo cinema, due to the international success of Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (L'uccello dale piume di cristallo) (1970), which takes the innocent eyewitness who becomes an amateur detective through a grisly series of murders from Bava's Girl and adds the graphic violence and iconically dressed killer (black hat, gloves, and raincoat) from Bava's Blood and Black Lace. It is this combina-tion that really defines the giallo film as it is more commonly understood. An av-alanche of similar films was quickly brought out by Italian producers looking to cash in on Argento's success, all using combinations and variations on the com-plexity of the mystery, with the standard giallo-killer disguise. (Koven, 2006 p4)

Here Koven tells us how director Dario Argento with his film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) (which combines both elements of Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) to create the traditional giallo) and it’s international success created the opportunity for more Italian filmmakers to direct giallos in it’s vein as producers were keen to use Argento’s film as a template for financial gain.

Not only does The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) become the film that sets the rollers in motion for the giallo to take off into commercial success, but it is also the starting point for Dario Argento to becoming the widely regarded master of giallo and ultimately becoming the only director with the power of his internationally recognizable name to be able to continually direct gialli after the genres apparent demise in the late 1980s.

No comments:

Post a Comment