Giallo: The Strangest Crime Genre Of Them All

Film

A Giallo is a story that starts with a lurid murder that tracks the killer to a plausible solution. At least, in theory. It might have elements of sexuality, suspense, thrills, gore, perversity, even (bad) comedy. It is above all sensual. Every sense is heightened, but the senses are not to be trusted. The protagonist is led astray by their own errant feelings. Often they misread signals and miss clues. Their eyes play tricks on them, their hearing deceives.

A Giallo once referred to Italian crime novels from the Mondadori publishing house and others that sported yellow borders on their jackets (you’ll find that Giallo films on Amazon still appear with yellow borders on the EPG).

In the early days they featured American pulp writers, then switched to European stories. Some of them became films, which became self-generating and have continued for fifty years. Sensational, salacious, exploitative, titillating, vulgar – they often looked classy but felt cheesy. Along the way a handful came to be regarded as classics, although this was more by luck than judgement.

Their titles were often baroque, and many referenced animals, colours and objects; ‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’, ‘Why Torture A Duckling?’, ‘Strip Nude for your Killer’, ‘Black Day for the Ram’, ‘Blood and Black Lace’, ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’, ‘Death Walks on High Heels’. The settings for the stories are often sumptuous, surreal and vaguely decadent; an art gallery, a modernist home, a gothic nightclub, a girls’ school. Women were primitively sexualised in tight dresses, never jeans (these were Italian crime stories, after all). Men were dull, square jawed and impersonal behind their mirrored aviator glasses.

But typically for the Giallo these rules were all regularly broken, so that we got detectives with disabilities, unreadable good/bad women and an oppressive atmosphere of moral ambiguity. In the late 1930s onwards, fascist censorship prevented the murderer from ever being Italian, but by the 1960s photo-novels and films introduced the blatantly erotic as a new element. The key years for the Giallo start in 1963, peaking in the early 1970s but fitfully continuing for decades.

Many of the filmed stories are influenced by (ie. stolen from) American, British and French authors, but crucially most of them barely make sense. Blame directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento for jettisoning logic in favour of deranged hyper-saturated set pieces. To add an air of respectability the credits sometimes suggested that the scripts were adapted from fictitious English whodunnits. Agatha Christie’s name would crop up on a poster even though the film wasn’t based on any of her books.

A more contentious element of the Giallo has always been its blurring of the lines between sex and violence, which led to huge censorship issues in the UK, when publicity-hungry MPs like the self-appointed moral guardian Graham Bright damned ‘offensive’ films. These were already heavily cut and often went out indiscriminately attached to a main feature (I saw ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ with a ‘Carry On’ film).

The stories could be hypocritically moral in a confusingly Italian way. Then there was the cheese factor; lustful women who can’t keep their skimpy clothes on (in a #MeToo world there’s enough here to give Gen-Xers a collective heart attack), men in open-topped sports cars, walking cleavages with huge sunglasses perched on their tresses, plenty of psychedelic wallpaper and bad modern sculptures.

The Giallo became more jaw-dropping as censorship relaxed, but also lost much of its appeal. As art direction and music grew brasher in colour and sound, the little plot logic that remained was lost. The Giallo won cult status and was endlessly ripped off by knowing directors like Quentin Tarantino, who managed to make an infamous murder scene in ‘Deep Red’ far more offensive in ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’.

Yet through it all the Giallo gave us some delirious high points. The actions of the protagonists often go against all common sense and rationality, and therefore make us feel unsafe because anything could happen. And it did.

To be continued

12 comments on “Giallo: The Strangest Crime Genre Of Them All”

  1. Roger says:

    No doubt you know the work of Seijin Suzuki, Control: the Japanese counter-part of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, but even more bonkers in the work he produced. In his case, he got bored with making standard B-movie formula thrillers and began to play with and subvert the conventions on which they depended.

  2. Stu-I-Am says:

    One of my favorite giallo films (beyond the superb title…) is ‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ (1972) from the Italian master, Sergio Martino. Based loosely (very) on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Black Cat,’ it is one of several with Martino’s favorite ‘festering rot in romantic relationships’ plots. As lurid as most were, the gialli at least had romance of a sort and certainly sex, which is more than you can say about today’s sterile superhero “pulp” offerings

  3. Brooke says:

    And here’s me thinking it’s ordinary misogynistic porn.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Brooke I would say that considering the period in which they flourished they were undoubtedly misogynistic. The stereotypes of the time usually found their way to the screen. However overall, there was a kind of gender ambivalence to much of giallo. In fact many of the films had either LGBTQ+ characters in lead roles or in key supporting roles — the latter typically with far more visibility than other minor or secondary characters.

  5. JanW says:

    Some of Bava’s films are extraordinary or least have amazing scenes – imaginative and not bloodthirsty and not sexist-and you can see how many directors and designers have subsequently borrowed from him. Even more extraordinary many of his films came in under budget.

  6. Brooke says:

    Mr. Fowler: follow-up to your June 21 post, Catapault Press/Soft Skull is looking for manuscripts directly from authors.
    Just saying.
    https://catapult.submittable.com/submit/197577/soft-skull-open-submissions-june-july-2021?utm_campaign=wp_book_club&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_books

  7. SteveB says:

    @janw you are right about Bava
    Argento is more bloodthirsty but actually the blood is not realistic. Several of his films have strong female leads including his daughter in a couple
    I always thought Glenn Chandler‘s Taggart stories were quite Giallo-like.

  8. Helen+Martin says:

    I think I’m with you, Brooke. Just putting a fancy genre name to a film doesn’t increase its value as a piece of visual art. Sounds like a good group to skip.

  9. Brooke says:

    Helen, it seems heat in BC is lessening. Here’s hoping more relief is on the way.

  10. mike says:

    I vaguely remember seeing one. It looked as if a group of feverish sex obsessed schoolboys had made it. I gave up about halfway through

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Brooke – yes, things are a little better. I actually understand the creepy tragedy viewers since we are contemplating an August drive up the Canyon to see what is left of our first year of married life.
    Mike – does putting an Italian name to the memory improve its quality? Your description seems to be a fair summation of the subject.

  12. mike says:

    Helen, no difference at all. I still remember it as being amateurish 60’s top shelf soft porn of poor quality

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