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Murder, Italian Style: A Primer on the Giallo Film Genre

Photo: Jumbo Cinematografica

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, while Hollywood was in the throes of the Easy Rider movie-brat revolution, six thousand miles away, the Italian film industry was too busy ripping off Hitchcock and splashing the screen red with blood to take much notice. Dismissed by American critics at the time as low-rent imports barely deserving of the bottom half of a 42nd Street double bill, the lurid genre known as giallo (with its convoluted Freudian plots and liberal dollops of kink and nudity, all smothered in the red sauce of over-the-top violence) took 50 years to finally come of age in the U.S.

Some backstory: “Giallo” comes from the Italian word for “yellow”. And these deliciously trashy psychosexual thrillers got their colorful name from the once wildly popular dime-store pulp-fiction mysteries that came sandwiched between yellow paperback covers. The first giallo movie was Mario Bava’s 1962 whodunit, The Girl Who Knew Too Much. But the genre didn’t really hit its groovy, sadistic stride until Dario Argento’s 1969 masterpiece, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, came along. From there, the Italian film industry did exactly what it’s always done — it ran the fad into the ground, just as it had with the spaghetti Western. Hundreds of gialli (some brilliant, some barely coherent) were cranked out at a furious clip until Italian moviegoers grew bored and moved on to Dirty Harry knockoffs and cannibal flicks. In the meantime, the genre that had once been inspired by Hollywood ended up inspiring it back with American gialli like Klute, Eyes of Laura Mars, and Dressed to Kill.

Compared to a decade or two ago, when cinema nerds had to track down VHS dupes on the gray market, the top-tier giallo titles are much easier to find on Blu-ray and various streaming services. Still, there’s no substitute for watching these movies on a big screen in a theater, where their garish, envy-inducing fashions (so many ascots!), lush orchestral scores (Morricone! Ortolani!), and easy-on-the-eyes, J&B-drinking stars (Edwige Fenech! Franco Nero! Susan Scott!) can be soaked up in all of their sultry, come-hither glory. And now you can. Following the success of its “Perversion Stories: A Fistful of Giallo” series of restorations last year, the Quad (in association with Arrow Films) is about to unspool the six-film “Fresh Meat: Giallo Restorations Part II” from July 19 to July 25. Here’s a quick guide to the good, the bad, and the sleazy on the schedule. Buon appetito! 

The Fifth Cord (1971)

Directed by Luigi Bazzoni, this baroquely overplotted procedural mostly trades on the macho, drunken-swagger charisma of Franco Nero, who plays an alcoholic reporter obsessed with solving a rash of murders in which he’s also the prime suspect. There’s nothing in the story that you haven’t seen in a dozen American noirs from the ’40s, but cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now) shoots everyday parking lots and retro-futuristic architecture with distorting lenses, giving the film the faint whiff of art. Fortunately for viewers, Ennio Morricone’s exquisite score and the drop-dead Silvia Monti (as Nero’s ex) manage to spackle over the film’s preposterous finale, in which the killer is unmasked to a collective Huh?

The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970)

It’s fair to say that Italy in the ’70s wasn’t exactly a mecca of #MeToo feminism. And if there’s one not-insubstantial nit to pick with the genre, it’s its inherent misogyny. Women are too often portrayed as unhinged psychos or helpless, negligee-clad victims on the business end of a butchering. What makes this Luciano Ercoli thriller interesting, however, is how its red herring–stuffed tale of a woman being gaslit can be viewed through a lens of empowerment if you squint just a little. Dagmar Lassander is all frayed nerves and loose ends as a respectable housewife who’s coerced into a degrading sexual relationship with the always creepy Simon Andreu and blackmailed to prevent her husband from finding out, courtesy of some compromising dirty pictures. As Lassander’s character spirals into pills, booze, and possibly madness before getting revenge, her libertine best friend (Susan Scott) quietly walks off with the movie. Another great Morricone score seals the deal on this one.

The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire (1970)

Set in a fog-shrouded Dublin, this unwieldily titled thriller kicks off with the razor-slashed corpse of a young woman found in the trunk of the Swiss ambassador’s limousine. And since said ambassador is played by the quintessentially Aryan Anton Diffring (Where Eagles Dare), we know he’s probably up to no good. But his diplomatic immunity makes things tricky. In walks a disgraced former inspector played by the goblin-faced Luigi Pistilli, who naturally launches into an affair with the ambassador’s daughter (Lassander, again) while bodies continue to pile up. If it all sounds a bit Lethal Weapon 2-ish, you can also kind of see why Riccardo Freda directed this one under the pseudonym “Willy Pareto.” And yet, if you’ve got a strong constitution, this grubby little thriller has some delirious cheap-thrill delights — namely faces being scalded with acid, throats spraying like geysers, and one unlucky victim whose face is smushed up against a red-hot sun lamp. I guess what I’m saying is: Eat afterwards.

Perversion Story (1969)

I first saw Lucio Fulci’s jazzy Vertigo wannabe on a bootlegged DVD about 20 years ago under the title One on Top of the Other. And I was surprised how well it holds up today. The credit mostly goes to co-stars Marisa Mell (best known from Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik) and Jean Sorel (who’s never had a hair out of place in his life). If the nods to Hitchcock’s 1958 classic weren’t overt enough, the film’s San Francisco setting settles it. Still, this is a wildly engaging tale of paranoia and obsession whose imitation would flatter the Maestro. Sorel plays the suave, turtlenecked owner of a medical clinic whose asthmatic wife (Mell) dies while he’s off vacationing with his mistress (Elsa Martinelli). Seems like an airtight alibi, right? Not so fast. He stands to inherit a fortune from her life insurance, and then there’s the appearance of an exotic dancer (Mell in go-go boots) who looks just enough like his dead wife to freak him out. John Ireland does exactly what you want him to do as the gruff detective on the case, and Riz Ortolani’s score is pure West Coast Cool catnip.

The Possessed (1965)

While this one might not strictly count as a giallo, it’s good that people will get a chance to see it on a big screen anyway. Co-directed by Luigi Bazzoni, who’s working in a decidedly artsier key than he later would in The Fifth Cord, this inky, black-and-white existential thriller stars American actor Peter Baldwin (who would later go on to a successful second act as a TV director) as a depressed writer who returns to a small Italian village to reconnect with an old love (a stunning Virna Lisi). When he arrives, the weirdo assortment of locals informs him that his lover died the previous year in an apparent suicide. But Bernard isn’t buying it and starts sniffing around for the truth, uncovering long-buried secrets until the line between fact and fantasy becomes a blur. The Possessed is a haunting, Antonioni-esque fever dream of a film that’s equal parts art house and grind house.

Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)

By this late point in the giallo cycle, the only way to get the Italian audience’s attention was to grab them by the throat … and the loins. Director Andrea Bianchi’s almost comically sleazy body-count flick tips its hand on how far it will go from its opening sequence, in which a fashion model dies while getting an illegal back-alley abortion. Then the doctor who performed it is brutally offed, too. Yes, Strip Nude is every bit as offensive as its title promises, as a high-end photo agency (where the dead model worked) is being terrorized by a killer in a motorcycle helmet and black leathers. Bianchi was never what you’d call a subtle director, and his setting gives him a convenient excuse to populate his film with some of the genre’s most gorgeous scream queens (Edwige Fenech, Femi Benussi, and Erna Schurer) in various states of undress. But it’s worth noting that the men are objectified, too, for their impotence, cowardice, and all-around dim-wittedness. Bianchi was an equal-opportunity hack. But man, does he deliver the disreputable goods.

Murder, Italian Style: A Primer on the Giallo Film Genre