Case of the Scorpion's Tail (The) AKA La Coda dello scorpione AKA Scorpion's Tail AKA Tail of the Sc [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (25th July 2018).
The Film

La coda dello scorpione (The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail) (Sergio Martino, 1971)

Her husband Kurt (Fulvio Mingozzi) embarking on a business trip to Tokyo, Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart/Ida Galli) arranges to see her lover. However, the passenger plane on which Kurt is travelling explodes mid-air. Lisa visits Brenton (Tom Felleghy), the head of the agency with which Kurt had insured his life to the value of $1,000,000. Behind the scenes, Brenton calls on Peter Lynch (George Hilton) to investigate, as there is some suspicion that Lisa may have plotted the murder of her husband with the intention of collecting the insurance money. One of Lisa’s former lovers crawls out of the woodwork; a junkie, he claims to be in possession of a letter detailing Lisa’s intention to kill Kurt. The man demands Lisa pay him £500 in exchange for the letter. They agree to meet at a later date, but when Lisa turns up at the man’s home – a squat – she discovers his corpse.

Lisa flies to Athens, where she plans to cash the insurance company’s cheque rather than deposit the money into her account. Peter Lynch is also there, staying at the same hotel. Lisa is soon called to an abandoned theatre, where she meets Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) and Lara’s associatate Sharif (Luis Barboo). Lara is one of Kurt’s former lovers, and she accuses Lisa of having Kurt killed. Demanding half of the insurance money from Lisa, Lara threatens her with Sharif: he’s ‘not much of a lawyer, but he has a special talent for making people disappear without a trace’. Lisa is pursued by Sharif, but Peter Lynch saves her and helps her to escape.

However, before Lisa can leave Athens, she is attacked and murdered in her hotel room. Her throat is slashed and the money is taken. The police, including local inspector Stavros (Luigi Pistilli) and Interpol agent John Stanley (Albert de Mendoza), cannot decide whether Lisa was killed by a ‘sex maniac’ who stole the money opportunistically, or whether her murder was motivated by the money and disguised as a sexually-motivated crime.

Whilst Stanley speaks with Lara, Lynch, who has been waiting outside, is attacked by an axe-wielding would-be assassin. Returning to his hotel, Lynch finds a note from French photojournalist Cleo Dupont (Anita Strindberg). She wants to meet with Lynch, finding him ‘photogenic’. Lynch and the free-spirited Cleo quickly begin a sexual relationship.

Meanwhile, Lara is attacked in her home, and both she and Sharif are murdered. When Cleo is attacked in the darkroom in her apartment, the investigation seems to be going nowhere, though Lynch discovers a clue in the form of a cufflink shaped like a scorpion, which he finds on the floor of Cleo’s living room. This leads them to a belief that Kurt may not have died in the airplane disaster. Stavros suggests that if Kurt is alive, his intent is to frame Lynch, and so they must lure Kurt out of the proverbial woodwork. To this end, Lynch and Cleo set sail on Lynch’s boat.

Mario Bava’s 1963 film La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, released in Britain and America as The Evil Eye) is usually cited as the film which began the era of the giallo all’italiana. This particular filone took its name from the lurid yellow (giallo) covers of the whodunits and thrillers (by authors such as Fredric Brown, John Dickson Carr and Cornell Woolrich) published by Mondadori, under the imprint I libri gialli, later to become I gialli Mondadori, in the 1930s and beyond. (However, the first Italian detective novel, Il mio cadavere – by Francesco Mastriani, published in 1852 – is sometimes claimed to contain the same fusion of psychological thriller and horror that characterises the later thrilling all’italiana films of people like Bava and Argento.)

The thrilling all’italiana (Italian-style thriller) is a slippery beast. Firstly, there’s the problem of definition and identification. English-speaking fans of Italian-style thrillers tend to use the label giallo to identify such films, whereas to Italian audiences a giallo is of course a thriller of any type, regardless of its country of origin – so a Hitchcock film is as much a giallo as a Mario Bava picture. So for Italian audiences, Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) or Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974) may be labeled as gialli. Italian audiences tend to identify the distinctly Italian thrillers of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s as gialli all’italiana or examples of the thrilling all’italiana – specifically ‘Italian-style’ thrillers. Unlike English-speaking fans, Italian audiences also tend to include examples of the poliziesco all’italiana (Italian-style police films, often referred to as poliziotteschi, a label originally used pejoratively but later accepted by fans, much like the phrase ‘Spaghetti Westerns’) in discussions of gialli all’italiana, and of course in films such as La polizia chiede aiuto (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?; Massimo Dallamano, 1974) the Italian-style police films and Italian-style thrillers often overlap in ways which highlight that the dualism between these two groups of cinematic thrillers is a false one. However, the poliziesco all’italiana films tend to be differentiated from examples of the thrilling all’italiana in terms of the former’s focus on police investigations and elements of the police procedural, whereas the latter is usually seen as focusing on amateur sleuths and combining traditional thriller elements (notably the narrative conventions of the ‘whodunnit’) with the iconography of horror films.

Related to this issue of labeling is the debate, similar to that which exists in studies of American films noir, as to whether these films constitute a genre or may instead be considered a ‘style’. Attempts at structuralist analysis of the thrilling all’italiana may of course be made (and have been conducted in the past), but the Italian-style thriller is a wildly diverse subcategory of filmmaking, running the gamut from erotic melodramas and political thrillers to more outré supernatural thrillers. Structuralist approaches to the Italian thriller are often undermined by a sense of confirmation bias – that the outliers, the films which don’t conform to the Bava-Argento ‘template’ (ie, the black gloved assassin, the whodunit structure), are either ignored or contorted to fit the hypothesis. Growing out of this, perhaps, is the suggestion that English-speaking fans arguably use the label giallo to denote a genre, whereas the Italian language designator (thrilling all’italiana/giallo all’italiana) suggests a style (the ‘Italian-style’ of the name ascribed to this group of films).

Making matters slightly more complicated are ongoing shifts in the dynamic of fandom surrounding the pictures themselves and their relative worth. In the 1980s, it seemed, Bava and Riccardo Freda (and to some extent Antonio Margheriti) were considered the forerunners of the Italian-style thriller. Argento’s reputation gradually caught up with these two more well-established filmmakers, perhaps owing to the arguably defining presence of his 1970s and 1980s films during the home video era. During the DVD boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, Freda’s films (which have largely been notably absent on digital home video formats owing to rights issues) fell out of favour with fans and Sergio Martino, whose films were given good service by companies like NoShame in the US during the mid-2000s, acquired a much bolder reputation – transferring from the ranks of metteurs-en-scene to be considered, within fan discourse at least, as an auteur in his own right.

Often cited as Sergio Martino’s best thrilling all’italiana, La coda dello scorpione (The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail) is an almost archetypal example of the early 1970s Italian-style thriller: the film balances its whodunit elements with a police investigation (led by the triumvirate of Greek detective Stavros, Interpol agent Stanley and the insurance investigator Peter Lynch), incorporates sequences which epitomise the woman-in-peril film (though, admittedly, more than one woman is put in peril as the story progresses), and includes a knife-wielding assassin, clad in black, who is assumed to be a sex maniac. The killer’s motives aren’t easy to deduce, and this allows the script to throw numerous red herrings into the mix. Is the murderer a ‘sex maniac’, or are they after the million dollars in insurance money? Are these two motivations mutually exclusive? When Stanley posits that ‘In my opinion, we’re dealing with a sex maniac’, Stavros counters by dryly stating ‘A maniac who only kills Kur Baumer’s women and steals a million dollars’. ‘Even sex maniacs have bills to pay’, Stavros reminds his colleague.

La coda dello scorpione also features some obvious nods to Hitchcock. In particular, the film looks to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) for its structure, the first half hour following Lisa Baumer as she collects her husband’s life insurance money before meeting a gruesome end in Athens – much as Psycho follows Janet Leigh’s Marion Crone as she flees after stealing money from her employer, eventually meeting a sticky end in Bates Motel at the hands of ‘mother’. This first third of The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail most closely approximates the paradigms of the ‘woman-in-peril’ subcategory of the thrilling all’italiana, the story following Lisa through, first, the death of her husband Kurt and, second, the attempt by one of her former lovers to blackmail her (to the paltry tune of £500). As in many other examples of the ‘woman-in-peril’ thrilling all’italiana, Lisa’s status as a ‘modern’, cosmopolitan woman is conveyed impressionistically through mise-en-scène and her character’s sexual promiscuity. The film climaxes with an extended sequence aboard a boat which seems to pay homage to either Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), Rene Clement’s Plein soleil (1960), Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) or Charles Williams’ novel Dead Calm (1963)

Like a number of other Italian thrillers of the period, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail is set partly in London, though unlike Lucio Fulci’s Una lucertola con la pelle di donna (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971) or Sergio Martino’s Tutti i colori del buio (All the Colours of the Dark, 1972), for example, the plot of The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail doesn’t feature any groups of orgy-throwing, drug-addled counterculture youths as a red herring – if one discounts Lisa’s former lover, who is now a scrounging, blackmailing junkie. The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail foregrounds the London setting of its early sequences visually. In the film’s opening sequence, the camera follows the movements of a woman – later revealed to be Lisa – as she wanders the city streets. Long lenses compress the scene and convey a sense of surveillance. Lisa’s hat, a bright crimson, helps to make her stand out from the crowd but also connects her metonymically to the iconic red London buses that pass by, and the red telephone boxes that she herself passes.

This sense of a carefully constructed late-1960s mod-ish formality within the photography and mise-en-scène accumulates in the next sequence, in which Lisa is shown with her lover. Obsessively symmetrical mid-shots of the couple are intercut sharply, alongside very formal compositions of the details within their surroundings. It’s a mod-ish scene, reminiscent of the chess game sequence from Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). As Lisa and her lover engage in intercourse, Martino cuts to a shot of a passenger airplane in flight; the viewer might take this as a metaphor for the ecstasy of the sex act itself, like the train passing through a tunnel at the ‘climax’ (ahem) of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) or the lighthouse in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1941). However, the passenger plane explodes. Again, this may be interpreted by some viewers as a metaphor for the denouement of the sex act, but it also reveals this footage to be a literal (within the context of the film’s diegesis) depiction of the destruction of the plane in which Kurt Baumer is presumed to be travelling.

Also like many other examples of the Italian thriller, the narrative tries to tease out of its characters repressed memories that may prove to be the key clue to solving the murders. Cleo insists that the attacks on Lynch’s life demonstrate that the killer thinks the insurance investigator is getting close to solving the crimes: Peter ‘must know something else. Some detail you’ve forgotten that the murderer’s afraid of’. The film introduces Cleo after Lisa’s death, and Cleo becomes the film’s second ‘woman-in-peril’, terrorised in her flat by an assassin who may or may not be her Peeping Tom neighbour. The film uses Cleo’s background as a photojournalist to work into the narrative the seemingly prerequisite Blow-Up-style darkroom sequences in which a revelation is uncovered. In this instance, the clue seems to be a pair of cufflinks crafted into the shape of a scorpion – the ‘scorpion’s tail’ of the title – which are revealed in an enlargement of a portrait of Kurt.


Video

Shot in the 2-perf widescreen Cromoscope format, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail is presented via two options: a version containing Italian titles and text, and a version of the film containing English titles and text. The viewer is presented with the option of which of these versions s/he wishes to view at disc start-up. Both versions are uncut, with a running time of 95:12 mins.

Taking up 29Gb of space on the disc, the 1080p presentation of The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail uses the AVC codec and is in the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Cromoscope and Techniscope were for all intents and purposes the same process; the difference was that they were handled at different laboratories. Like Techniscope, Cromoscope was a 2-perf widescreen process that used spherical, rather than anamorphic, lenses. It was cost-saving in the sense that, by halving the size of each frame in comparison with anamorphic (4-perf) widescreen processes, it reduced the negative costs involved in making a film by half. However, this was reputedly offset to some extent by lab costs, which it’s said were more expensive for films shot in 2-perf formats like Techniscope/Cromoscope; it’s been suggested that increases in lab costs were one of the reasons why 2-perf non-anamorphic widescreen processes such as these became less popular during the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Release prints of Techniscope/Cromoscope pictures were made by anthropomorphising the image and doubling the size of each frame, resulting in a grain structure that was noticeably more dense than that of widescreen films shot using anamorphic lenses. (This was compounded in many 1970s Techniscope productions by the movement away from the dye transfer processes used by Technicolor Italia during the 1960s and towards the use of the standard Kodak colour printing process, which necessitated the production of a dupe negative, with the additional ‘generation’ of the material making the grain structure of the release prints of Techniscope productions during the 1970s more coarse and the blacks less rich.) Another of the characteristics of Techniscope photography was an increased depth of field. Freed from the need to use anamorphic lenses, cinematographers using the Techniscope process were able to employ technically superior spherical lenses with shorter focal lengths and shorter hyperfocal distances, thus achieving a greater depth of field, even at lower f-stops and even within low light sequences. By effectively halving the ‘circle of confusion’, the Techniscope format shortened the hyperfocal distances of prime lenses and altered the field of view associated with them – so an 18mm lens would function pretty much as a 35mm lens, and shooting at f2.8 would result in similar depth of field to shooting at f5.6. The use of shorter focal lengths also prevented the subtle flattening of perspective that comes with the use of focal lengths above around 85mm. (The noticeably increased depth of field, combined with short focal lengths/wide-angle lenses, is a characteristic of many films shot in Techniscope, including Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, 1964.)

Arrow’s new HD presentation of The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail is based on a new 2k restoration taken from the film’s original negative. Using the negative as a source bypasses the potential 4-perf blow-up stage. Owing to the fact that the presentation is sourced from the negative, blacks are deep and rich, more in line with Cromoscope (or Techniscope) pictures processed using the dye transfer process than the later 2-perf pictures which were processed using the Kodak colour printing process (and which involved the production of a dupe negative that, as noted above, weakened contrast and produced a coarser grain structure). Likewise, the grain structure is natural and organic and, owing to the source being a new transfer of the negative (bypassing the 4-perf blow-up stage), without the coarseness that characterised some of the vintage prints of Techniscope films made after around 1970.

The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail feature some heavy use of shorter focal lengths: in particular, a wide-angle lens with some noticeable barrel distortion towards the edges of the frame is used to convey the killer’s point-of-view in a number of sequences. There are also some interesting photographic tricks: in another scene, Stavros interviews Lynch, and the camera is on a pivot above the table. It pans from Lynch to Stavros, the framing skewed by 90 degrees, resulting in some startling compositions. Colours are stable and consistent throughout the film. Contrast levels are pleasing, midtones having a strong sense of definition with an easy shoulder and gradation to the toe. There’s little to no damage present throughout the picture, and the encode retains the structure of 35mm film.

In all, it’s an excellent presentation of the film that easily eclipses the picture’s previous home video releases.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.


Audio

The disc offers the option of watching the film either in English (via a LPCM 1.0 track) which has accompanying optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing; or in Italian (via a LPCM 1.0 track) which has accompanying optional English subtitles translating the Italian dialogue. These audio and subtitle options can’t be changed ‘on the fly’, however, and require the viewer to dip back into the menus.

Both audio tracks are similar in their qualities: free from any distracting distortion or problematic passages, the film’s soundscape is communicated without issues. The tracks, though mono, have good range and depth. The English dub for this film is pretty good, actually, and there are some subtle differences in terms of the English and Italian dialogue: the Italian dialogue is slightly more frank at times, but only by a smidgen.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Recorded in 2006, this audio commentary sees Gastaldi in conversation with Federico Caddeo. It’s a fascinating track, Gastaldi’s reminiscences painting a vivid picture of filmmaking in Italy during the 1960s and 1970s. The commentary is in Italian with forced English subtitles.

- ‘Under the Sign of the Scorpion’ (20:56). In a new interview, George Hilton talks about his career to the point that he became involved in The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail. Hilton had spent many years starring in westerns all’italiana so took the leap into the ‘new’ (to him) genre of thrilling all’italiana willingly, seeing it as a change of direction. Hilton had married Marisa Tarantini, the niece of Sergio and Luciano Martino, without knowing that his wife’s uncles were filmmakers. After seeing Massacre Time, the Lucio Fulci western all’italiana in which Hilton starred, the Martino brothers asked Hilton to act in films for them but give them a ‘family discount’. This led to The Sweet Body of Deborah, then The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail and after ‘all the other films that I made with them and Edwige Fenech’. It’s a fascinating interview, Hilton offering some strong personal memories about his relationships with both Sergio and Luciano Martino. The interview is conducted in Italian, with optional English subtitles.

- ‘The Scorpion Tales’ (47:10). Sergio Martino talks about the position of The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail within his career. It was his second thriller, and he knew it was to be successful. He describes it as ‘a tale well told’ and compares it with Costa-Gavras’ Z, the ‘urgent rhythm’ of Z being and influence on Martino’s approach to the script. Martino also reflects on his relationship with writer Ernesto Gastaldi, though he suggests that Gastaldi’s script for The Violent Professionals is the writer’s best work for its use of Lombard and Piedmontese slang. Martino also points to the Fenaroli murder case as a source of inspiration for this film and some of his other gialli all’italiana. (Martino also highlighted the importance of the Fenaroli case in the interview conducted with him for Arrow’s release of Your Vice is a Locked Room in 2015, reviewed by us here.) He suggests that some elements of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les diaboliques worked their way into the handling of the material too. It’s an indepth, fascinating interview with a filmmaker who remains as articulate and vital as ever. The interview is conducted in Italian, with optional English subtitles.

- ‘Jet Set Giallo’ (20:06). Critic Mikel J Koven is interviewed about the film, reflecting on Martino’s ability to adapt his approach to fit the paradigms of the genre with which he’s working. This makes evidence of a definitively Martino ‘style’ difficult to identify: Koven suggests that Martino lacks an authorial signature though he is an utterly dependable filmmaker. Koven discusses the film’s depiction of the ‘jet set’ mentality of the late 1960s – in gialli all’italiana and other films – ‘that kind of European, cosmopolitan chic’.

- ‘The Case of the Screenwriter Auteur’ (15:35). A new video essay narrated by Troy Howarth puts forward a case for Ernesto Gastaldi as being the ‘author’ of the numerous thrilling all’italiana which he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a logical argument to make, though perhaps underdeveloped owing to the brevity of the piece – which precludes an indepth consideration of the themes of Gastaldi’s scripts.

- Trailer (2:31).

- Image Gallery (2:10).


Overall

With a narrative that has more twists than a barrel full of pretzels, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail consistently keeps its audience on their toes. Furthermore, the film is very stylishly photographed: for example, the sequence in which Lara attempts to defend her home features some haunting use of slow-motion. The locations are very varied also, from the London setting of the film’s opening sequences to the island locale of the denouement. Additionally, there is some quite brutal violence: the throat slashings are viscerally handled, but the real coup-de-theatre is a close-up shot of a victim’s eye being gouged out with the jagged neck of a broken bottle. It’s a solid example of the thrilling all’italiana.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray release is very pleasing, offering an impressive presentation of the main feature alongside some excellent contextual material. The newly subtitled commentary with Gastaldi is a delight, as are the interviews with Hilton and Martino. These are worth the price of admission on their own. The pieces by Mikel Koven and Troy Howarth are fine but don’t offer anything groundbreaking for anyone already familiar with the careers of Martino or Gastaldi. It’s a good package that comes with a strong recommendation from us.


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