Monday, 24 November 2014

Somatic Incompliance: The Look and Resistance of Mario Bava's Evil Eye

by Kier-La Janisse



While many consider The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) – retitled and re-edited for the United States as Evil Eye – a ‘lesser’ Mario Bava film, and a necessary stepping stone to the lurid grandeur of pioneering giallo staple Blood and Black Lace the following year, it is this very status as a ‘transitional’ work that makes it so interesting. The ways that The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye interacts with various forms of texts – from the ‘paranoid woman’s films’ of the 1940s to the pulp paperbacks that gave the giallo genre its name – illustrate the struggle for a feminine voice that had been building since the war and would become a hallmark of that decade. The giallo film genre is not known for its ‘feminist’ qualities, and this is another thing that makes Evil Eye unique: it is more aligned with the gender politics of Black Sunday than with the litany of giallo films that followed in its wake, making it one of Bava’s most feminist horror films – despite tacked-on endings in both versions that neutralise that voice. 

Any ‘feminist’ reading of the film depends greatly on the version viewed. While, typically, the original foreign-language version would seem to be the most ‘true’ to the director’s vision, before being mangled by dubbing and editing for international export, in the case of The Girl Who Knew Too Much it is the American International Pictures version, Evil Eye, which seems more cohesive and allows its characters to develop more organically. There are many differences between them, notably the alternate endings, the reinstating of scenes excised from the original cut and an American score by Les Baxter. But, for our purposes here, the key difference in Evil Eye is the use of first-person narration.

Letícia Román plays Nora Davis, a woman en route to Rome to visit a batty, bedridden family friend she hasn’t seen since childhood. We first see her on the plane, reading a pulp murder mystery novel called The Knife. It is here that the two versions of the film have their first significant divergence: in Evil Eye, the camera pans over several passengers, allowing for snippets of internal monologue from each of them, before resting on Nora, who is working out the mystery in her head. From her scrutiny of the crime she is reading about, we can tell she reads these books often and that her critical faculties are active. When the man next to her offers her a cigarette, her inner thoughts inform us that she is accepting of hospitality, but sceptical of those who offer it.

The Italian version instead has a third person male narrator introducing us to Nora. He describes her as a romantic and prone to escaping into murder mystery paperbacks, even though she’s made a promise to her mother to stop. The elderly woman she is visiting will make sure she keeps that promise. When the man next to her offers Nora a cigarette, her internal assessment of him is absent, and we see only a girl shyly accepting a gift from a stranger. In contrast to its counterpart in the AIP version, everything about the scene infantilises her, which aligns more directly with Tim Lucas’s estimation of Nora as “a neurotic Nancy Drew”.

Lucas also points out that Bava’s hatred of travel contributed to all his storylines revolving around “arrivals and departures”, but this would go on to be a core element of the giallo film in general. Like many giallo protagonists, Nora is a foreigner who arrives in a strange country and immediately becomes embroiled in a murder mystery, the role of amateur sleuth thrust upon her. While the language barrier provides moments of panic, overall she is excited about being in an unfamiliar place, especially one as exotic as Rome. By the end of the 1950s, the Rome of La dolce vita was beginning to take shape; when he first arrived in the capital in 1939, Federico Fellini had described it as “a tiny casbah of furnished rooms around the main station, with a population of frightened immigrants, prostitutes, confidence tricksters, and Chinamen selling ties”. The Rome that Nora arrives in is a different one, a bustling city full of international tourists, experiencing a golden age economically and culturally. At least, during the day. The night brings its own secrets that contrast this ‘new’ Rome with the old one. Nora will wilfully venture into this dark terrain alone on more than one occasion.

The Italian narrator in The Girl Who Knew Too Much informs us that Nora is a secretary back home, a standard womanly occupation at the time, and one that fuels her need to ‘escape’ into the tantalizing world of mystery novels – a comparatively ‘unwomanly’ and somewhat delinquent pastime. The giallo gals to share her predilection – such as Florinda Bolkan in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) – wouldn’t come until almost a decade later, although she has a close cousin in Barbara Rütting’s crime-writing character in Krimi film, The Phantom of Soho (1964). But the independence Nora exhibits throughout the film defies the narrator’s attempts to domesticate her. The vicarious ‘escape’ she experiences through reading is now actualised into a trip to Italy at a time when international travel was still prohibitively expensive (giving rise to the term ‘jet set’ for those with the means) and women rarely travelled alone.

Upon arriving at her hostess’s apartment, just off the picturesque Piazza Trinità dei Monti, Nora meets the young doctor, Marcello Bassi (John Saxon at his pinup peak), who has apparently been anxiously awaiting her arrival, already primed for the romantic potential. After imparting some instructions about the old lady’s medication, he kisses Nora’s hand and leaves (“A couple of hours in Rome and I’ve already had my hand kissed twice!”). But her hostess dies during a thunderstorm that very night. Venturing out to find help on the majestic Spanish Steps, she is knocked unconscious by a mugger, who takes off with her purse (one of the film’s many similarities with Desperately Seeking Susan [1985] – only instead of murder mystery pulps, its Jersey housewife obsessively reads the personals in a New York City tabloid).

It is in this confused state, having suffered a blow to the head, that Nora witnesses the central murder of the film. It is a scene she will replay over and over again, as giallo protagonists are wont to do, convinced that the key to the mystery is something they have already seen. She faints again and is only discovered the next morning by a mysterious passer-by, who tries to revive her with some liquor – which complicates things when she is admitted to hospital and misdiagnosed as an alcoholic mythomaniac. Her protests that she really did witness a murder only seem to reinforce the belief that she’s a delusional hysteric. The examining doctor advises her to stop reading murder mysteries, which are exacerbating her ‘condition’.

The doctor thinks Nora’s imagination is running away with her; that she imagined the murder because she has nothing better to do and has, consequently, confused reality with make-believe. The diagnosis seems absurdly dismissive, but even as far back as the earliest psychoanalytic studies of hysteria, the notion of female imagination was seen as inviting physical and mental illness. Towards the end of the 19th century, the domestic space of women was associated with a combination of leisure and repetitive manual labour that would allow the mind to wander; hobbies like needlepoint were frowned upon by analysts like Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, who found them too conducive to thinking, and thus ‘hysterical sickness’.

As Michel Foucault and other scholars have pointed out, since the birth of psychoanalysis there remains an association between femininity and pathology, and the history of psychoanalysis is focused on the study of predominantly female patients. The medicalisation of women, which would become a staple element of the Italian giallo, has a strong precursor in the ‘woman’s film’ of the 1940s, specifically that hybrid of suspense and melodrama that scholars now refer to as the ‘paranoid woman’s film’. The paranoid woman’s film was Hollywood’s response to the growing popularity of psychoanalysis at the time – films like Rebecca (1940), Cat People (1942), Gaslight (1944), Spellbound (1945), and The Snake Pit (1948) are only a few examples of what was a robust genre at the time. The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye rests solidly on this tradition, most notably through its titular connection to Alfred Hitchcock, who made several of the key paranoid woman’s films.

As with The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye, the paranoid woman’s film makes little (if any) distinction between physical and mental aberrations when it comes to female characters. A physical affliction – like the bump on Nora’s head sustained when her purse is snatched (one of three bumps on the head she will sustain throughout the film) – is tantamount to an emotional disturbance because women’s physical and mental faculties are seen as so interconnected. Thus the origin of the word ‘hysteria’, which literally means ‘a disturbance of the uterus’.

In the paranoid woman’s films, the doctor becomes an important character type. The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye has no less than three doctors – Marcello Bassi (John Saxon’s character), Dr. Torrani (a renowned psychiatrist) and the doctor who determines Nora to be an alcoholic mythomaniac. Even Landini, the mysterious journalist who will take Nora further into the mystery (Dante Di Paolo, also of Blood and Black Lace), is referred to as “Dr. Landini” at one point. In her study, The Clinical Eye: Medical Discourses in the ‘Woman's Film’ of the 1940s, Mary Ann Doane notes that: “Medicine introduces a detour in the male’s relation to the female body through an eroticization of the very process of knowing the female subject. Thus while the body is despectacularised, the doctor-patient relation is, somewhat paradoxically, eroticised.” What’s interesting in terms of Doane’s assertion is that Saxon’s character is denied both Nora’s love (at least initially) and the intimacy of a doctor-patient relationship – she is tended to by another physician in the hospital.

After her hostess’s death, Nora decides to stay on in Italy to try to solve the mystery that the authorities claim she has invented. A sophisticated neighbor named Laura Torrani (Valentina Cortese, a stunner somewhere between Stephane Audran and Grayson Hall), who alleges to be a close friend of the deceased, invites Nora to stay in her house off the Spanish Steps which is frequently empty due to her husband’s professional life in Switzerland. Nora discovers that Laura’s sister was murdered in front of the house by a serial killer ten years earlier, in the very spot where Nora had her encounter, leading Nora to question whether she witnessed a real murder or had a psychic vision of a murder in the past. Whatever she witnessed, someone is not happy about it, because she soon finds herself the target of threatening phone calls.

By living in the house of a murder victim, Nora becomes connected to her – and apparently destined to take her place. The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye contains many allusions to female stand-ins and conflation; making the suggestion that Nora had a psychic vision to be especially interesting. When she finds out about the murder of Laura’s sister, she becomes even more obsessed with the case. While the film eventually abandons the theory that Nora’s experience was a transcendental fugue that allowed her to witness events from the past, her ‘sympathy’ with the murdered girl whose house she occupies remains palpable. This also ties Nora to the unnamed second Mrs. DeWinter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and even to Monica Vitti’s character in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) – all are oppressed by the psychic presence of a girl who is conspicuously absent.

Nora’s internal monologue in the AIP version creates a further link to the tradition of paranoid woman’s films, which also frequently featured narration by the female protagonist. However, in the 1940s women’s films, the narration is often established as a triggering of memory (indicating a therapeutic process of sorts), whereas Nora, in Evil Eye, tells her own story in the present, contrasting the male narration in the Italian version which trivialises everything she does to solve the mystery.

The gothicity of 1940s woman’s film narratives is subverted somewhat in Evil Eye – there is a romance within the narrative, but Nora is far from the Gothic heroine and the film addresses this contrast frequently by trying to place Gothic constraints on her and then watching her slip through them. The male narrator describes her as ‘romantic’, but her sense of romance is not a passive one. While likened to Rebecca’s second Mrs. DeWinter who, at the film’s start, has also ventured to a foreign country to assist an elderly woman, Bava kills off his elderly counterpart right out of the gate, leaving Nora open to another unexpected adventure. Nora smokes cigarettes and arrives in Rome wearing a snakeskin trench coat, not unlike the femme fatales she reads about. She exercises the right to reject Marcello, saying he’ll know when to come in (to her bedroom, it is implied) “by the way she says his name”.

An element of the Gothic that does persevere in The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye is an ambiguity in terms of witnessing and interpreting events. Referring to Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), Diane Waldman writes: “As in Rebecca, the unusual emphasis on the point of view of the heroine has been put to the service of the invalidation of feminine perception and interpretation, equating feminine subjectivity with some kind of false consciousness, as the male character ‘corrects’ the heroine’s false impressions.” While Evil Eye disrupts the tradition of the paranoid woman’s film in its use of a present tense female narrative voice, that subversive potential is undone by an ending that hastens to re-establish patriarchal order.

Despite the revelation of the killer’s identity at the climax of the film, the most compelling dynamic is between Nora and the male characters who surround her, and their attempts to invalidate, constrain, box in and protect her – from (in their words) her own imagination. The Italian version ends with Nora realising she smoked a marijuana cigarette on the plane and may have imagined the whole thing (!). She throws the cigarettes away, thoroughly invalidating her experience with a tacked-on ending that doesn’t even make narrative sense. In Evil Eye, she agrees to marry Marcello, and he goes so far as to place a precondition on their marriage: that she gives up murder mysteries for good. She agrees, for the first time seemingly smitten with him in return. So smitten that an attempted murder happens nearby and Marcello witnesses it, while she remains seemingly oblivious: “Did something happen?”

The most pessimistic reading of this ending sees Nora’s creative instincts defused, and while ironic, it implies that murder mysteries are amusements for the lonely, no longer of use to the betrothed heroine. But there remains a spark of resistance, even in this scene. It is a look. This quick, sly look Nora gives Marcello indicates that either she sees the crime but no longer cares because she has found true love, or (more optimistically) that she is humouring him. While humouring is a domesticated form of resistance, we have to remember this is populist Italian cinema of the early sixties. That look still packs a punch.

Within a year, Bava would emerge with Blood and Black Lace, a film whose lush and vivid violence would easily eclipse the juvenilia of The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye. But the latter remains a fascinating work whose liminality in the Bava canon reflects the old world/new world conflict that lies at the heart of its own narrative.

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WORKS CITED

Doane, Mary Anne. “The Clinical Eye: Medical Discourses in the ‘Woman's Film’ of the 1940s.” Poetics Today, 6.1/2. The Female Body in Western Culture: Semiotic Perspectives (1985), pp205-227

Gillet, Grant and Edward Erwin. “The Unconscious” in Radical Claims in Freudian Psychoanalysis: Point/Counterpoint. Edited by Andrew Holowchak. Jason Aronson Inc., 2011

Liehm, Mira. Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. University of California Press, 1986

Lucas, Tim. Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. Video Watchdog Press, 2007

Modleski, Tania. “The Disappearing Act: A Study of Harlequin Romances” in Signs Vol. 5 No. 3 (Spring 1980). University of Chicago Press, pp. 435-448


Waldman, Diane. “At Last I Can Tell it to Someone! Feminine Point of View and Subjectivity in the Gothic Romance Film of the 1940s” in Cinema Journal. 23.2 Winter 1983, pp. 29-40

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