The Mystery Of The Elusive Auteur… THE CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL Reviewed

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BD. Region B. Arrow. 15.

The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail (1971) plays out in familiar globe-trotting style, kicking off in a London that is still just about swinging (and in which Fulci’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin was shot, the same year) before relocating to Greece, where this film was released as “Dawn Of The Black Stilletos” (yeah, I remember her well…) George Hilton is insurance man Peter Lynch, detailed by his employers International Unlimited Insurance to investigate the million dollar payoff to Lisa Baumer (“Evelyn Stewart” / Ida Galli) after her old man was among the victims of a Lockerbie-style plane bombing; her druggy ex is prepared to testify that she was in on the conspiracy but gets silenced by an identikit black clad, knife-wielding assassin (Luis Barboo from a thousand trashy Jesus Franco movies); to complicate matters further, the latter’s girlfriend Lara (Janine Raynaud from Franco’s Succubus) was having a fling with Mr Baumer and is contesting his will. On the eve of her flight to Tokyo, still carrying that million around in a bag (!), Lisa is butchered in her hotel room in a scene that’s cribbed directly from a memorable murder moment in Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) and which also obviously alludes to the shockingly early demise of Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho. Enter Interpol agent John Stanley (Alberto de Mendoza), local cop Stavros (?!?) played by Luigi Pistilli and Anita Strindberg as investigative reporter Cleo Dupont. Lynch wastes no time making out with her (good choice, considering the other two options) amid copious consumption of J&B. Lara also pops up again, only to figure in a BWTCP patented siege scene before she and Barboo’s character are both killed off. Still with me? It’s only after Cleo’s own siege scene that the clue of the Scorpion-shaped cuff-link emerges from a photographic blow up (!), soon revealed as a red herring when Lynch takes Cleo on a recuperative harpoon fishing trip and the final wave of twists and shock revelations rolls round. What a carry on for Cleo…

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For some time now I’ve been labouring over a piece (and for an even longer time, trailering it… way to guarantee an anticlimax there, Freudstein!) concerning the way the giallo genre shifted from the superficially “sexy” but ultimately money-motivated potboilers of Guerrieri and Lenzi to the deranged sex killer sagas pioneered by Argento’s Bird With The Crystal Plumage. In the course of researching this piece I had cause to dig out, rewatch and reappraise Luciano Ercoli’s Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion (1970), a film which anticipates much of what happens in the four more widely celebrated gialli that Sergio Martino clocked up over 1971/2. With an impeccable sense of timing, Arrow are now debuting the second of those, The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail, on UK Blu-ray.

Martino’s earlier The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh mixed three parts cold, calculating killer(s) with one homicidal sex case (yep, the odds were very definitely stacked against Edwige Fenech) but the action was proceeding in a deccidedly post-Argento direction. The Case Of The Scorpion’s Tail suggests that the director, his producer / big brother Luciano and prolific scripter Ernesto Gastaldi were still hedging their bets as to which kind of plot was going to trump the other at the box office. Again, both strains are mixed, though there’s a definite feeling (despite Strindber’gs character anticipating that of Daria Nicolodi in Deep Red… plus a brief and jarring irruption of Fulci-esque eye violence) that matters have regressed into something more resembling one of Lenzi’s torrid bonkbusters. In the absence of Fenech (who was pregnant) one half expects Carroll Baker to arrive centre screen. She doesn’t but there’s so much else going on in this rattling little giallo (I particularly

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appreciated the psycho’s Diabolikesque rubbber kill suit), which rolls along at a fair old lick and (if you can overlook such jarringly cheap moments as the airfix air disaster) in satisfying style. For Martino Jr, TCOTST might well have seemed, in retrospect, to play things a little too safe, which he would remedy in spades with his 1972 brace All The Colours Of The Dark (which incorporated occult elements into the basic formula) and Your Vice Is A Locked Room And Only I Have The Key (a chamber giallo whose sexual decadence is peppered with more than a pinch of Poe). Ringing the changes from film to film was the essence of Martino’s directorial style…

… if, indeed, he had one. Le Dolce Morte author Mikel Koven argues in an engaging featurette here that Martino is some kind of anti-auteur, whose directorial identity dissolves into whatever filone he’s currently navigating, whose genre films are all about genre rather than any personal statement he’s making. Koven suggests that the true auteur of these Martino films could be producer Luciano, but is more probably screen writer Ernesto Gastaldi, obsessively re-refining his take on Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955)… well, Brian De Palma built an auteurist rep by Hitching his star to endless rehashes of you-know-who…

Gastaldi’s auteurist credentials are further examined in a video essay by Troy Howarth and who do we find providing the main feature’s commentary track (moderated by Federico Caddeo) but Gastaldi himself… damning George Hilton with faint praise, explaining his beef with Dario Argento (illogical plotting) and relating the corruption of Italian censorship bodies.

I’m hard pressed to think of a release whose bonus features cohere so cogently into an overarching argument, one which you might or might not care to accept. Should generate a few lively threads on social media, anyhows…

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Sergio Martino does get his own say, citing the notorious Fenaroli insurance murder case as an influence at least as important as that of Les Diaboliques… he also talks about phony credits that were manufactured to meet co-production quotas, his dismay at the overuse of zooms in his films and the ever-popular subject of J&B product placement.

George Hilton is interviewed too, revealing his affair with Anita Strindberg, which is perhaps a little ungentlemanly… even more so, his pronouncements on her botched boob job. More amusingly, he remembers his first encounter with the Argentinian actor Alberto De Mendoza, who ultimately became a friend but initially identified him as “that Uruguyan twat!” You’ll also get to marvel at a trailer that is, quite frankly, berserk.

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We hacks are never sent the limited edition booklets that come with these things so I’m not able to comment on the writings of Howard Hughes or Peter Jilmstead (the latter presumably extracted from Peter’s eagerly anticipated Strindberg biog, The Other Anita) but Rachael Nisbet, one of my favourite bloggers (at hypnoticcrescendos.blogspot.co.uk) has kindly sent me the text of her highly enjoyable essay. I particularly admire the heroic way she manages to stay with the labyrinthine plot twists of these things. I’m more down with Koven (who admits, in his featurette, that he just “goes with the flow”). The main thrust of RN’s piece concerns the way that TCOTST’s deployment of “whodunnit” themes make it a quintessential giallo…

… indeed, although somewhat less adventurous than subsequent Martino gialli (or its predecessor The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh, for that matter) this Case belongs firmly in the giallo files on your shelf. Arrow’s new edition looks (bearing none of the dreaded grain often associated with such upgrades) and sounds just great, showcasing a Bruno Nicolai score that’s all prowling bass and snarling trumpets, ably echoing the work of Nicolai’s compadre Morricone in the first three Argento thrillers.

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