Nora (Letícia Román), a plucky young American woman and an avid reader of the works of Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and their ilk, travels to Rome to visit an old family friend, Edith. However, when Edith dies in her bed, Nora rushes out into the night to get help and, in the confusion, is knocked mugged and takes a blow to the head. In a daze, she sees - or thinks she sees - a woman being stabbed in the back by a mysterious man. However, when there is no sign of the body, her account is met with incredulity. The only person who is willing to listen is Edith's doctor, the handsome Marcello Bassi (John Saxon), who decides to help Nora to get to the bottom of the mystery. When they learn that a woman did indeed die in the exact same location, only 10 years earlier, they uncover a web of deceit and shady dealings, all relating to the mysterious "Alphabet Murderer", who terrorized Rome a decade ago by murdering women based on the first initial of their surnames. With victims A, B and C accounted for, Nora, surname Davis, begins to fear for her own safety.
With The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo), Mario Bava began the stage of his career that would come to define him as one of the masters of Italian horror cinema. Widely accepted as the first cinematic representation of the giallo in its truest sense, The Girl Who Knew Too Much augments Hitchcockian suspense with a sly satire of murder-mystery conventions, brilliant photography and a campy, light-hearted love story. Bava was a director who nowadays is most famous for his gialli, but was also more than capable of churning out Spaghetti Westerns and historical epics. He was the kind of director who would try his hand at anything in order to put food on the table, and it is this very trait that separates him from Dario Argento, and in my view makes him the lesser of the two. While Argento was able to combine his stunning visuals with a keen, often off-beat sense of storytelling, Bava's skills lie mainly in the visual domain. A master technician who often served as both cinematographer and special effects designer for his own films, his contributions to writing were often limited. Bava's work is almost always stunning to look at, but his stories are less consistent, with The Girl Who Knew Too Much being one of the highlights of his career in terms of script (to which he made contributions along with five other writers).
The film was initially released in the US under the rather unimaginative title of The Evil Eye, and featuring a radically different cut from the one being reviewed here. Missing a number of its darker elements and including some additional comedy sequences shot by Bava for his American distributors, along with a different score and the complete removal of the pivotal narration, the film is reputed to play completely differently in this alternative guise. That's not to say that the Italian cut is not light-hearted: indeed, there is a lackadaisical feel to much of the film, with Nora occupying a Nancy Drew-like role, determined to figure out the puzzles that lie before her. She may be a little easily led astray, but she certainly isn't stupid, and her voracious appetite for gialli means that she knows the ins and outs of killers' motives and modus operandi... or at least thinks she does. She is aware of the genre's conventions, and if you thought self-referential horror began with Scream, think again: Bava was doing it more than three decades before Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven.
Many of the basic giallo elements can be glimpsed in prototypical forms throughout the movie. Nora is a traveller in a foreign land: an American in Italy, finding herself in trouble almost as soon as her feet have hit the ground. The notion of the displaced protagonist is definitely a mainstay of the genre, in both its literary and cinematic incarnations, and in fact is one of Dario Argento's most common themes (less so for Bava). Furthermore, although the villain of the piece does not actually wear black gloves and a black coat, they might as well do, given the tense "explanation" scene which takes place during the climax, laying down the antagonist's perverse sense of logic and reason for carrying out the killings, which of course are deeply rooted in a past trauma. The other obvious influence on the film's plot, and indeed its look, is that of Hitchcock: the title even recalls that of a Hitchcock Film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. In fact, I would argue that it could have passed for a part of Hitchcock's canon without too much effort. It could be argued to be completely dirivative of the Master of Suspense's early work, but in reality I doubt that this is the case. While the atmosphere, visuals and concept are very much like the work Hitchcock did in the UK, especially The 39 Steps, early in his career, a decidedly Italian sensibility is mixed in throughout. It's certainly interesting that an Italian film made in the 1960s feels so similar to the work of a British director in the 1930s and 40s. Whatever tricks Bava has borrowed from Hitchcock, however, he has undeniably mastered them in such a way that he has managed to create a film that never feels like a rip-off.
In this, Bava's last black and white film, the use of light and shadow is superb, expertly put to use in order to create a sense of foreboding. Highlights include the beautifully shot encounter on the Piazza di Spagnia, where both Nora and the audience see many images that may or may not be real, and a lengthy sequence in which Nora and Marcello enter an abandoned apartment, where the main source of light is a single bulb, swinging from the scene like a pendulum. Looking at his mastery over black and white, it's quite amazing to think that, only a year later, Bava would direct Blood and Black Lace, a garishly extravagant Technicolor production that certainly inspired Argento in his two supernatural horror films, Suspiria and Inferno.
The casting of 22-year-old Letícia Román in the lead role of Nora is inspired. Román gives her just the right combination of tomboyishness and innocent sexiness, and makes her likeable despite her flaws and tendency to faint when things get tough. A young John Saxon appear as the romantic interest, Dr. Marcello Bassi, who frequently gets saddled with doing all the leg-work and therefore has to be capable of carrying the film himself for significant stretches of its duration. Obviously, Saxon is devoid of his own voice in the Italian version, but he still comes across extremely well. The pair work extremely well together, with each one's reactions to the other's various quirks making for some very funny moments. Bava manages to avoid letting the film become pretentious or overbearing thanks to the lighthearted sense of humour, which pervades throughout, much of it at the expense of either Nora, thanks to her inexperience, or Marcello, who is the frequent victim of slapstick gags, most of which involve him further injuring a broken finger. Even the final frames of the film, which could have been overbearingly schmalzy if handled differently, continue the vein of comedy, with a running gag involving marijuana, probably by this point forgotten by most viewers, being paid off in laugh-out-loud fashion. Equally funny, although less intenionally, is Nora's admonition of Marcello's smoking habits: "It's very bad for you!", which is met with incredulity. This line, while intended to be comedic, becomes so much funnier in a modern context when the audience realizes that it is supposed to be laughing at Nora, rather than with her.
Presented anamorphically in its original 1.66:1 ratio, this transfer is of a very high standard given the age, condition and obscurity of the source materials. The opening credits and first minute or so of the film show a fair amount of film damage, and the cue marks betray the fact that the source is a theatrical print, but even so this is a remarkably eye-pleasing presentation, with excellent contrast and sharpness, and no hint of edge enhancement. It's about as film-like a transfer as you could expect to find, and is marred only by the afforementioned print damage, which is always present with varying degrees of severity, but is never so excessive as to make the film unwatchable. This is a very commendable job from Image.
The film's audio does not fare quite so well. The track used is the original Italian mono dub, and its fidelity is not particularly great. There is some occasional distortion in the sound, and the music at times feels a bit muted. It is also a shame that the English dub was not also provided for comparison, although given that the two cuts were markedly different, this would probably not have been possible given the number of scenes which appear in one but not the other. (This, to me, is proof that Image should have included both versions of the film.)
Clear, legible and accurate English subtitles are provided.
Extras, unfortunately, are fairly limited, with filmographies, the Italian theatrical trailer and an image gallery being all that is on offer on the disc itself. That said, Tim Lucas's excellent liner notes, which adorn the inside of the (ugh!) snapper case, are a very worthwhile addition, giving a great deal of insight into the ideas behind the film and its actual production.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is an engaging thriller and absolutely essential viewing for anyone interested in where Italian cinema's obsession with the giallo emerged from. The presentation of the film itself is excellent; however, a movie of this importance deserves more substantial extras than those on offer here.