Giallo: A Darker Shade of Yellow

Posted by in September's Magazine

Colours are signifiers to us all. The animal kingdom uses red to display danger while we humans aren’t too far removed, we communicate grief or marital love through the hue of the clothes on our backs. The same can be held true for film. Pinku spelled out erotic action in 1970s Japan whilst, a decade before, the colour yellow meant something very particular to Italian cinema audiences. Giallo (yellow) films are a specific genre all of their own which, on rare occasions, are still being produced to this day.

The term Giallo originates from a series of books published in Italy from 1929 onwards, called Il Giallo Mondadori, from the Mondadori publishing house. These cheap reprints of traditional mystery stories were wrapped in bright yellow covers, hence the name. The colour was later adopted as a label for the 1960s cinematic adaptations of these stories, thus a film genre was born. Yellow holds this obvious link to historical origin, but if a colour could have been assumed as a truer visual signifier to this genre of cinema it would need to be red or pink; a tip of the hat to the extreme sex and bloodletting so prevalent in its works. Legend of the genre, Dario Argento, nodded in that direction with his 1975 film Profondo Rosso (Deep Red), a Giallo classic.



Giallo films were born from standard mystery tales, some authored by celebrated mainstream writers such as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. By the time they had reached their 1970s heyday they had mutated into a bastard son and, in some instances, a junkie cousin not even welcome at family weddings or funerals. Giallo moved towards horror and psychological thriller from the late 60s onwards and it was, it has to be said, a blood splattered journey (here Alan, sounds like our very own, recently resurrected, Hammer films – Editor). Excessive violence may have been one calling card these Italian films left but there was a full pack of genre standards, beauty and creativity being two unexpected elements so often true to them.

The artistic camerawork is what’s most singularly notable about these cult films. What makes it so odd is the juxtaposition of this stylish cinematography with Giallo’s trademark extended scenes of murder and terror. It’s at times confusing that so much effort can be fed into grand location choices and elegant visual imagery when frequently none seems to be given to story or acting performance. This sometimes results in a very lopsided viewing experience, although the faults of these films have become emblematic features now known and loved by fans worldwide. Jumpy cuts from one scene to another, combined with truly awful dubbing, are deemed to give an authentic feel which Tarantino strived so hard to mimic in his half of Grindhouse.

This flattery of imitation highlights the fact that elements of these movies have been making something of a comeback in recent years. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is nothing but Giallo with pretentions, the Hyacinth Bucket (or is that Bouquet?) of Giallo if you like. The only thing that usually lets the genre down is the acting; it’s too damn good! I certainly can’t think of another example from this gene pool that has scooped Oscars. The ever-expanding ripple of its influence is one thing, but what’s more interesting is that the original Giallo movies are being lovingly restored and made easily available for all of us. Shameless Screen Entertainment have a mixed bag of titles and I refuse to offer any defence for many of them, such is their content of violent misogyny, which views like a serial killers guidebook.

There are however a couple of diamonds in the rough. Luigi Bazzoni’s Footprints on the Moon (aka – Le Orme) is a surreal and paranoid classic, beautifully photographed by Vittorio Storaro of Apocalypse Now fame. A second gem is the Hitchcockian The Designated Victim with Pierre Clementi channeling Russell Brand as a camp dandy who makes a Strangers on a Train style pact. Arrow Video sticks with the classics and has released a near full spectrum of Argento pictures including Jennifer Connolly, insect mind control and razor wielding monkeys in just one film, Phenomena. The Giallo back catalogue can, and indeed does provide a rare and raw viewing experience, just be sure to limit your intake if you want to stay on the right side of strange. ■


One response to “Giallo: A Darker Shade of Yellow”

  1. AntonChigurhDaddy says:

    Good article. I'd be interested to read an in-depth piece about the standouts in this subgenre, like Don't Torture a Duckling or Lizard in a Woman's Skin. Or the landmark flick Bay of Blood. Slasher movies imitated it slavishly, from murder setpieces to costume design (Mrs Voorhees was not the first to rock a comfy-looking fisherman's sweater while on the rampage).

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