Dr Austin Fisher of Bournemouth University talks to us about the bloody and beautiful Italian crime thrillers known as "gialli"
Reader's Digest: So what’s “giallo”, anyway?
Austin Fisher: In Italian vernacular, the word “giallo” (“yellow”) denotes a mystery thriller. This meaning first arose from a series of yellow-covered murder-mystery novels that emerged in Milan in the late 1920s.
When we use the word these days, though, we are usually referring to a group of films from the 1960s and 1970s, which depicted gruesome murders and usually featured amateur sleuths tracking down deranged serial killers. There were around 200 of these films made, and some of them went on to become cult classics in anglophone markets. Their consequent influence on US “slasher” films has meant that gialli (the plural form) now sit in the pantheon of global horror cinema.
RD: What are some of the most notable examples?
AF: The global superstar of the giallo is the director Dario Argento. His film L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo / The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) was the breakthrough success that pointed the way to future profits among Italian film producers, and launched a deluge of similar films.
Argento went on to direct some of the finest examples, such as 4 mosche di velluto grigio / Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and Profondo rosso / Deep Red (1975), but Mario Bava can lay claim to being the real trailblazer, with La ragazza che sapeva troppo / The Evil Eye (1963) and Sei donne per l’assassino / Blood and Black Lace (1964).
RD: How did you become interested in this topic?
AF: After studying English Literature for my undergraduate degree, I became fascinated with the various, highly complex ways in which popular cinema engaged with the socio-political turmoil of the 20th century. That eventually led me to write my PhD on a small group of Marxist Italian Westerns that emerged in the late 1960s.
These films used the Mexican Revolution to allegorise (and protest against) US interventionism in Vietnam, and are nowadays subsumed by the “Spaghetti Western” label, so I also analysed how they have been emptied of their political intentions in the years since their release due to their association with a popular genre.
"The 1970s was a decade of significant unrest in Italy, as far-left and far-right groups committed numerous acts of lethal political violence"
My PhD thesis then became a book—Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western—but this felt like unfinished work, because I hadn’t proceeded to look at what came next. The 1970s was a decade of significant unrest in Italy, as far-left and far-right groups committed numerous acts of lethal political violence. It was also a decade in which films depicting violent crime in contemporary Italy proliferated to number several hundred films. These included police thrillers, mafia and vigilante films, and gialli. My second book—Blood in the Streets: Histories of Violence in Italian Crime Films—investigated how these factors were all related, and the research process made me a giallo fan!
RD: What are some of the main subcategories or “film cycles”, as you refer to them, of the genre?
AF: The giallo is often caricatured by a clearly recognisable set of memorable genre markers: masked, gloved psychopaths; sensuous female victims; elaborately grisly murders; witnesses-turned-amateur detectives.
Once you start to look in detail at the huge number of films that are categorised as gialli, though, they comprise a surprisingly diverse collection of films. The most famed examples tend to present murderous corruption lying beneath a cosmopolitan, jet-setting modern Italy, but (as I mention above) some do the very opposite, by deploying primitive backwater settings. Some others are immersed in memories of the Second World War (these include Nelle pieghe della carne / In the Folds of the Flesh (Sergio Bergonzelli, 1970), Ragazza tutta nuda assassinata nel parco / Naked Girl Killed in the Park (Alfonso Brescia, 1972), Il gatto dagli occhi di giada / Watch Me When I Kill (Antonio Bido, 1977) and Pensione paura / Hotel Fear (Francesco Barilli, 1978)).
What occurred to me, as I worked my way through these many and varied films, was that the giallo is consistently characterised by investigations that piece together fragments of historical trauma, be that on a personal or collective level. This theme tends to unify various tensions between contemporaneity and pastness, modernity and tradition, and cosmopolitanism and provincialism, in turn providing a fascinating insight into some of the crises and preoccupations of 1970s Italy.
RD: What is the significance of the term “filone”?
AF: The word filone (plural filoni) literally means “strand” or “vein”, and is used to denote a particular business model of film production that proliferated in Italy from the late 1950s up until the end of the 1970s. It was characterised by numerous opportunistic (and usually short-lived) film cycles, which would rapidly and repeatedly exploit popular trends until each trend’s profitability was exhausted.
This was often in response to a trailblazer box-office hit that pointed the way to immediate profits, and then spawned a burst of imitations or slight variations. This sector of the film industry systematically sought to anticipate the whims of the market, by both speculating where the next popular cycle might lie, and then by exploiting the short-term favourable market conditions of already profitable cycles.
Some of these “trailblazer” hits have since become very well-known. Sergio Leone’s Per un pugno di dollari / A Fistful of Dollars (1964), for example, was the catalyst for around five hundred “Spaghetti” Westerns. Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is often seen to have served a similar function for the giallo. In reality, though, both the Spaghetti Western and the giallo were comprised of numerous smaller strands that ebbed and flowed in the ways I’m talking about above.
RD: Is it comparable to any other film industry patterns in other countries?
AF: The filone system was not all that far removed from the Hollywood genre model of the Classical era, where Westerns, musicals and horror films would be systematically churned out to make profits from fashionable trends.
The main hallmarks that distinguished the filoni were the sheer concentration of releases in the immediate wake of a successful film, and the shameless extent of repetition and imitation based on that film. For example, around 20 mafia films were released through this sector in the 12 months after The Godfather’s Italian release, and many of them opportunistically inserted the word “padrino” into their titles (Coppola’s film was released as Il padrino in Italy).
In some ways, though, Italian producers were merely resurrecting and perfecting a business model that had been successfully pursued by Hollywood studios with “series” Westerns of the 1930s.
RD: How was giallo reflective of the political climate of post-war Italy?
AF: While the giallo is a diverse category, it is united by a consistent obsession with past traumas, fragmented memories and the unravelling of familiar or comfortable facts. A significant number of these films dwell on the marked impact of rapid socio-economic change throughout Western Europe since the War, with such factors as tourism, bourgeois decadence, consumerist modernity and sexual licentiousness appearing time and time again as signs that contemporary urban spaces are being rendered culturally alienating and threatening.
"Giallo as a category is united by a consistent obsession with past traumas, fragmented memories and the unravelling of familiar or comfortable facts"
As I mention above, some other gialli seek directly to evoke audiences’ memories of the War, with the lived experience of Fascism, Nazi occupation and Allied bombings providing the causes for ongoing traumas and psychoses. One striking example of this is Watch Me When I Kill. In this film, the sleuth assumes that the serial killer is motivated by revenge for recent crimes, but eventually discovers that the victims had all collaborated with the Nazis during the War and are being hunted down by a relative of concentration camp victims. With its story showing how wartime trauma is pieced together as the underlying explanation for contemporary violence, this film provides an apt symbol for the tumults of 1970s Italy, when paramilitary wings of fascism and communism were resuming their age-old blood-feud on the nation’s streets.
RD: Did giallo influence modern cinema in any way?
AF: Yes, the giallo was very influential on subsequent horror films: in particular, the American “slasher” cycle of the late 1970s and early 1980s. I would, for example, point fans of Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) to Reazione a catena / Bay of Blood (Mario Bava, 1971), to see a closely-related antecedent.
That gialli became so influential was in part due to a canny marketing strategy. When they were released in the USA, they tended to be sold as wildly transgressive shocks to the system, and their promotional posters often included dire warnings to audiences about the threats to their mental health that awaited them. For example, Bay of Blood’s US poster included the memorable slogan: “The first motion picture to require a face-to-face warning! Diabolical! Fiendish! Savage! You may not walk away from this one!”.
This was a sensationalised ploy designed to intrigue and attract audiences, and usually bore little resemblance to the actual content of the films, but it successfully ensured that the giallo attracted a cult following, and some of its fans went on to become filmmakers.
RD: What’s a good place to start with giallo films?
AF: The conventional answer would be to list La ragazza che sapeva troppo / The Evil Eye (Mario Bava, 1963), Sei donne per l’assassino / Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964) and L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo / The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970).
As I say above, these three can lay claim to being the giallo’s “founding texts”, and they are all essential viewing to understand this filone. I would also point viewers to I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale / Torso (Sergio Martino, 1973), since this distils the giallo’s various thematic tensions by focusing on the clash between cosmopolitan modernity and provincial parochialism. This film was also a significant hit in the US market, and was accompanied by another delightfully hyperbolic marketing campaign: “WE DARE YOU to keep your eyes open during every terror-saturated scene of Torso.”
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