In Italy ‘giallo’ is the word for yellow but in common parlance there is often used as a shortcut for thrillers and detective stories, mainly because a popular imprint chose that colour for the covers of a series of mystery novels in the 1930s – its nearest equivalent is the French ‘Serie Noire’ in the 1940s, which was a label for a series of dark hardboiled thrillers and which influence the use of the term ‘Film noir’ to similarly dark crime movies. In the 1960s the Giallo became in the cinema a byword for extravagant whodunnits crossed with the horror genre, violent whodunnits in which a masked murderer would dispatch his victims, usually women, in a variety of grotesque ways, all filmed with considerably flair and imagination.
The success of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho (and Robert Bloch’s original novel, but we’ll save a consideration of that for another day) and a series of krimi films in Germany that loosely adapted Edgar Wallace stories to create a distinctly perverse and expressionistic depiction of 50s and 60s London that gave the impression that Jack the Ripper had never left (as per Bloch’s classic tale ‘Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper’) kickstarted in Italy a series of murder mysteries where the emphasis was more in creating suspense from the elaborate camerawork and creative methods used by the killer than the resolution of the crime.
This genre, as we have come to understand it, was largely initiated by Mario Bava with The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace and brought to full commercial and critical flourishing by Dario Argento with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (an unacknowledged adaptation of Fredric Brown’s ‘The Screaming Mimi’) and Deep Red. This was followed by a deluge of copycat movies featuring villains sporting leather gloves and fedoras and often appearing in films with very similar titles like Lucio Fulci’s London-based whodunit A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which on a literal level means virtually nothing in terms of the film’s plot or characters. In addition this is a movie, and a prettu good one at that, which proves for all its horror, sadism and emphasis on perversion to be, at root, an old-fashioned murder mystery that actually goes out of its way to make sure the plot really does make some kind of rational sense at the end when the villain is unmasked and which also co-stars such solid British actors as Leo Genn and Stanley Baker.
These ‘gialli’, hugely popular from the late 1960s right through to the early 80s (Argento pretty much capped the genre with his 1982 opus, Tenebrae) have remained highly influential as transgressive works made at a transitional time, when art-house cinema from the continent was starting to make a commercial dent in Anglophone countries and censorship was being relaxed. They are the kind of movies that Tarantino riffs on constantly in the Kill Bill films for instance, though his love of the genre is expressed most directly (so far) in his two-part CSI season 5 finale, Grave Danger.
What is less frequently acknowledged is the literary debt that the genre owes to the conventional Gold Age murder mystery. In many ways the archetype for this can be traced back to Christie popular novel And Then There Were None with its focus on artful, creative murder methods (see also Robert Hamer’s classic black comedy Kind Hearts and Cononets for an even darker but funnier variant) following a pattern created by the murderer. Christie frequent uses nursery rhymes as a potential organising principle for a murderer’s actions usually suggest a psychopathic mind but prove in the end to be a clever ruse.
Ellery Queen did something very similar with even greater success in books such as There Was an Old Woman, Cat of Many Tails and Double, Double in which the seemingly pre-ordained pattern of a series of murders (doubtless inspired in Queen by their affection for the early works of SS Van Dine, most notably The Bishop Murder Case) while a clever ruse for the murderer’s intentions eventually overwhelms the villain as the pattern seems impossible to stop.
The Bava and Argento films, as well as those by Lucio Fulci, use horror conventions but also go to considerable trouble to make sure that the plots, while bizarre, are seemingly logical. Their use of physical and psychological clues, red herrings and motives with origins in the past – often displaying an almost obsessive fascination with genealogy that seems to underlie a horror of congenital madness passed on through heredity – all recur throughout Christie’s stories as well. There were plenty of other literary influences, with Cornell Woolrich and Fredric Brown as well as Edgar Allan Poe recurring very frequently in Argento’s oeuvre; but one of the pleasing uses of the word ‘giallo’ in Italy is that it doesn’t distinguish between different times of crime and mystery novels, so this kind of mashup is more than a predictable outcome, but in fact almost willed as a norm of cross-genre pollination to avoid stagnation and over-familiarity.
The reveal of the killer in DEEP RED for instance is truly stunning, not least because it is handled in a specifically visual way in the director’s trademark baroque style, but the construction is resolutely old school – if you don’t mind the quota of scare and the gore, the stories, if decidedly topsy-turvy, are none the less often highly ingenious.