You can’t really talk about Dario Argento without using the word ‘giallo’, so for the benefit of the non-aficionado, a few words of explanation:
Giallo is Italian for ‘yellow’. Historically, this refers to the distinctive yellow covers of pulp novels published by the Mondadori company in the 1920s and 1930s. These were the equivalent of American hard-boiled fiction (indeed, many were translations of works by the likes of Edgar Wallace), and proved so popular that other publishing houses rushed into print similar titles, retaining the lurid covers. In the 1960s and 1970s directors like Mario Bava, Sergio Martino and our current man of the match Mr Argento crafted cinematic equivalents – some of them adaptations of the original novels.
For an in-depth but always accessible examination of the giallo phenomenon, with plentiful examples under review, check out Giallo Fever.
For my part, perhaps the quickest introduction to the giallo is a simple list of some of its defining characteristics:
1. Black gloves. Along with identity-concealing trenchcoat and fedora, this is the de rigueur fashion accessory for the killer-about-town.
2. An amateur sleuth, in the wrong place at the wrong time, who decides to launch their own investigation after witnessing a murder or attempted murder. There’s usually something about what they saw that bugs them, something they can’t quite put their finger on. And there’s generally a threat to their own safety as a result of launching said investigation. Which they only do because …
3. The police are totally ineffectual. Take ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (of which more later): Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno), getting nowhere with the official investigation, happily sanctions star witness Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) to undertake his own enquiries. Saves on police manpower, I guess.
4. Extended, operatic death scenes. Essentially, the giallo is a hybrid of the traditional whodunit and the visceral stalk ‘n’ slash flick. Death scenes are all important – the more tension that can be generated, the more bizarre the mechanics of the murder, and the more bloody the pay-off, the better.
5. Staircases. I don’t know why, but there’s a penchant in these movies for vertiginous shots of (often spiral) staircases. Likewise, killers and victims alike tend to plunge from high places or down elevator shafts.
6. J&B. It’s a bloody awful blend, but the manufacturers must have bunged a fair bit of money towards gialli budgets because it features as product placement in the same way – and just as blatantly – as Aston Martins in Bond movies.
7. Famous mainstream actors at the start or later on in their careers. Jennifer Connelly in ‘Phenomena’, for example, or Karl Malden in ‘The Cat O’Nine Tails’.
8. Gratuitous nudity. Well, black gloves and bottles of J&B can only generate so many ticket sales.
9. Edwige Fenech. See above.
10. Distinctive titles, often featuring an animal (‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’), a colour (‘Deep Red’), a number (‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’), or sometimes a combination of all three (‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’). Elsewhere, you might find a reference to the murder weapon (‘Hatchet for the Honeymoon’), or the promise of something of something steamy, seamy and downright disreputable (‘Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key’ – see above).
Right, then: ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’. And to quote Inspector Morosini, “Bring in the perverts …”