THE CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL (1971)
The mysterious death of a millionaire, followed by his suddenly rich widow, draws the attention of a dogged investigator, who follows a trail of blood to the bitter end...
Go back, just a few years, and I recall having to explain what a giallo was every time I used the term. Even Google would only throw up a few lines on Wikipedia and one or two references from books about Dario Argento—so, it’s great to see the genre now enjoying a healthy renaissance. A prime example of the genre, Sergio Martino’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale, is the latest to be given the respect it deserves with a lovingly restored 4K remaster from the original camera negatives, presented on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.
The Martino brothers, producer Luciano and director Sergio, are sometimes dismissed as astute opportunists that had their fingers on the pulse during Italy’s golden age of pulp cinema, the 1960s and early-1970s. This may be true, as they were quick to recognise any popular trend, but rather than simply hitching their wagons to it, they pulled their weight. The popularity of spaghetti westerns was dropping off rather sharply when Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) came out. Although not well-received initially, it became a surprise success overseas and rapidly built on a cult following to become a commercial hit back home. It was one of the most talked about, and profitable, Italian films of the year. It whetted the distributors’ appetite for more thrillers like that, so the pressure was on the studios to meet demand.
The following year saw the release of a swathe of gialli with a handful of top-notch examples, among them many that remain definitive. Dario Argento ploughed on to complete his ‘Animal Trilogy’ with The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), and is historically given the lion’s share of the credit for establishing giallo’s essential ingredients. Arguably, though, some of those early gialli directed by Sergio Martino are equally formative. Indeed, they’re clearly referenced in later films by Argento!
During the opening credits for The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale (with excellent title music from Bruno Nicolai), we follow a smartly dressed lady walking through London. We can tell it’s London because of the red double decker busses, pillar boxes, and telephone booths. The lady is also distinguished from the crowds by her fashionable red hat. Giallo aficionados are immediately on familiar ground here, knowing that red commonly foreshadows bloody murder. The use of a distinctive hat to help the audience keep track of a character has also been used repeatedly—Argento even parodies this technique in the sequence leading up to the murder of John Saxon’s character in Tenebrae (1982).
The lady in the red hat turns out to be Lisa Baumer (Ida Galli) whose rich, older husband is abroad on business. In a clever scene that doesn’t use any dialogue, she enjoys the company of her lover, George (Tomás Picó), and is later woken by a telephone call. Through the intercut shots of a framed photo and a completely unconvincing model aeroplane exploding, we realise she’s just been informed of her husband’s death in an air disaster. She’s surprised to learn that her estranged spouse has named her as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, worth a cool million dollars. The only catch is that she must fly to Athens to collect in person.
When word gets out that the fresh widow is now worth a fortune, there seems to be no shortage of her ex-lovers, her husband’s mistresses, and assorted interested parties, that feel they deserve their share. Very soon it becomes clear that the air disaster was no accident, but who among the possible perpetrators could be ruthless enough to kill an entire plane load of innocent passengers solely for money?
It’s a bit of a slow build to begin with, but the intrigue and enigma keep it interesting enough, not to mention the clothes, the cars, the interiors, accessories, and some great shots of a London slipping into dereliction shortly before huge sections were to be demolished and developed during the ’70s.
Nearly half an hour into the plot, it really hits its stride and we get a black-gloved, knife-wielding killer and then an Interpol Inspector, Stanley (Alberto de Mendoza), suggesting that the killer is a “maniac”. He’s assisting Greek Police Inspector Stavros (Luigi Pistilli) with the investigation of a murder that introduces the film’s first truly surprising twist. Insurance investigator Peter Lynch (giallo stalwart, George Hilton), although initially a suspect himself, teams up with Stanley and Stavros along with newspaper reporter Cléo (Anita Strindberg) in an attempt to solve the multiple murder and track down the money.
The principal cast all do a good job and there are some nicely ambiguous performances. The central roles are also gender balanced, with three strong female roles counterpointing the male leads. Ida Galli plays the widow with a cool blonde and British restraint, speaking volumes with a twitch of an eyebrow. Janine Reynaud plays the disgruntled mistress with plenty of Greek fire, all glaring glances, heaving bosom and flaring nostrils. Anita Strindberg plays the journalist and main romantic interest as upbeat, likeable and perceptive. Luigi Pistilli’s determined, hangdog detective has a penchant for jigsaw puzzles and a sense of irony—he has a great ‘weather-worn’ face and conveys plenty with a single sidelong glance. Alberto Mendoza is a little too suave and cheesy to be convincing as a hard-bitten Interpol Inspector, but we soon learn he’s using his gallows humour, at least partly, to distance himself from the terrible crimes he witnesses, and partly as a Columbo-style distraction. George Hilton is always watchable and if he’s in a giallo, it’s a pretty good bet it’ll be a good one. He’s handsome, versatile, and like all clever actors, can express one emotion through his eyes, while espousing another with his dialogue.
The prolific writer, Ernesto Gastaldi, had just worked with Sergio Martino on The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1970) and The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail bears many similarities. Both are beautifully crafted puzzle-plots with complex, multi-facetted narratives. Gastaldi has said that he himself didn’t know who the killer would be until he was at least 100 pages into writing the screenplay. It was his way of keeping the audience guessing for longer and avoiding cliched clue trails. But the clues are definitely there for us to see, some very subtly conveyed in character interactions which is what would make the film enjoyable on successive viewings. First time through you’re enjoying working out a whodunit mystery, but once you know, you’ll still want to go through it again to appreciate all the subtleties you missed.
Gastaldi would go on to write many of the finest gialli, including several more for Martino: All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975). Notably he had written The Sweet Body of Deborah (1968), directed by Romolo Guerrieri, which also starred George Hilton, Ida Galli, Luigi Pistilli, and was produced by Luciano Martino.
It’s not only the script that keeps The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale gripping. Martino pulls some stunningly inventive visuals out of his directorial bag of tricks. His uses of super wide lenses are intentionally distorting and disconcerting, they sometimes elicit an uncomfortable sensation of being an unwilling voyeur, or an actual fly-on-the-wall. Then he will cut to an extreme close up of a detail—an eye, the gloved hand, a damaged doll. In an interrogation scene, he has the camera suspended transversely above the desk so that the shot can swing from one side to the other, meaning that the actors appear sidelong in the frame… I don’t recall seeing that done before… or since.
There are also some great set-pieces, as one would expect of a classic giallo. Some are quietly suspenseful, like the sequence when Cléo and Lynch are repeatedly photographing, enlarging and re-photographing a newspaper photo of the (presumed) deceased Mr. Baumer, trying to discern a tiny detail that just might be a pivotal clue. It’s another scene played without dialogue, bathed in the eerie red light of a darkroom and perhaps inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966).
In one of the murder sequences, Matino uses high-speed filming to slow the action as the victim rushes towards her apartment door, horrified to witness the lock being picked, the latch being raised, the point of a knife methodically attempting to lift the security bar and then carving through the wooden panels instead. It’s a clever bit of misdirection as the killer eventually enters the apartment by a completely different route. As she is dispatched we see her face squashed and distorted against the blood-spattered glass of a window pane in a shot that would be mimicked by Argento in his classic horror, Suspiria (1977).
Cinematographer Emilio Foriscot also steps up with some dramatic uses of gels to accent the lighting with reds and greens, reminiscent of Mario Bava’s distinctive techniques, but also handles the more naturalistic location shooting in London, Athens and the Greek islands with equal aplomb. There is some impressively steady hand-held work too.
Although overshadowed somewhat by its superior predecessor, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, which I think is pretty much the perfect giallo, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale remains a benchmark of the genre. An effective and enjoyable thriller. In the words of Inspector Stavros, “it was a tough puzzle, but it’s solved now.”
Try Googling ‘giallo’ these days…
director: Sergio Martino.
writer: Ernesto Gastaldi, Eduardo Manzanos Brochero & Sauro Scavolini (story by Eduardo Manzanos Brochero).
starring: George Hilton, Anita Strindberg, Alberto de Mendoza & Ida Galli.