Vintage Bava thriller
It was supposed to be a romantic thriller ala Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, but for director Mario Bava, that approach just wouldn’t do. He was just returning from his first break in years, six months off following his epic Erik the Conqueror. The Italian maestro, who had taken every job offered him for decades, was in a testy mood — not the mindset to deliver a light comedy adventure. His leading lady was Leticia Roman, another big-eyed beauty to frame in shadowy locations — just as he’d had in his classic Black Sunday. Roman was allowed to select her own co-star, her American friend John Saxon — the kind of casting Bava felt was inappropriate. The script had gone through many hands already, and the project was in need of a sure hand to pull it together.
And so, from this accidental combination of elements resulted La Regazza Che Sapeva Troppo (1963), not to be confused with the 1969 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much starring Adam West and Nancy Kwan. This Girl became much more important as the “missing link” of murder thrillers. With its high contrast black & white photography and Hitchcock influence, it harkens back to the German and American film noir traditions that became firmly established during the 1940s. However, Bava was a voracious reader of the yellow-jacketed “giallo” novels that had become popular in Italy, and edited his film to reflect their atmosphere, cutting out much of the blatant comedy.
When American International finally released the film dubbed in the USA a year later under the title The Evil Eye, they’d put back in all the comedy and replaced the jazzy soundtrack with more traditional Les Baxter music. But the seed had already been planted by the European release. Though not a big hit, the film became a great favorite with future horror director Dario Argento, and Bava continued on in this vein with his color thrillers. The influence of this picture continues to this day (whether anybody knows it or not), affecting virtually every psycho thriller made since.
As a narrator informs us, we meet heroine Nora Davis (Roman), American mystery fan, on a flight to Rome to spend some time caring for her bedridden Aunt Ethel. She’s befriended by a guy on the plane who turns out to be a marijuana smuggler — an early sign that things aren’t going to be what they seem in this picture.
At her aunt’s house she meets Dr. Marcello Bassi (John Saxon), a charming fellow that warns her of Ethel’s condition. Too late — that night the Aunt dies suddenly. This creepy scene with the old woman’s corpse in bed, moved slightly by her curious cat, was milked even more thoroughly by Bava in the Black Sabbath “A Drop of Water” segment.
Running down to the hospital to get help, Nora’s luck continues when she’s mugged in the middle of Rome’s famous Piaza de Spagna and is knocked cold. Recovering, she’s horrified to be a witness to murder, the fatal stabbing of a woman that shuffles toward her out of the shadows.
However, no corpse or any other evidence is found. Everyone chalks it up to the girl’s frightened condition and overactive imagination.
After Aunt Ethel’s funeral, a fellow mourner overhears her talking of the murder. Laura Craven Torrani (famed character actor Valentina Cortese) invites Nora to stay in her house while the family travels out of town. The viewer may feel relief that Nora is shifting away from the house where her aunt died, but we’re again shown not to trust our own feelings as the camera shows the man Nora had seen during the crime in a picture frame — and then shows the picture removed.
A maid fills Nora in on the facts, puzzling her even more. There actually was a murder on that spot, only it took place ten years earlier and Laura’s own sister was the murder victim. This was the last crime of the famed “Alphabet Murderer”, a killer who apparently chose victims via alphabetical order. The Craven murder had been the last — or was it? A phone call threatens that a “D” murder is due next. “D” for “Davis”.
In a humorous yet visually striking scene, Nora draws on ideas from her mystery novels and prepares a trap for the killer, filling the house with a webwork of twine, but Bassi is the only one she catches. However, when her further investigation turns up some real evidence, the doctor (who welcomes the excuse to spend time with Nora) joins her in the hunt for the truth.
The story moves successfully and draws the viewer in, in large part due to the talented cast. The lovely Roman, who split her brief film career between projects in America and Europe, carries the story well, both determined and endearing. As you can see from the disc’s filmography, this was the first of many genre films for John Saxon, including an important role in Argento’s Tenebre. Dante De Paolo, also in Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, succeeds in stealing several scenes as reporter Andrea Landini, who believes the wrong man was convicted for the Alphabet Murders.
This first presentation of the original European version ever seen in America reveals Bava’s mastery of the film medium yet again. There are many wonderful compositions and sequences, from Landini’s gelled flashbacks, to a view of nun habits unfolding like flower petals to reveal the heroine (used as a main menu graphic), to the now familiar “viewing the corpse” morgue scene shot surprisingly from beneath the slab. There is some damage to the source material, mainly some staining half way through, but in all this is another fine transfer in Image’s Bava series. To be heard in Italian only — the removable English subtitles are a bit too high, and would have been less intrusive more below the matte.
The disc contains the original Italian theatrical trailer, which shows off a lot of the film’s best shots. It also uses the film’s theme song (“Furore”, sung by Adriano Celentano) as its only audio, which makes me suspect that the actual audio could not be located. It would have been nice if they’d included the Evil Eye trailer for comparison, but I guess you can’t have everything. I may as well ask for the entire US version to be included.
There’s a still gallery that also includes the lobby cards for The Evil Eye (“…is it watching you?”). Then there’s a Bava biography and filmography (the same one included on other Bava discs from Image) by Tim Lucas, perhaps the foremost authority on the director and his works. The John Saxon filmography shows the actor’s versatility — from It Should Happen to You (1954) to The Party Crashers (1999). The DVD foldout snapcase also features a fine essay by Lucas about the film that should tell you just about anything more you need to know.