Thursday, 18 June 2009

"The Dead Don't Talk."

If Hitchcock's rule of suspense states that the very terrifying thing that everything in the montage is leading you to expect must never actually happen, in the gialli cycle of films that spanned Italy's long 1970s, the thing almost invariably does happen, and usually in a manner even more gruesome and terrifying than we were led to expect (the death of the drunk in Lucio Fulci's Il Gatto Nero is exemplary here). But if these films differ from the Hitchcockian model in this sense, they nonetheless share that "specifically visual intelligence" that Fantastic Journal saw in the Red Riding Trilogy on Channel Four. Like Hitchcock's films, gialli almost always tell their entire story, even the characterisation, anything, in fact, that might be of interest, through the images (or rather through a combination of image, music and sound design that specifically excludes dialogue). Interviewed in 1994 at a U.K. horror convention, Lucio Fulci apologised that the only uncut print of his film, Zombie Flesh Eaters, available for the screening was in Italian and without subtitles, "But the dialogue isn't really important. The dead speak the international language."
It is partly this absence at the linguistic level that sets the gialli apart from the American film noir they are so often compared to. Despite having a similarly pulpy literary source, gialli and film noir differ on a number of levels: for the hardboiled language and frequent recourse to voice-over in noir, gialli substitutes minimal, superfluous speech; for noir's succession of cops and professional private eyes, gialli offer up a series of bumbling amateur detectives (Tonino Valerii's Mio Caro Assassino, being a rare exception), who often cause more death than they prevent; in place of the complex psychology of motive evoked by noir to explain its murders in terms of the symbolic order's own inherent transgression, murder in a giallo film is often explained in terms of a highly libidinised supernatural phantasy (the Lacanian Real); and for noir's long shadows and chiaroscuro lighting, gialli substitute a predilection for bright, over-saturated reds and yellows (giallo is Italian for 'yellow', a reference to the yellow covers of the Mondadori publishing house's yellow-backed paperback thrillers of the 30's and 40's). It may be instructive to compare the cool, reserved, minimalism of Jacques Tourneur's (1942) Cat People, in which nothing is ever quite seen, with the lurid maximalism of Fulci's (1981) Il Gatto Nero, in which everything is always seen, and usually in unpleasantly tight focus. Despite similar thematic ground, the style and sensibility of the two films could scarcely be more different.