Sergio Martino, 1971
Starring: George Hilton, Anita Strindberg, Alberto de Mendoza, Ida Galli
Lisa Baumer inherits one million dollars from her husband’s life insurance policy after he dies in a sudden plane crash. The insurance company suspects the worst and sends an agent, the handsome, roguish Peter Lynch, to investigate Lisa. She flies to Athens and withdraws the money in cash, but is murdered the same night. Soon after, Baumer’s vindictive Greek mistress is also killed, leaving Peter as the main suspect. He teams up with a beautiful photographer, Cléo, to try to find the killer before it’s too late.
Sergio Martino's second giallo film is not quite as excellent as The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, but it really comes close. Part of this is due to solid performances from so many giallo regulars, including Hilton’s regular actors George Hilton (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh), Alberto de Mendoza (The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh), Ida Galli (A White Dress for Marielé), Luigi Pistilli (Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key) and the beautiful Anita Strindberg (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin) who is bikini-clad for much of the film’s third act. Also keep an eye out for the thoroughly strange-looking, yet voluptuous Jess Franco-regular Janine Reynaud (Kiss Me, Monster). Surely one of the least attractive giallo ladies, she has a spectacular death scene where she has her throat slashed from behind as she’s facing a window, which gets coated in bright red arterial spray.
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale does have some things in common with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, including some lovely cinematography from Emilio Foriscot, who captures both the metropolitan feel of London and some spectacular Greek vistas. Unlike the latter film, this includes some police procedural elements in the form of an Interpol agent and a detective inspector. These two characters — respectively Alberto de Mendoza and the gruff Luigi Pistilli — provide a nice contrast to Hilton’s Peter Lynch and add to the film’s satisfying twists and red herrings. Mendoza in particular gives off such a slimy vibe that it’s easy to imagine him as the killer (and sort of a spoiler, but in what world can you imagine Anita Strindberg going off into the sunset with Mendoza instead of the grizzly, but handsome Pistilli?). Both aid in a fantastic conclusion that borrows from psychological thrillers and caper films. Even if it isn’t quite as tightly written as The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh’s doozy of an ending, you’re still in for a treat.
There’s a solid script from Martino’s regular collaborator Ernesto Gestaldi, one of his few to avoid the damsel-in-distress-going-insane plot. There’s some very tricky writing that you almost have to watch twice to appreciate — certain scenes seem like plot holes (at least in terms of timing) until you go back and realize that Martino didn’t quite reveal everything you think he did. Of course the plot gets a huge boost from Hilton, who is really at his absolute best here. Though Gastaldi and co. throw out some really wild theories that you know just can’t be plausible, it’s easy to be caught up in all the fun.
SPOILERS in this paragraph. He also borrows from some mystery/thriller tropes in a clever way, for instance aping Psycho’s switch of protagonists midway through the film. For the first act, and then some, the camera follows the lovely, icy Ida Galli as an ambiguous wife who could very well be culpable in her husband’s murder. There’s an effective early chase sequence where it seems that someone is following Lisa, only to learn that it’s her drug addicted ex-lover blackmailing her for money. A similar scene can be found in The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, but here it is used to cast doubt on Lisa Baumer’s innocence and to make her morally ambiguous at the very least. Another of Gastaldi’s braver twists is that, nearly 10 years before Argento did the same thing in Tenebre, The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale’s protagonist and killer are one and the same. This idea was introduced in The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh, where all three men in the damsel-in-distress’s life are guilty, but Hilton really sells it here. It is genuinely difficult to believe that he is the killer up until the film’s watery, sun-drenched conclusion.
The Cast of the Scorpion’s Tale comes highly recommended, thanks in part to some great chemistry from Hilton and Strindberg. And I feel like I need to say it again, but… Anita Strindberg in a bikini. There’s also a frustratingly catchy score from Bruno Nicolai, some fairly graphic kills where women are slashed with a straight-razor by a black-gloved killer, and occasionally silly special effects (that plane, oy) to take the edge off. Thanks to NoShame — who also released The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key — you can pick up the DVD. It’s out of print and disgustingly over-priced, but hopefully the Martino giallo Blu-ray box set of my dreams will come out soon… right after that Fulci set.