Friday, 16 February 2007

La Coda dello scorpione / The Case of the Scorpion's Tail

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.


stephen grimes said...

The actor who plays Kurt Baumer is Fulvio Mingozzi who was another mainstay of Italian b-movies in the 1970's.Here's a link to Pollanet's page on the crime films he starred in:

oliver said...

It is auteur-thinking all the way ofcourse, but i find it hard to believe that bava set out to make a quickly shot cheapy, which he considered one of his worst films, as a critique of capitalist accumulation and i don't think that fulci's supposed critique of hippie culture was that sophisticated. Its condemning/exploiting dichotomy is such an exploitation and b-movie staple.

You can read these films in this way ofcourse and i think this is definitely an exciting way of viewing these films. I just think it's a pity that these readings, which are still basically critical projections, are so tied to auteur thinking. Any discussion of martino's films, for that reason, doesn't get any further that they are professionally made but not personal enough. I think all these films handle interesting themes in many interesting ways, and that's also the reason why i strain to accept that fulci should be seen as some kind of political auteurist filmmaker (a viewpoint that's not that uncommon, i noticed) and that a martino film is just well made. Maybe i just prefer the genre viewpoint to the auteur idea.

great blog you have by the way.

K H Brown said...

I thought it was him, from all the Argento films, but wasn't 100 per cent sure. Wonder if he actually appeared in the film and had his scenes cut, or if there's some behind the scenes story.


K H Brown said...

Hi Oliver. I don't think Bava or Fulci necessarily set out to make a political comment, more that their films do seem, unconsciuously / unintentionally to be saying something, however confused that might be.

With Martino, however, I just don't see a message, conscious or otherwise. This doesn't mean he couldn't be an auteur - I sometimes wonder the dominant traits that come through in his films are pragmatism and professionalism - traits which, of course, don't fit well with an auteurist reading and maybe mean he feels like leaving the message for Western Union, as it were.

I suppose in those terms you could make a case for this film in particular as being a demonstration of how well he could do an effective thriller and use different techniques.

Ron W. said...

Check out this ranking on the Best Giallo movie ever. Dario Argento is leading the pack with Deep Red.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree here - while Martino certainly isn't on a level with Argento, Bava, Tessari, or even Fulci as an "auteur" I find his political, social, or personal worldview comes through rather strongly in his work, it just isn't as obvious as Fulci's or Argento's comments on society (Your vice is a locked probably one of the most political gialli I've ever seen and much more so than e.g. Lado's Short night of the butterflies). While -to use your example- Fulci might have criticised the drug culture of the 60's and like Argento also included frequent statements on the church and fascism in Italy in his works, Martino's worldview always seems to transcend mere politics and focuses more on the inner lives of his characters (and by extension Italian society) and I can't think of another director whose view is harsher (Bava perhaps). In Martino's work everything has gone wrong and there isn't a glimpse of hope - modernity (as represented by the swinging 60s lifestyle of his main characters) certainly isn't working out at all (and in a much more profound way than in e.g. Fulci's works, where this is usually expressed outwardly), but there is also hope found in the past, not because the past is hostile in itself (which would arguably be Fulci's (Duckling) or Argento's POV), but rather because his characters can't return to it, having long since lost all emotional ability to return to what was presumably their own past. Obviously this can be read as a rather conservative position (and I believe Martino has been labelled a reactionary in the past), but I think one could also argue that this fall from grace might have happened a lot earlier and we are just witnessing people trying to come to terms with the past in his movies, in which case Martino's position can be seen as an even more devastating attack on Italy's fascist past than the rather overt allusions included in Argento's and Fulci's movies.

Anonymous said...

Great comments above, obviously responding to K.H.'s initial blog entry. Nice to see, via Giallo Fever, these films receiving the attention they deserve.