1960's films, Alfred Hitchcock, auteur theory, cinema, Dario Argento, Film, Film auteurs, foreign films, giallo, Italian cinema, John Saxon, Mario Bava, Movies, murder-mystery, suspense, The Evil Eye, The Girl Who Knew Too Much
As a huge fan of Italian cinema, particularly in its glorious ’50s-’70s heyday, there are a few auteurs that I hold especially dear to my heart: Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Vittorio de Sica and, of course, Mario Bava. As spiritual (and technical) forefather to the more extreme Italian horror directors that would follow, including his own son Lamberto, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and Michele Soavi, Bava was a fascinating bridge between more classical filmmaking styles and the rougher, edgier fare that would begin to permeate the genre by the mid-’70s.
If Bava, himself, was a transitional figure in Italian cinema, than his 1963 mystery The Girl Who Knew Too Much (cut and re-released in America as The Evil Eye, which should be summarily avoided) functioned as a transitional film within his own catalog. For one thing, The Girl Who Knew Too Much would be Bava’s last black and white film: his very next release would be the landmark anthology film Black Sabbath, marking his first foray into the world of Technicolor. This might have been sad news for those who looked forward to another black and white world as lush and atmospheric as the one presented in Black Sunday but it also opened the door wide for my personal favorite Bava film, Planet of the Vampires: this cotton-candy nightmare was a direct inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien and should be required viewing for anyone who has even a passing interest in cinematic sci-fi.
More importantly, however, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is generally regarded as the first giallo, although it’s a much more gentle affair than any of the films that would follow it. Bava’s best giallo is probably Blood and Black Lace, since I’ve always considered Bay of Blood to be a proto-slasher as opposed to a true giallo. Although Bava would only make two giallos in his long career (three if you count Five Dolls for an August Moon but that’s more bizarro spy story than anything else), he would serve as an undeniable influence on the man who would become the undisputed master of the giallo: Dario Argento.
But enough backstory, already: how about the actual film? While it may be of slightly more interest historically, The Girl Who Knew Too Much still holds up today as a pleasant, if slightly weightless, mystery/thriller. Nora, an American tourist, is on a vacation in Rome when things begin to get a little crazy. She’s come to stay with Ethel, a dear old friend who also happens to have a bad heart. Handsome Dr. Marcello Bassi (John Saxon, making about as effective an Italian here as he made a Mexican in Joe Kidd) is taking care of her but, alas, Ethel is not long for this world: that night, she passes away before Nora can administer her medicine.
After imagining that Ethel’s body has inexplicably moved (shades of Black Sabbath), Nora runs in terror from the house, only to get mugged and knocked unconscious. When she comes to, she witnesses what appears to be a man killing a woman before dragging her body away. Not sure whether this is all real or the result of head trauma, Nora pursues the mystery, dragging new beau Marcello along for the ride. Along the way, she meets Laura, a strange friend of Ethel’s and a shadowy reporter named Landini, either one of whom may have more to do with the mystery than they let on. Has Nora actually witnessed a murder? Could she have seen a ghost? Who keeps sneaking around her house at night? And what, if anything, does a hobo’s daughter have to do with anything?
While not a mind-blowing film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is quite good, reminding me more than once of a Bava homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Even the title seems to reference Hitchcock’s own The Man Who Knew Too Much. One scene, at the beginning, made me think directly of the suspense master: Nora has (inadvertently) been carrying around a cigarette pack full of marijuana and realizes it just as she is about to go through security. We watch as she slowly works the pack out of her pocket and drops it, centimeter by centimeter down her leg, lower and lower, until it finally drops onto the floor. Relieved, she walks away, only to have a friendly security guard immediately hand her back the pack she “dropped.” It’s a genius moment and I could practically feel ol’ Alfred grinning from the afterlife.
There’s another nice moment where Nora sets up a trap that she read about in a mystery novel. She decides that it’s safe to try the trap, since the novel has yet to be published in Italy. “Killers don’t read mystery novels,” the narrator helpfully adds, putting the audience at ease. Poor John Saxon getting caught in the elaborate web of strings and tripwires when he goes to check on Nora is, if you think about it, the only acceptable way for that situation to end. There’s also a great reveal as the camera swoops through a closed-door, showing the audience a photograph that would explain everything to Nora…if she could only swoop through that locked door, of course.
All in all, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a good film, filled with some decent performances, some great music (the opening theme is so brassy and sleazy that I automatically figured this would be grittier than it really is) and a pretty lo-cal, Scooby Doo-ish mystery. As a work that not only gestured at Bava’s past but also pointed towards his epic future, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is important for not just Bava completeists but anyone interested in Italian cinema, in general.
Just remember: be sure not to accept strange packs of cigarettes from handsome strangers on airplanes. As Nora found out, that’s always how trouble starts.