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February 2015

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

cast: Leticia Roman, John Saxon, Valentina Cortese, Dante DiPaolo, and Luigi Bonos

director: Mario Bava

86 minutes (12) 1963
Arrow blu-ray region B

RATING: 6/10
review by J.C. Hartley

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

This was Mario Bava's last film in black and white, and the first giallo; that mix of sex, thrills and horror named for the yellow paper covers of trashy pulp fiction. Such an item makes an early appearance as Nora Davis (Leticia Roman) is seen reading 'The Knife', as her plane arrives in Rome, where she is visiting her elderly aunt.

This DVD issue pairs the original Italian release of La ragaza che sapeva troppe - The Girl Who Knew Too Much, with the re-edited version, shown in the USA as The Evil Eye. While there aren't vast differences in the versions, some of the editing choices highlight shortcomings in plotting and tone, and probably support Bava's own ultimate dissatisfaction with the film as a whole. The original works better as a thriller, while the American version, with its emphasis on some of the film's comedic incidents, throws into relief the uncomfortable mix of light and shade that the original doesn't quite carry off. Clearly, the idea of the double release isn't for the viewer to play film critic, making notes on editing choices, so this review will concentrate on the Italian release and save comparisons for later.

The title of the film obviously plays homage to Hitchcock and his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, a spy movie made in Britain with Peter Lorre in 1934, and remade in Hollywood in 1956 with James Stewart and Doris Day. There are some Hitchcock touches, when Nora meets her bed-ridden Aunt for the first time she has her head under a sheet - inhaling a decongestant to rid herself of a bad cold, and after the old lady's death the corpse is briefly animated by her cat sharpening its claws on the coverlet of the bed.

Flying in to Rome airport, Nora is offered a 'Kent' cigarette by the passenger beside her, when she cannot find her own pack he gives her his. Waiting at the customs line, Nora's new acquaintance is arrested for smuggling marijuana in packs of Kents, Nora attempts to get rid of her own pack but a guard retrieves it and hands it back to her. At her Aunt's apartment Nora meets handsome Dr Marcello Bassi (John Saxon), who tells her that her Aunt has a heart complaint and that if Nora needs him the hospital where he works is quite nearby.

Sure enough, during the night, the Aunt dies and Nora, with her coat hurriedly flung over the most ridiculous 'baby-doll' nightdress seen in cinema, hurries out to get Dr Bassi. Nora is mugged for her handbag on the steps outside the apartment and, struck on the head and barely conscious, she then sees a female murder victim, with a bearded man retrieving a knife from her back before dragging away the body. Nora passes out and rain washes the blood away from the scene. A stranger attempts to revive Nora with alcohol before rushing off, and the policeman coming to her aid suspects she is drunk. At the local hospital, Nora's story is not believed especially as she admits to a predilection for murder mysteries.

After her Aunt's funeral, Nora is taken in by a helpful neighbour Laura, who has a picture of the bearded man from the murder scene on her piano. Laura offers Nora the use of her apartment while she is away, pointing out that a locked room is her psychiatrist husband's private study. Laura's cleaning lady reveals that several years ago her employer's sister was murdered on the steps outside, and Nora discovers news-clippings related to the 'alphabet murders', a spate of killings with victims' surnames starting with 'A', 'B', and 'C'; a mysterious phone call confirms that Nora Davis is to be next.

Marcello takes Nora out to distract her but another mysterious phone-call leads her to an abandoned apartment building where she is lured into a room by what turns out to be a taped message. Nora and Marcello are contacted by Landini (Dante DiPaolo), a former top journalist who played a part in the apparent unmasking of the original alphabet murderer but has since become obsessed by what he thinks was a miscarriage of justice. Landini has been stalking Nora since the beginning of the film and it was he who attempted to revive her after the mugging. Nora and Landini do some sleuthing of their own but this fails to resolve the case, when Nora visits Landini in his room she finds his body and a suicide note. When the corpse of a murdered girl turns up Nora is able to identify it as the body of the girl she saw stabbed, this new victim turns out to be the daughter of the man accused of the original murders.

Back at her borrowed apartment Nora finds the door to Laura's husband's study is open and occupied, entering she finds him, the bearded man from the original murder scene, also stabbed in the back. Laura appears, by this time quite demented; she murdered her sister and then becoming obsessed by the publicity went on a killing spree which her husband has covered up. Preparing to shoot Nora she is herself shot by her dying husband.

With the mystery sort of cleared up, Marcello is making plans for the future with Nora, she finds the pack of Kents and suddenly wonders whether the whole affair has been a marijuana dream. Certainly, at the beginning of the film, with Nora smoking a spliff on the plane, then taking a bang on the head, it seemed like this reading was being set up, and perhaps if this approach had been adhered to a little more stringently it would have made for a stronger film.

The film does begin strongly, the pacing is good and there are genuine shocks - particularly in the scenes in Nora's Aunt's apartment. However, the tension is relaxed, Marcello - who should be a suspect - is never really implicated, and an annoying third-party voice-over intrudes to tell us what is happening. There is an extended scene where Nora creates a web of string around the apartment to alert her to intruders, with a slapstick pay-off where the cops and Marcello pay her a nocturnal visit. What interludes like this emphasise is how skilled Hitchcock was in blending jokes and thrills, Bava doesn't quite pull the trick off here.

A word on the American version The Evil Eye; first of all the decent jazz score from the original is replaced with a noisy and more overtly dramatic and generic set of cues. All references to marijuana are removed, making the arrest of Nora's fellow passenger at the beginning a little confusing. The airport sequence is extended with Nora behaving somewhat giddily, presumably to support puffing on that joint from the original, a reference now obviously lost. There is some slapstick with suitcases and catching a bus, Nora bangs heads with someone, something she does with Marcello when she first meets him; Bava was clearly going to emphasise either Nora's giddiness or propensity to concussion. The third-party male voice-over from The Girl Who Knew Too Much is replaced by Nora's interior monologue, Nora's Aunt flags-up Marcello's good looks from the outset, as if the possibility of romance really needed that kind of hint, and a lot of the drama of the originally brisk sequence leading up to the Aunt's death is lost.

There is a quite different ending, instead of Marcello and Nora chatting about dope and their future together we see Marcello insisting on Nora giving up her fad for murder mysteries. As they take the ascending cable-car, a man in another car opens fire with a pistol on his cheating wife and lover on the descending cable, Marcello shouts that he is a doctor and will help, but Nora, mindful of his earlier demands, tells him that 'nothing has happened'. If these frankly bizarre interludes had been left in Bava's original cut one cannot escape the feeling that the whole escapade was designed to be read as Nora's dope trip.

One further note on the denouement between Nora and Laura, the latter's threat to shoot Nora with a Beretta is clearly less scary than her weapon of choice, the horrible kitchen knives she has used on her other victims. This slight diminution of tension is offset somewhat by Laura's husband shooting her through the door, as Laura slides down, the bullet holes in the wood are emphasised by dust particles glinting in the light filtering through from the other room. This shot is very reminiscent of one at the end of the great Fritz Lang's The Ministry Of Fear (1944), in which a darkened room is illuminated by the light streaming through bullet holes in a wall.

Finally, the original film is in Italian with English subtitles, the version for the USA is dubbed into English. Curiously, the Italian sound-track in The Girl Who Knew Too Much seems less in sync with lip movements as that film progresses, making the final scenes of dialogue between Nora and Laura seem like disembodied voice-overs. Equally, the English dubbing of The Evil Eye appears at times to precisely match the actors. Possibly Bava's cast were multi-lingual or scenes were re-shot? Sadly, this interest on my part suggests that the film was not gripping enough to distract me from raising such technical questions, but also it has re-opened the wounds inflicted by my confusion over the voice-track of the excellent Berberian Sound Studio (2012), maybe the director of that, Peter Strickland, was playing with our heads in ways we never even suspected?

Special features on the disc include introductions by writer and giallo aficionado Alan Jones, his discussion with writers and filmmakers on the significance of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a couple of trailers, and an interview with John Saxon who apparently found Bava stand-offish, possibly because Saxon had been under the impression the film was going to be a Three Coins In The Fountain style rom-com.

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