At the risk of repeating myself, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho changed everything. Everything. American movies had been inching towards more violence, more sex, more "grown-up" material, if that's the word for it, for quite a while; but Hitch is the one who gave the whole industry a firm shove off the cliff, back in 1960. Now, I'm not trying to say that he single-handedly invented cinematic modernism (Antonioni was quite active at the time), or uncoded references to sex (Bergman had been doing that for ages), but his movie was the first Hollywood A-list production that included those kinds of things, and it was then as it always has been and shall be that as the American film industry goes, so goes world cinema. So: Psycho. The film that created modern movies.

One of the most obvious immediate results of Psycho's great success was a host of imitators that sprung up all throughout the English speaking world: killers with knives and psychosexual hang-ups stabbing their way through an unsuspecting society. To be fair, not all of these films are as slavishly imitative as the others, and in some cases it seems less like the filmmakers were trying to copy Hitchcock so much as take advantage of the new permissiveness he'd ushered in.


In Italy, dating back to the pre-WWII period, there was an extraordinarily popular type of cheap paperback mystery novel known as gialli for their distinctive yellow (giallo) covers, a branding device first used by the Mondadori publishing house. The literary giallo didn't have the same connotations as their cinematic cousins: they were really nothing more or less than murder mysteries on the Agatha Christie model, with none of the weird sexual underpinnings or narrative incoherence that came to mark most of the prominent film gialli.

I cannot say for a certainty why it took until the 1960s for some clever Italian filmmaker to adapt the distinct flavor of the gialli to the screen. Doubtlessly, it had something to do with the state of the Italian film industry after 1944, dominated by socially-conscious dramas for many years. During the 1950s, however, Italian filmmakers started breaking into somewhat less artistic directions: comedies and sex-farces like you could find everywhere in the world at that time, things like that. And by the end of the decade, the Italians had branched into the first two B-movie genres that would make the country famous: the pepla, or sword and sandal films, and the famous spaghetti Westerns. It was a time when the Italian industry perfected a skill that would become very important for keeping the studios afloat in the decades to come; it was a time when the Italian filmmakers became history's greatest knock-off artists.

So when Psycho came along and made buckets of money everywhere in the world, Italy was at exactly the right place to jump on board the Hitchcock train, and many Italian psycho killer pictures popped up like mushrooms in the early '60s. But it took until 1963 for one very clever individual to tie together the idea of a mad, knife wielding killer and the robust tradition of the gialli - in retrospect, as natural a marriage as you could imagine, but it still took a first film to make it happen. That first film boasts the unmistakably Hitchcockian title The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and the gifted man who directed and co-wrote it was a certain Mario Bava.

Having by this point worked in nearly every corner of the Italian industry, from Hercules films to Westerns, not to mention good old-fashioned neo-realism, Bava quickly cemented his reputation as a master horror director (he'd already triumphed in that particular genre with 1960's Mask of the Demon, AKA Black Sunday), and though he'd continue to work in everything from crime thrillers to spy movies before his death in 1980, it was a a top-notch director of increasingly horrific gialli that we still remember him today. I say "increasingly horrific" because even though the link between mysteries about psycho killers and straight-up horror cinema seems obvious and unavoidable now - in large part because of the very movies that Bava directly or indirectly inspired - that wasn't the case yet in 1963, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much could no more be accurately called a horror film than a Broadway musical.

As this movie represents a sort of journey of mine to Italy to find the roots of the American slasher film, I find it satisfying that it opens with a shot of an American flying to Rome. Nora Davis (Leticia Román) has been packed off by her folks, we are told by an unseen narrator, to live for a while with her aunt Ethel, apparently in hopes of ironing out the girl's wild tendencies. What those tendencies might be, we're never quite told: but it is apparently considered a dreadful thing indeed that Nora is an avid reader of pulp mystery novels, the kind that have a scantily-clad woman and the word "KNIFE" in giant block letters on the cover, like the one she's reading on the plane when we first meet her.

Nora's Italian vacation gets pretty bad, pretty fast: upon arriving at Ethel's (Chana Coubert) villa, she meets the handsome Dr. Marcello Bassi (John Saxon, an American actor who enjoyed a robust career in European horror for many years, in only his second Italian film), who informs her of her aunt's delicate medical condition and advises her on the proper administration of medicines. All well and good, but when Ethel promptly drops dead that very night, Nora freaks out and flees the house, wandering through the darkened streets of Rome until she's mugged by a man who clubs her on the head. As she tries to regain her sense of balance, woozy as all get-out, she observes a woman (Marta Melocco) with a knife in her back, and a heavy-set bearded man (Giovanni De Benedetto) who seems to have put it there.

The next day, she goes to the cops, who assure her that no such murder took place, and while dragging Marcello around to help her find clues, she comes across Ethel's friend Laura Craven-Torrani (the somewhat legendary Valentina Cortese), a fellow American expatriate who offers her a place to stay for a little while. Nora reluctantly agrees to the offer, after learning that Laura will be out of town for a few days, but trading one big empty house for another doesn't do her nerves much good, nor ours; for we know, as Nora doesn't, that the bearded man she saw with the dead woman is Laura's absent husband, or someone who looks just like him.

I couldn't explain more if I wanted to, because one of the things that The Girl Who Knew Too Much has in common with just about every other giallo you could name it that large passages of the plot make absolutely no damn sense, although almost everything is wrapped up at the end in a more coherent fashion than I'd expected; a couple of plot holes, sure, but nothing movie-breaking. Even the opening scene, in which Nora flirts with a man who proves to be smuggling marijuana, turns out to have some reason for existing, long after I'd assumed that it had no relationship to the rest of the plot.

And at any rate, plot and coherence aren't really so important as atmosphere and style and thrills, and these things The Girl Who Knew Too Much possesses in abundance. Bava was a great director after all, and even when his films make little or no sense - and this happens often - they are still marvelous things to watch. The key to watching Italian thrillers and Italian horror, I've found, is not to care how all of the moments hang together, but to appreciate each moment for how it is constructed and the impression it makes in and of itself. Bava might not have been quite the creator of powerful images that his follower, Dario Argento was (and I'll be attending to the works of Mr. Argento soon enough), but he still knew a thing or two about how to stage a well-lit, or I should say properly-lit scene in which a terrified young woman creeps down a dark hallway, trying to find the source of the voice that is whispering vague threats. For Bava's career began as a cinematographer (he shot many of the films he directed, including this one), and you'd have to search long to find another director of thrillers, mysteries and horror with such a perfect knowledge of how to use shadows to create a particular reaction in the audience in the space of just a couple of frames. It's probably worth mentioning in this context that The Girl Who Knew Too Much was Bava's last black-and-white film, and while his use of color was pretty spectacular in its own right, the atmospheric mileage he got out of contrasting light and dark in monochrome has hardly been equalled in his chosen genre of film.

Now, as the first giallo, this is hardly a typical example of the style. Most of the things that the genre would become known for, such as a black-gloved killer and outrageously violent deaths, are absent. Indeed, Bava's next murder mystery, 1964's Blood and Black Lace (a great movie as well, and one I'm sure I'll review some day), is in most ways a much more "textbook" giallo, and as such it's often called the first one. There's something to that argument; but at the same time, Bava made sure to connect his film with the tradition of pulp novels, so that even if The Girl Who Knew Too Much doesn't look or feel like most of its descendants, it still must be the missing link between the paperbacks and the later movies. There's Nora's own repeated obsession with the American equivalent of the literary gialli, which comes in play when she uses those books to help guide her investigation; there's a great joke made of it at one point, when the narrator drily notes that the crazy string-based trap Nora sets up to protect herself from any intruders would work because the killer wouldn't expect it: the book she took the idea from hadn't been published in Italy. And then, there's the narrator himself: hardly a customary feature of cinematic murder mysteries, but a functional necessity of mystery novels. By using a narrator throughout his movie, I suspect Bava was trying to make the story closer to a novel than a regular film: something we are told, rather than something we are shown. Of course, "show, don't tell" is one of the guiding rules of filmmaking, but in this case I'd turn a blind eye: it's the single best way Bava could make his movie more "literary", and thus bridge a gap that would in short order result in some unabashedly visual mysteries, made by himself and others.

At any rate, it's notoriously hard to define a giallo. It's not a formula quite as much as a mood and a point of view, and if The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a bit breezier than many of its children, it still shares their casual acceptance of metaphysics as a component of medical science, cops who'll believe anything but the hero's eye-witness account, people doing everything they can to find a killer, and are then shocked when they run across the killer. In the next few weeks, I hope to dig up some of these trends when I can find them: in the meanwhile, let me conclude by proposing that The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a gialli like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a slasher: it created the genre, and the rules followed, and thus it's hardly the germinating film's fault if it occasionally ignores those rules.

Body Count: 5-ish. That is, definitely five, at least one of which is very possibly a vision of something that already happened. But, unlike so many films to come in its wake, this just isn't a body count movie. I mean, one of those five was an elderly woman keeling over from illness.