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With the distance of time, more knowledge of Italian films of the 1960s and Tim Lucas's enormous Mario Bava book behind us, it's now possible to get a better measure of Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La ragazza che sappeva troppo). To get the obvious over with, it's considered the first real giallo thriller. Dubbed, rescored and re-edited, it was released in the U.S. as Evil Eye or The Evil Eye and under that title became an almost instant obscurity.
Image and Anchor Bay brought out good DVD versions of the movie back in the early days of DVD, and now Arrow U.K. give us a much improved dual format release that showcases the film's (pretty amazing) visuals while revealing the shortcomings that prevented it from being a big American hit.
Gidget went to Rome, and possibly also Tammy; in the early 1960s Sandra Dee and Suzanne Pleshette did the same. Bava's film reportedly began as a basically light romance with an added thriller plot angle. Young Nora Davis (Letícia Román) takes a vacation to Rome, arriving, unfortunately, on the eve of her aunt Edith's passing. Rushing down a grand set of steps to summon a doctor, Nora is knocked unconscious by a purse-snatcher... and then witnesses a second crime, the murder of a helpless young woman. In hospital, Nora is dismayed when everyone discounts her murder story -- even her new acquaintance, a charming but rather clumsy young doctor, Marcello Bassi (John Saxon). Another, sinister man in a hat seems to be stalking her. And when she moves into a flat adjacent to the ill-fated steps, Nora finds newspaper clippings about a string of killings called The Alphabet Murders. With potential murderers hovering about, even the attentive Marcello begins to look suspicious.
Sustained light comedy isn't a Bava strength. He was a stylist, not a maker of shallow pop romances, and he must have realized right away that travelogue romance wasn't his thing. Anybody can make the Roman Spanish Steps look sunny in the daytime but it's obvious that Bava was more interested in creating creepy nighttime moods. As described by the experts, Bava steered The Girl Who Knew Too Much in the direction of horror right from the beginning. The performances and dialogue script don't have the polish to get very far beyond basics. When The Girl Who Knew tries to be carefree and silly, it's just annoying -- Letícia and John's 'doing wacky things' montages fall painfully flat. But when young Nora is isolated on rainy steps or blanketed with shadows while investigating dark rooms - the moments come across beautifully. The best example of this clash happens when Nora, feeling certain her bedroom will be invaded, makes a trap of string and talcum powder. The predictable comedy gag is that her boyfriend Marcello barges in, crashes into the web-like string trap and falls to the floor. In a Doris Day movie the lights would come up and Marcello would look ridiculous. Bava's film keeps thing dark -- it looks like Marcello's fallen on the floor of a dusty crypt. No laugh, just a fade-out.
Despite the light tone, the show immediately introduces a grim murder that becomes a baffling mystery involving disappearing clues, our heroine-witness being disbelieved by the authorities, and more investigations of scary apartments. The fast-paced surprises are familiar from old-school whodunits: a killer with a "theme" (alphabetical victims); a reporter atoning for his part in a miscarriage of justice ten years before. Bava's camera does most of the work. When he limits Letícia Román's performance to its visual elements -- anguished eyes, trembling mouth - she has the perfect "look". Yet we don't get the charm factor or the witty dialogue of something like Stanley Donen's Charade. Bava is a stylist who avoids many big-movie conventions to concentrate on his camerawork. He avoided large budgets to maintain control of a precise personal vision. When too much money is at stake the producer will be right there, making sure that one is on schedule, shooting the script as written. Editors and production supervisors will report that 'someone is being too creative' and risking the production.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much falls into the thriller subgenre about harried women that don't know what kind of menace is coming at them -- around 1960 the average American example might be Midnight Lace, in which Doris Day wears designer clothes and great hairdos while trying to figure out which handsome leading man is trying to kill her. Some of Nora's frightening experiences involve old-school threats, such as the shadows outside her window, but her scary night on the Spanish Steps is more of a first-person, realistic ordeal. She witnesses a terrible murder and then lies unconscious for hours in the rain, only to be found just before dawn on the wet cobblestones. Nora wears one of those shiny European slicker rain-jackets, setting up an erotic clash of textures: wet stones, rubber coat, glowing flesh and hair. As would be said of many giallo victims to come, she's wrapped up like candy for a sex killer.
Nora makes eye contact with the knifing victim through a mental haze that suggests the possibility that she is indeed hallucinating. The knife is pulled from the victim's back with a bone-and-gristle effort, the kind of murder detail mystery fans (like Nora) are accustomed to imagining. Then the beautiful woman with the knife in her back is gone, and the rain has washed away the blood. The unlikely but frighteningly credible sequence has all happened from Nora's POV. It's embellished with striking details like the reflection of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti church tower in the puddle, which is broken by falling raindrops. The hyper-real 'happening' could almost be a template for the macabre visual set pieces that would characterize later giallo classics.
Bava lets this arresting scene color the rest of the film. Every time Letícia Román's wide-eyed face appears, dreading what may be in the dark, the fear becomes real again. Away from vampires and zombies, Bava's inimitable close-ups are arresting just by themselves.
It may not seem so now, but we're assured that The Girl Who Knew Too Much was a new look for 1963. I don't know about Italy, but I would imagine that U.S. audiences would not know what to make of the film's awkward mix of comedy, flat romance and unusually intense mystery-jeopardy. The handsome young man comes to greet his date, and they talk in a room lit like a tomb? Other details must have stood out When Americans accustomed to squeaky-clean, toothless 'thrillers'. In scenes between the two young people, a bed is sometimes with them in the shot, in the background. This didn't happen in chaste 'young love' program pictures from Universal and MGM ... it wasn't proper unless the show was an up-front sex farce.
Bava's storytelling is sometimes ahead of the curve, but not always. He stylizes the flashback images of murder investigations by blurring parts of the image or using a ripple glass to give the scene the 'wavy dissolve' effect of standard flashback transitions. The visual contrast communicates the idea that 'this is the past' without dialogue. It's strange then that the film falls back on the crutch redundant voiceovers. An omniscient narrator (Nora in the A.I.P. version) starts the movie out and then breaks in at times to tell us what Nora is thinking. That's not a good sign. Bava (or the producer) also blows an end scene, when Nora realizes that she almost passed a 'marijuana cigarette' to Marcello. She gives the camera a look, and now we hear her voice explain the joke. Another director not so visually aligned would have worked with Ms. Román to get a real performance moment.
Or are we not allowed to say that the marvelous Mario Bava was not a great director of actors? Valentina Cortese acts up a storm in her key scenes, but we can tell that Bava is less interested in that material. He's much more into finessing his own special, personal touches. When Nora awakes in the hospital, the acting and dialogue are strictly pedestrian. But Bava introduces Nora in bed with a cluster of Nun headgear that unfolds like a flower, to reveal a circle of 'angels' hovering over her. At first menacing, the white forms gracefully withdraw, like a benign dream memory. That's visual storytelling, pure cinematics. 1
On the literal level The Girl Who Knew Too Much works much the way an old Agatha Christie works -- when all things are settled, the guilty party helps us out by explaining the entire plot. The identity of the killer is almost a random choice. As can be expected, Bava caps the final mystery scene with a visual gag, this one adapted from a Fritz Lang classic, the 'bullet holes tell the tale' finale of Ministry of Fear. Of course, Bava embellishes the trick with an atmospheric close-up, aided by wisps of backlit smoke. Very Italian.
This disc release allows a close comparison of the original Italian and American-International U.S. versions. We first notice that Les Baxter's music track has replaced Roberto Nicolosi's. Both alternate between vacuous pop travelogue cues and good suspenso-mystery moods. Sometimes the carpet of generic suspense music interferes with scenes that might have been better left partially un-scored. In the American version we miss the Italian vocal ("Furore" by Adriano Celentano, aka Adicel?) that pegs the show so nicely into the pop music novelty-song world just prior to The Beatles. The American version eliminates the entire subplot about marijuana smuggling. It also uses an alternate opening shot on Nora's jet plane, and a completely different final scene, that seems a riff on the finish of HItchcock's Rear Window. Just as Marcello asks Nora to drop her interest in murder and mystery, they witness a violent murder by a jealous lover. The scene wants to be wild and unexpected but comes off as ludicrous. Despite inventing a new genre, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is so-so as travelogue and a flop as comedy. Bava's next contemporary thrillers would stick to straight shock content, and make horror-movie history.
Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of The Girl Who Knew Too Much looks fantastic. It's a new scan for both versions, cleaned of most imperfections but leaving a minor gouge or two that couldn't be repaired without altering the image. The improved image encourages a closer examination of Bava's lighting techniques. Some are plain selective lighting tricks, as when part of Letícia Román's face are brightly lit but the rest is left in dark silhouette. Other lighting setups create interesting textural contrasts -- Bava loves smoke, water reflections and shiny objects.
The American-International Evil Eye version looks almost as good. Some of the content differences are subtle, especially in the audio track, but others stick right out, such as the much-noted gag of a photo that appears to be watching Nora as she undresses...
Arrow's producer Anthony Nield has assembled a fine set of disc extras. Tim Lucas's fine audio commentary and Perry Martin's interview with actor John Saxon appear to be repeated from the earlier American DVDs. The new featurette gives us several knowledgeable spokesman to say most of the usual facts about Girl while adding a few new or personal observations. Directors Luigi Cozzi and Richard Stanley contribute words of praise as well.
Obviously a lot of this is informational overlap. Lucas's track is highly entertaining, although I imagine he's learned much more about the film since it was recorded. Arrow's 28-page color insert booklet has an essay by Kier-La Janisse that offers a psychological analysis for Nora's confusion in her newfound role as a tourist forced to behave like Nancy Drew. The essayist rightly says that the next year's Blood and Black Lace will see Bava taking his new genre spinoff in a bold new direction. As that movie has yet been given a good video release, we're happy to pass on the news that Arrow has announced a new, fully restored Sei donne per l'assassino later on this Spring. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. A big joke back in the 1970s (William Bayer?) was aimed squarely at me: "Avoid film students. You'll know you've met one when he tells you with a straight face that the greatest director in the whole world is a name you've never heard of." I remember finding NOBODY in any Hollywood job I ever had, who had heard of Mario Bava, or cared. The accomplished and admired animation director Robert Swarthe had seen Danger: Diabolik. His opinion: "It's no good." Why?, says me... How can you say that when it looks so good? Answer: "Good art direction does not a movie make." End of discussion. I think I made my fair share of converts to Bava-ism, but surely convinced as many that I was out of my mind. When Video Watchdog and the big DVD wave came along my personal campaign for Mr. Bava was no longer needed -- many others had more knowledge of the subject, and were more elegant in their praise. Mothers, don't raise your sons to be film students.
2. After seeing Blood and Black Lace only in ragged bits for years, the American Cinematheque in 1993 brought a Technicolor 16mm print to the Director's Guild, where my present close group of horror-addict friends convened as if drawn by magnetism. Even dubbed badly in English the movie was a blazingly brilliant outrage of violence -- black masked razor killings and other grotesque murders filmed as if blood, burned faces, staring eyes and choked tongues were subjects for glamour photography. Speaking for myself, I can't wait to see Arrow's promised restored presentation.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.