Before there was Dario Argento, there was Mario Bava. Known as the creator of giallo, a genre of Italian film originating from the pulpy horror-detective novels that were popular in Italy during the ‘50s, Bava initiated the movement with Black Sunday. Though the filmmaker had made previous horror films, it was Black Sunday that found an unusual synthesis in the morbid atmospheres of horror and the nail-biting suspense of mystery-thrillers. Still considered a high watermark in giallo, Black Sunday was the germinating seed for the many films that would follow in its wake, with Bava tipping the balance either way on the horror and the mystery elements.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), from the original Italian title La ragazza che sapeva troppo and renamed Evil Eye for the American market, is a film that leans heavily toward the mystery-detective properties of the giallo genre. While regarded as one of Bava’s lesser-known works, it is nevertheless an effective little shocker, a film exemplary of the classier rudiments of Italian horror.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is the story of a Nancy Drew wannabe named Nora (Letícia Román) who travels to Italy to visit her sick aunt. Upon arrival, she meets a young doctor (John Saxon) who has been keeping after Nora’s aunt. He gives her a rundown on the medical necessities for his patient and then quickly leaves. Soon after, Nora’s aunt suffers a heart attack and passes away in the night. Alone in a foreign country and uncertain what to do, Nora heads out into the night to get help. But before she can even make it out of the vicinity of the apartment building, she is attacked and mugged. Knocked unconscious, Nora later comes to and sees a woman in the distance struggling along the ground until she finally collapses.
Just as the woman dies, a large man comes stalking forward and slowly pulls out a butcher knife deeply embedded into her back. Nora is certain she is the witness to a brutal murder but has trouble convincing others; once taken to the hospital after being discovered lying half-conscious on the ground, the doctors simply dismiss Nora as a naive foreigner who reads too many mystery novels. Thus begins Nora’s search for the killer, whom she is sure will strike again.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is an old-fashioned whodunit, the kind of mystery made popular by the likes of Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. In place of the bloody and gruesome activity which would populate much of Bava’s future works (giving future slasher films their lead), the filmmaker’s agenda here is to simply present viewers with a nifty little puzzle to solve. The two leads, Letícia Román and cult-film star John Saxon, are given the most basic designs with which to work; they must get into trouble, solve a mystery and fall in love. By today’s standards, this perhaps isn’t the most sophisticated approach, but in Bava’s simplified world of right and wrong, it works splendidly.
Anyone who has a hankering for a sincere thriller, with dark and stormy nights, red herrings and unexplained murders, will understand the beauty of such perceived banality. Bava cleverly borrows a much used trope of old-fashioned American cozies by having his murderer kill off civilians in alphabetic order (the killer is dubbed “The Alphabet Killer”). Being that Nora’s name follows next on the killer’s list alphabetically (and seeing how she is a witness to the crime), it is a race against the clock to prove her story and save her life.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release includes the American version, titled Evil Eye. Featuring the original English dialogue that it was filmed in, Evil Eye also distinguishes itself from its Italian version by having a different soundtrack as well as some alternative footage. The Italian version features a narrator (not present in the American version) that comments on the action throughout. Between the two, the Italian version is the choice pick. The moodier, Morricone-esque soundtrack perfectly accents the drama and the narrative voice-over, though admittedly hokey at times, provides some interesting humour throughout.
If there is anything to be said about this new remaster, it’s that there were clearly some inherent issues with the source print. The American version features a picture that shakes a bit now and then, particularly in the opening half hour. The American print is a little better than the Italian print with the picture being a little brighter, but the Italian print features less of the meddlesome shakiness. However, the Italian print is still very solid with nice black and white contrasts. Sound and dialogue is clear all round, but be wary of the fact that in the English-language version, some of the thick Italian accents make the dialogue at times a little difficult to follow (no subtitles to help). The Italian dubbed component features subtitles and both versions of the film are in black and white. The Blu-ray release also includes an informative audio commentary by film essayist Tim Lucas.
The beauty of such old-fashioned murder mysteries is that despite the fact that they are quite old, they never get old. Whether or not his visual flair was pure gimmick, Bava never allowed an interesting mystery to suffocate under his superfluous style; this perseverance in simple storytelling is what makes such a film timeless. In fact, nowhere is the air cleaner and clearer than in The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Here, all the narrative drama is distilled down to its most perfect pitch of onscreen chemistry; the intrepid young woman and her cautious love interest are drawn with economy and style.
As they say, everyone loves a good mystery and a good mystery this is.