The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail/La coda dello scorpione (1971)

‘He must’ve been peeling a pear when his knife slipped.’

A faithless wife receives a million-dollar life insurance payout when her husband dies in a plane crash. Several people believe that she was somehow responsible and, when she goes to pick up the money in Athens, various mysterious characters start to close in…

After director Sergio Martino took his bow in the Giallo arena with ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh‘ (1971), it was less than eight months before he delivered his second entry. Also produced by brother Luciano, it again featured a writing team that included Eduardo Manzanos and genre leader Ernesto Gastaldi.

When a commercial airliner explodes mid-flight, the beautiful Lisa Baumer (Evelyn Stewart) isn’t too bothered when she finds out that her husband, Kurt (Fulvio Mingozzi), was on the passenger list. After all, it wasn’t that much of a marriage; he was constantly on the move because of business, leaving her alone in London to amuse herself with a string of lovers. In fact, there’s a considerable upside. A few months earlier, he’d taken out a million-dollar life insurance policy with her as the sole beneficiary.

However, newfound wealth comes with its own problems. Before leaving England, Stewart is stalked by one of her ex-playmates, who has an incriminating letter in which she wished her husband dead. Going to pay him off, she instead finds him dying in a pool of blood. Fleeing to Athens to collect the cash, she’s pursued by both insurance investigator Peter Lynch (George Hilton) and Interpol agent John Stanley (Alberto de Mendoza). If all that’s not bad enough, Mingozzi’s ex-lover Lara Florakis (Janine Reynaud) and her strongarm friend Sharif (Luis Barboo) want their share of the booty.

What follows is the tangled web of murder, mystery and misdirection typical of the sub-genre. Was the explosion on the plane an accident or sabotage? Who killed the blackmailer in London? Was Reynaud really Mingozzi’s lover? Is the businessman actually still alive? Does de Mendoza have a hidden agenda? Do Stewart and Hilton have a previous relationship, and does journalist Cléo Dupont (Anita Strindberg) have an ulterior motive in getting close to him? Question after question for Inspector Stavros (Luigi Pistilli) as the money disappears and the corpses begin piling up.

This is a quality Giallo, but with an impact slightly compromised by some structural and pacing issues. These were most probably caused by a hurried production. The original cut of the film ran short, and reshoots with Stewart took place in London. These scenes never fully integrate into the story and make for a rather extended first act. This means that Strindberg appears surprisingly late in proceedings, considering that she is a pivotal character and, at times, the drama does seem a little unfocused.

Nevertheless, the film has some definite virtues. On the technical side, we have wonderfully crisp cinematography from Emilio Foriscot, and Bruno Nicolai’s score is excellent. The director also ups the horror content with more explicit kills, even if the makeup effects leave a little to be desired on occasion. One of the murders proves to be the film’s outstanding sequence; another tour de force of editing, camerawork and direction that stands up to comparison with equivalent scenes in ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971). It’s also pleasing to report that, despite some niggles with the story in hindsight, the writers conjure a logical and satisfying conclusion when the audience could be forgiven for thinking that such an outcome is looking unlikely.

Performances are solid, with a lot of the cast already experienced in this type of project, despite the Giallo not yet reaching its heyday. Hilton and de Mendoza return from ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh’ (1971), and the former appeared in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968) along with Stewart and Pistilli. Reynaud had starred in ‘Assassino senza volto/Killer Without A Face’ (1968) and ‘Run, Psycho, Run’ (1968), and Strindberg was a brief, but memorable, part of Lucio Fulci’s ‘A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin’ (1971). Almost the entire cast went on to further notable Gialli credits over the next few years.

The unwieldy structure holds the film back a little, but it’s still a highly enjoyable Giallo with memorable moments.

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)‘Only animals and Americans get washed standing up.’

A rich old man dies, and the relatives gather at the family estate for the division of his fortune. However, most of them receive nothing; the bulk of the estate going to his niece due to a new will. Jealousies and bad feelings run high and then, inexplicably, the family butler is found stabbed to death in the greenhouse…

Knowing, black comedy Giallo from director Michele Lupo, who sends up the English Country House murder mystery with obvious delight and a little bit of style. Of course, the greedy relatives start dying off one by one after the will is read. Of course, everyone acts as suspicious as hell. Of course, the dim Scotland Yard copper blunders about without a clue and, of course, the solution is wonderfully convoluted and improbable.

The action begins on the golf course with heiress Barbara (Anna Moffo) trying to make a difficult shot out of a bunker. Sadly, she gets more than she bargained for when her swing uncovers the corpse of her cousin’s wife Pauline (Beryl Cunningham). But, never fear, the police are already on the spot as she’s not the first corpse to turn up in the previous 48 hours. Unfortunately, the forces of law and order are represented by arrogant, but dim, Superintendant Grey of Scotland Yard (Lance Percival) and bumbling local plod Sgt. Aloisius Thorpe (Gastone Moschin). From here, we flashback to the relatives arriving at the house, the reading of the will and the mysterious death of Peter, the butler (Ballard Berkeley).

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

‘You know our film’s got a really misleading poster, don’t you?’

Much to everyone’s surprise, the estate has ended up in the hands of naive Moffo, who acted as the old man’s housekeeper in his final years. There’s nothing for daughter Isabelle (Evelyn Stewart) because of her unpopular marriage to Anthony (Peter Baldwin). Also finishing out of the money are chronic gambler Ted (Giacomo Rossi Stuart), bitchy Aunt Gladys (Maria Fabri) and her stupid teenage son Georgie (Christopher Chattel). Numbers are made up by pompous Uncle Lawrence (Quinto Parmeggiani) and a mysterious, handsome stranger (Franco Borelli) who seems to have his eye on Stewart. When the bodies start piling up, it’s a real three-pipe problem for our hapless lawmen.

This is a deliberately familiar setup, of course, harkening right back to silent classic ‘The Cat and the Canary’ (1927) and making obvious reference to works of detective fiction, such as those of Agatha Christie. But writers Sergio Donati, Massimo Feli Satti and Fabio Pittoru choose a refreshingly satirical approach, focusing their attention on poking fun at tried and true English stereotypes. We get Chittel’s hopelessly repressed teenager, still a nasty little schoolboy at heart, even (very convincingly) faking his own suicide for a joke and then running for the hills when his leering approach to pretty parlourmaid Evelyn (Orchidea De Santis) ends with an offer of sex. Rossi Stuart is the typical English sportsman in tweed and flat cap, and Stewart is the English Rose with hidden passions.

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

‘Can I go back to helping old ladies across the road and getting cats out of trees?’

Best of all, however, is the crimebusting team of Percival and Moschin. Sensibly, they are the focus of the story, and the interplay between the two actors really helps bring the film to life and is a constant source of wry amusement. Initially, the superior Percival is utterly dismissive of his country colleague and no wonder; Moschin seems little more than an amiable oaf, blundering his way through the case with one shame-faced apology after another. But when Percival’s obvious lack of investigative abilities comes to the fore, it’s Moschin who starts coming up with the required insights with the former reluctantly coming to rely on the latter’s brainpower. It may not be tremendously original dynamic, but the two actors play it to the hilt and display excellent chemistry.

As well as some of the cast members being British, the film was partially shot in England; specifically at Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk. Imagine this reviewer’s delight when the opening shot of an Italian Giallo picture features the village sign of a place less than 25 miles from where he grew up! A surreal moment if ever there was one. Most of the cast were Italian, of course, but British audiences of a certain age will recognise Percival and Berkeley. The former was a comedian-actor who was almost a fixture on UK TV in the 1960s and 1970s, and Berkeley found everlasting fame at the age of 71 as the dotty Major on classic sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers.’

The Weekend Murders/Concerto per pistola solista (1970)

‘I tell you, Officer, I was only doing 35…’

There are some other notables in the rest of the cast. Rossi Stuart studied at the prestigious Actors Studio in New York before launching into a more than 30-year career in the Italian film industry, often appearing as a leading man. Initially, he plugged away in small roles but had worked his way up to more substantial supporting parts by the time he appeared in Robert Aldrich’s ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ (1962) with Stewart Granger and Stanley Baker. Some work with maestro Mario Bava followed, notably the lead in ‘Kill, Baby…Kill’ (1966). There were also appearances as Commander Rod Jackson in two episodes of Antonio Margheriti’s quartet of science fiction pictures about space station Gamma One. Later notable projects included Gialli ‘The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave’ (1971), ‘The Crimes of the Black Cat’ (1972) and ‘Death Smiles On A Murderer’ (1973). His career went into decline after that, but there were still appearances in poorly regarded horror ‘The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance’ (1975) and one of Alfonso Brescia woeful quartet of ‘Star Wars’ knock-offs ‘War of the Robots’ (1978).

Stewart got her first big break playing Persephone in Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961) and then had a supporting role in Luchino Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ (1963), appearing under the name of Ida Galli on both occasions. Bava also used her in ‘The Whip and the Body’ (1963) before she worked her way up to the female lead in Spaghetti Westerns. Her first notable Giallo was behind Carrol Baker and Jean Sorel in ‘The Sweet Body of Deborah’ (1968), but it was only after this project that she became closely associated with the sub-genre. ‘The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail’ (1971) was followed by ‘The Bloodstained Butterfly’ (1971), ‘Murder Mansion’ (1972), ‘Knife of Ice’ (1972) and ‘A White Dress for Marialé’ (1972) by which point she was often playing the lead. When the craze for the horror thrillers began to wane, she made several pictures in the organised crime genre, although there was still a late-career appearance in Lucio Fulci’s horror mystery ‘The Psychic’ (1977) to come. Although she made a handful of appearances afterwards, she effectively retired at the end of the 1970s.

A fun comedy Giallo that may not be a world-beater, but still delivers a thoroughly well-crafted and entertaining 90 minutes.