ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971) Blu Ray (Arrow)
Intrigue and murder in London and Athens
This giallo mystery thriller begins in a dramatic fashion, via a sequence featuring an exploding airliner intercut with a couple making love in a London home. One of the two lovers is Lisa Baumer (Ida Galli) and the plane was being flown by her estranged husband. In the aftermath of this disaster, Lisa is told that she has been written into his life insurance policy and is due to receive a payout of $1 million. Firstly, however, she must fly to Athens in order to collect his death certificate.
Before she leaves the country, she is accosted by a former boyfriend whom she wrote a letter to some time ago, indicating that she wants to kill her husband. He threatens to show the letter to the police, thus creating suspicion that she planted a bomb on the plane herself, in order to extort money out of her so as to fund his drug habit. However, when she later goes to visit his squat to deliver the rest of the money which he demands, she discovers him bleeding on the floor from a fatal wound. With his dying breaths, he tells her that his assailant has taken the letter, thus potentially intending on using it for their own nefarious purposes.
When Lisa flies to Athens, the plot gets even more convoluted and the body count rises further as various parties get mixed up in the proceedings. Amongst them are her deceased husband’s malicious ex-girlfriend named Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud), a suave British insurance investigator named Peter Lynch (George Hilton) and an attractive reporter named Cléo Dupont (Anita Strindberg).
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Another classy Martino giallo
Italian genre director Sergio Martino made some of the better giallo movies to follow in the wake of Dario Argento’s seminal The Bird with the Crystal Plumage during the early 1970s. His entries in the genre benefit from snappy pacing, well-orchestrated setpieces and stylish visual flourishes - and The Case of the Scorpion's Tail is no exception.
You certainly can’t accuse it of being a dull film. The killer is a masked figure who leaps and darts around the sets with all of the energetic abandon of a silent movie villain. There are several foot chases, vigorous fist fights and gory murders (including an eye-gouging which predates a similar one in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters by eight years). There’s a nighttime rooftop scuffle which inevitably results in one of the participants falling to their death. There’s a suspenseful variant of that “killer attempting to unlock a door with a knife” scene from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Bruno Nicolai’s psychedelic score helps to imbue a suitably on-edge atmosphere, as does Sergio Martino’s imaginative (if occasionally gratuitous) camerawork; there’s even a police interrogation scene which has been shot with a camera tilted to a 90-degree angle! Cinematographer Emilio Foriscot does great work in capturing the flavour of the picturesque London and Athens locations, helping to make the film a real treat for the eyes.
That all said, you might struggle to get a bearing on the intricacies of the plot. To be fair, there are a couple of twists here which genuinely caught me off-guard (I won’t spoil them). However, I can’t help but feel that the filmmakers got away with it via some sleight of hand because the film’s construction is so insanely convoluted and littered with red herrings that practically anything could arise from it. There is also an inordinately large number of “character happens to be in the right place at the right/wrong time” contrivances. A classic example comes near the film’s close when the police are trying to reach the murderer in time before he kills again. In one scene, one of their numbers complains about how finding the culprit is more or less like looking for a needle in a haystack. In the next, they’re standing right behind him and opening fire (just in the nick of time of course, as is standard for films of this type).
In other words, as with Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh from the same year, it is contrived to the point of ludicrousness. Mind you, if I had to pick between this one and Wardh, I would go for the latter - albeit only by a small margin. For one thing (from a strictly shallow point of view), that film was blessed with the presence of the uncannily beautiful Edwige Fenech, who also starred in two of the director’s later giallo efforts and was the wife of his producer brother Luciano during the 1970s (apparently, she was unavailable due to being pregnant at the time of filming). While Ida Galli and Anita Strindberg aren’t exactly unattractive either, they don’t quite light up the screen in the same way. For another, the plane explosion at the start is a laughably obvious miniature. Not only does it stick out like a sore thumb amid the film’s otherwise solid production values, but the overall manner in which the overall scene has been put together reduces what would have been, in real life, a pretty major disaster to a mere throwaway plot point.
Still, while The Case of the Scorpion's Tail might baffle the hell out of you, it succeeds in being enjoyably glossy Euro-trash.
Runtime: 95 mins
Dir: Sergio Martino
Script: Eduardo M. Brochero, Ernesto Gastaldi, Sauro Scavolini
Starring: George Hilton, Anita Strindberg, Alberto de Mendoza, Ida Galli, Janine Reynaud, Luigi Pistilli, Luis Barboo
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This is a superb looking and sounding 2K restoration which really does justice to its vivid early 1970s colour schemes and memorable soundtrack.
Audio Commentary by Ernesto Gastaldi
This commentary from the film’s screenwriter, moderated by Federico Caddeo, is in Italian with English subtitles. Gastaldi reveals that the credited Eduardo M. Brochero had nothing to do with script but was included as a random Spanish name in order to satisfy the requirements of an Italian-Spanish co-production deal. Sauro Scavolini, meanwhile, came up with the original idea but wasn’t involved in the fleshed-out script either.
He talks in fascinating detail about Italian filmmaking during this period and, particularly, about working on this and other giallo thrillers with the Martino brothers (Sergio and Luciano). One of the most interesting things that he mentions about these films is that the actor playing the character who turns out to be the murderer wasn’t usually told about it until the big climactic reveal. That way, even lesser actors wouldn’t give the game away via their onscreen performances.
Under the Sign of the Scorpion
Uruguayan actor George Hilton talks about The Case of the Scorpion's Tail along with his wider career in Italian genre cinema in this interview. He discusses his relationships with the various actors and other personnel involved. He reveals that he started a working relationship with the Martino brothers through his marriage to their cousin Marisa Tarantini. In particular, he formed a close friendship with producer Luciano, introducing him to two actresses - Edwige Fenech and Olga Bisera - who would not only appear in a number of his productions, but would also be in long-term relationships with him over the years.
He’s an enjoyable if somewhat forthright interviewee; he reveals that Anita Strindberg was one of the first women to get silicone breast enlargements but, unfortunately, they weren’t well made and tended to fall towards the side of her body. He also mentions that Alberto de Mendoza didn’t like him early on (referring to him as “that Uruguayan twat”) but that they became close friends later on.
The Scorpion Tales
A terrific 47-minute interview with Sergio Martino, who discusses The Case of the Scorpion's Tail and, briefly, on a few of his other films. He mentions that the storylines for Scorpion’s Tail and a few of his other gialli were influenced by both Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic Les Diaboliques and the 1958 case of a man name Giovanni Fenaroli, who took out a life insurance policy for his wife and then had her done away with by a hitman. He also talks about European co-production financing, which allowed access to cheaper locations such as Spain and Greece (both of which were dictatorships during this period).
Some of his revelations about the filming of Scorpion’s Tail are quite revealing and amusing. During the London location shoot, he decided to create some extra scenes involving a hitman character played by Luis Barboo. However, since the actor was no longer available, he resorted to playing the part himself under heavy disguise. During a tracking shot filmed in front of the Parthenon in Athens, he walked backwards with the camera and ended up falling into a hole 2-3 metres deep - luckily, without any serious injuries! If you watch carefully (or even casually) you will probably notice that the characters in this film and others of its ilk regularly drink bottles of J & B whisky. The company were major sponsors of Italian films of this period.
Jet Set Giallo
Film critic Mikel J. Koven (of University of Worcester) talks about Sergio Martino giallo films and their stylistic touchstones. As the title of this featurette suggests, they used a so-called “jet set aesthetic”, where they explored the glamorous lifestyles of people who could afford to fly off to all sorts of exotic locations. He also pinpoints the black-gloved serial killer trope which was popularised by Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, along with the labyrinthine plotting style cribbed from Les Diaboliques.
The Case of the Screenwriter Auteur
Troy Howarth narrates this video essay on screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, who regularly collaborated with director Sergio Martino. He discusses whether the term “auteur” could be applied to him since he proved particularly adept at gialli, writing 20 films and even one stage play in the genre.
A theatrical trailer, image gallery and collector’s booklet round out the extras here.
Fans of Italian genre cinema or those curious to see why it is attracting an ever-increasing cult following nowadays should check this one out. It’s a great disc with an amazing picture quality and top-notch extras (most of which were newly-created for this release).