Sunday, May 23, 2010
Giallo: The Mystery of Transgression and Attraction.
Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s Italy produced some of the most extreme and bizarre genre films the world has ever been assaulted with. The peplums, spaghetti westerns, gothics, polizieschi, zombi, post-apocalyptic and fumetti films were made extensively throughout this era, yet most were seen as inferior rip-offs of popular American films of the time. The giallo (or gialli in its plural form) is one of the most controversial genres Italy has produced, yet also one of the more critically recognized in terms of stylization and originality. Once ignored directors such as, Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Sergio Martino, Antonio Margheritti and Umberto Lenzi, are finally becoming more recognized in cinema criticism. Directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci have amassed a huge following in America, specifically Argento, who to this day still makes films (with diminishing returns). All these directors come under critical attack for their use of excessive sexual violence and praised for their stylish inventiveness.
The genre takes its origins from the Il Giallo Modadori paperback mystery novels (from the 50s) that were usually yellow bound; for “giallo” is “yellow” in Italian. The novels could be any mixture of authors, from Agatha Christie to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Raymond Chandler, yet the covers often suggested a salacious or sleazy read. The color yellow is often connected to ideas of illness and sickness, which could be seen as a color metaphor for the mental state of the killer. While other Italian genres borrowed heavily from American products, the giallo film takes its tonal influences from the German Krimi films of the early 60s (which usually adopted some Edgar Wallace mystery novel), and expressional influences from Alfred Hitchcock. Though, the giallo is more psychological with a deeper aesthetic that utilizes all the best aspects of Italian cinema; such as baroque settings, surreal cinematography, lush soundtracks, mixed chronological editing, kitsch interior design and fashion, visceral violence, beautiful international actors and actresses, and highly charged eroticism.
The giallo film genre lasted through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and each decade offered a very different product. The 60’s giallo was more of a mystery melodrama, which mixed erotic lesbianism and greedy seducers usually trying to drive a woman insane, to gain an inheritance. The 70s giallo however, usually had a black cloaked killer knocking off the cast one by one, as they’re presented as red herrings. The murderer is almost always revealed through an unmasking, and the explanation is often to do with childhood trauma of sorts. As the popularity of porn films increased in the later 70s, gialli reveled in sleazier material. The nudity became more frequent, the deaths more sexual, and some went so far as to insert porn shots to enhance profitability (as well as make for dubious entertainment). In America, the slasher horror film craze was getting started, and this influenced Italy’s 80s gialli output. Gone were the baroque settings, travelogue footage, lush soundtracks and modernist landscapes, instead replaced with an MTV video style, Flashdance numbers and American TV cop show heroes. By the 1980s, the giallo had finally run its course.
The sleazier aspects of a giallo confronts the viewer with an uncomfortable position, that of voyeur, assailant and victim (depending on the camera placement). The sexual violence has created a controversy surrounding this genre, which has been criticized for its lowbrow attempts at luring audience. Though such attempts at using sensationalism to make a buck is nothing new, similarly the short films from the late 1800s to early 1900s produced what was known as cinema of attractions. Fragmented moments of a curious nature were captured for cinematic exhibition. A train could rush towards the audience, or possibly something morbid or ghastly like a mutilated body. These short films were made to exploit ones curiosity of the unordinary, and were thus titled curiositas The giallo’s moments of thrills and excessiveness can be compared to the quick exploits presented in these short films. Gunning’s description on cinema of attraction’s emphasis, relates well with the confrontational nature of a giallo:
Confrontation rules the cinema of attractions in both the form of its films and their mode of exhibition. The directness of this act of display allows an emphasis on the thrill itself---the immediate reaction of the viewer. (Gunning, 743-744.)
The visceral thrill contained in the giallo elicits a reaction from its audience who view the shocking moments with indignation and fascination. Though, we should not discount the mystery element found in the genre, for it propels the audience’s desire to know more, while violence acts as a cathartic release.
Like horror films, the giallo can be described as a body genre. Where gratuitous imagery of bodily mutilation and death can create an emotion, where the metal stimulation can be attributed to problem solving. At the time of the 60s, moral codes had loosened up as sex and violence became more on display in all genres. The giallo’s message (though conservative) appears to have manifested from Italy’s deep connection to Catholicism (and possibly from Mussolini’s reign with Fascism).
The development of sex, violence, and emotion would thus seem to have very precise in the body genres. Like all popular genres, they address persistent problems in our culture, in our sensualities, in our very identities. The development of sex, violence, and emotion is thus in no way gratuitous and in no way strictly limited to each of these genres; it is instead a cultural form of problem solving. (Williams, 611- 612.)
The giallo contains a need to solve and a fixation on the body and sexual identity. To begin to decode its many mysteries, the viewer needs to first factor in Freudian theory, gender transgression, gaze, fetishism and investigation. Using two quintessential films, Blood and Black Lace (1964) and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), I’d like to investigate some of the key themes that are presented in these films while connecting the re-occurring elements of the genre.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
The first giallo is attributed to director Mario Bava and his film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Literally picking up where director Alfred Hitchcock left off (who directed the similarly titled The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and in 1956, Hitchcock’s early influence of German expressionism informs the giallo cinematic style. Bava’s Hitchcockian thriller sets the stage, of a noir, dolce vita-mystery, which plays upon the victims’ psychosis. Shot in black and white. The Girl Who Knew Too Much signaled the beginning of Italy’s fascination with Hitchcock and noir, yet it is really Bava’s next giallo; Blood and Black Lace (1964) that establishes the fetishistic traits that were to follow within the genre. The typical darkly cloaked assassin, with fedora, black leather gloves and a blade, all originate in this film. The film’s setting in a fashion house, would also lend it self to future gialli (such as Crimes of the Black Cat (1972) and Fashion Crimes (1989)) Throughout the film, scantily clad women are knocked off one by one, by extremely cruel means. One female victim is smashed in the face repeatedly with a spiked glove, while another has their face held into a fireplace, as well as a drowning. All of the proceedings are presented in Bava’s most colorful excursion, with a splashy decor that border on the artificial.
The film’s opening credits present the actors as if they were in a play, frozen motionless like mannequins (reoccurring objects in this genre) in a fashion house. This is substantiated by the opening shot of a bright red sign that reads, “Christian haute couture.” The sign blows in the storm, until one side breaks, symbolizing the fracturing of the aristocratic façade. We see a darkened figure appear waving beneath a tree in the rain, as a woman runs to him. The man is revealed to be a junkie needing a fix, and the girl asks him to just hold out for a while, they disappear. A taxi appears and a woman dressed in a striking red rain coat steps out into the darkness, as a darkly concealed killer lurks behind the trees stalking her. He comes up behind her with a stalking and begins to strangle the woman, while repeatedly smashing her face into a tree. After the woman is dead, the killer picks up her legs and drags her into the bushes, while her stocking straps are revealed by her lifted skirt.
The extreme six-minute opening of Blood and Black Lace (which wallows in cocaine addiction and a sadistic murder) was truly jaw dropping in 1964. Though the film is beautifully shot, the colorful allure does not hide the morbidity. In fact Bava is celebrating the murders as a cinema of attractions, with his use of a colorful set design and beautiful females. Bava’s film bears little of Italy’s former neo-realism period and appears to be ushering in an artificial counterpoint. We don’t see Italy’s war torn state of poverty; instead we are offered fashion houses and the elite. Bava is cynically and systematically killing off his characters or revealing their illness that is bred from the greed of money. Yet, Bava compromises any political or ideological message by the fact that the majority of the victims are women. Bava specifically chooses to mark his female victim as unsympathetic and sinful by dressing the victim in red (later we find that she was a cocaine addict and a blackmailer). The killer motives appear to be that of a moral avenger, set in the confines of an exploitative fashion house, with a shady cast of characters. Investigations and suspicions continue, as the body count piles up.
Sei donne per l'assassino [Blood and Black Lace] has at its core the theme of sexuality based on profit and exploitation—the exploitation of the female body for profit, whether by a ruthless male or his equally ruthless female partner who in no way yields to him when it comes to getting the most economically out of patriarchal capitalism. For Cristina sadistically punishes the body of any woman who refuses to be passive, thus behaving in a masculine fashion that aligns her unconsciously with patriarchy. It is significant that the first victim wanted a share in the money the couple makes from drugs and was blackmailing the villain. Bava shows that the economic dimension of sexuality is where true morbidity lies. (Humphries.)
The last quarter of the film plays homage to Double Indemnity (1944) as it turns out that there are two killers (a couple), who inevitably kill each other off with their own greed. Unlike Double Indemnity though, Blood and Black Lace revels in the sexual brutality of its punishment to its beautiful cast. A particular scene that is worth pointing out has a female victim, being suffocated by a pillow. As the killer smothers her, her legs don’t spastically kick as much as they writhe. This over sexualized murder is meant to arouse the male audience with death, and this would become a reoccurring motif within the genre. But what message does it send to the female audience? That submissiveness to the male sexual desires extends as far as death? But when the murderer is revealed to be one-half woman, how then does this connect to the female audience? The women are to identify with both the assailant and the victim. Dario Argento would delve deeper into this psychology in his debut film The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1969).
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969)
Prior to directing, Argento assisted with Bernardo Bertolucci on writing Once Upon A Time in the West (1968) for director Sergio Leone, as well as three other spaghetti westerns. Dario Argento appeared to have an amazing grasp on genre cinema and his directorial debut film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), allowed him to explore the giallo genre. Picking up on the fetishistic elements of Bava’s film, Argento also incorporates the assassin’s gaze in matters of art (an important painting is significant to the mystery), murder (use of killer’s point of view) and death (though this can be misleading). Like Bava’s film, the revelation of the killer’s identity is not as apparent, because the gender is specifically equated with maleness. As the film opens, we are presented with snap shots of a beautiful woman in fragmented stages of her day. The voyeuristic photos are followed with a shot of a black-gloved hands typing and then caressing the blade of a knife. The metaphoric phallus and leather gloves can be seen as a fetishistic obsession that the murderer posses. If (as Freud points out) that the fetish is born of the castration of the female, then what does the murderer’s fetish reveal of his/ her identity?
Mendik states that:
Thus, Argento’s films use a giallo framework to organize narratives around the desire to undercover the identity of a transgressor, while also construct their females as victims of violence or symbolic castration. Paradoxically, they also depict certain female characters who either by adopting the role of the maternal or by virtue of their status as former victims manage to evade this position of oppression. (Mendik, 112.)
Transgression of the female identity to that of the males is marked by the trauma that the female has undergone, through that of her male attacker. In the case of Argento’s film, the murderer is revealed to be a woman who was previously attacked and raped by a psychotic killer, and has since related and adopted the identity of her attacker.
The protagonist of the film is an American writer in Italy who witnesses an attack in an art gallery while walking home one night. He witnesses a struggle between a male (dark figure) and a woman, but he is trapped between glass partitions unable to assist or speak out. Like the audience witnessing a cinema of attractions, the writer voyeuristically views the attempted attack. The investigators arrive and immediately accuse the witness of the crime, as the female victim is rushed to the hospital. The writer knows he saw something, but cannot recall what it was of the scene that was so uncanny. Throughout the film and the writer’s investigation, the scene continuously haunts him (especially during moments of love making). Though he cannot break through the predetermined gender roles to which he’ll realize the truth. His continual misreading of the crime prolongs his denouncement of the identity.
Mendik points out:
As replacement of sexual disorder the announcement through a Misreading of gender: In forcing his tortured protagonists, to look back and reassess what they have seen, Argento draws attention to the ease with which masculine perceptions of sexuality and gendered behavior can be unhinged. (Mendik, 45.)
When the writer does finally realize the identity it is through her unveiling, rather than his own epiphany. When the murderer removes the fedora, their (sinful) red hair falls out revealing her to be a female. The writer’s memory reveals that it was indeed the woman who was attacking the man in the gallery. Though, when looking back on the scene, we can see that Argento had always inserted symbolic clues of gender transgression. For the gallery creates a location of voyeurism and gender ambivalence.
Other prominent iconography in the gallery includes an androgynous statuette. This embodies the fusion of breasts and phallic shaped beak instead of the head that Pacteau confirms as subverting the symbolic drive for classification of difference. (Mendik, 47.)
The gallery’s symbolic presentation of sexual transgression informs the audience of the killer’s identity, yet spends the rest of the film masking the witness’ primal realization.
Hundreds of films were born out of the giallo genre, yet I’ve barely covered two of them. Each film contains its own strange complexities and controversies, yet both of these films contain strong reoccurring motifs within the genre. This paper is an attempt at investigating some of the sexual themes and ideas of this genre, as well as trying to understand the appeal. Like the cinema of attractions, the audience is given short moments of questionable thrills that appeal to a physical reaction, while the investigative nature appeals to the mental. Like splintered cinematic moments these films present a violent fractured attraction of the body and mind.
Guins, Ray. “Tortured Looks: Dario Argento and Visual Displeasure.” Necromonion 1.1 (1996): pp. 141-153.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In) Credulous Spectator.” Oxford University Press (1974), pp. 736-750.
Humphries, Reynold. “Just Another Fashion Victim: Mario Bava’s Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964),” Kinoeye: A Fortnightly Journal of Film in the New Europe 1.7 (26 November 2001): available from:
Mendik, Xavier. “Detection and Transgression: The investigative Drive of the Giallo.” Necromonicon 1.1 (1996): pp. 35-54.
Mendik, Xavier. “From the Monstrous Mother to the Third Sex: Female Abjection in the Films of Dario Argento.” Necromonicon 2.1 (1998): pp. 110-133.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Oxford University Press (1974), pp. 602-616.