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Girl Who Knew Too Much, The (Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Dual Format BD/DVD
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Mario Bava
Letícia Román
John Saxon
Valentina Cortese
Dante DiPaolo
Bottom Line: 

Visiting an elderly bed-ridden aunt while on vacation in sunny Rome, American lover of lurid crime mysteries Nora Davis finds herself embroiled in a twilight world of terror when her sick relative dies on Nora’s first night in the city and she is attacked by a purse snatcher at the foot of the Spanish Steps as she runs for help. Knocked unconscious as a result on the rain-slicked cobbles of the empty piazza at midnight, she has a vision in which she thinks she witnesses the murder of an anonymous woman (Marta Melocco) by a sinister bearded man, who removes a dagger from the victim’s back and then drags the body away just as Nora once more passes out. The next morning, the victim (and the pools of her blood seemingly splashed all over the historic square) have disappeared, and the police and doctors at the hospital who treat the traumatised American believe Nora to be nothing but a fantasising ‘mythomaniac’ – a compulsive liar whose story has been concocted under the influence of alcohol. After teaming up with the love-struck young Doctor Marcello Bassi (John Saxon) she is pursued by the ex-newspaper reporter Landini (Dante Di Paolo) -- a man haunted by ghosts from his journalistic past,  and together they set out to solve the mystery of what Nora comes to believe must have been a psychic vision. She discovers that what she saw seems to have been the re-enactment of a ten year old murder which took place on that exact same spot -- part of a serial spree known as the Alphabet Killings -- although the person responsible was believed to have been caught and was imprisoned at the time as a result of Landini's investigations. After a series of mysterious threatening phone calls lead her to an abandoned apartment building Nora finds a tape recording of a voice that taunts her by citing Nora as the next potential victim of the alphabet killer. Nora begins to realise that the past is far from done with this case, and that the maniac responsible for the previous three murders is still very much at large …

Arrow Video’s latest dual-format special edition release of the black-and-white proto-giallo “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (La ragazza che sapeva troppo)  (1963), now newly restored and presented in HD, is an absolute must for aficionados of the cult films of Mario Bava -- the talented Italian practitioner of genre cinema whose visually compelling work as a director, cinematographer and special effects technician is demonstrably rooted in a childhood love of painting, his early training in the fine arts, and a family background that firmly entrenched Bava in the Italian film industry thanks to his father Eugenio’s work as a sculptor and special effects supervisor during the era of silent cinema. This release is vital, not just because it represents the best rendering for home viewing yet of a film whose importance is still often overlooked in many considerations of Bava’s pioneering career behind the camera (where he played host to sundry Italian thrillers, Westerns, sex comedies, Peplum, science fiction and Gothic Horror pictures throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s), but also because it allows viewers, for the first time in many years, easy access to both Italian and American cuts of this seminal work in the giallo sub-genre, which differ greatly from each other in many respects but which arguably each have equal validity thanks to the film’s co-production origins.

The film was produced by American International Pictures and Galatea in Italy, and was conceived as a light comedic thriller with romantic overtones, much in the style popularised by Alfred Hitchcock in such films as “To Catch a Thief”.  In this case, the American female protagonist encounters mystery, murder and ultimately finds love in the midst of a tourist brochure landscape imagining of the Eternal City and its ancient sights. However, in Bava’s hands the film also became a parody of the kinds of murder mystery thrillers with yellow covers popularised at the time in Italy by the publisher Mondadori -- a reference much more likely to have been picked up by the home audience. Bava (who found the material absurd, and was only persuaded to accept the production under duress having recently suffered a bout of nervous exhaustion) altered the Italian cut considerably in the process of phasing out many of the romantic comedy elements, and in doing so he inadvertently created what became a virtual blueprint for the giallo when Dario Argento’s “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” came to revolutionise the format at the end of the sixties. The two films share many elements of plot structure, as well as other trappings popularised by Argento throughout many of his key works;  indeed, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is known to have been a major influence on the ‘Italian Hitchcock’, and the debt that his best work owes to it is still abundantly clear.

The American cut, though, runs a good six minutes longer than its domestic cousin, thanks to the retention of several scenes conspicuously removed by Bava and his editor, Mario Serandrei, from the Italian home release. AIP also made its own changes, removing drug references in the dubbing because AIP aimed its product at a teen matinee audience, and replacing the languid jazz-inflected brass & jazz organ music cues of Bava’s composer of choice Roberto Nicolosi with Les Baxter’s often over-busy and more conventional score, in the process imbuing many key scenes with a radically altered ambience.

Both “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” and “Evil Eye” (as it was re-titled for American theatres) are now made available here on the same Blu-ray disc, side-by-side for the first time, in transfers comparably rich in detail which allow them to be easily compared and contrasted like for like. The result is quite a revelation. The longer American version naturally features lots of sequences omitted altogether from the Italian cut, including a lovely Preston Sturges-style gag involving a portrait of the heroine’s great Uncle Augusto (played by Bava himself), whose roving eye follows the partially dressed girl all around her aunt’s bedroom (until she eventually covers it with a sheet) during an eerie thunderstorm on her first night in Rome. But Bava’s sometimes quite brutal hacking also removes a couple of stand-out moments that are retained by the US version -- for example the opening dolly shot inside the Rome-bound plane from New York, introduces Nora Davis (Dralston in the US cut), the American female protagonist played by attractive Italian actress Letícia Román, by way of a scene in which we get to eavesdrop on the thoughts of some of the other passengers before the camera comes to alight on Nora, and we discover her deeply engrossed in a lurid paperback murder mystery thriller. Interestingly, whilst the Italian version’s parody of the conventions of this genre necessitates an anonymous male voice-over artist narrate, throughout the entirety of the movie, Nora’s thoughts and feelings (which are all governed by her immersion in this pulp form of literature), the US cut allows her some degree of agency, and endows her actions with an internal monologue in her own voice.   

Despite the great importance it held for the future development of the giallo, it should be remembered that “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” was not the first Italian thriller. Bava’s great innovation here (and the one that was taken up by Argento with knobs on) was to include a much greater measure of outright horrific material alongside the mystery and comedy elements; and one of the film’s great successes lies in the way in which it so artfully juxtaposes light, frothy interplay between the male and female leads, with genuine scares and high tension, contrasting the whimsical milieu of ‘the American abroad’ travelogue pictures with a much darker strain of drama that is indebted to Bava’s instinctive feel for the gothic and the macabre.

Even this combination of elements would be repeated by Argento in the Italian cut of “Profondo Rosso”, where comedic interplay between David Hemmings and Daria Nicolodi’s leads also played an important role in that film, alongside its lurid depiction of violence and an escalating sense of dread and horror. Indeed, “Girl …”  probably contains some of Bava’s most striking and his eeriest set-pieces, and they’re ones that -- unusually for a director historically famous for his studio-created atmospheres -- make extensive use of location shooting around some of Rome’s greatest tourist attractions, where Bava’s skills as a cinematographer are combined with his directorial vision to capture some amazing black-and-white imagery, which is able to transform the architecture of the church of the  Trinita dei Monti overlooking the Piazza di Spagna, into a backlit maelstrom of slanted angles and threatening shadows; or the Fascist-style classical statuary surrounding the Foro Italico sports stadium which becomes the imposing, monolithic dressing for an expertly conducted parody of a typical Hitchcock suspense sequence (although again, this only appears in its full form in the American cut).

As noted by Troy Howarth in his book ‘The Haunted World of Mario Bava’ the usage made of horror imagery in the film was probably Bava building on the work of German ‘Krimi’ directors such as Alfred Vohrer, who themselves drew on noir lighting and Gothic elements in their re-workings of the stories of Edgar Wallace for the popular series of West German crime thrillers already well-advanced in number in 1963 having been made in profussion by Rialto Film since the late-fifties. Wallace was one of many authors who had their work published by Mondadori in Italy, and while the screenplay for “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” (co-written by Bava and five other collaborators, including “Django” director Sergio Corbucci) was conceived as a parody of the kinds of mysteries of which Wallace was a notable practitioner, the plot of Argento’s debut was also heavily indebted to one particular work in the sub-genre, The Screaming Mini -- a similar twist-laden, Wallace-style crime thriller by Fredric Brown, perhaps accounting for many of the stylistic similarities between Bava’s take on the genre and Argento’s: these include the motif of the foreign visitor who experiences  Italy through the eyes of a disorientated outsider; the idea of a witness misinterpreting the evidence of a crime because of their unacknowledged preconceptions; the hidden clue (in this case a button clutched in the hand of a murder victim) that sparks a memory which the witness must then struggle to interpret in the correct context; a murderer who appears normal in everyday life, until they’re at last revealed as a demented maniac in one last climactic confrontation with the amateur detective whose sense of rational order is entirely upended by the encounter; and the killer’s use of typewriters, tape recorders, written reports and newspaper clippings kept as fond mementos in order to fetishize their crimes: all these tropes appear together here, and were seized upon by Argento in many of his most memorable films (the motif of the black leather mac is also included in this film, but is worn here by the heroine not the killer).

Rome envisioned as a spectral place of foreboding wherein the ghosts of the past constantly influence the traumas of the present; a city of baroque, highly ornate architecture that comes to provide a fittingly unsettling backdrop for streets that become the hunting ground for the sundry sexually-deranged psycho killers who populate the Argento cannon, is another febrile quality first initiated by this film: here old apartment buildings with ornate facades and 1920s-period lifts with iron-cast spiral staircases add Old World menace to proceedings; long meandering corridors oddly lit (a stark white row of unfurnished apartments with swinging bare light bulbs between them on loose cords provides the setting  for the film’s tensest sequence) and  locked rooms with hidden recesses and dark secrets contained within … all are elements which have contributed their fair share of atmosphere to the very best works of Dario Argento, but begin their long association with the giallo right here.

The film is also distinctive in its own right within the wider filmography of Mario Bava himself: for despite the modern cultural setting, the screwball comedy elements played out between the Letícia Román and John Saxon characters (heavily predicated on the latter’s attempts to woo the pretty young American constantly resulting in him sustaining a series of embarrassing injuries for comic effect) and a jazzy score led by the pop ballard ‘Furore’ (a hit for the top Italian pop singer Adriano Celentano), which place the film at the heart of the happy-go-lucky, la Dolce Vita, jet-set lifestyle associated with this period, the film is loaded with the kind of imagery that would become a staple of Bava’s rich and varied output in the horror genre: for one thing, some of the mouldings and furnishings in the décor of Laura Craven-Torrani’s house (the benefactor who helps Nora out by giving her use of her living quarters after the death of Nora’s aunt) would crop up again in “The Telephone” segment of “Black Sabbath” -- the colour vignette in which the giallo as a distinctive sub-genre would at last be fully elucidated in all its delirious psycho-sexual glory, with this time no comedy romance or irony to lighten Bava’s bleak vision of human inter-relationships.

Most striking of all is the early sequence set inside Nora’s aunt’s shadowy domestic version of the gothic home: the director cannot resist fully indulging his taste for Italian-style horror as the candle-lit abode, with its odd portraits and strange knick-knacks, takes on an increasingly sinister aspect with the onset of a bilious thunderstorm in the square outside, the sound of torrential rain and sudden flashes of lightning adding to the atmosphere of cataclysmic dread. In the US cut especially, an absurdist comedy sequence in the bedroom (the portrait business mentioned earlier) segues directly into a macabre section that Bava would also restage in colour for the “A Drop of Water” segment of “Black Sabbath”, but which looks particularly vivid here in velvety monochrome, where the aunt’s corpse beings to appear to slowly move, seemingly of its own accord, while thunder and lightning rage all around after Nora drops a glass of water in abject shock … only for it to be instantly revealed that the movement was actually caused by the dead woman’s pet cat attempting to claw its way up onto the bedcovers! A sequence in which Nora attempts to create an elaborate trap for the killer inside the Craven-Torrani household with the help of talcum powder and a ball of string is imbued with a limpid, almost fairy-tale ambience that displays to full effect Bava’s mastery of camera movement, lighting effects and composition – a veritable visual tour de force which is just the kind of  intricately staged decorative set-piece that would come to take such an important place in the approach Dario Argento was to develop for his own riotous cinema of feverish spectacle and imagination.

All this being said, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is not among the very best of Mario Bava’s work: despite wonderful performances from Letícia Román (who is beautifully photographed throughout by Bava, especially in the noir lighting that distinguishes many of the film’s best suspense sequences, where her large eyes seem to flair out of the shadows like a cat’s), John Saxon as her impatiently handsome suitor Dr Marcello Bassi (who appears to be using the investigation as a warm-up courtship ritual before eventually bedding the virginal Nora) and  Dante Di Paolo  as the tragic, world-weary journalist Andrea Landini, the film’s characterisation is fairly threadbare and this film is less able to cope with the mixture of romantic comedy and horror-tinged suspense than the mechanics of the plotting permit in other notable works by Bava, such as his ground-breaking giallo “Blood and Black Lace”. Particularly spectacular in her role as Laura Craven-Torrani though, is Oscar nominated actress Valentina Cortese, who also appeared in films by Robert Wise, Antonio Michelangelo and Federico Fellini during her career, but makes up for limited screen time here by delivering a spellbinding performance that provides the prototype for another giallo staple: the depiction of the gleeful psychotic mania of the hopelessly deranged! 

As Innovative as it may have been, neither Italian nor North American audiences particularly took to “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” or “Evil Eye” when they were released internationally and in the US in 1963 and ’64 respectively. Indeed it was to be Bava’s least commercially successful film, not even managing to recoup its production costs, modest though they were. On the audio commentary track accompanying this Arrow Video release, author and critic Tim Lucas speculates how the fact that the film was released during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when audiences were staying at home glued to their TV sets, might have had something to do with its poor performance at the box office. But just as likely is the possibility that Bava’s strange hybrid comedy-horror-thriller was just too far ahead of its time; its tongue-in-cheek approach belies its palpably effective, carefully staged scenes of suspense and terror, while the undercurrents of psycho-sexual dysfunction mildly hinted at in the twisted motives of both killer and witness alike aren’t able yet to be fleshed out in their full-on glory, by a film still largely hidebound to its origins in matinee romantic mystery thrillers of yore.

Even so, fans will be thrilled to re-discover this minor classic looking better than ever before, scanned in 2K from an original 35mm Fine Grain Interpositive and made available in both Blu-ray and DVD formats for this UK dual-disc release. Supervisor James White’s restoration strikes the perfect balance between fixing up the extensive damage to the original pre-print and preserving a film-like texture in the resulting digital 1080p HD image -- and indeed, the film comes to life like never before here, despite the presence still of some instances of print damage, particularly during the opening credits sequence of the Italian version. “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” and “Evil Eye” feature their original mono audio tracks in Italian and English respectively, with separate, newly-translated removable English subtitles available for both tracks (since each version differs often in English translation). The sub-titles for the English dub are also optimised for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

The disc extras include the original theatrical trailers for the International and US releases; a short introduction to “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” by critic and chief populariser of Argento’s work Alan Jones (lifted from the Anchor Bay UK DVD release); and a ten minute interview with male lead John Saxon, who talks in it about his early career as a Hollywood teen idol (Universal’s answer to James Dean) and his strained relationship with Mario Bava on the set of “The Girl Who Knew Too Much”. Amusingly Saxon repeats how, knowing nothing of Bava and his work, he only took the role of Dr Marcello Bassi because he’d misheard his co-star Letícia Román (who was allowed to cast her own male lead) when she had asked him, in her thick Italian accent, if he would like to make a horror movie … he'd actually thought she had asked him to appear with her in an art movie!

 Bava scholar and biographer Tim Lucas speculates whether Román’s role in casting the Italian-American might have had its part to play in the director’s uncharacteristically hostile attitude towards Saxon’s presence throughout the shooting of the movie – perhaps he thought something unseemly had taken place between the two in connection with Saxon getting the part? In reality, Saxon (born Carmine Orrico in Brooklyn, New York) had always stayed in touch with the Italian community in Hollywood, and he and Letícia were just friends. Lucas’s audio commentary provides the usual fount of production information, cast bios and interpretation of fine detail that one has come to expect from this assiduous chronicler of cult and fantasy cinema from the pages of the Video Watchdog journal which he also edits. But in addition to his views and insights High Rising Productions have gathered an intriguingly varied collection of contributors for their take on Bava’s ‘giallo gem’ in their 25 minute featurette “All About the Girl”, where director and Argento collaborator Luigi Cozzi, cult South African-born director Richard Stanley and giallo experts Alan Jones and Mikel Koven (author of “La Dolce Morte”) provide an entertaining overview of the film and its place within both the Bava cannon and the giallo genre overall. If that were not enough food for thought, the always interesting critic Kier-La Janisse uses the film as a reference point for a feminist discussion of ‘Paranoid Women films’, the association often made between femininity and pathology in crime and noir films, and this picture's depiction of the attempts of the various male characters within its narrative to constrain or interpret Nora’s perceptions of the events taking place around her, in her essay ‘Somatic Incompliance: The Look of Resistance in Mario Bava’s Evil Eye,’ which forms the centrepiece of the illustrated full-colour booklet accompanying this release. The package comes with the usual reversible sleeve featuring a choice of the original artwork or a new piece by Graham Humphreys.

“The Girl Who Knew Too Much” and “Evil Eye” offer a fascinating, often visually ravishing document of the nascent formation of the Italian giallo sub-genre. Although Bava would later flesh it out in lurid colours, bitter misanthropic cynicism and a taste for characterisation that gives his work in this area an unrivalled potency that still makes later pictures such as “Blood and Black Lace” and “Bay of Blood” compelling to watch today, these films arguably might not have existed at all without this first, almost accidental contribution to the format. Certainly it provides many of the ingredients Dario Argento would utilise to unparalleled effect in works such as “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”, “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” and “Deep Red” (“Profondo Rosso”). For that reason alone, it will always be an essential addition to the collection of any fan of gialli -- while Bava’s expertise in black-and-white photography and the sheer visual flair of the work gives it a special value in its own right that’s not easily to be downplayed, especially now that it has been showcased as it is here – in probably the best condition it is ever likely to be seen.   


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night


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