Another week, another Arrow Video Bava release. This time we have The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo, 1963), a film considered by many to be the first Italian giallo. While nodding firmly in the direction of Alfred Hitchock (at first impression, the title might even suggest a Hitchcock parody of some kind!), it certainly introduced some of the features that were eventually to become commonplace within the subgenre: in this case, an innocent tourist that witnesses a crime and becomes an amateur detective, a mysterious serial killer, and a convoluted plot with a twisted surprise ending. In a stroke of self-reflexive genius, Bava even has the protagonist, American ingenue in Rome Nora Davis (Letícia Román, looking like a cross between a Nouvelle Vague heroine and Janet Leigh), arrive in the Italian capital while reading a giallo novel - a then-popular type of detective stories, generally published in the form of cheap paperbacks with distinctive yellow covers.
In quick succession, Nora witnesses the death of the sick family friend she is staying with, is mugged in the street, and witnesses what looks like a murder on the Spanish Steps. The representation of this iconic landmark has very little to do with the quaint Italian-ness of William Wyler's A Roman Holiday (1953)- the city is an oppressive, threatening and unknowable space, shot in a way that is certainly be more indebted to film noir and German Krimi than to picturesque postcards.
As the plot develops, it is not clear whether the protagonist's vision of the crime was real, a dream, or perhaps a psychic link to a murder that happened ten years earlier. After being attacked, Nora ends up in hospital, and is dismissed or ignored when she tries tell others what happened. The only person willing to listen to her is a doctor, Marcello Bassi, (John Saxon) who has taken a liking to her (whilst not quite believing her story). Within the context of giallo films, and of popular Italian cinema at the time, the dynamic between the couple is refreshing, at times even subversive. Marcello, reassuring, masculine, professionally established, spends the duration of the film trying to invalidate and 'normalise' the imaginative and mercurial Nora. In his quest, the doctor is often rebuffed, and even ends up being physically injured. The ending involves an inevitable marriage proposal, and might be seen as re-establishing the patriarchal order, if it wasn't for the involvement of a marijuana-infused packet of cigarettes and Nora questioning whether the whole affair was really just an oneiric experience! After all, giallo films are not renowned for the plausibility of their narrative.
Lacking some of the later gialli's high camp-sleaze, The Girl Who Knew Too Much might not be Mario Bava's best film, but to me it is his most 'fun' work - Nora is an unusually likeable protagonist, and the lighter moments seem to prefigure Dario Argento's humorous scenes Deep Red (1975). In a way, the film almost seems to be a parody of certain thriller conventions - a consideration that seems to fit Mario Bava's unassuming, playful persona like a glove.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is available now on Arrow Video. The DVD is nicely packaged, with good, insightful extras. The film's US version, The Evil Eye, is also available - albeit inferior to the European edit, this remains remarkable for containing a scene in which a portrait of Mario Bava seems to haunt Nora as she undresses. A comment on the role of a film director, perhaps?