Following her estranged husband's death in an air disaster Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) is surprised – or at gives the impression of surprise – at learning she is the sole beneficiary of a half million pound insurance policy.
The catch is that she must go to Greece to complete the paperwork; the complication that her junkie ex-lover has some potentially incriminating letters and tries a spot of opportunistic blackmail. But when Lisa goes to reluctantly pay him off she discovers that someone else has gotten there first, taking the letter and leaving a dying man.
Minutes in and the first of many J&B bottles makes its appearance
The model plane
Kurt Baumer looks familiar - who is the actor?
Just in case you did not get that the film starts in London
Arriving in Athens, Lisa is called to a clandestine meeting in an empty theatre with her husband's mistress, Lara (Janine Reynaud). She informs Lisa that Kurt Baumer had intended to change his will and that, in exchange for the half-million she will return the incriminating letters that her “lawyer” / henchman Sharif (Luis Barboo) has just obtained. Or Lisa could always meet with an accident of her own...
Fortunately for Lisa, insurance investigator Peter Lynch (George Hilton) has been following her and makes a timely intervention, allowing them to escape the knife-wielding Sharif.
The next day Lisa goes to collect the insurance. Rather than simply having the half-million transferred to her account and returning to London, she instead takes it in cash and books a plane ticket to Toyko.
That evening she is murdered and the money taken.
Suspicion initially falls on Lynch, but the lack of clear motive, an obvious alibi and general willingness to co-operate in doing whatever is needed to bring Lisa's killler to justice means that Inspector Stavros (Luigi Pistilli) can do nothing but confiscate his passport.
Interpol man John Stanley shows up, explaining that he is conducting his own intersecting investigation into the air disaster and ruffling Stavros's feathers somewhat in the process, while journalist Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) allies with Lynch in her search for an exclusive story.
Watching the detectives: Insurance investigator Peter Lynch tails an apparently unwitting Lisa Baumer...
.. while both are the subject of John Stanley of Interpol's gaze
From here on in things get even more complicated as the various parties strive to achieve their incommensurable goals of the truth and the money, leading to the inevitable double-crosses and demises and the explanation of what the titular McGuffin is all about, before the last surviving conspirator provides a convenient and necessary summing up...
A few moments of awkwardness – the unconvincing exploding jet and the wider issue of why the deaths of presumably hundreds of other people in the same explosion provokes no comment, for instance – aside, The Case of the Scorpion's Tale is a quality example of the giallo that once more confirms the position of director Sergio Martino as one of the greatest exponents of the form.
Or perhaps not.
For when we consider the contributions of co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi – to whom I would be tempted to attribute the Hitchcockian stratagem of unexpectedly killing off the apparent protagonist one-third of the way through in the light of films such as the Vertigo meets Rebecca styled The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock – composer Bruno Nicolai; cinematographer Emilio Foriscot; editor Eugenio Alabiso; and that entire ensemble of familiar faces, each performing their respective duties reliably, the sense that emerges is one of the “genius of the system” all'italiana.
To explain: this was a term proposed Andre Bazin in relation to Hollywood cinema of the studio era. Opposing the near exclusive romantic, individualist focus on the auteur, qua man of genius who stood against the system, as promulgated by some of his more impressionable disciples, Bazin instead emphasised instead the way in which the entire edifice worked to produce a reliable quality of output and even, on occasion, the odd anonymous masterpiece.
Or perhaps the true genius in the Martino family is Luciano, who in his capacities as writer and producer – David Selznick, all'italiana perhaps – arguably provided his brother with what he needed. (It was Luciano, after all, who was probably responsible for giving then-partner Edwige Fenech all those starring roles.)
Whatever the case, I suppose the difficulty I have with Sergio Martino is that his films, while competent and enjoyable, just do not seem to present any distinctive personality or worldview in the manner of Fulci or Bava.
Martino always endeavours to do something interesting visually, even if the results frequently come across as empty displays of technique for its own sake
A slight overuse of the zoom lens aside, his technical abilities are not in doubt – witness the plethora of unconventional angles and compositions; dramatic camera movements and lighting effects, or even some judicious slow motion. But what does he actually have to say?
Lisa's drug addicted ex-lover does not lead into a critique of hippy culture akin to that made by Fulci in Lizard in a Woman's Skin.
The mounting body count resulting from the pursuit of the elusive half-million do not amount to a blackly comic critique of the (il)logic of capitalist accumulation like those made by Bava in Five Dolls for an August Moon and A Bay of Blood.
And nor does the enigma represented by the titular scorpions and investigated in a Blow Up-inspired darkroom sequence (here Martino even repeats Antonioni's technical error of having the photographer photographing a detail of the photograph to make it clearer) and the recurring plays upon voyeurism – a repeated configuration of one party watching another, unaware of themselves being the subject of a third gaze – amount to a thoroughgoing interrogation of cinematic epistemology and ontology, as in Argento's masterful Deep Red.
La Dolce vita...
... and la dolce morte...
... and the McGuffin
Maybe this leads us back to auteurism, and the positioning of Martino as “Italian Hawks” to Argento's “Italian Hitchcock”, precisely because of this apparent lack of concern for theoretical and intellectual matters coupled with the expression of a confident, self-effacing professional competence as signature trait. But, then, what about the fact that Argento = Italian Hitchcock is itself a too easy comparison that is reductive of both filmmakers.
In the end, perhaps the only thing that can really be said with any degree of certainty is that The Case of the Scorpion's Tail delivers as suspenseful and thrilling entertainment and, as such, is well worth your time / money.