11/7/08

The LBL Feature Presentation: The Films of Mario Bava


Good evening and welcome to another new feature here at the Lair. Every month each Friday will be the Feature Presentation, and I'll be covering a specific director, theme, or style. This month I'll be featuring four films by Italian horror master, Mario Bava.

In 1914 as the start of WWI loomed over Europe, Mario Bava was born in Sanremo, Italy. His father Eugenio Bava was a sculptor, pioneer of special effects, and master of the camera in silent films. The young Bava was brought into the family business, and by 1960 he directed his first film, Black Sunday. He would go on to direct 27 more films with stars such as Boris Karloff, Edwidge Fenech, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Telly Savalas. His influence over film makers stretches far and wide including luminaries such as Martin Scorsese.

Tonight we talk about a film that spawned a whole genre of film making in Italy. It is is considered by many to be the first giallo film. It's a tale laced with snakeskin coats, string traps, and Nancy's dad in....

La Ragazza che sapeva troppo (a.k.a The Girl Who Knew Too Much) (1963) starring John Saxton, Leticia Roman, Valentina Cortese, and Dante DiPaolo. Directed by Mario Bava.

From the first strains of the theme song Furore by Adriana Celentano, the film has the feeling of the sixties hipster jet set, and when we first meet American traveler Nora Davis (Roman) in her snakeskin jacket, she is indeed on a jet heading for Rome to visit her Aunt Ethel. She is given a pack of cigarettes by a man on the plane, but once they land the man is taken away for smuggling cocaine in his briefcase and marijuana rolled into packs of Kent cigarettes.

Nora goes to stay with her ailing Aunt, but the very night of her arrival Ethel dies. Nora is unable to get Ethel's doctor, Dr.Bassi (Saxon), on the phone so she goes out in the night to try and reach the hospital. On her way there she is accosted by a mugger who takes her purse and throws Nora down. She hits her head hard on the ground and asses out. When she wakes, she hears a woman scream and stagger out from behind a column. The woman falls over with a knife sticking out of her back. Then a man looms up out of the shadows to pull the knife from the woman and drag the body away. Nora takes it all in and then faints again from the strain.

The next morning she is found on the street by a man who tries to rouse her by making her drink booze from his flask. When the man sees a cop coming, he runs off. The cop finds Nora and takes her off to the hospital. While she is there, she tries to relate to people what she had seen, but she is dismissed as being a delusional alcoholic. Nora finally leaves the hospital under the case of Dr. Bassi. At her Aunt's funeral, Nora makes the acquaintance of Laura (Cortese), one of her Aunt's friends, who also looks a bit like the woman Nora saw murdered. Nora is invited back to Laura's house and asked to stay there while Laura travels to Berne.

Nora has a peaceful night in the house, but the next morning she learns from the housekeeper that 10 years earlier Laura's sister had been killed in the same place where Laura witnessed a murder. Poking around the house, Laura uncovers a box of press clippings about the "alphabet murders" which have all happened in the same location. Three women have been murdered thus far, and needless to say this makes Nora Davis a bit nervous. So nervous in fact that before she goes to sleep she sets up an elaborate string trap all over the house. All she manages to trap in it is her Doctor friend who breaks his finger in the fall.

Nora begins to dig deeper into the mystery and begins to get mysterious phone calls. The calls lead her to an apartment leased to writer Landini (DiPaolo). They soon track the writer down and the mystery of the "alphabet killer" gets more and more compelling. Can Nora get to the bottom of the mystery before it spells her death with a capitol D.

Film Facts
--Mario Bava appears in the film in a portrait as Nora's uncle.
--John Saxton has appeared in such films as Nightmare on Elm Street, Enter the Dragon, Black Christmas, and From Dusk Til Dawn.

-- Mario Bava was not a fan of this film. He has been quoted as saying, " [the film] was too preposterous. Perhaps it could have worked with James Stewart and Kim Novak, whereas I had...oh, well, I can't even remember their names"

--In 1964, Bava refined the giallo in his movie Blood and Black Lace which featured the typical giallo black gloved killer.

The Bug Speaks
This film is both one of the greatest picture I've ever seen, and the most flawed. Bava's use of light and dark in his camerawork is unrivaled in almost anything I've ever seen. The main exception to me is Orson Wells' Touch of Evil. Like that noir feature, The Girl really has that feeling of dark mystery that surrounds the character. This was Bava's last black and white feature, and it almost feels like he knew that this was his last chance to show what the form was capable of doing. Shadow becomes a character unto itself, and the way the film is balanced with the cinematography, the score, and the acting, it creates quite the atmosphere for the story to unfold.

I'd like to take a moment to talk specifically about some of the acting. Saxon, who has become a stalwart genre actor, was in top form, and I am not used to seeing him so young. Leticia Roman is alluring as Nora (her character has a penchant for mystery novels so I wondered if her name was taken from the crime solving Nora of the The Thin Man books.), and her mix of sexuality, innocence, and strength make the character come alive. Nora's costuming is also really great. The aforementioned snakeskin jacket is only bested by her knee length leather trench coat which she wears sans clothes beneath. Valentina Cortese is hardly on the screen, but in the third act she is given a chance to come alive with an engaging twist.


My major complaints about the film are two fold. Firstly, about thirty minutes into the film there is suddenly a narrator. While this seemed very jarring to me, the big problem is that it was so unnecessary. It seemed as if Bava did not trust the performances to convey what was needed in a scene. I did not need a male voice over to tell me Nora's internal monologue. The actress would have been better served showing us what was happening, and in my mind she was. Why in the world voice over was needed I will never understand. The second problem is perhaps less problematic overall. The plot is quite weak in parts. There are red herrings, misleading motivations, and dialog that goes nowhere. However, being a fan of Italian films, especially horror films, I'm used to plot taking a back seat to style and atmosphere. The Girl is aces in both of those so it easily offsets it's problems.

In the end this film is not just innovative. It's one of the more gorgeous 90 minutes you could spend. I highly recommend this flick to anyone who enjoys film noir, giallo, or wants to experience some Bava outside of the horror milieu. Also if you ever wanted to know how to make a trap out of a can of talcum powder and a roll of string.

Bug Rating

4 comments:

  1. There is still a bulk of Bava's films that I haven't seen, icluding this one. I am in the middle of righting that wrong. I am currently nudging the wife to get me those Bava box sets for Xmas. Also, I have a copy of Blood and Black Lace that I haven't watched yet--so double shame on me!

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  2. I am really not that up on Bava outside of Black Sabbath/Sunday, but I recently got those Bava sets on Amazon 2 for 1 in a Anchor Bay sale so I am so rectifying the situation.

    Sadly Blood and Black lace is not in the sets so I have to get that one seperatly. WTB Bava Box 3.

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  3. Bava was an outstanding Director - Excellent 1st choice for this new series!

    Like you stated - his work is "Gorgeous"
    [Also, like you and the Rev, there are still quite a lot of Bava films that I have not yet seen, so I will be looking forward to more reviews!] :-)

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  4. I've only seen BLACK SABBATH when it comes to Bava. But this sounds really interesting. I may have to check it out.

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