I don’t know if it’s fair to detract from this movie’s score based on what I learned about it after viewing it. I’m not talking about Adrien Brody’s high-profile lawsuit against the production company to block distribution of Giallo in the U.S. until he received the remainder of his paycheck; that sort of thing shouldn’t (and doesn’t) really affect an interpretation of the film’s quality. What I am talking about is the fact that I honestly thought Dario Argento had gone out and hired someone with an unusual, potentially deformed facial structure to portray the killer, much like he had hired an elderly prostitute to portray the briefly corporeal Helena Markos in the final moments of Suspiria, and it turns out I was very, very wrong. The prosthetics applied to the killer are hideous if you accept that this is the face of a real person, but, once their falsity is pointed out, they are embarrassingly obvious—in the sense that I’m embarrassed by the fact that I made it through the whole film without realizing that it was actually Brody under all that bulbous latex. So, completely outside the world of the film itself, I have to admit that this has the overall effect of making the film goofier in retrospect.
Following the kidnapping of a beautiful tourist, Linda (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives in Turin to visit her sister, fashion model Celine (Elsa Pataky). When Celine doesn’t come home when expected, Linda goes to the police, who direct her to Inspector Enzo Avolfi (Adrien Brody), an antisocial detective who is on the trail of a serial kidnapper and murderer (also Brody) who uses his unlicensed taxi as a cover in his abductions. Linda forces her way into his investigation, and they learn from a not-quite-dead victim that her assailant is literally yellow, a fact which they use to determine that the killer, now nicknamed “Giallo,” has jaundice as a result of kidney problems and track him to a clinic. Meanwhile, Enzo reveals that his dedication to the job arose from the fact that he saw his mother murdered by a serial killer when he was a child, a butcher whom he later encountered and killed in revenge as a teenager. Giallo realizes that Linda and Enzo are closing in and takes Linda hostage, promising to tell her where Celine is hidden once he gets away.
When I hit the midpoint of this Dario Argento project, I decided to start keeping track of which of his recurring motifs were used most often and then, when we got to the end, I planned to use this info to determine which Argento was the most Argento of all the Argentos. Strangely, within the first few minutes of this film, it seemed like Giallo was aiming to be the most motif-heavy, as there was a brief scene where a character attended an opera, then a scene of running in the rain, the killer’s eyes being reflected in a mirror, and other elements that had already appeared in four or more films. And then it occurred to me: if The Black Cat was Argento doing Poe and Do You Like Hitchcock? was Argento doing Hitchcock, then Giallo is Argento doing Argento, and it works in some ways but fails in too many others.
The all-too-brief sequences of Enzo’s youth, which are shot to be stylistically similar to Argento’s movies of the late seventies and early eighties, are the most interesting part of the film. These shots are beautiful, and they really make me want to see the aging director craft a giallo period piece set during the era of his greatest successes, perhaps as the last project of his career before retirement. There’s also a return to form with regards to his cinematic eye here; the use of color throughout is particularly well done, especially as this element has been absent from his work for over a decade at this point (a chase sequence that makes its way down a giant yellow spiral staircase is notably both fun and visually appealing). I also appreciated that Enzo and Linda learned the name of the killer fairly early in the film’s run time and tracked down his location, prompting Giallo to be more proactive in a way that none of Argento’s previous antagonists had been. There’s even a fake-out downer ending with an ambiguous epilogue, which is another departure from some of Argento’s more tired ending tropes. Brody seems to be phoning in his performance as Enzo, perhaps to counterbalance his performance as the more striking Giallo, but Seigner is likable and sympathetic as a woman who refuses to give up on her sister, and she makes the character’s decision to acquiesce to the killer’s hostage taking believable.
On the other hand, the original ideas here serve to highlight just how much of this movie isn’t fresh or clever. While Seigner plays her role with understated franticness, Brody poorly acts each of his roles in a different way. The inspector is an interpretation of a hard-boiled NYC cop (it is explained that Enzo spent some time in the states growing up after the death of his mother) with a chip on his shoulder that prevents him from forming emotional relationships; Giallo is a grotesque Quasimodo who shrieks back at his victims and gets off on stealing women’s beauty by mutilating them. Both characters are too broad to leave much of an impression, and the revelation of Enzo’s backstory is more interesting in its execution than in the material revealed. Alternatively, the backstory of Giallo–that his junkie mother abandoned her jaundiced, hepatitis-infected baby to be raised by the church, where he was isolated by his yellow skin–is too maudlin to be taken completely seriously. That the film takes an unusual turn in its final third is interesting, but not interesting enough to save it.