There is one particular modern genre that is strongly connected with the history of Italian filmmaking: the genre of “the yellow ones,” in Italian: “gialli”.
The countless movies, dime novels, detective stories and murder mysteries in Italy are subsumed under that titles, similar to “pulp” novels, and crime fiction that got its name from the raw, unfinished paper they were printed on in the US.
In Italy in the late 1920s, those crime and detective stories were successfully published by Mondadori with a yellow (“giallo”), jacket, hence the name (the color green, for example, was used for jackets of novels with historical content).
The labels giallo/gialli would also be used for the colorful, rather brutal, sometimes Gothic and erotic films that started in the 1960s and continued to be successful for at least two decades; usually, beautiful women were the victims there and their strategies to escape one or more violent obsessive killers make up for most of the plot and kaleidoscopic photography. The genre of the American horror “slasher movie” of the 1980s is strongly influenced by it. The variety also made several Italian musicians famous for their soundtracks composed for such films.
Author Roberto Curti, film critic and author of numerous books on Italian Gothic film and crime movies, explores “… the history of Italian giallo in film and television … starting in 1929, when the release of I Libri Gialli gave the term such a special and all-encompassing meaning – literary, filmic, social, cultural, and philosophical …”
With the “Yellow Books,” pulp detective stories would become extremely popular, even though crime stories and the like already had been around for a few decades in Italy.
In eleven chapters, specific developments concerning the gialli and their genesis, from novel, to stage, to cinema and tv screen over the years are examined. He masterfully explains the development of a domestic style in crime writing and script writing that finally led to the many, highly aesthetic and colorful, sometimes even psychedelic Italian film gems.
After a good introduction, the crime and detective films of post-war Italy are presented, as are sinister plots and sexploitation films. The last two chapters deal with new tendencies in gialli production and several attempts to recreate a vintage feeling, all taking place in the 1990s, when Italy’s movie industry was in bad condition.
As expected, giallo mastermind Dario Argento receives attention in two parts, while other genre greats like Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Riccardo Freda, Romolo Guerrieri and many more also are under discussion. Naturally, the 1960s and 1970s are in focus here, when the gialli were successful internationally, even though they always were most popular in Italy. Obviously as a result, in the 1970s several notable giallo directors made turned to series for Italian or European TV co-productions.
The mass of movies, background information and data on transitions within the Italian film industry and society is very impressive. As is the role of the giallo film for Italian and global popular culture.
“Overall, then, it is necessary to study the giallo throughout its 90+-year-old-evolution, to better understand a genre which – if made internationally famous primarily by the works produced over the decade spawning from La ragazza che sepeva troppo to Profondo rosso – has its roots deeply grounded in modern Italian social and cultural history and runs like a stream, sometimes underground, sometimes surfacing and dispersing in many rivulets, across the decades.”
Furthermore, the work of authors, translators, playwrights, and actors over the decades is highlighted, as Italy went through several forms of governorship, which resulted in different roles, functions and volumes of film sponsorship, censorship and very distinctive audiences throughout the years.
Several hundred novels, plays and obviously films are explained and highlighted, which shows great insight into the history of the Italian movie industry and the people behind it.
So referring to a particular movie throughout a paragraph is not enough here, Curti usually will enlarge on the script’s history, the directors who originally were interested in it, the possible bold theft of ideas copied from other productions, replaced main actors, soundtrack composers and studios that were associated with it. The list of actors quoted – mostly Italian names – alone probably goes into the thousands.
Identifying the most impressive chapter is very difficult, but chapter 4, “The Drooling of the Devil: Tales of Sex and Intrigue, 1967-1970” is close. It highlights the strange and obsessive gialli plots that at the end of the decade seemingly moved from weird to the brink of madness.
What also distinguishes Curti’s work is the inclusion of the serials and TV movies, as the majority of books on the gialli is devoted to the cinema only. That, together with his well-trained sense for changes in the domestic movie industry and adaptations in genres and production modes, made him deliver a heavy, almost 500 (!) pages milestone on the genre.
It comes with 80 photographs, including 30 color reproductions of original movie poster art and a 20 pages film index.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2022
Roberto Curti. Italian Giallo in Film and Television: A Critical History. McFarland, 2022, 486 p.