Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971)

Scorpio is my favorite sign of the Zodiac, and not just because it’s my sign.  It’s not something silly like a fish or a crab or a scale.  Scorpions can sting you, and, in some cases, those stings can be fatal (my understanding is that they’re typically closer to a bee sting unless you’re particularly sensitive to their venom).  Real men get tattoos of things like scorpions with daggers and skulls and banners with sayings like “kill ‘em all” or “death before dishonor” or “Mom” on them.  Even outside of the appeal of its immediate, monstrous symbolism (but very much because of it), Scorpio is a favorite of hardasses and villains alike (and often both).  The psychopath in Dirty Harry is called Scorpio.  Nick Fury’s archenemy is called Scorpio (he even leads a team of supervillains based on the Zodiac, thus proving that Scorpios are tops).  Albert Brooks’ brilliant Hank Scorpio from The Simpsons is a pure James Bond supervillain with a go-get-‘em charm.  Robert Scorpio from the soap opera General Hospital is a smoldering pile of masculinity (okay, I might be stretching it with that one, though I’m sure there are plenty of folks who would vehemently disagree with me).  I’ve never heard of a character named Phil Pisces or Danny Sagittarius (and by the way, those names are now copyrighted by me, so back off).  Nevertheless, it’s with a much more un-macho perspective that Sergio Martino’s The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (aka La Coda Dello Scorpione) approaches my beloved arachnid archetype.

As Lisa Baumer (Ida Galli) is busy making sweet, sweet love to her back door man, her husband’s plane is busy exploding in midair.  Turns out, hubby left Lisa with a one-million-dollar insurance benefit, but she has to travel to Greece in order to cash it out.  Enter Peter Lynch (George Hilton), the insurance investigator sent to keep tabs on her.  But a mysterious killer may soon put a stop to Lisa’s (or anybody’s) enjoyment of all that cold, hard cash.

Like so very, very many gialli, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail deals with things like infidelity, and it does so with an air of suspicion (because these films are entirely predicated on the notion that everyone, including the protagonist, is a suspect).  Did Lisa have her husband killed, and if so, why take out so many innocent people to accomplish this?  Did she do it to spend time with her lover (who, coincidentally, is a flight steward)?  Does her former lover, a junkie who, bizarrely, only wants a pittance from the inheritance to feed his habit, have enough goods on Lisa to bring this gravy train to a complete halt?  Lisa and her husband haven’t been close for some time, and this emotional distance is the same thing that allows these types of characters to do the things they do.  These movies aren’t about love in a traditional sense.  Yes, sometimes the characters actually care about each other, but by and large, they are primal beings desperate to feed their carnal desires.  They are also the type of people who will have sex with someone just to get ahead or to place someone in their thrall.  Indeed, sex is a rather large cornerstone in all gialli, both as an exploitable element and as a plot device, and here it’s no different.  Every woman in the film is in a state of dishabille at some point or another, and the camera always accentuates and/or ogles them, bringing the audience into the mindset of the male (and sometimes female) characters.  But casual sex in gialli is also many times dangerous, luring murderers to their victims like the scent of pollen to bees (or a better analogy would be like the bait of a Venus flytrap to, well, flies).

Similarly, this film is heavy with the motif of following and being followed.  The opening credits roll over various shots of Lisa strolling through London in her bright red hat.  Sometimes the camera follows behind her, sometimes it observes her from afar (and this is a shot type repeated several times in the movie).  Likewise, Peter follows Lisa, journalist Cleo (the gloriously bountiful Anita Strindberg) follows Peter and Lisa, and the killer follows them all.  This concept works (and different gialli play it up to different degrees, though I can’t think of one off the top of my head that doesn’t have it to some extent) for two reasons.  First (and most obvious), from a narrative perspective, it produces some level of tension.  The character being followed may or may not know they are being followed.  The character following them may or may not intend them harm, but we don’t discover this until these sequences resolve themselves (and, okay, they’re often red herring style, jump scare payoffs, but not always, and therein lies the suspense [like Hitchcock’s time bomb setup, we know there’s going to be an explosion, we just don’t know whether or not the characters will be caught in it]).  Second, they allow the audience to become a purer strain of voyeur (something very prevalent in this film).  Frequently, these sequences wind up in a  character’s (99.99% of the time a female character’s) home, where said character simply must disrobe.  Meanwhile, the camera watches, unbeknownst to the character.  It satisfies the prurient interest of the audience in the same way that it enflames the libido of the spying character (otherwise, why not simply kill them the instant they walk through the door?).  It links sex and death with the anxiety of being caught doing something you shouldn’t be doing (in a What Happened to the Inquisitive Janitor kind of way; notice how often these scenes involve a peephole POV or keyhole-shaped matte).  And if nothing else, gialli are all about doing something you shouldn’t be doing.

These genre requirements, however, are just that in this film: requirements.  There is nothing particularly outstanding about the film’s plot, nothing all that compelling about the characters.  It satisfies the generic necessities and nothing else.  In fact, both plot and characters simply maunder along, as these things can have a tendency to do, until they hit the moment of “the big reveal” and then finish after some pat exposition labors to connect all the dots for us (though I’m of the opinion that the better ones are those that leave us just a little stupefied).  Unfortunately, in a genre where garishness is preferred, just hitting the beats in four/four time isn’t enough, and that’s all this film does.  Martino does bring a strong sense of style to the murder set pieces, but otherwise the film doesn’t make any attempt to distinguish itself from the pack.  The effort brought to the table in The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail is largely workmanlike, and sometimes that’s enough, but when you’re appearing onstage with Bootsy Collins, you may want to wear something a bit more striking than a sweatsuit.    

MVT:  Martino does manage to shine here and there with some nifty flourishes, but it’s kind of like spangling a day-old mackerel.

Make or Break:  There’s a murder that comes a bit later than would normally be expected, and it entices the audience with a hint of a “no rules” attitude that doesn’t materialize.

Score:  6/10

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