Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Black Belly of the Tarantula

Posted as part of Operation 101010
gialli / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 21 of 100

Let’s run Paolo Cavara’s 1971 opus against a quick giallo checklist:

A title featuring some combination of a colour, a number or an animal – ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’. Two out of three. Check!

A quasi-scientific conceit that gives the film its funky title (in this case, an arachnid-derived nerve serum that permits the killer to … well, I’ll you find that one out for yourselves). Check!

Equally stylish cinematography/compositions and a tendency to architecture porn. Check!

An androgynous killer whose sartorial tastes run to trenchcoat, fedora and gloves. Check!

Bottles of J&B all over the shop. Check!

A roof-top chase. Check!

A scene involving one of those old-fashioned cage-style elevators with a stairwell built around it. Check!

Hyper-stylised death scenes in locations which include a room full of tailor’s dummies and a photographer’s studio. Check!

Eye candy a-go-go. Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger, Rosella Falk, Annabella Incontrera, Barbara Bach and Stefania Sandrelli. Check, check, check, giggety-giggety, alriiiiiiight!

An almost arbitrary ending where the killer’s identity and motivation are explained away with a bit of psychological mumbo-jumbo. Check!

Let’s face it, ladies and gentlemen, all ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ lacks is a comically incompetent cop and an appearance by Edwige Fenech. On paper, you can see why the Blue Underground Region 1 DVD release is emblazoned with a quote from Horrorview declaring it “the best giallo ever made”.

A bold claim. There are plenty of contenders for the “best giallo” crown: Mario Bava’s ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (pretty much the original giallo), ‘A Bay of Blood’ or ‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’; Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’, ‘Tenebrae’ or ‘Opera’; any of the Sergio Martino psycho-sexual thrillers starring the aforementioned Ms Fenech; Lucio Fulci’s ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’, ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ or ‘Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes’; Pupi Avati’s ‘The House with the Laughing Windows’ … let’s face it, as a genre (hell, even a sub-genre), the giallo boasts more great examples than not. So: does ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ live up to the hype?

Hmmmmm. Not sure.

Let’s look at the two things missing from that checklist. Ladies first: Edwige Fenech. Ah, well. Can’t be helped. Besides, ‘TBBotT’ does feature – albeit briefly – the knee-weakeningly alluring Barbara Bouchet. We’ll let it slide.

Which leaves us with the absence of that giallo staple, the comically incompetent cop. While our hero Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) is an officer of the law, he has more in common with Stanley Baker’s Inspector Corvin in ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ than, say, Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno) in ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’. Tellini works the case, uncovering a blackmail plot and a highly imaginative cover for drug smuggling as he closes in on the killer, never mind a red herring designed to embarrass him in front of his superiors, an attempt on his life and the exposure to danger of his wife.

Also like Stanley Baker, Giannini is an actor better known for his non-giallo roles than his work within the genre. Probably best known to mainstream audiences as the ill-fated Inspector Pazzi in ‘Hannibal’ and Rene Mathis in ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Quantum of Solace’, Giannini earned a Best Actor nomination at the 1977 Oscars for his role in Lina Wertmuller’s ‘Seven Beauties’ and has won Cannes, David di Donatello, Silver Ribbon, Flaiano International and any number of other US and European festival awards.

While his performance in ‘TBBotT’ is not quite as awards-worthy as his work elsewhere (although it was only a year later that he won his first David award), Giannini delivers a restrained, understated, brooding characterisation, establishing Tellini as a man who is painfully aware that his job is beginning to define him and is disconcerted by the implications. Having said that, his self-evident conflictions between career and personal life owes as much to the casting of the lovely and effervescent Stefania Sandrelli as Signora Tellini.

And herein lies the essential dichotomy of ‘TBBotT’. For all that it ticks the majority of giallo boxes, the film is atypical in many ways. For all that it delivers some graphic murders with gleefully exploitative relish, its overall aesthetic is low-key and frequently downbeat. For all that the denouement trades on pulpy psychology, the 90 minutes that precede it are a study in slow-burn procedural narrative.

For much of its running time, ‘TBBotT’ unfolds in a mannered and rather austere style (short of Tellini demonstrating an affinity for Wagner and real ale, you could almost mistake it for an episode of ‘Inspector Morse’). And yet the sexualised representation of violence, the intermittent lurches into expressionistic camerawork and the omnipresence of giallo touchstones seek to remind the audience what they paid for.

All of which left me confused as to whether I was watching a deliberately-slumming-it art movie or a thinking man’s exploitationer. ‘TBBofT’, entertaining as it is, never fully reconciles these polarities, and although I’d cautiously recommend the film, it falls short of greatness for precisely this reason.


The Film Connoisseur said...

Hmm...a Giallo art film? Sounds promising! Id never heard of this one, I will have to check it out at some point.

Ive seen many of the Giallos you mentioned there, I think Opera is one of my favorites, because of the color scheme and the deaths are so memorable. The only down side is Argentos choice of using heavy metal.

I need to see The Girl Who Knew Too Much! Im making that one a priority!

Aaron said...

I used to go by the "3 B's" rule for Gialli: boobs, blood, and black gloves. But lately I've kinda lightened up as far as classifying what is a Giallo and what isn't. You do bring up some great and funny points, though. The J&B is a must, and so is the worthless detective. I've never seen Black Belly Of The Tarantula, but it's one that has been on my radar for a while. As far as "greatest Giallo of all time", I haven't seen enough to make a choice, but based on what I've seen I would definitely have to go with TENEBRE, followed by DEEP RED. I'd really like to get into Martino's films a bit more. I've only seen Your Vice Is A Locked Room... as far as his films go, but I hear Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh is really good!

Neil Fulwood said...

Francisco - 'Opera': good call! Some superb set pieces, including the bullet-through-the-keyhole murder and the flight of the ravens around the opera house near the end. Might have to include it as a future giallo choice in Operation 101010.

Aaron - the three Bs is a good rule of thumb. I also tend to go by how elaborate the murder scenes are and how demented the cinematography/composition. But I still maintain that J&B and ineffectual coppers are the true yardsticks of the genre.

Thanks for commenting, guys.