Watching this 1971 giallo from Paolo Cavara hot on the heels of Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion makes for an interesting contrast, in that its opening gambit – a husband confronts his (recent ex) wife over some compromising photographs of her with another man – could easily have been the turning point of Luciano Ercoli's film.
The similarities end at this point, however, as Maria Zani (Barbara Bouchet) is brutally murdered shortly afterwards. While we saw her husband Paolo (Silvano Tranquilli) beating her, he seems genuinely shocked and co-operates with Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini), but also fails to tell the truth as to when he last saw Maria nor reveal that he has the other half of the ripped photograph.
Taking this, Paolo - whose job is that of the ever-suspect insurance salesman - hires a private investigator, the ironically named Speedy. to see if he can find the blackmailer himself.
A second murder then occurs with the same modus operandi as the first, the killer paralysing their victim with a poisoned needle, then fatally stabbing them while they are conscious but helpless – apparently akin to the way a wasp might kill the titular spider. Another clue / complicating factor is the discovery of extensive traces of cocaine at the crime scene.
The two investigations continue along their separate lines, then intersect as Paolo arranges a rendezvous with one of the blackmailers only to go for a fatal dive off a roof, following which his contact / assassin is himself run over before he can be questioned.
As Tellini gets closer to the heart of the conspiracy, he and his wife Anna (Stefania Sandrelli) find themselves threatened by the blackmailers...
In a glass darkly
Behind the glass
Along with I Tanto Paura / Plot of Fear, The Black Belly of the Tarantula was one of two gialli directed by Paolo Cavara, a relatively obscure figure about whom one admits to knowing little about.
Starting with contributions to a some of Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti's mondo films he then seems to have reacted against this in The Wild Eye, an anti-mondo film that predates the better known Cannibal Holocaust by more than a decade in its use of the form against itself. (Mark Goodall's book Sweet and Savage contains a good discussion of the film, and is recommended for anyone interested in mondo more generally.)
Some classic giallo imagery, albeit with the unusual feature of the brown surgical gloves
Although his spaghetti westerns remain to be explored, this appears to suggest a seriousness and self-consciousness of approach that – with a few noteworthy exceptions - might well be considered the kiss of death for the giallo. Thankfully, however, this proves not to be the case, as Cavara delivers a film which manages both to deliver as entertainment while also hinting at something more beneath its slickly directed surface, with generally effective use of zooms, whip pans and hand-held camera.
The editing exhibits some nice cuts between scenes, from the hands of the killer to the hands of those investigating, and one almost Eisensteinian moment where a falling dummy is juxtaposed with the killer's descending knife.
The forbidden photo of a lady above suspicion (by dint of being dead)
As befits the nature of the conspiracy, the viewer's voyeurism is also continually being brought into the equation, whether the credits sequence that cuts from figures obscured by distorting glass to the exploitation goods of the naked Bouchet being massaged, or our point-of-view positioning one of the blackmailers covertly filming the Tellinis as they make love.
The plotting is suitably convoluted, with plenty of suspects and red herrings. Though some may feel that the killer's identity is either too obvious or not obvious enough (following the usual filone heuristics that the most and least likely suspects can be ruled out for this reason) the nastiness of the murder method goes some way to offsetting this.
There is also plenty of eye- and ear-candy for the viewer, Ennio Morricone's top notch score with vocalism from the inimitable Edda Dell'Orso helping make up for the brevity of Bouchet's get naked and die near cameo.
Some classic mannequin action in the second murder set-piece
As Tellini, Giancarlo Giannini delivers a performance of considerable sensitivity and depth. While arguably as much a testament to Giannini's acting abilities as anything else it is also worth noting how these characteristics seem to position his character with the giallo against the poliziotto, with its preference for a more talk and less action.
Though Plot of Fear certainly leans more towards the poliziotto side of things, with more emphasis on the crime plot and less on the black gloved killer, it is again characterised by an unusually well-developed police protagonist, possibly hinting at an emergent auteur personality.
Indeed, considering the giallo-poliziotto in relation to the two pure filone (though in truth no filone could ever be called “pure” in the sense that, say, a 1930s Hollywood western is pure) one also wonders if a consideration of matters beyond the nature of the protagonist(s) as private or public investigators is needed, encompassing the investigators' personalities; the nature of the crime; and the methods deployed investigating it.
Making a very broad assertion, I would speculate that the key difference is that the typical poliziotto is more direct in each case. The poliziotto cop - think Maurizio Merli - basically knows who the bad guys are and that if he confronts them directly they will respond in a way that gives him evidence / cause to dispense violent judgement / justice, whereas his giallo counterpart is far less sure.
Speculations aside, The Black Belly of the Tarantula is a quality example of the genre; I know that when finances allow I will be upgrading my pan and scan Alfa Digital disc for Blue Underground's 1.85:1 OAR version that also runs approximately five minutes longer, at 89 minutes.
Tellingly, there are some abrupt transitions in the Alfa release: visiting the boyfriend of the second victim, Tellini discovers some incriminating evidence yet we never see what happens to the character, who disappears thereafter.
Whether Blue Underground's is the definitive version is perhaps another matter, with the IMDB entry – again never the best source of information when it comes to films like this – indicating that the uncut Italian version runs 98 minutes, a difference greater than could be explained away by format conversion; as ever your contributions and clarifications would be welcomed.