Culture /
Cinema

What to Watch: Giallo, Crime, Mystery, Suspense Done the Italian Way

Sensorial Cinema

Over the last decade, Giallo-inspired movies have become increasingly fashionable amongst younger generations and old aficionados. During the 2010s, in fact, many directors have paid homage and tributed to the infamous Italian style murder mysteries, releasing compelling films and pushing the boundaries of the genre. The avant-garde Amer (2009) and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, the wonderful Berberian Sound Studio (2012) by Peter Strickland, the ultra-stylish Neon Demon (2016) by Nicolas Winding Refn are just a few examples of this trend. Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria brought even more attention to the genre, and in 2021, two movies were released whose Giallo-influences were particularly clear: James Wan’s Malignant and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. Lastly, Dario Argento – the king of Giallo movies – is about to release Occhiali neri on Feb 24th. To celebrate his genius, here is a little story made of Giallo movies.

A Bit of History about Giallo

Just like American Pulp novels that took their name from the paper used to print them – pulp wood – murder mystery novels in Italy took their name from I Gialli Mondadori, a series of books whose covers were yellow, ‘Giallo’ in Italian. First published in 1929, the series consisted, in the beginning, of translations of Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, Raymond Chandler and many other American or English thriller writers. Over the decades, it became so popular that the word ‘Giallo’ evolved into a synonym for murder mystery novels and many Italian writers wrote thriller novels with fake American or English monikers to be published as part of the Giallo Mondadori series.

As a film genre, Giallo movies are murder mysteries that blend Hollywood noirs from the 40s, German thrillers from the 60s, called Krimi, with a certain je ne sais quoi that makes them quintessentially Italian. Similarly to what Italian directors did with Spaghetti Western – twisting the classic Hollywood formula of Western movies into something unique,  and genre-defying – the Giallo directors turned upside down the thrillers of Hollywood and European cinema to create a new artistic language. 

Arguably, the first-ever Giallo were made by Mario Bava, La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963), followed by Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964). The first can be considered a take on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, whilst the second is often considered one of the finest Giallo ever made. Both the movies introduced a Giallo template, defying motifs and peculiarities: a foreign tourist who comes to Italy and witness a murder, masked killers, naked damsels-in-distress, hyper-saturated colours, obscure Italian locations, and curated set designs. Besides Bava, during the 60s the genre defined itself throughout a handful of important movies, such as La Donna Del Lago (The Possessed, 1965) by Luigi Bazzoni, Libido 1965 by Ernesto Gastaldi & Vittorio Salerno, Romolo Guerrieri’s Il dolce corpo di Deborah (The Sweet Body of Deborah, 1968), and the ground-breaking La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968).

The 70s

The golden era of Giallo movies is considered to be the period between 1970 to 1975, a time in which several directors competed against each other to win the title of Maestro del Giallo. If Spaghetti Western defined the Italian popular cinema of the 60s, Giallo thrived during the 70s. While the establishment was producing oscar-winning movies – namely by Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini – a vibrant undergrowth of young directors, screenwriters, and directors of photography worked helplessly to define different genres, experimenting with cinematic techniques, with loud soundtracks, mixing influences and creating new languages. With the end of the Neo-Realist movement in the late 50s, Italian directors experimented with new styles, taking inspiration from American and European cinema, transforming these influences into something different and very Italian. The so-called Peplum, the funky poliziottesco (Italian crime and action sub-genre) and euro spy, the interesting takes on gothic horror, the ground-breaking Spaghetti Western, the soft-core genre called Decamerotica, and, of course, Giallo became the new wave of the so-called independent cinema. 

Dario Argento’s 1970 L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) is perhaps the first Giallo movie to gain worldwide attention. By adding a few more tropes – such as the POV on the murderer, the outstanding soundtracks, and weirdly long titles – the movie became an instant classic, paving the way to Argento’s career. The following Il gatto a nove code (The Cat o’ Nine Tails, 1971), Quattro mosche di velluto nero (Four Flies on Gray Velvet, 1972), and the masterpiece Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975) established not only Argento’s career, but also the genre’s fame around the globe. Argento might have not invented the genre, but he made it perfect, by adding an aesthetic appeal. Mr Argento’s movies were a feast for the eyes, with thrilling symbolism, unexpected camera angles and stylish features. 

Often Giallo movies made in the early 70s have emphasised erotic features, with almost a macabre attention to erotism and sex. Umberto Lenzi’s Orgasmo (1969), Così dolce… così perversa (So Sweet… So Perverse, 1969) and Paranoia (A Quiet Place to Kill, 1970), together with Massimo Dallamano trilogy of “Schoolgirls in peril” Cosa avete fatto a Solange? (What Have You Done to Solange? 1972), La polizia chiede aiuto (What Have They Done to Your Daughters? 1974), Enigma rosso (Red Rings of Fear, 1978) are perfect examples of this twisted take on Giallo. The influential Sergio Martino’s Giallo movies are visually compelling and plenty of smart stylistic tricks, as we can see on La coda dello scorpione (The Case of Scorpion Tale, 1971), Tutti i colori del buio (All the Colors of the Dark, 1972), Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh (The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, 1971), Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave (Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, 1972), and I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale (Torso, 1973).  

Being a template, Giallo movies were easy to replicate, and so many directors got their hands dirty with it, producing remarkable movies. Giornata nera per l’ariete (The Fifth Cord, 1971) and Le Orme (Footprints on the Moon, 1975) both by Luigi Bazzoni, Il profumo della signora in nero (The Perfume of the Lady in Black, 1974) by Francesco Barilli, La dama rossa uccide sette volte (The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, 1972) by Emilio Miraglia are some of the most refined movies in the genre.

Sensorial Cinema – A Feast for the Senses

Mr Argento and the other Giallo directors produced a sensorial cinema, which is, in my opinion, the reason for the success of the genre. Their movies, in fact, were a feast for the senses. Besides being visually appealing, with gorgeous stylish colours, these movies were also a pleasure for the ears, thanks to outstanding soundtracks produced by Ennio Morricone, Stelvio Cipriani, Riz Ortolani, Nora Orlandi, and many other renowned producers. Not only, but Giallo movies are also a sensual display of eroticism, almost conveying a tactile fetish feature. The spectator could almost feel the murderer’s leather gloves, the velvet softness of the sofas in the lounges, the tightness of the masks of the murderer, the thin dresses of the girls brutally killed. Finally, in Giallo movies, there is space for the sense of taste as well, with many drinks, cocktails and spirits – mostly J&B whiskey – consumed through the movies. 

The directors exploited the senses in order to produce a synaesthetic, sensorial, sensual cinema that is, arguably, still unmatched. This is precisely the reason why these movies, almost 50 years after their appearance, still appeal to a large audience, making new fans among younger generations and new directors.