Agatha Christie Plus Alfred Hitchcock Equals Mario Bava's 'Evil Eye'

by Michael Barrett

20 May 2015

This dual language (Italian and English) Blu-ray release is a disorienting, elliptical, and dreamlike horror experience.
 
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The Evil Eye

Director: Mario Bava
Cast: John Saxon, Leticia Roman

US DVD: 19 May 2015

Nora (Leticia Roman) is an American ingenue who devours too many bloodthirsty mysteries. She’s reading one called The Knife on the airplane to Rome, where she’ll stay with an elderly invalid who’s either an aunt or a family friend (it’s not clear). When this aunt-friend goes into cardiac arrest on that first dark and stormy night, Nora rushes down the iconic Spanish Steps in the direction of the hospital, but she’s promptly relieved of her purse by a mugger and then witnesses a death by stabbing.

Later, nobody believes her, although the handsome if surly young Dr. Brossi (John Saxon) humors her Nancy Drew act for his own motives. Nora is promptly invited to stay in the swanky pad of a shady acquaintance named Laura (Valentina Cortese). Nora doesn’t know what the audience knows (or assumes), that Laura’s husband is the killer Nora saw that night. He may be responsible for a series of three “alphabet murders” ten years ago, and Nora’s last name begins with D.

Mario Bava’s baffling, ultra-stylish Italian thriller is indebted equally to Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie, but it launched its own genre in Italian cinema: the giallo (named after paperback thrillers with yellow covers), marked by bizarre, labyrinthine plots and stylish setpiece murders. Young film critic Dario Argento was impressed by this film and varied its elements in such landmarks as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red.

The Hitchcock debt is seen in the Italian title, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (a nod to The Man Who Knew Too Much ) and in Bava’s whimsical “cameo” in a photo whose eyes follow the heroine in her bedroom. The Christie debt is seen in the complicated “alphabet” plot; her novel The Alphabet Murders would be filmed in 1966.

Kino Lorber’s excellent Blu-ray offers two intriguingly different versions of the movie. The Girl Who Knew Too Much, in Italian with English subtitles, has been on disc before. The selling point on this new edition is Evil Eye, the English-dubbed version prepared in a co-production deal with American International Pictures. AIP had great success in dubbing and cutting previous Bava films under the names Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, but those versions offer no more than technical interest to fans with access to the uncut versions.

However, as a co-production, Evil Eye is a horse of a different color, and in some ways can be preferred to the Italian version. It’s not only that the AIP print is in stunning, crystalline shape (mastered from the original negative) while the Italian version is softer and shows damage throughout. It’s also that several choices make them notably different movies, and one should watch both to appreciate the project. We’ll call them the English version (Evil Eye ) and Italian version (The Girl Who Knew Too Much ).

First, the English version is seven minutes longer. This is partly because it contains new material shot by Bava for AIP, but it also has material cut from the Italian version to make the latter less comedic. For example, the Italian version cuts Bava’s cameo, and it also chops most of the graceful opening shot where the camera pans across the airplane passengers, eavesdropping on their thoughts until we arrive at our heroine, whose ongoing thoughts will be heard throughout the movie. The Italian version replaces her thoughts with a male voice’s overheated narration of the “had I but known” school; it also re-edits a scene to handle some business with a photograph in a less elegant manner.

So the English version mostly shows us things that aren’t in the Italian version, but there are exceptions. The English version cuts away from a visual detail about the cocaine and marijuana cigarettes in a passenger’s suitcase, and it shortens the scene where Nora re-enacts the murder to Brossi. Only the Italian version has the dazzling close-up on Nora’s eyes as she awakens from her night of terror. The Italian dialogue generally explains the story more logically, especially when the reporter Landini (Dante DiPaolo) starts explaining things. The Italian version also makes the elderly aunt-friend into a sensible person instead of chatty, absent-minded comic relief. The oddest and most gratuitous change is that Nora Davis in the Italian version is renamed Nora Draussen (German for “outside”) in English.

Although the Italian agenda is to dispense with most of the comedy (so that critic Tim Lucas’ commentary on the Italian version calls them the “manic” and the “depressive” cut), there are two curious exceptions. The Italian features a pop song in the opening credits and it’s repeated in a later scene, then once more in a “scare” joke that’s narratively inappropriate and wisely removed from the English. In the biggest difference, the films have wildly different codas; this time, it’s the English that chooses the darker route with a literally murderous punchline, while the Italian opts for slapstick about marijuana. In America, jokes about murder were more acceptable than pot.

Another distinction between the two version is the music. Frankly, I don’t hear an overwhelming difference between Roberto Nicolosi’s Italian score and Les Baxter’s AIP score. Both lean heavily on gothic ooga-booga, with Nicolosi throwing in a few slightly jazzy moments when Nora works with talcum powder and string.

Lucas’ commentary, in which he places the Italian version in the context of the various careers involved and draws parallels to other Bava films, was recorded for an earlier DVD without access to Evil Eye for comparison, which explains a couple of misremembered details like the claim that the English version uses a typewriter instead of a recorded voice in the first delirious “apartment” scene. He inserts a brief new recording near the end.

He also mentions that French critics, who saw the Italian version, read the film as about the heroine’s perilous, vacillating attitude to losing her virginity (“knowing too much”), an impulse she sublimates in escapist violent literature and gaping knife wounds. We needn’t look too hard to find this notion supported by Brossi’s sullen and sometimes violent demeanor, the beach scene where Nora (and the viewer) think he might be a killer instead of a kisser, and the symbolism of his bandaged finger jutting awkwardly throughout the movie. That last detail is created by a wonderful setpiece in which Nora strings a “web” throughout the house to catch any intruders, a scene that literalizes her defensive tactics and the problematic nature of his “stalking” attempts to get close to her.

In any language, this movie is a disorienting, elliptical, sometimes uncanny or dreamlike story shot in sumptuous black and white by Bava and camera operator Ubaldo Terzano and designed with modernist imagination by art director Giorgio Giovannini. Kino’s release of this wonderful print of Evil Eye, with the Italian version as a bonus, will do much to convert those who’ve had trouble warming to it. (Arrow Films in the UK has also released a Blu-ray with both versions, the Lucas commentary, and more extras.) As elaborately worked out as the plot may be, it’s still impossible to take seriously as anything other than a mind game. Once the viewer accepts that, it’s hard to get too much of it.

The Evil Eye

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