Death Walks on High Heels ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Spoilers for all sorts of gialli throughout. If I mention a film by name, I'm probably about to spoil something about it. Consider yourselves warned.

The history of the giallo parallels the history of Italian masculinity. The genre rose to popularity at the same time as the ideological landscape of what it meant to be a man in Italy was fundamentally changing, and the films made during that period of history reflected the cultural anxieties produced by that tectonic shift.

The giallo was born with Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), and it came into its own with Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). The bulk of the original gialli came out between 1968 and 1975, and this precise period was a tumultuous time in Italian history. Broad and far-reaching socio-economic factors were having a massive impact on normative gender roles and on mainstream concepts of masculinity.

After the decline of Italy's fascist regime in the aftermath of World War II, the nation was reborn as a republic, and with some international help abroad, it flourished. "In the twenty years from 1950 to 1970, per capita income in Italy grew more rapidly than in any other European country." [1] In particular, the period from 1958 to 1963 is commonly referred to as the "Italian economic miracle," a period in time when the country was fundamentally transformed by rampant economic growth from a relatively poor agricultural nation into a globalized and industrialized international force. [2]

But while this growth was largely maintained throughout the 60's and into the 70's, the mile marker of it ending in 1963 is a significant one—and not only because it just happens to be the release date of the first ever giallo. Education had become more accessible in Italy after World War II, and with this increase in the populace's education came a parallel increase in class consciousness, and this class consciousness brought about protests.

"With the increase in the availability of further education, thousands of young workers were experiencing the radicalising effect of the universities, and many brought this fresh perspective on their situation back to the factories once their education had finished. This new awareness, coupled with the changing needs of workers in the factories was soon to find expression in the many revolutionary groups that would penetrate the factories and take class struggle in the northern industrial belt to its height." [3]

Factory workers in Italy, particularly in the more modern northernized region, were striking throughout the beginning of the 1960's, and these protests came to a head in 1962 with two crucial strikes at the Lancia and Michelin factories, coinciding almost directly with the end of the Italian economic miracle and the release of the first giallo. A second spike of student and worker strikes occurred in 1968, another coincidentally significant date in the history of the giallo, as the first year of their peak presence in theaters. By this point, anti-traditionalist sentiment in Italy had gained so much momentum that there was a movement named for the year, a movement which eventually built into what historians call Hot Autumn the following year, an era of widespread pro-labor anti-capitalist political activism. [4]

Industrialization had reached a point where the workforce had power and leverage over the factories, and laborers were beginning to unify in the idea that the old ways were no longer good enough. Something had to change, not only about how they were treated but about culture itself. But these strikes marked both the height and the decline in workers' power: after the strikes, power was consolidated into unions, but the unions caved earlier than workers wanted, they met fewer of the demands of the people they were supposed to represent, and in doing so, they "[led] them back down the path of failed political reformism which has characterised Italian politics since the end of World War II." [3]

Abandoned by their representative bodies, workers found themselves isolated and powerless. This led to a condition Giorgio Bocca called "the neurotic factory," wherein workers felt forced to adapt "their lives to continual exhaustion, giving up any tiring leisure activities, sleeping more, reading less." [5] Forced to fend for themselves at positions that demanded more of them in terms of both physical labor and time commitment than they ever had before, Italian workers were being trampled by the machinery of capitalism. Factories were exiting center stage as the primary player in Italian national identity, and as a result Italian masculinity was entering a state of crisis.

"It is as if – given the progressive marginalization of manual work within production, as well as at a social and individual level, and the disappearance of the proud subjective identification of workers with their own trades – the only characteristics which could resist and give meaning to existence were those that defined the worker as male." [6]

One of the most telling details of this whole process was that laborers were often forced to sacrifice their love lives in order to make up for the demands of their factory lives. At a protest in 1971, "one photograph shows a placard held up during a trade union demonstration in Turin, representing two hearts superposed on to each other with the heading 'We can only do this if we work less.'" [6] The demands of factory life were not only erasing the gender identity of masculine workers, they were erasing their literal sexuality as well.

At the same time that this previously male-dominated space was losing its cultural power, it was also becoming increasingly feminine as equal rights movements brought larger numbers of women into the workplace. Cultural iconography resisted this trend, reinforcing the stereotypical image of the strong, virile manly man defined by his "physical energy"; "despite the relatively high number of women in employment in the 1970s, work was still considered to be a masculine prerogative and its iconography was anchored to images of machismo." [6] But with equality of opportunity making disposable income available to more than just the patriarchs of Italian families, businesses began to aim their consumer goods women as well, and man's place at the center of the Italian economy was finally being dislodged.

"The development of the market, and especially of leisure consumerism was no longer reachable only through male mediation but was directly aimed at female consumers, 'destabilizing the women-men-market triangle' and dealing 'a serious blow to virile masculinity'." [6]

Men's virility was rooted in being the bread-winners of the family, in controlling the purse strings, and they were losing this place at the head of the Italian house as culture began increasingly to cater directly to women. As women feminized the traditionally masculine workplace, men responded in a particularly telling way: by putting up posters and leaving around magazines of pornographic material.

"This practice was still occurring at the end of the 1970s, when the activists of the Turin Women's Inter-professional Union demonstrated and made 'punitive'-type raids, pulling down and binning posters and porn magazines stuck on office walls."

Men felt both their gender and sexuality under threat, and they responded by attempting to reinforce traditional gender norms with explicit sexual material, endeavoring to empower themselves by disempowering women, by sexualizing and objectifying them. Which is about as close as we're going to get to the giallo without literal evidence that factory workers organized after-work screenings.

It's not hard to imagine. If what made men feel more comfortable in their decentered place in the world was plastering pornographic posters all over their increasingly feminine workplaces, it just makes sense that what would appeal to them would be hypersexualized exploitation films where women are more often nude than clothed. If work life was leading to a state of the "neurotic factory" wherein love lives were being sidelined, it's easy to see the appeal of this highly sexualized content.

But far from the shallow pornography that Italian men were apparently bringing into the office, the giallo reflected the anxiety underlying this tendency more than the tendency itself. They're not as much about satisfying this desire to return men to the center of Italian culture as they were about exploring the fears that caused this desire</b.

On the surface, gialli appear to be primarily concerned with depictions of the female body in various states of undress and decomposition, but when we look beneath the surface, this violent sexual imagery has deeper implications. The giallo was not a further piece of propaganda to reinforce the traditional tropes of masculinity, quite the contrary. The men in gialli are defined by their impotence, impotence which finds itself expressed as the failure of perception, as their failure to figure out the murder mystery du jour, and which they attempt to remedy through sexualization and objectification of women—an attempt which almost always fails.

The giallo is a response to deconstructed gender roles and an exploration of the repercussions of these shifting sexual politics. The genre was born from the anxiety of man's loss of manliness, and as such the films that compose it are particularly interesting to study at our current moment in history because similar anxieties have risen up once again in our global cultural milieu, from the specific responses of conservative figures like Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro bemoaning the supposed loss of masculinity evidenced by Harry Styles wearing what they consider to be women's clothing, to more general reactionary homophobia in response to increasing visibility of queer and transgender individuals and to increasing cultural importance of queer and transgender rights.

It's perhaps important to emphasize here that neither were men actually becoming less manly nor were they truly being decentered from the socio-cultural conversation, not in Italy in the 60's and 70's and not today. They were and are losing power, to be sure, but they had so much to begin with that this can only be considered an evening of the playing field. For all the ennui this shift produced, we find the truth of the matter reflected in the giallo, where it was still women who were the victims, it was still women who were the targets of both physical and psychological violence.

And likewise it's important to acknowledge the heteronormativity in which this anxiety is rooted. The idea that men can and should be aroused specifically by women is part and parcel with the reactionary, traditionalist ideology that caused their downfall in the first place. Of course the same instinct that would worry men about being less physically powerful would insist that men should be aroused by women. Transgender and homosexual identities have always been perceived as a threat to conservative concepts of masculinity. And there's certainly interesting material within the giallo on this subject—it's a genre of surprisingly casual and positive queer representation, which, in a genre so concerned with gender and sexuality, is telling—but that's a topic for another essay.

The cultural trauma that we're examining here came from the fact that men were attached to a certain way of life that was disappearing, and that change hurts whether the shift is bad or not, whether the previous state of affairs was good or not. Men were breaking up with their abusive boyfriend The Factory, and it was hard to find their feet in this scary new independent world, but it was a struggle worth having—and the giallo outlines the coordinates of that struggle, both how that anxiety was felt and how coping mechanisms were being employed to deal with it.

The giallo was born with Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Blood and Black Lace, and it came into its own with Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, three films where man's socio-cultural dominance is centrally interrogated.

In The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the protagonist believes that she witnesses a man murdering a woman, but what she actually witnesses is a man cleaning up after a woman murdering a woman. Man is reduced from the admittedly negative height of the evil mastermind to the lower role of peon-servant, performing the "womanly" duty of cleaning while a woman works the levers behind the curtain. Blood and Black Lace takes place at a fashion house wherein the beautiful women employed as models are being killed off one by one. It frames the workplace as a woman's world where men are all shady and suspicious, essentially staging the crisis happening in real-life Italian factories on a microscopic level and turning labor into a feminine field. In The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, this conflict becomes literal: the protagonist can't get it up until he solves the mystery of the film. He's trapped in a glass case while women pull the strings behind the scenes.

But the most explicit connection to the Italian cultural milieu would come with Death Laid an Egg (1968), in which a stylistically experimental but otherwise fairly standard serial killer plot takes place on top of the backdrop of a married couple struggling to deal with the fact that the workers in their chicken factory are all on strike. This was a massive year for political protests in Italy; 1968 was referred to as The Long '68 and led to Hot Autumn. The movie doesn't quite go so far as to connect the dots for us, but it presents a sexually repressed man and a factory with striking workers and asks us to draw our own conclusions.

Outside the genre itself, the giallo is most defined by its relationship to Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), a movie that appears at first to be about a woman, Marion Crane, but halfway through the movie narrative control and perspective are wrenched away from her and taken over by the sexually repressed Norman Bates. Like any good giallo protagonist, Bates is insecure, impotent, unsure how to act around women, profoundly uncomfortable about his place in the world. This psycho-sexual existential crisis is mirrored in the male protagonist of the giallo, who is often likewise not even the main character in his own story until the female protagonist dies off halfway through the plot.

Among the various giallo revivals that have been produced over the years, while many reproduce this sexual violence, Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is perhaps the most revealing. The genre's typical sexual violence is unseen, displaced onto the fruits and vegetables of the sound designers but never directly visible to the audience. What we get instead is a focus on Toby Jones, a meek English film editor flown to Italy on the expectation of working on an equestrian film but assigned to exploitation instead. Jones's character doesn't speak the language, spends much of his time failing to reimburse costs he incurred traveling, and generally has trouble asserting himself and getting along with anyone around him. The crisis in Italian masculinity is revived along with the genre.

The giallo is a cinema of the outsider, featuring tourists and non-police detective work, and thus it is perfect for exploring these issues in the shifting cultural landscape of masculinity. Men were being made to feel like outsiders, like strangers in their own country, and so they identified with them on screen. This anxiety about man's place in society and his cultural relevance also finds itself manifested in the common ambiguity of the gender of giallo killers: like The Girl Who Knew Too Much, it is often unclear who is behind the murders in any given film, and when the killer is finally unmasked it frequently turns out to have been a women—or, as in the case of Blood and Black Lace and many others, it turns out that there were both genders interchangeably. Characters initially assumed to be men are revealed to be women, as if men are being written out of their own story.

This anxiety about man's place in the world, about his strength and thus his virility and potency, when not expressed literally finds itself translated in the giallo into an uncertainty about the power of perception. The structure of the giallo itself invites questions on the nature of perception: the tourist in a foreign country, the outsider attempting investigative work, the stranger in a strange land trying to understand their surroundings, all this is by its very nature a question of whether our perception is sufficient to understand the world around us.

The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971) provides an elegant metaphor for this visual uncertainty: in a discussion between the amateur detective-protagonist and the police officer on his case, the characters touch on their respective tendencies to trust appearances. "Remember Plato?" one asks the other. "Vaguely." With this little exchange, we tie the central metaphor of the giallo back to the allegory of the cave. The giallo protagonist is trapped in the cave of his own mind, only able to see reality through its reflections in his eyes.

The goal of the male protagonist in a giallo is to understand the central mystery of the plot, to wrap his all-seeing eyes and his big juicy brain around the narrative and forcefully understand it into submission. In a crisp reflection of man's decentered reality outside the stable masculinity of the factory, here his strength is reduced to his ability to see and to understand, two much more cerebral activities than his definition as "physical energy." His strength moved from his muscles to his mind—and he's not sure how strong that mind is.

This anxiety is elegantly expressed in The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975), in which our hero can't seem to stop breaking his spectacles. His vision is constantly handicapped until he figures out the plot and earns himself a fancy new pair of glasses. But this move from sexual to cognitive-visual impotence isn't mere translation, there's a new meaning in this re-articulation that reflects back on the original. When man loses his sexuality, at the same time he also loses his ability to see—which says a lot about how men use their eyes.

The crisis at the heart of the giallo is at its most fundamental level a question of how men look at women. The hyper-sexualization of the giallo's women is just as much about the men as it is about the women: it is a reaction to their felt impotence, their fantasy projected outward as an attempt to arouse themselves in light of their emasculation—for both the characters in the films and for the 60's and 70's male audience members.

So where does Death Walks in High Heels figure into this equation? The reason Death Walks in High Heels is such a crucial giallo on which to center our discussion about the genre's navigation of shifting trends in masculinity is because the two opposing male leads present a dialectic on masculinity, and because the film literalizes the issues related to perception into which this dialectic is translated. Even the title itself is an inversion of gendered expectations.

Death Walks in High Heels is also a strangely poignant centerpiece for the genre because it happens to be one of the most straightforwardly romantic gialli. There's a cute joke in the film where a lady-cop walks in on a man-cop listening to a tape obtained as part of their investigation of a couple making love, and the man-cop becomes embarrassed and quickly turns it off as if he's been caught looking at pornography. It's cute because it so accurately depicts the embarrassment of male arousal, and Death Walks in High Heels plays its romance so straightforwardly because it is trying to normalize that arousal. This masculine romance is the unspoken fantasy of the giallo, the inverse of its usual psycho-sexual neuroses. The not-so-secret goal of the genre's titillation and exploitation is to excite male desire and restore male potency, as if it's prescribing itself as the cure for The Neurotic Factory.

In Death Walks in High Heels we get two men, roughly protagonist and antagonist (although as with Psycho, the story begins largely from the perspective of Nicole Rochard, the woman that these two men end up juggling until her untimely demise), who are differentiated on pretty explicitly political grounds: age, wealth, and (roughly) confidence, self-esteem, or mental health. They are different portraits of masculinity, and their differences are crucially significant.

Michel Aumont is the younger, poorer, more unstable of the two men, and if that doesn't make his role as the audience surrogate for the many displaced or disgruntled Italian workers present in the 1971 audience obvious enough, he is literally a displaced and disgruntled worker himself, an unemployed bum looking for a new job and meanwhile living off Nicole's dime. When Nicole's notorious thief of a father turns up dead, Michel and Nicole are called in by the police, and the lead detective on the investigation greets them by insinuating that Michel is Nicole's pimp. When Michel and Nicole part ways for the day, Nicole requests that Michel not drink too much, revealing her fear that he's at least at risk of becoming an alcoholic.

On top of his general insecurity, Michel finds himself worrying about Nicole at the strip club, afraid that he'll lose her to another man or worse, and he finds himself incapable of staying away from the bottle. He gets drunk, and when Nicole comes home he protests that he can get by just fine without her help, thank you very much. He tells her that he's tired of being judged by everyone, tired of waiting for her to come home all night, and he storms out. Michel is having a hard time. So when Nicole is attacked by a masked man with striking blue contact lenses and then later finds those exact contact lenses stashed away in Michel's bathroom, you can understand why she might suspect that he's the one who attacked her.

So Nicole runs off with Dr. Robert Matthews instead, the older, wealthier, and generally more emotionally and psychologically stable of the two men—on the surface. He presents a stark contrast to Michel. He works as an ophthalmologist and doesn't ask much of Nicole, so she feels comfortable with him, and we can begin to see the Italian socio-cultural anxiety creeping in around the edge of the frame. Michel represents the man without masculinity that Italy thought its men were becoming, and Doc Rob represents a fantasmatic regression to something older and more stable. "The man is represented as having an increasingly fragile identity and appears to try to bolster his lost virility by salvaging out dated models." [6]

But most threatening of all is the fact that Doc Rob really knows how to look at Nicole. He gazes at her with open hunger, even going so far as to record one of her performances on film, in perhaps the film's most knowingly meta-cinematic moment (what are we watching but a recording of some loser's fetishistic fantasy?). Doc Rob is so good at looking with his big, strong, powerful eyeballs that he's literally an eye doctor, and he's so talented that he spends the movie bringing a blind man's vision back from nothing. He's the eye guy.

If the central conflict of any giallo is the tension between the perception of the protagonist and the unknowability of the mystery at the heart of the plot, then Doc Rob is the ultimate giallo antagonist. He's a giallo supervillain. He has ultimate control over perception; he has ultimate power over the gaze. The other men in the film don't even have control over their own perception, let alone the ability to repair the perception of others. One of the red herrings among the townsfolk makes excuses for ogling Nicole through his telescope in terms that could be the thesis of the film itself: "I couldn't resist! After all, I'm just a man."

All of the red herrings in the film are telling in this way; even though they didn't personally commit the murders, they're all guys who couldn't stop themselves from gazing at Nicole. They're wrongly suspected, but they're wrongly suspected for the right reasons. They didn't do the big crime (murder), but they did do the small crime (objectification/sexualization). They all stare at her through the telescope, gaze longingly at her bare legs, watch her paint her toenails with no pants on; they all try to understand her, contain her and decenter her and return themselves to the center of their world.

An old man in town remarks that "ten lifetimes wouldn't be enough to understand a woman," and that's exactly the thing, that's what the men's gaze is attempting to rectify. It's trying to comprehend woman, to organize her into their psycho-sexual mental matrix, but they can't. They're all desperately thirsty to Do The Look, but none of them can quite manage. The men in Death Walks in High Heels, with the notable exception of Doc Rob, do not have control over their perception, and in an attempt to regain that control, they wield their gaze at Nicole—and she ends up dying because of it.

In this sense, the blind man who has his vision fixed functions as a wish fulfillment fantasy, both for the men in the film and for 1971 Italian audiences. He's a man who has his vision and thus his perception symbolically restored, and he subsequently plays a pivotal role in the unraveling of the central mystery, as if the detective from The Suspicious Death of a Minor found a way to repair his broken spectacles forever.

Michel isn't lucky enough to have his perception restored, so when Nicole dies and he feels the oppressive over-proximity of his impotence flare up, he regresses to the "physical energy" of classical masculinity, getting drunk and violent with anyone he thinks might have answers. He thinks he can prove himself by finding the killer; "If we leave it to the cops, the killer will never be found," and his way of finding the killer involves reverting to the physical violence of the old model of man.

Which, coincidentally enough, is something he unknowingly shares with Doc Rob, the secret killer behind all the murders. The only thing about Doc Rob that's not illusory is his age: his wealth belongs to his wife, and his mental stability, well... little does Nicole know that Doc Rob is actually the one who tried to assault her and who killed her father. He doesn't ask for much because all he really wants are the diamonds her father sent her, and he plans to take those without asking. Even his supposed mastery over perception is a lie: as the killer, he needs contact lenses in order to enjoy his murders, he can't get his jouissance without seeing through the symbolic artifice of the contact lenses. His mastery is all a masquerade.

Death Walks in High Heels opens with two men, two exemplars of masculinity, and it ends with them duking it out, fighting mano a mano in the dirt, desperately trying to recapture the "physical energy" of classical masculinity in a synchronized outburst of violent Hegelian synthesis, the two existing together but in constant tension, but the film's cleverest element is precisely its twist. It shows its audience exactly what it fears, not murder, although obviously it shows that too, but an older man whom their girl wants more than she wants them, a more confident masculinity that's more appealing to the opposite sex—and it shows how that fear-fantasy is empty, how it is a false construction, a front with no reality behind.

Likewise, the fantasy that Doc Rob represents, the fantasy that motivates all the anxiety surrounding this crisis in Italian masculinity, is equally empty. Neither were men actually becoming less manly nor were they truly being decentered from the socio-cultural conversation. They were losing power, to be sure, but the socio-cultural trauma came from the fact that they were attached to a certain way of life that was disappearing, and that change hurts whether the previous state of affairs was actually any good or not.

1970s | Giallo | Italy | Horror

Works Cited
[1] Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
[2] Crafts, Nicholas, and Toniolo, Gianni. Economic growth in Europe since 1945. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
[3] Lowry, Sam. 1962-1973: Worker and student struggles in Italy., 2008
[4] von Kempis, Stefan. ’The Long ’68’. Italy’s View of the Protest Movement of 40 Years Ago. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2008.
[5] Bocca, Giorgio. "The Social Cost of Labour." Il Giorno, 1968.
[6] Sangiovanni, Andrea. Italian working men's masculinities in the latter half of the twentieth century. Clio: Women, Gender, History, 2013.

Thanks to my patrons Hasturtium, Xplodera, Martin Cheney, george, Jacob, Cass Saldaña, and Nathan Blumenfeld, your continued support gives me the motivation I need to write these longer and more involved pieces.

Special thanks to Ian West, who has seen infinitely more gialli than I have and written about all of them here on Letterboxd. Thanks for the reviews, and good luck with your book!