At the beginning of Mario Bava’s “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” we see the protagonist reading a book known as a “giallo.” The word means “yellow” in Italian, and refers to a series of pulp murder mysteries that were popular throughout the 20th century. Coined originally due to the color of the novel covers, the term became used to refer to this particular style of thriller stories, even if they originated outside of Italy.
You probably know all of this, so why I am telling you? Well, it’s always nice to have a refresher on the history, and if you didn’t, it’s nice to know the origins, right? As an admirer of the genre, I personally thought it was time for me to go back to its cinematic roots and see where it made the leap from page to screen. I’ve been doing a series of reviews on films I’d call “sub-genre originators” - films that did something fresh and spawned a slew of imitations.
“The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (aka “Evil Eye”) is generally regarded as the first giallo, and you might expect that could mean it’s dated, or that subsequent films have surpassed it in some way. You’d be wrong. Bava not only set the standard with this film, he wrote the rulebook on style that has been followed by the best filmmakers in the genre since 1963. Argento and his peers owe much to TGWKTM.
The story follows Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) who returns to Italy after spending time in the USA. She witnesses a murder in the Piazza di Spagna, and with the help of eventual love interest Dr. Marcell Bassi (John Saxon) she goes about solving the mystery that involves alphabet killings, possibly supernatural events, and shadowy figures. All that good stuff.
And speaking of shadows - wow! The beautiful black and white cinematography is absolutely striking. Yes, kids; movies without color can look good too! It’s a shame more modern filmmakers don’t revert back to black and white every now and again, since the depth of image and atmosphere achieved with the carefully orchestrated shadows in this film is incredible. There’s one particular scene where Roman booby traps an entire apartment with string crissing and crossing and casting inky black patterns across the screen. It’s great. Macaulay Culkin would be proud.
There’s a surprising amount of levity here too. Roman plays her character as smart, but at the same time a bit hapless and clumsy. It’s endearing. Her relationship with Saxon becomes a breezy romance which is unexpected for the genre, and there’s a silly running joke about marijuana cigarettes which is entirely quaint and laughable in its naivety. The light tones work in spite of the otherwise grim subject matter.
Roman’s character in the film is obsessed with giallo literature, and we learn throughout the movie that they’ve had a major influence over the way she thinks and reacts to the situation she finds herself in. In a similar way, Bava and the film itself has had a major influence on not only Italian cinema, but world cinema. “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is a classic in every sense, and well worth your time if you’re a fan of thrillers of any variety.