Thursday 17 February 2011

The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)

Although no great shakes in itself, this film is instructive because it typifies a sub-genre which figures large in delirious cinema - the giallo.  The giallo is a type of thriller with very defined elements, which takes its name from the yellow covers of pulp crime novels in Italy.  Essentially a whodunnit, the giallo generally has a series of murders committed by a masked or fleetingly-seen villain who uses a cruel or unusual method of dispatching his victims and is not unmasked until the climax.  The hero, sometimes a journalist or a relative of the first victim, struggles to identify the culprit but hits on a key clue just before the end, leading to a final confrontation.  Having said all that, what sets the giallo apart from more mainstream thrillers is that the plot is simply a vehicle for a series of stylish and often violent set-piece sequences, set to often excellent soundtracks by the likes of Ennio Morricone and Stelvio Cipriani.

Italian cinema recycling famous film imagery
Giallo films started in the early 60s in Italy with films by Mario Bava who was influenced by Hitchcock, and flourished toward the end of the decade and in to the 70s.  Dario Argento (Argento and Bava are two names you will hear a lot on this blog, being as they are two colossi of delirious cinema) made his name with a series of gialli in the early 70s which, because of their success and the copycat nature of a lot of Italian genre films, pretty much set the template for those that followed.  One great feature of the gialli is that they usually have great titles: Argento's first film was THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) followed by CAT O'NINE TAILS (1971) and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971).  A lot of animal-themed titles followed as unscrupulous Italian producers and distributors caught on to the new craze.  I think my favourite giallo title though is Sergio Martino's YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED DOOR AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY (1972).

However, a couple of things to bear in mind about titles is, first, that they are often merely allusive and second that any given film can be known by a number of different titles, because they were often retitled to suit the different countries in which they were marketed.  For instance, the Sergio Martino film mentioned above has 9 alternative titles listed on imdb.  Titling can be a minefield in delirious cinema and is probably worth a post in its own right.

Anyway, back to THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA which was directed by Paolo Cavara in 1971.  This was really in the first wave of films that were made pretty much to cash in on the popularity of the giallo and was picked up for distribution in the US by MGM, which shows that even the big American studios could see their appeal.  The plot concerns a series of murders, naturally, that centre around a beauty salon.  Which of course gives Cavara the opportunity to show lots of female flesh, an opportunity he grabs with both hands, so to speak.

A common feature of Italian genre movies is the casting of fading stars and European starlets.  This film is no exception, featuring as it does not one, not two but three former or future Bond girls in Claudine Auger (THUNDERBALL), Barbara Bouchet (CASINO ROYALE) and Barbara Bach (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME).  The film geek in me wonders whether any film outside the Bond canon has featured so many Bond girls.
Auger (left) and Bach
The method employed by the murderer in this particular giallo is that he first injects his victims with poison so that they are paralyzed but conscious and then finishes them off with a knife.  Sounds gruesome I know but the violence in this film is pretty tame by the standards of Italian genre cinema.  The method is important though because another feature of the giallo is the fetishisation of weaponry - which is almost always seen being handled by the gloved hands of the murderer - in this case the massive needle used to inject the poison.

So what we get is essentially a series of murders intercut with scenes of the investigation - in this case led by a detective, played by Giancarlo Giannini - who has been in a lot of very good films and occasionally crops up in an English-speaking role, notably in the remake of CASINO ROYALE (another Bond connection) and HANNIBAL.  There is a chase sequence across rooftops (leading to a gloriously fake dummy being thrown off), the customary Italian gallery of grotesques and a satisfying ending.

Inspector Tellini (right) investigates
All in all then, not a brilliant giallo but a useful one because it contains so many of the elements that make the sub-genre what it is.  More, and better, gialli will feature on this blog in future posts.

Watch the trailer here:

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