American tourist Nora Davis is having a difficult time in Rome. A drug smuggler slips her some doctored cigarettes on the plane and the family friend she’s staying with is deathly ill. Then, as she wanders the streets at night searching for medical help for her friend, she’s knocked unconscious during a mugging–and when she comes to, she witnesses the murder of a young woman. Her story isn’t believed at first, but when she discovers evidence that the murder might be tied to a series of similar killing that occurred years earlier, she–with handsome young Dr. Marcello Bassi in tow–is driven to unravel the mystery. But her investigations put her in the killer’s sights, and she might well become the next victim…
Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much is often reckoned to be the first true giallo–a lurid Italian subgenre that combined Hickcockian suspense and thrills with horror’s more explicit depiction of violence, and that’s seen as a forerunner of the slasher subgenre. As is so often the case with a genre’s formative works, The Girl…has a bit of an unrefined feeling to it, as if Bava were trying out some new combinations of elements to see how they worked together (and of course, it wasn’t very likely that he was consciously trying to create a new genre).
My big problem with the production overall was the story. While the creepy scenes are suitably creepy and the suspense scenes are decently effective, I feel the screenplay was just too loose and meandering and would have benefited from some tightening up. The subplot of the laced smokes, for example, never really goes anywhere; it’s introduced at the beginning and should have been a harbinger of more sinister things to come, but instead it’s pretty much forgotten about until the final scenes, where it’s used for comic effect. Another plot that’s too comedic is the romance between Nora and Marcello. There are also some characterization problems (for example, when Nora reenacts the murder using a melodramatic voice and exaggerated body language, she seems to consider the whole thing hilarious instead of traumatic, although that could be the actress’s fault). Overall I wish that the film simply would have kept a more consistent mood.
As far as the plot goes, it pretty much seems to be the same as every other giallo I’ve ever seen. The killer’s identity should be obvious to anyone who’s familiar with the genre’s conventions, and most of the twists can be seen coming a mile away. While a certain amount of adherence to formula can be part of the appeal of genre exercises–and yes, I understand that this film is for the most part establishing conventions instead of following them–I can’t help but feel that later gialli (let’s pick Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage at random) wouldn’t refine these elements and use them more effectively.
Which isn’t to say that The Girl…doesn’t have other things going for it. Bava’s direction is a real treat, but that’s not really a surprise. The only other Bavas I’ve seen were in color (Planet Of The Vampires and Black Sabbath), so I was really delighted to see that his black-and-white visual style is just as delightfully striking. The production design is stylish, and the excellent location work focuses on the more “classical” and touristy parts of Rome. The cast–led by the adorable Leticia Roman as Nora (is the name a deliberate reference to The Tall Man?), the swoon-worthy John Saxon as Marcello (in a performance guaranteed to make Jori tilt her head at a slight angle and sigh), and the sultry Valentina Cortese as Laura (with whom Nora stays after her family friend’s death)–is effective if not always exemplary. Add in Roberto Nicolosi’s jazz-inflected score and you end up with a nifty portrait of Europe in the early swinging ’60s…although I must warn you, the look and feel of the film is overall very dated.
While The Girl Who Knew Too Much ends up being a case of a film that’s more important than actually good, it’s certainly got its own peculiar charms. I’m not sure that it’s still as seminal as it once was, but it’s certainly worth a look, particularly to fans of black-and-white suspense thrillers, or anyone who loves to watch attractive people dash around metropolitan Europe after dark.
My rating: 5 of 10.
86 minutes; in Italian, with English subtitles. Directed by Mario Bava. Starring John Saxon, Leticia Roman, Valentina Cortese, Dante di Paolo.