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Much of Madness, More of Sin — The Classic Italian Giallo Thriller

The Psychic

The Psychic

Outdrawing the Spaghetti Western as the prime popular example of Italian baroque in the late 1960s, for a decade the “Giallo” thriller was the star in the crown of the nation’s remarkably rich genre cinema. It remains its most cultishly revered. As with the French Série Noire, a ubiquitous crime-paperback edition’s color provided the name (Giallo means yellow). And like Noir, Giallo is not so much a genre as a set of themes and a style — one where everybody and everything seem suspicious in a world given to violent bouts of psychosexual trauma and hysteria, not to mention the most astonishing visual inventiveness. The Gialli’s chief draw was not their murky, convoluted tales — which usually allowed unknown assassins to don gloves as sexy starlets disrobed — but some of the most elaborately constructed murder scenes in the history of film, the most suspenseful and elegantly delirious of which carried the signature of stylist supreme Dario Argento, whose groundbreaking debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), opens the American Cinematheque’s six-film Giallo salute. The rest of the series runs the gamut from the campy lewdness of Umberto Lenzi’s indelibly titled Carroll Baker fest Orgasmo (a.k.a. Paranoia) (1969) to the surprisingly subdued creepiness of Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic (1977), plus two incoherent chillers by journeyman Armando Crispino, whose superior Autopsy (1975) offers a staggering suicide-series opening montage, a typically self-reflexive stalker set-piece in a crime museum and the incomparable Mimsy Farmer. All these films are rare, but none so much as Argento’s also-Farmer-enhancedFour Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), which, thanks to unavailability, has acquired a mythic reputation impossible to live up to. Like Crystal Plumage,it’s comparably tame by Argento’s later horror standards, yet its grand finale encapsulates the surreal poetry and technical ingeniousness of Giallo like nothing else: Accompanied by maestro Ennio Morricone’s haunting lullaby score, the film’s ultimate vision of death achieves mysterious beauty through the unorthodox, beguiling flow of images captured with a special German camera able to register 30,000 frames per second. The Giallo may be history, but its greatest moments still effortlessly suspend time. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian; through April 23. www.americancinematheque.com)

—Christoph Huber