Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Beautiful Day and a Beautiful Girl

As Lisa Baumer (THE WHIP AND THE BODY’s Evelyn Stewart aka Ida Galli) enjoys a J&B-soaked tryst with a lover, her husband is killed when his London-bound plane explodes in midair. Though they were more or less separated already, Lisa is still named as beneficiary in his will and is informed that she has inherited one million dollars. Shortly after arriving in Greece to collect the money, she is threatened by her late husband’s mistress (Janine Reynaud), who believes that Lisa had her husband killed and wants a share of the money. Lisa is fortunately rescued by insurance investigator Peter Lynch (ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK’s George Hilton) but, shortly after collecting the money in cash and arranging for a mysterious flight to Tokyo, Lisa’s luck runs out when she is murdered by a black-clad, knife-wielding assailant who makes off with the money. While consulting with an INTERPOL agent (Alberto de Mendoza) and local police inspector (BAY OF BLOOD’s Luigi Pistilli), Peter Lynch teams up with investigative reporter Cléo Dupont (A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN’s Anita Strindberg) to solve the mystery. Of course, the two of them become targets as well.

Yes, it’s Sergio Martino’s 1971 giallo CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL which of course you’ve all seen. It’s not the most elegantly plotted of the genre, nor does it have that stark tone with harshly elegant compositions that they sometimes do, but it somehow is more enjoyable than a few of those films which are technically better. Its feel is so casual that it almost feels like it was made on vacation between the films that its makers were really concentrating on. And yet, it manages to be surprisingly effective during the moments that matter.

PSYCHO is an obvious inspiration considering how the first third turns out but it soon takes off in its own direction and becomes continually suspenseful and enjoyable in its own ridiculous way. The police detective played by Pistilli spends much of the film fiddling with a difficult jigsaw puzzle in his office. It doesn’t inspire much confidence in his crime-solving abilities but it does give an indication of the possible attitude towards the screenplay—written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Sauro Scavolini--while it was being created. Maybe it wasn’t made up as it went along but there are enough red herrings and blind alleys in the story that it feels like certain twists and revelations were chosen simply because this is they felt like doing it with this film. Next time, they’d do it another way. As it is, I’m fairly sure that everything ties together in the plot, but I’m not totally certain. As it is, the riffs on PSYCHO coming out of the first third gives the story an extra level of danger since we can never be completely sure from that point who’s actually going to survive.

Martino definitely knows how to frame a Scope shot but some of the more stylistic extremes, like an interrogation scene framed sideways with the camera going back and forth like a pendulum, feel like he’s occasionally overreaching in trying to stage a scene differently. Maybe he was accepting a dare. After all, it feels like it could have been a pretty loose set. These things don’t always feel like they come out of the plot organically, but it does go with the free-wheeling tone of the film, so I’ve got no real complaints about it. There are a few unfortunate special effects here and there (that crummy exploding model airplane isn’t doing anyone any favors) but these are balanced out a few sequences which are genuinely startling in how well-done they are, including one truly electrifying sequence involving the killer breaking into a house which culminates in one of the most purely effective throat-slashings I’ve ever seen. I don’t know who I just lost and who I just gained with that statement, but it’s something as striking as that moment which underlines why these films sometimes have the effect that they do.

Most of the lead actors are seen in a number of other genre films from around this time and each bring their own unique quirks to their roles. Anita Strindberg probably makes the greatest impression due to her own vivacious screen presence. “For a murderer, he certainly has a great face,” she says when first getting a look at Hilton, who is being led away by the police as a suspect. Maybe not the sort of thing those in her profession usually say and she seems to spend next to no screentime actually doing her job—at least in DEEP RED Daria Nicolodi seemed believable as someone playing a reporter in a movie, if not in real life—and the erratic nature of the structure foists her onto the narrative surprisingly late, revealing her as one of the leads before we’ve even realize it has happened. But the chemistry that she has with George Hilton feels genuine, adding a spark to all their scenes and even if she has to bizarrely go from complete cheerfulness to absolute terror and back again, she certainly provides interest. Plus, she looks great in a bikini. Pistilli has a number of funny moments as the police inspector, Stewart has the right amount of icy intrigue as Lisa Baumer and redhead Janine Raynaud is enjoyably trashy, lending that look to good use.

The varied, frisson-heavy score by Bruno Nicolai ranges from a dissonant main title which keeps us on edge as it never quite moves into full melody to a deliriously sensual recurring theme which sounds like it could be used on a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous rerun. The numerous Greek locations are very effective as well, both in how they lend the right jet-set vibe to the sleaze and give the film a slightly unusual feel as well. It’s not a great film or a great example of the genre and it probably should be taken as the lark that it obviously is. But enough about CASE OF THE SCORPION’S TAIL does hold together throughout all the way up to its satisfying climax. More movies filled with brutal slayings should be this breezily enjoyable and still satisfy the requirements of the genre. There’s a vibe to the whole thing that I find continuously infectious and I think I’m going to want to see it again very soon.

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