Fever Dreams

09.18.12

Dario Argento, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970, color, 35 mm, 98 minutes.


DERIVING FROM the late 1920s yellow (“giallo”) covers of the Mondadori publishers’ crime series, the giallo literary and cinematic phenomenon comprises what in English is rendered roughly as “crime drama,” and in French, the roman policier. It is to London and Paris, in fact, that the genre may be traced in the main: You see origins in Poe’s Detective Dupin prowling about the Rue Morgue, or Sherlock Holmes’s abode on Baker street. The Parisian pulp crime serial Fantom‚s echoes to the far reaches of avant-garde experimentation, from Magritte’s 1927 painting The Menaced Assassin to the masked killer in Mario Bava’s 1964 film Six Women for the Murderer. Yet Italian directors, not least Bava himself, developed their own, increasingly self-conscious strain of cinema during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Bava takes pride of place in the history of Giallo all’italiana, and his influential The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) aptly features in Anthology Film Archive’s rousing ensemble of ten films by seven different filmmakers.

That range encompasses a generation from Massimo Dallamano (said to have filmed Mussolini’s corpse in the Piazza Loreto in Milan in his younger days) to Dario Argento—perhaps the genre’s best-known practitioner outside of Italy. Even still, the arc of time here is limited to a few vital years. It was a period roiling period with social and political unrest in Italy, but the turmoil of these works is a mannered one. If anxiety forms the giallo’s crux, it is an angst sealed in the hermetic chamber of cinematic convention, in which a larger world echoes only allegorically—indeed, can barely breathe. Suffocating close-ups; creeping and creepy pans; framings so portentous they border on camp—these are all here, whether in the hilarious/horrible final montage of Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) or the no less bathetic teeth bashing in Argento’s Deep Red (1975). There are too many anonymous, gloved hands in these films to count. The frequent mix of unsettling imagery with jaunty musical accompaniment bespeaks a certain irony about the meaning of violence here. (That Tarantino has taken careful note of the giallo tradition comes as little surprise.)

More than plot or acting, it is ambience that these films evince best. Far scarier than the act of murder in Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is the view of its site: an empty modern art gallery at night, its isolated objects illuminated by a stark and sour light. If Argento’s work helped push the giallo’s proverbial envelope, the genre has always been intrinsically and unabashedly pluralistic, drawing on both high and low culture. Pastiche of—and contamination by—other styles constitutes the giallo’s very quiddity, inflected as it is by horror, mystery, melodrama, noir, thriller, slasher, and seemingly infinite cinematic rubrics. The terrors and pleasures of this uniquely Italian strain of filmmaking have not so much faded since the ’70s as merged imperceptibly with other forms and formats.

“Giallo Fever!” runs September 20–30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Ara H. Merjian