Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Definitions of the giallo

In an article on the giallo film, published in the magazine The Dark Side in 1996, John Martin begins with the various definitions offered by a number of other commentators as to what the giallo actually is:

"That's a tricky one. I guess the first thing that springs into my mind is people with big black gloves, with zippers up the side, and big knives, to stick into people... but its more complex than that."
- Richard Stanley

"It describes a genre of mysteries in which the discovery of the criminal's identity is less important than discovering how the crime was done."
- Maitland McDonagh

"You mean Argento, Bava? Those films are blood operas!"
- John McNaughton

"I'm not sure how I'd define it, actually..."
- Mark Kermode

What I want to emphasise here is not the accuracy of these definitions, (nor indeed, that of Martin's alternative to them, that "the essence of the giallo resides in two factors: style and savagery" – a definition which would exclude a film like Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion, that has plenty of style yet little savagery) but instead emphasise the different conceptual frameworks that appear to underlie them, what they make possible and what they exclude.

In one sense Mark Kermode's modest uncertainty is the least helpful, but in another it is useful in pointing to the kind of the difficulties that pertain here.

This is paralleled by Richard Stanley's opening admission - “That's a tricky one” - before he then proposes a definition based on iconography in the form of the characteristic black gloves and knives, along with a more specific feature - the zipper up the side - that seems to reference Deep Red in particular.

The admission that “it's more complex than that,” meanwhile, might be best read in relation to the fact that Deep Red is a different, more horror-type, giallo than the majority of those that preceded it, as exemplified by the Animal Trilogy and its imitators.

This leads us onto the more auteur focussed approach implied by John McNaughton via his references to Mario Bava, who founded the genre, and Dario Argento, who reinvigorated it and boosted its popularity with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and its successors, but one also tempered with a sense that these filmmakers can be situated within a distinctive national context – that of the “blood opera”.

Maitland McDonagh offers the most confident definition, but thereby also the most problematic. For, as Gary Needham and Mikel Koven have argued – and as McDonagh herself seems to acknowledge elsewhere – the giallo film, as distinct from the literary giallo, is better understood via the framework of the filone rather than genre. McDonagh's emphasis upon mystery and the how- rather than who-dunit, meanwhile, would also seem to have the effect of meaning that such titles as Blood and Black Lace and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, where the killers' modus operandi is straightforwardly there on the screen, are somehow less important or central gialli than the likes of The Black Belly of the Tarantula and The Crimes of the Black Cat.

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