Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Friday, May 31, 2013

La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much)

Directed by Mario Bava

When later asked about his film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, director Mario Bava responded that he did not regard it fondly. In addition to being “preposterous,” he mentioned that it left such an insignificant impression on him that he couldn’t even remember the actors who played the leads. “Perhaps it could have worked with James Stewart and Kim Novak,” he remarked. Yes, maybe if he had the same actors as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) the film would have been more famous. But as it stands, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is seen by many critics as a technically accomplished but insignificant entry in Bava’s oeuvre. And, in many respects, the film’s lukewarm reception isn’t unwarranted. The story is clumsy, rife with inappropriate (and ineffective) comic relief, and greatly overshadowed by the cinematography. And yet, The Girl Who Knew Too Much may very well be one of the most important horror films in history. Why? Because it served as a bridge between the horror of Hitchcock and Hollywood and the future of Italian horror, a much beloved and often imitated genre known simply as the “giallo.”

Giallo, the Italian word for “yellow,” is a term used to describe a series of mystery novels published by Mondadori in the late 1920s which boasted bright yellow covers. As the series became more popular, other publishers mimicked Mondadori’s marketing techniques until the term giallo became synonymous with the mystery genre. The term continued to evolve when giallo stories were adapted for the cinema. And, indeed, The Girl Who Knew Too Much was the very first giallo: a film hybrid mixing the mystery, horror, and thriller genres. Bava would further define the giallo with Blood and Black Lace (1964), a film which introduced extremely graphic and stylized violence (almost always committed against beautiful women) and an iconic black disguise donned by the narrative’s main killer. However, Blood and Black Lace’s contributions to the genre were mostly visual. It was The Girl Who Knew Too Much that would establish the traditional giallo narrative structure.

Much as the film’s title would suggest, The Girl Who Knew Too Much was heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It centers around a young American woman named Nora who travels to Rome in order to meet her aunt. However, almost immediately after she arrives she finds herself in the middle of a terrible murder plot. First, her aunt dies when she goes to see her. Next, she is mugged in the Piazza di Spagna. And finally, she witnesses a bearded man murder a young woman and drag her body away before she can alert the authorities. There are two very Hitchcock-esque traits to be found in these opening scenes. First, Nora is an innocent woman thrown into violent circumstances beyond her control. In Hitchcock’s films, this frequently manifested itself as the Wrongly Accused Hero plot archetype. Second, whenever Nora tries to tell people about what she saw, she is dismissed or ignored. Together, these create a perverse atmosphere of paranoia and dread; a sense that the world is cruelly and deliberately conspiring against the protagonist.

After the attack, Nora decides to independently pursue the truth surrounding that terrible murder. A devoted reader of mystery novels (we see her reading one on the plane to Italy) the likes of which inspired the film to begin with, she starts her own investigation. Along the way, she makes several allies: Dr. Marcello Bassi, the man who had been caring for Nora’s aunt, Laura Torrani, one of her aunt’s dear friends who lets her stay in her house, and an investigative reporter named Landini who had been investigating a series of murders attributed to the “Alphabet Killer,” a serial killer known for picking out victims with names in alphabetical order (“A” -- Gina Abbart, “B” -- Maria Beccati, “C” -- Emily Craven). However, it doesn’t take long for her snooping to catch the attention of unwanted parties. She receives an ominous phone call that says, “D is for death.” Nora’s last name? Davis.

Watching The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I was struck by how often Bava mimicked Hitchcock’s cinematographic techniques. The film’s black and white photography was obviously largely inspired by Hollywood film noir’s high-contrast, expressionist cinematography. But Bava seems to transform the camera itself into an omnipresent character. One shot in particular reminded me of the famous Sebastian mansion tracking shot in Notorious (1946): when Laura first invites Nora into her home, the camera tracks them as move through the rooms before breaking away from the two women and zooming in on the doors of Laura’s husband’s locked study. Then, via an unfortunate smash edit, it continues to zoom in until it focuses on a picture of Laura’s husband. While much of the rest of the film’s blocking, framing, and camera movements are highly subjective and reflect Nora’s state of mind, this shot is an enigma. There are literally no characters nearby who could be seeing what the audience is witnessing. This shot is from the camera’s point of view and exists for the benefit of the audience. In a stylistic flourish that Hitchcock frequently indulged in and practically perfected, the audience is transformed from fellow spectators into voyeurs.

And, essentially, voyeurism is at the heart of giallo. As the genre would evolve, it would become more and more indulgent with its use of colors, sets, and murder scenes. Red herrings, like some of the plot cul-de-sacs in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, would become a favored technique of giallo directors to keep its protagonists, and by extension the audience, misdirected and confused. Why were so many giallo victims women? Probably because, on a very primal and unspeakable level, killing a beautiful woman is like smashing a stained glass window with a rock. Both are destructive acts, but they are impossible to look away from. We take perverse pleasure in watching such corruption and annihilation. Where did this sense of voyeurism come from? Hitchcock. And in between Hitchcock and giallo is Mario Bava. Or, more specifically, The Girl Who Knew Too Much.