Written by Stefan Matthews

Welcome back to part two of the “History of Giallo” series. If you haven’t read part one on facism, neo-realism and 20th century Italian cinema, you might want to start there. Throughout this section, we’ll discuss the literary and cinematic influences on the genre, from mystery stories to French erotica. We’ll start with the early tales of crime that first spread through Italy in the early 20th century, before going on to discuss the pockets of German, French and American cinema that would inspire some of the genre’s greatest directors and writers.

The seeds of giallo were first sewn in 1929, when publishing house Mondadori released a line of mystery paperbacks bound in yellow covers (hence “giallo”, Italian for yellow). This series of novels consisted of crime stories, translations of American and English mystery and detective novels, from writers such as Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace (whose work formed the basis of another film genre called krimi which we’ll get to later). The most influential and important thing about these mystery novels, however, was up until that point, detective fiction in Italy had been reserved for “adventure” books. But with the introduction of those first Mondadori gialli, detective and mystery fiction was given the chance to escape being stuck under the banner of adventure, and instead form its own legacy.

As that first wave of Mondadori gialli rose in popularity in Italy, the mystery-fiction trade began to expand as new publishing houses joined the fray. More and more of these pulpy, yellow paperbacks were produced, and as less translations and more original stories began to emerge, the word “giallo” entered the mainstream vernacular of Italians as a term meaning “mystery fiction”.

Mondadori gialli libri / Mondadori gialli books - Italian giallo

As a literary genre, giallo fiction would act like a puzzle, encouraging the reader to try and figure out who the killer could be before the inevitable third act reveal. There were themes threaded throughout giallo literature and would go on to define the filmic genre. Unknown killers, private investigators, sinister mysteries; all elements that would unsurprisingly reappear when giallo shifted from the page to the silver screen decades later.

However, as Mussolini reared his big ugly fascist head (the ramifications of his two-decade rule cannot be understated, sadly), the giallo paperback trade took a hit. Translations of many of the 1940s hard-boiled US detective fictions, for example, were outright banned from publication. Mussolini thought that the glamorisation of, and revelling in, crime could negatively influence the Italian population and he couldn’t risk the people of Italy absorbing anything that wasn’t the watered down, bourgeois fantasies of the white telephone films.

Of course, this didn’t stop the giallo novelists. Authors such as Augusto de Angelis were trendsetters, constantly defying the squeaky clean image set by the fascist regime with their stories of crime and murder. The fascists didn’t take to writers like De Angelis; his stories, for example, were all banned by the regime. In fact, they hated him so much that in 1944, after being released from jail, he was beaten to death by a Fascist activist.

Death Occurred Last Night by Duccio Tessari

After the second world war and the death of Mussolini, De Angelis’ tragic legacy was continued by many other giallo authors, including Giorgio Scerbanenco. Some of the original giallo novels have since been directly adapted for the screen (e.g. one of Scerbanenco’s stories was adapted into Death Occurred Last Night directed by Duccio Tessari), but for the most part it was the defiant themes and ideas of those early “mystery fiction” stories that would inspire giallo filmmakers.

However, there was a lot more than just literature that aided in the creation of giallo cinema; it was the German krimi films, the American noir films and the French fantastique films of the decades prior that really helped lay the groundwork for the transition of giallo from the page to the screen.

Remember Edgar Wallace, that chap from earlier? Well he was an English writer, back in the early decades of the 20th century. Prolific is probably an appropriate term; he published in excess of 170 novels and 900 (you read that right) short stories in his 56 year life, many of which focused on crime and detectives, much like the Italian giallo books of the same era. 

Wallace’s stories would go on to be repurposed in the form of German krimi films. Produced by the Danish film company Rialto Films and starting in the 50s, these krimi films found a fair amount of success not only in Germany, but also in Italy. It’s also important to note that these krimis were often very bloody for the time and, like the genres of films such as neo-realism and commedia all’italiana in Italy, continued to push the boundaries of what could be shown on the screen.

The Green Archer by Edgar Wallace giallo book libro

Murder was being expressed in new ways in these krimi films, with a lot of emphasis on the shock and horror of the violence, something that giallo would expand upon in the years to come. Take Jürgen Roland’s krimi film The Green Archer, an adaptation of the Wallace story of the same name. In the story, a titular archer is going around killing people, confusing Scotland Yard and generally causing a menace. Now a murderous archer doesn’t seem like the most bloody or scary sort of killer, in fact it could be quite farcical in the wrong hands (though it should be noted that krimis were often laced with black humour, as were gialli). However, it was the graphic nature of how Roland depicted the arrows as murder weapons that raised The Green Archer above being simply just a mysterious archer shooting at people. There had been adaptations of Wallace’s stories before, sure, but none had shown death in such a peculiar, intimate and intense way as the krimis.

The giallo films and the krimi films would go on to share many similarities, unsurprising really given their inspirations both came from crime novels. Police and PI investigation would often heavily be involved in the plot. An innocent bystander would more often than not be present to the senseless violence from a masked, black-gloved killer, whose identity wouldn’t be revealed until the third act, and intimate weapons (such as arrows) would be used to do the murdering. Krimi films acted as a primer for the Italian audiences, preparing them for the murderous giallo to come.

As previously mentioned, there were of course other cinematic genres and ideas, alongside krimi, that helped mould giallo. Noir, horror and fantastique films of the 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s helped guide giallo filmmakers, just as the krimis did. Umberto Lenzi, one of the great giallo directors, claims that old noir films such as Elia Kazan’s Boomerang, Don Siegel’s The Big Steal and Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra heavily impacted the way he used black and white imagery in his films. Style would always be at the forefront of giallo, and Lenzi suggests that the noir films were a perfect example of cinematographers (such as Harry Stradling and Nicholas Musuraca) utilising the black and white medium in fascinating and brilliant ways. 

The Girl Who Knew Too Much by Mario Bravo

In hindsight, it’s also easy to spot the thematic fingerprints of noir within a lot of early giallo pictures, such as Mario Bava’s The Girl who Knew Too Much or Ernesto Gastaldi’s Libido. Paranoid protagonists, unknown criminals, and the fact that the noir films themselves were often based on old mystery novels, just as the first giallo films themselves stemmed from the “mystery fiction” of the yellow giallo paperbacks. It’s easy to see the impression that crime cinema made upon giallo; it makes sense really, considering those first gialli films were fundamentally crime films. Bava’s giallo film The Girl who Knew Too Much is, at its core, a murder mystery film that involves an anonymous killer and bumbling police. Robert Siodmak’s noir film The Dark Mirror contains a murder by an unknown assailant that is investigated by a detective. The similarities are clear as day.

Finally, there was the eroticism, sexuality and just plain bizarreness of the French fantastique genre that was showcased again and again in many a giallo picture. A kind of umbrella term, fantastique as an idea encompassed a range of themes and genres. Stemming from the very earliest pictures of the late 19th century, fantastique ebbed and flowed through 20th century French film, from the poetic and avant-garde dreamscapes of Jean Cocteau to the eerie vampire films of Jean Rollin to the sexually charged thrillers of Alain Robbe-Grillet. The title The Nude Vampire sounds like it could have been a giallo film just as much as a fantastique one, and one scene in which a woman sensually dances in a room painted floor to ceiling in red feels like something straight out of All the Colours of the Dark.

All The Colours of The Dark by Sergio Martino

The director of All the Colours of the Dark, Sergio Martino, cites the French thriller/horror director Henri-Georges Clouzot as a source of cinematic stimulation, particularly his film Les Diaboliques. In fact, Umberto Lenzi’s So Sweet… So Perverse and Ernesto Gastaldi’s Libido both incorporated elements of Les Diaboliques in their plots.

As one can see, the cinematic influences on giallo were far reaching, from the Edgar Wallace adaptations of the German krimi films to the moody hard-boiled American noir films to the sexual and thrilling French fantastique genre. Perhaps fitting for a genre dedicated to murder and crime, the entire history of art that preceded giallo feels like one long string of mystery paperbacks and bloody crime films.

We’ll discuss the specific tropes, themes and staples of giallo in the next section, but as we’ve seen it’s important to recognise that those tropes, themes and staples were all sculpted and formed from a wide variety of cinema, literature and ideals. As discussed in the previous post, it was the anti-fascist, anti-establishmentarianism of the commedia al’italianas and the neo-realists that first laid the socio-political foundation upon which the controversial giallo pictures could thrive.

But alongside those envelope-pushing genres of films were the equally provocative paperback giallo novels of the 20s, 30s and 40s, many of which pissed off the fascists just as much as the neo-realists could ever hope to. And more than that, those yellow giallo stories helped provide a framework for murder, crime and mystery that bled its way into mainstream Italian culture. 

Suspiria by Dario Argento

And the final sources of inspiration came from the range of German, American and French cinema that would ripple and echo throughout giallo time and again. The krimi films gave the genre a bloody template to work towards, the fantastique films showcased the glory of erotica and horror, and the black and white noir’s offered a cinematic language that could be expanded upon, with elements of cinematography, lighting and set design all going on to be repurposed by the giallo filmmakers. This cinematic language would be translated from black and white to colour as giallo progressed, but the principles remained the same. I believe that any shot from Dario Argento’s Suspiria (perhaps not a traditional giallo film, but certainly one of its finest directors) would still look just as glorious if it were shot in black and white.

And so, that all brings us neatly into the part we’ve all been waiting for; the deep dive into the films themselves. We’ve looked back through the history of Italian Cinema, as well as the literary and cinematic inspirations for the genre, and now we get to the fun part. Join me again next time as we delve into the blood and guts of the serial killers that haunted Italian cinema for two decades. We’ll look at the golden age of giallo, the key directors, actors, writers and musicians that helped define the genre. We’ll discuss all the glorious themes of giallo in detail, its relationship to classic horror cinema, and discuss exactly what it was about giallo that made it so popular and yet so brief.

Watch List

German “Krimi” films:

[It should be noted that it’s difficult to get hold of krimi films. But if you can find them, keep on the lookout for the directors Harald Reinhl and Alfred Vohrer.]

  • Face of the Frog (Reinhl, 1959)
  • The Green Archer (Roland, 1961)
  • The Ringer (Vohrer, 1964)

American “Noir” films:

  • High Sierra (Walsh, 1941)
  • The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941)
  • The Big Sleep (Hawks, 1946)
  • The Dark Mirror (Siodmak, 1946)
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett, 1946)
  • Boomerang (Kazan, 1947)
  • The Big Steal (Siegel, 1949)
  • Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)

French “Fantastique” films:

  • La Belle et la Bête (Cocteau, 1946)
  • Orphée (Cocteau, 1950)
  • Eyes Without a Face (Franju, 1960)
  • The Immortal One (Robbe-Grillet, 1962)
  • Trans-Europ-Express (Robbe-Grillet, 1966)
  • Eden and After (Robbe-Grillet, 1969)
  • The Nude Vampire (Rollin, 1969)
  • Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Robbe-Grillet, 1972)

Other films mentioned in the blog:

  • Death Occurred Last Night (Tessari, 1970)
  • The Green Archer (Roland, 1961)
  • Boomerang (Kazan, 1947)
  • The Big Steal (Siegel, 1949)
  • High Sierra (Walsh, 1941)
  • The Girl who Knew Too Much (Bava, 1963)
  • Libido (Gastaldi, 1965)
  • The Dark Mirror (Siodmak, 1946)
  • The Nude Vampire (Rollin, 1969)
  • All the Colours of the Dark (Martino, 1972)
  • Les Diaboliques (Clouzot, 1955)
  • So Sweet… So Perverse (Lenzi, 1969)Suspiria (Argento, 1977)

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