Mario Bava’s 1964 film “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is widely credited with being the movie that launched the Giallo craze of the 1960s and 70s. Bava even gives a nod to the yellow-covered Italian crime novels that gave the genre its name by having titular girl Letecia Roman be an obsessive fan of the books in the film. Roman plays an American girl who travels to Rome to care for an ailing aunt. Her first night in Rome plays like a propaganda film intended to dissuade Americans from travelling to Europe. After a run-in with a drug smuggler on the plane, she arrives at her aunt’s house just in time for the old lady to die. As she walks to a nearby hospital to alert the authorities, she is mugged and knocked unconscious. She comes to long enough to witness what appears to be a murder on the Spanish Steps. When she reports the crime the next morning, the police believe she was hallucinating due to the fact that there is no body to be found and no evidence of a murder. The fact that a shady figure came along and revived her with a shot of whiskey just before the police arrived also doesn’t do much for her credibility.
It’s the classic set-up for a Giallo, but as the title might indicate, the film is just as much a tribute to and parody of the films of Hitchcock. In fact, the original American release “The Evil Eye” was recut and dubbed so that it played as more of a comedy than a thriller. There’s still quite a bit of physical comedy in the Italian version, much of it handled surprisingly well by unlikely comedic actor John Saxon who, as the doctor tending to Roman’s aunt, pratfalls like a pro through the Wet Bandid traps Roman sets around the house.
The paperback roots of the film can be felt in its chapter-like structure which has Roman and Saxon searching for leads in the possible murder, stumbling into a spooky scene of some form in which they find a clue which gives them a bit of exposition and a new lead to follow which starts the whole process over again. Eventually they discover the existence of a murderer known as “The Alphabet Killer” who chooses his victims in alphabetical order. He’s made it up to ‘C’ and Roman’s character, Nora Davis, soon receives a threatening phone call reminding her that “D is for Death”.
In much the way that John Carpenter’s “Halloween” laid out all the tropes that became hallmarks of the Slasher genre, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” hits almost every beat that would later become associated with Giallos. A regular person investigating a murder in place of disinterested police, a plethora of red herrings; shadowy, faceless creeps lurking just outside frame; a story so muddled and twisty that it only makes sense in the hyperrealistic world of the film: it’s all there just waiting to influence 15 years worth of Italian crime cinema.
“The Girl Who Knew Too Much” was Bava’s last black and white film, so while it does display his masterful ability to frame and light a shot, it is missing the lurid colors and more fanciful visuals of his later films. It’s still visually striking and has the added bonus of being set among some of Rome’s most beautiful and famous scenery. As an early Giallo, it is also much tamer than the films that came in its wake. Don’t expect to see any nudity or blood because innocent girl Roman is a far cry from the liberated sex kittens of typical giallos and the killers here prefer to dispatch their victims with a modest single knife wound to the back.
Although “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is both enormously entertaining and historically significant, it’s ultimately a mid-level Bava film as well as a mid-level Giallo. It’s probably not the best place for newbies to Bava or Giallo to start unless they’re not inclined to the more extreme sex and violence that became more common in the later films. On the other hand, it would be hard to choose a better film for Hitchcock fans looking for an entry point into Bava. It should go without saying, but if you already have a healthy interest and familiarity with either Bava or Giallos, “The Girl Who Knew Too Much” is a must see film, for its landmark status and more importantly because it’s a beautiful and exciting thriller set against the splendor of 1960’s Rome.