Friday 3 January 2014

The Black Belly of the Tarantula (Paolo Cavara, 1971) Review

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“With needles dipped in deadly venom the victims are paralysed – so they must lie awake and watch themselves die!” During the 1970s, Italian silver screens were crammed full with giallo films; lurid murder mysteries that combined achingly beautiful visuals with sharp shocks and jagged social commentary, and it was in The Black Belly of the Tarantula that perhaps the most original Modus Operandi in the history of gialli was exhibited.

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“Why call me a nymphomaniac, that's the way it always goes.” For 1971, the film is very sexual – opening with long and sensual shots of a massage – the woman on the receiving end teasing her masseur with cocked eyebrows, unfurled limbs, and tickling toes. At the time, in a religiously conservative society seeking change, such imagery would have proved to be as shocking as they would have been titillating (providing they made it to the cinemas uncensored, that is).

“Were you jealous of your wife?” Maria Zani (Barbara Bouchet, Don't Torture A Duckling), the alluring blonde writhing in the opening moments, is soon implicated in a case of sexual blackmail and branded by her estranged husband as a common whore – he's all stuffy suit and tie, while she luxuriates in liberation. You might expect her to be the leading lady, but in one of the most tightly crafted and unique sequences in the genre, she is attacked by a psycho-sexual killer who uses venom – plunged into the victim with an acupuncture needle – to paralyse their prey, who will then experience the terror and agony of their imminent death.

“Right now you're the only lead we have for the murderer.” Charged with solving the murder is Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini, Hannibal), a capable but wearisome detective who doubts his abilities, and whether he's really cut out for this job. Might the killer be Mr Zani, Maria's estranged insurance salesman husband? Might drugs and blackmail have something to do with it when another victim is slaughtered (replete with wince-inducing hand-on-blade struggle)? Or what about Laura (Claudine Auger), the mysterious proprietor of a spa – after all, it is her client list that's dwindling with each successive slaying.

“The more questions I ask the more I seem to get confused.” Lucile Laks and Marcello Damon's script is satisfyingly layered with red herrings and motivations, making Tellini's investigation an arresting search for answers where, as one line of inquiry falls to their death, another opens to compel him onwards. It was common in giallo films for the police to be, at best, ignored entirely by the protagonists or, at worst, considered to be bumbling, inept, or just downright lazy, however Inspector Tellini is a different breed. His colleagues may be ineffectual or sleazy, but he is a straight shooter of high moral fibre – a man who loves his wife Anna (Stefania Sandrelli) – who won't take a dangerous lead if it means compromising his standing by the letter of the law. There's a complexity at work here – the man versus the failures of the system, and his personal doubts – as we slowly witness guilt and fatigue wear him down. As a result, Tellini is one of the more fascinating leading men in the genre, gaining our trust and support and maintaining it throughout.

“I'm afraid, I'm in constant terror.” Paolo (Mondo Cane, Plot of Fear) Cavara's film is a sexual and, at times, savage beast. While tame by today's standards, there's a lingering theme of voyeurism, sensuality, and sexual frustration to the scenes of nudity, and an effective hostility to the on-screen butchery that combines outright violence with ingenuity. Cavara orchestrates some grippingly tense scenes of execution, switching from controlled waiting game to thrashing predatory attack with skill. Similiarly, Marcello Gatti's cinematography can take us from a cold, architectural distance, to a hysterical and swirling murder set piece, and then over to disorienting moments of wide angle photography and twitchy voyeurism.

“The killer must be afraid if he's made you a target.” Further impressive craftsmanship can be found in Ennio Morricone's score (with Bruno Nicolai) featuring signature moments of punctuation that elevate deaths, chases, and investigations to a higher level. Likewise in Mario Morra's well-paced editing, there are moments of invention that work on both a stylistic level as well as a personal one for the protagonists – a climactic battle intercut with the killer's victims proves to be a fine flourish indeed.

“The wasp is always the winner, you see.” With a title like this, arachnophobic giallo fans might have pause for thought before viewing, but rest assured there is only one sequence featuring the little blighters (between minutes 36 and 40) where your gaze would be best averted, but beyond that you're clear.

“You have to regain consciousness, or I will gain no pleasure.” Featuring intriguing characters that earn your attention, a complex but accessible plot, and pieced together with true style and skill, The Black Belly of the Tarantula is one of the best examples of the genre. Experienced fans will guess the killer before the end, but there's enough possibilities to keep you guessing for the majority of the running time. What's more, the film is punctuated by moments of humour that work well towards a rockier roller-coaster ride for the viewer, from a sly waiter to throwing the dead out with the trash. The film does feature numerous hallmarks of the genre – such as a black-clad killer in a sharp hat wearing flesh-coloured latex gloves while brandishing a gleaming blade – but there's a pleasing amount of originality on-show. In this densely populated sub-genre, there were some entries that lacked tension, excitement, sex, violence, looks, and more – but this is most certainly not one of them – this is one of the most entertaining giallo films out there, suitable for newbies and old-hands alike.

N.B. There's an interesting seam of connection to the James Bond franchise with this film: Giancarlo Giannini (Inspector Tellini) played Rene Mathis in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Claudine Auger (Laura) was Domino in Thunderball, Barbara Bach (Jenny) was Agent XXX in The Spy Who Loved Me, and Barbara Bouchet (Maria) played Moneypenny in the 1967 version of Casino Royale.

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