31 Days of Horror: (Giallo) — Bava and Hitchcock

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The etymologic history of the giallo sub-genre is well-documented by now. Giallo, Italian for yellow, refers to the cheap mystery books that at least partially inspired a cross-section of gruesome murder films from the likes of Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci.  Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much from 1963 is commonly referenced as the first giallo, where entries from Argento like Profondo Rosso take many of Bava’s tropes and play up the cinematic flair.

While the influence of Val Lewton, Alfred Hitchcock, and other known horror entities is unavoidable, giallos tend toward scare tactics and stylistic flourishes that diverge from those predecessors.  Lewton’s expressionist films for RKO in the 1940s favor heavy shadow (sometimes to hide low production value) and an emphasis on the unseen. Hitchcock’s master of suspense moniker, on full display in The Birds, is deserved for his emphasis on the build-up and his playful withholding of information from audience and characters alike.

Giallos tend away from these and others – Clouzot’s Diabolique, Powell’s Peeping Tom – in their bravado style and type of suspense. In this way, Brian De Palma is often unfairly referred to as Hitchcock-rehash; his camera is as much giallo as his narratives are Hitchcock. The following is one examination of these disparate styles using a famous scene from The Birds opposite one from Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

In this iconic scene, Hitchcock withholds information on two levels.  First, Tippi Hedren’s Melanie is largely unaware of the goings-on simply because of the staging: the playground where the eponymous villains land is at her back.  At first, Hitchcock keeps us in on the game, but then he maneuvers to a new strategy. When he cuts to a side angle of Melanie, we’re now in the dark as well. It’s not until her point-of-view marries the two spaces that began as combined and are now distinct that she realizes that the main action is actually taking place entirely behind her.

Bava’s style is completely different.  In this scene from The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the threat of danger is quite different – a slasher versus feathered friends – but the build to suspense is basically, on the page, similar: a woman in trouble from an external force and her reaction to it. For our purposes, the main difference between the two auteurs’ approaches has to do with the withholding of information, camera movement, and the point-of-view. The images below really spell this out. Where Hitchcock operates on two planes to keep information at bay, Bava prefers a dolly out to give full awareness of spatial relationships.

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Where Hitchcock prefers his point-of-view shots to be revealing moments that point indicate the gaze-holder’s power, Bava prefers his to slowly progress the action and keep the information hidden by use of the shadow.

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One can imagine each director shooting the other’s scene. The Birds would have Tippi Hedren reacting earlier to the flock, yet unable to escape for narrative reasons, where The Girl Who Knew Too Much would likely keep Nora Davis (Letícia Román) unaware until the critical moment.

That aforementioned dolly out is quite important.  Hitchcock, a known proponent of the montage, would certainly cut back and forth between wide-shots and close-ups to keep Davis – and the audience – in the dark for as long as possible.  For Hitchcock, who is where and when is the key to suspense.  For Bava, the knowledge of danger and helplessness at preventing its approach is the key.

– Neal Dhand



By Neal Dhand

Neal Dhand is a writer, director, and professor in Philadelphia. He's currently in post on the heist film Crooked & Narrow. He also blogs occasionally at DCP Film.

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