The giallo is a type of thriller particular – and peculiar – to Italy. No one has ever done it with the style, the flair, the sensibility or the audacity of the Italian artisans.

The genre was born during the 1930s in the pulp fiction of Frederick Brown, Edgar Wallace, Agatha Christie and others. The books, published by the Mondadori press, were branded with yellow (“giallo”) covers and became hugely popular among Italian readers.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that filmmakers discovered the advantage of applying the giallo thriller to a visual medium. First, there was the great Mario Bava (The Evil Eye, Blood and Black Lace). Later, there were the films of director Umberto Lenzi, writer Ernesto Gastaldi, producer Luciano Martino and others too.

These visionaries began to turn out a stream of film thrillers that were seductively slick, sinuously stylish, devilishly sexy and defiantly dressed to kill. The films took advantage of the confounding times, where lusts and longings were balanced with deep, dark fear and rickety retribution.

While the highly esteemed Italian composer Ennio Morricone was not the first to compose music for such thrillers, he certainly defined the sound and the feeling of the giallo – starting with L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo – and he scored more of the genre’s films than any other composer.

The quality of the films may have varied, but if it said “Music by Ennio Morricone” you were sure to get more than your money’s worth. Even a quick scan of these films’ posters and lobby cards – a highly recommended visual treat – reveals that Morricone’s name is often featured as prominently as the films’ stars, a true indication of the real ‘star’ of the giallo film.

Giallo soundtracks are best known by their breezy bossas and Euro-chic lounge themes, which perfectly defined the often upscale milieu where these thrillers unfold. This collection, however, focuses on the darker cues that Morricone spattered throughout his giallo soundtracks.

These themes, heard most often during scenes of stalking and pursuits most foul, evoke fear and provoke tension in a way no other composer had really ever attempted before.

For these films, Morricone combined his gift for building upon classic European structures with his love of free-form improvisatory music. The result was a strange kind of jazz which coolly suits the films’ signature malevolence among the jet set.

We begin, appropriately, with Dario Argento’s L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), the film that started it all. While it was certainly not the first giallo, it became a worldwide hit that set the standard for the giallo film and its corresponding music and begat a wave of Italian thrillers with similarly dazzling, zoological titles.

American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) spots what appears to be a woman getting attacked in a chi-chi art gallery. Dalmas is unable to enter the gallery to help, but the would-be assassin flees. The woman survives; yet, Dalmas is puzzled by something that happened that he can’t immediately identify. He sets out to solve the mystery, embroiling his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) and himself in the killer’s plot.

Luciano Ercoli’s Le Foto Probibite di una Signora per Bene (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady above Suspicion) takes famed giallo scriptwriter Ernesto Gastaldi’s familiar woman-in-peril concept to deliriously twisted extremes. Bored housewife Minou (Dagmar Lassander) is menaced by a tormentor (Simon Andreu) who convinces her that her husband (Pier Paolo Capponi) has murdered a business colleague.

Minou submits to degrading sex with her tormentor to quiet the allegations and the tormentor photographs her to keep her coming back for more. She enlists the aid of a friend, Dominique (Susan Scott), to help ward off the blackmailer. But, no longer sure who she can really trust, Minou may go out of her mind before she becomes the victim of murder herself.

Argento’s Il Gatto a Nove Code (The Cat o’ Nine Tails) focuses on Franco Arno (Karl Malden), a puzzle maker (get it?) who is blind – a pleasingly ironic oddity in these whodunits that demand a good deal of vision. One evening, while walking outside his flat with his niece, he overhears a conversation in a car about something that sounds like blackmail. That same evening, he overhears what turns out to be a break-in at a top-secret genetics research institute located right across the street from his apartment.

The next day, one of the doctors from the institute is pushed in front of a moving train. Arno’s niece recognizes the murdered man from a newspaper article written by Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) as the man Arno overheard in the car the night before. Arno and Giordani combine forces to investigate the strange events. They determine that they have nine leads (get it?) to follow, which, of course, puts all their lives in danger in just as many ways.

Enzo G. Castellari’s Gli Occhi Freddi della Paura (Cold Eyes of Fear) is a lesser giallo. But this marginal film benefits from one of Morricone’s most engrossing scores, a free form set of improvisations from the maestro’s own Gruppo Di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza.

A London playboy brings a prostitute back to his father’s house for a night of fun but a cockney criminal waiting at the house takes the pair hostage. The playboy’s father, Judge Badell (Fernando Rey), disapproves of his son’s aimless lifestyle and sends an officer (Frank Wolff) to deliver his message of decisive disapproval. The officer turns out to be part of the hostage attempt, seeking revenge on the judge for a past partnership that went awry.

Luigi Bazzoni’s Giornata Nera per L’Ariete (The Fifth Cord) is one of the absolutely essential giallo films and among the very best of those covered here. Based on David McDonald Devine’s novel, this film benefits from particularly exceptional direction, the stunning photography of Vittorio Storaro (photographer of the Bird above and many Bertolucci films including the following year’s hit Last Tango In Paris), above-average performances by a stable of giallo veterans and Ennio Morricone’s superb score.

Following a New Year’s party at a swanky club, one of the guests (Maurizio Bonuglia) is viciously attacked. Andrea Bild (Franco Nero), an alcoholic journalist who was at the party in a drunken stupor, is called in to cover the attack. Shortly thereafter, other party guests are murdered, and a black glove missing a finger for each killing (the “cord” of the American title) is left at the scene. Bild investigates, uncovering blackmail plots, sex parties and an obscure astrological connection, ultimately setting himself up as a suspect and one of the victims too.

Philippe Labro’s Senza Movente (Without Apparent Motive) could be mistaken for one of the great French crime dramas. But with its Italian supporting cast, Morricone’s score, Italian financing and the crucial seeds of the giallo, this thriller paints the resort town of Nice yellow with mystery. There are several notable departures from the traditional giallo here, notably the Zodiac-style killings, very much celebrated, as such, in the same year’s Dirty Harry.

Three men are mysteriously gunned down by an unknown sniper over two days in the French resort town of Nice. Inspector Stéphane Carella (Jean-Louis Trintignant) can’t connect the killings until he discovers the diary of one of the victims. The diary contains the numbers of many women, including Jocelyne (Carla Gravina), a woman Carella has had his own stormy relationship with. Carella finds out that Jocelyne knew all the murder victims from her days at the university, but then she is killed too. Carella finds that the university somehow holds the key to the puzzle.

Aldo Lado’s La Corta Notte Delle Bambole di Vetro (Short Night of Glass Dolls) is unusual in many respects, not the least of which is the depth of context lacking in many Italian thrillers. The film is a political allegory – with none of the heavy-handedness that may imply – which traffics not in fear of black-gloved killers or Freudian fuck-ups, but rather in fear of Communism, catalepsy and the power of rulers (the old) over the ruled (the young).

A grounds man discovers a dead body lying in a Prague park. The body is taken to the morgue and declared dead on arrival. It turns out that the man is actually still alive but in a catatonic state, unable to speak or move. The man struggles to recall what happened and what brought him here. It turns out that he is an American journalist named Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel). Through flashbacks, he recalls that he and his girlfriend, Mira (Barbara Bach), were planning to leave for America together. Then Mira suddenly disappears and he begins to recall what happened.  

Dario Argento’s 4 Mosche di Velluto Grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) concludes what is often referred to as the director and composer’s “trilogy of terror”. It is a delirious giallo with outrageous plotting, wacky characters (including one called “God” who gets his own “Hallelujah!” from Morricone) and a crazy scientific theory that gives the film its title. Still, somehow, Morricone weaves the film’s peculiarities masterfully into the music, despite Argento’s pronounced displeasure with this score (the two reunited 25 years later for the neo-giallo The Stendhal Syndrome).

Rock musician Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) is a being stalked by a mysterious stranger who he pursues into an abandoned theatre. After a scuffle, Roberto stabs his assailant, an event which is captured in photographs by an eyewitness wearing a puppet mask. The photos begin to arrive at Roberto’s house so he tells his wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) what happened and hires a private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle) to investigate. Murders and madness ensue.

Sergio Sollima’s little-known Il Diavolo Nel Cervello (The Devil In The Brain), like many giallo thrillers, delivers many victims. But only one is dead. This is a carefully and elegantly plotted mystery that is more about people slaying the internal demons within than slaying everyone within arm’s reach of a knife.

Oscar Mino (Keir Dullea) returns home after being abroad and crosses paths with an old friend, the wealthy Sandra Garcet (Stefania Sandrelli), who does not recognize him. He is surprised to discover that Sandra has completely reverted to a childlike state of mind. Mino enlists the aid of Dr. Emilio Buontempi (Maurice Ronet) and meets Sandra’s mother, who reveals that Sandra was driven to her current state upon discovering her husband, Fabrizio, shot to death and her young son, Ricky (Renato Cestié), holding the gun. Dr. Buontempi meets Ricky and doubts his guilt.

Aldo Lado’s Violenza Sull’Ultimo Treno Della Notte (Night Train Murders) is another one the director’s uniquely plotted thrillers. This film, said to be modeled on Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, is unlike any other giallo ever made. Rather than the “who done it” plotting of most Italian thrillers, this meditation on the nature of violence is delivered as a “who do you think is going to do it”.  

Lisa (Laura D’Angelo) and Margaret (Irene Miracle) are two students in Munich who travel by train to spend the Christmas holiday with Lisa’s parents in Italy. The overcrowded train is stopped in Verona because of a suspected bomb, but the two girls manage to switch to another, less crowded train that gets them home even earlier. However, an attractive older woman (Macha Méril) and two violent, young thugs also switch trains. The unlikely trio torment and terrorize the two girls to a climactic orgy of rape, murder, accidental death (or suicide) and violent revenge.

Robert Faenza’s brilliantly twisted Copkiller (aka Corrupt) is a late-period giallo based on Hugh Fleetwood’s novel The Order of Death. This confoundedly homo-(un)erotic film features several startling performances, especially PiL’s surprisingly competent front man, Johnny Lydon – whose band was to have originally provided the film’s music as well (sample This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get for a taste of what they had in mind).

A masked killer dressed as a policeman is killing corrupt cops on New York City’s drug squad. Meanwhile the head of the division, Lt. Fred O’Connor (Harvey Keitel), shares an illicitly acquired secret getaway along (Italy’s) Central Park West with Bob Carvo (Leonard Mann), another cop on the force. One day a rich young man named Leo (Johnny Lydon) shows up at the apartment claiming to be the cop killer and knowing O’Connor’s secret too.

Maestro Morricone gained international prominence as a composer who could work effectively in most every genre imaginable and defined the sound for many along the way – scores of spaghetti westerns, crime films, romances and epic adventures spring easily to mind. Indeed, he scored at least a dozen more giallo films not even covered here.

He calls these meditations on fear and tension “traumatic music”: simple sounds that combine repetitive rhythmic motifs, or ostinato (such as Philip Glass would popularize years later), with improvised, often discordant, cries on top.

In this music, like so much of his work elsewhere, Morricone perfectly realizes a merger of the logical, the physical and the emotional into the most human of sounds – one which no one else has created nearly as effectively.

Douglas Payne