With most of his career limited to low-budget, minor features, often with substandard scripts (including some of his own), Mario Bava was not widely considered a great director during his lifetime. If one looks for perfection, his films would still not qualify him for that honor. Yet in his inarguably imperfect features, there are moments of stylistic brilliance and ingenuity that have influenced countless filmmakers and earned the late Italian director and cinematographer a well-deserved, international cult following.
Though he made westerns, science fiction films, historical adventures and sword-and-sandal epics, Bava is best known for his horror films. He proved a master of spooky, gothic atmosphere in films like "Black Sunday" (1960) and "Black Sabbath" (1963) which revived the horror genre in Italy after years of neglect. As good as those films are (and I would rank the chilling anthology "Black Sabbath" as his best), Bava's biggest impact during his active years probably came through popularizing the giallo film. Indeed, Bava biographer Tim Lucas credits the director with launching the form with "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" (1963).
Inspired by a wave of popular, cheap paperbacks with yellow ("giallo" in Italian) covers and sensational, sometimes gory murder mystery plots, the giallo film is very specific, though the phrase is sometimes wrongly applied to any Italian horror film. A proper giallo combines the whodunit with the slasher film. An unseen or unknown killer stalks his prey while the heroes/potential victims try to uncover the murderer's identity.
Though giallo films would gain notoriety (if not infamy) for increasingly gruesome depictions of death and Bava would later indulge in more than a little gore himself, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" is far from explicit. Some tame shots of victims with knives in their backs are the only bloodlettings in the film. As the title indicates, Bava was trying to do a Hitchcock here, making a thriller in the style of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" or "Rear Window." While lacking the sophistication, clever plotting and wit of those films, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" does manage to capture some of their excitement and playfulness. And it includes a few striking scenes that even Hitch himself might envy.
The convoluted story involves an American girl whose vacation in Rome starts badly and gets far worse. First she is unknowingly given marijuana-laced cigarettes by a stranger on her plane, later watching as he is arrested for carrying drugs. The aunt she has come to visit dies suddenly and she gets mugged by a purse-snatcher. Then, awaking in a groggy state, she witnesses a murder. Clearly Rome's tourism board was not going to use this as a promotional film.
When no evidence of the murder can be found, the girl's story is dismissed as the result of her traumatic experiences. But when her account is revealed to be almost identical to a killing from a decade earlier, the people around her start taking the story more seriously. A generous invitation to stay at the home of her aunt's friend and the amorous advances of a young doctor only provide temporary refuge from the sinister figure who has marked the terrified witness as the next victim.
There are some pretty loopy plot developments throughout the film and some jarring transitions from scenes of escalating suspense to incongruous romantic exchanges. For example, a scene where the girl and the doctor track down a man essential to solving the mystery is interrupted with a completely improbable, relaxing visit to the beach, seemingly there simply as an excuse to show leading lady Leticia Roman in a bikini.
There's some pretty over-the-top acting as well, though some if it is hard to judge fairly because of the Italian film industry's tradition (still in practice among many filmmakers) of dubbing all sound, even on the Italian language release. The dubbing is most distracting (though obviously most needed) in the performance of veteran American character actor John Saxon as the love interest, with an Italian actor speaking his lines in a very non-Saxon style.
Ultimately though, plot and acting inadequacies fade in the mind while Bava's arresting imagery lingers. The stark contrast of the black and white cinematography gives every shadow passing and every manipulation of light dramatic effect. An overhead shot of a group of nun's habits separating over a hospital bed gives the illusion of an opening flower. Bava even manages to give the simple turning of a door handle the force of a gunshot.
The DVD of "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" released by Image Entertainment features the original Italian release. The American edition of the film, retitled "The Evil Eye," is said to be quite different, with alternate footage and a more comic sensibility. Bava aficionados prefer the Italian cut, but it's too bad Image couldn't include both releases for comparison. Still, it's a fine DVD package with good print quality (aside from some wear and tear seen in the opening credits), a gallery of publicity stills and promotional art, a theatrical trailer, a short Bava biography, and filmographies for Bava and Saxon.
If the stylish (albeit goofy) thrills of "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" spark some interest in this noteworthy director, then be here next week when DVDetours takes another excursion into the world of Mario Bava.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund